Published by White Rabbit
Available in ebook, audiobook and hardback (2 April 2020)
ABOUT THE BOOK
When I stopped wanting things for the wrong reasons, they became possible.
For almost 30 years as label boss, producer, and talent conductor at XL Recordings, Richard Russell has discovered, shaped and nurtured the artists who have rewritten the musical dictionary of the 21st century, artists like The Prodigy, The White Stripes, Adele, M.I.A., Dizzee Rascal and Giggs. Growing up in north London in thrall to the raw energy of ’80s US hip hop, Russell emerged as one part of rave outfit Kicks Like a Mule in 1991 at a moment when new technology enabled a truly punk aesthetic on the fledgling free party scene. For most of the 90s identified with breakbeat and hardcore, Russell’s stewardship at the label was always uncompromising and open to radical influences rather than conventional business decisions.
Liberation through Hearing tells the remarkable story of XL Recordings and their three decades on the frontline of innovation in music; the eclectic chorus of artists who came to define the label’s unique aesthetic, and Russell’s own story; his highs and lows steering the fortunes of an independent label in a rapidly changing industry, his celebrated work with Bobby Womack and Gil Scot Heron on their late-career masterpieces, and his own development as a musician in Everything is Recorded.
Always searching for new sounds and new truths, Liberation through Hearing is a portrait of a man who believes in the spiritual power of music to change reality. It is also the story of a label that refused to be categorised by genre and in the process cut an idiosyncratic groove which was often underground in feel but mainstream in impact.
Welcome to my turn on the blog tour for Liberation Through Hearing. My thanks to Bei of Midas PR for the invitation to take part and for providing the extract.
SALFORD, 17 APRIL 2019
It’s an overcast early spring afternoon. I’m in a recording studio on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Manchester. I’ve been here for an hour. It would have been hard to locate but I was collected at Manchester Piccadilly by a professional who had researched the destination and got us here easily. He used to drive Keith Flint during The Prodigy’s UK tours, and having picked me up we spent the short journey reminiscing about Keith, who passed away less than a month ago, at the age of forty-nine.
I arrive in a sombre mood. There are three musicians here. A man known as CASisDEAD has just arrived from a stopover in Nottingham. He is the most idiosyncratic, articulate and fluent British rap lyricist I have heard since Dizzee Rascal emerged from Bow E3 in 2002. CAS’s themes are typically the underbelly of street life, drug sales and sex work. In the first really classic song he has made, ‘Pat Earrings’, he tells the apparently heartfelt and melancholy story of his ill-fated relationship with a prostitute. At the conclusion of the song, he finds she has continued to see clients despite telling him she has stopped. ‘Heartbroken, I’m at wits’ end / She’s never accepted by my friends / That’s cool ’cause I never liked them’. The narrator is bereft.
As is often the case with those who make disturbing art he seems a person of integrity. Those in the public eye who go out of their way to seem benevolent, the supposedly squeaky-clean ones, are the ones to beware of. Nasty pretends to be nice, and vice versa. CAS has his face covered at all times when in public. Oscar Wilde said, ‘Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.’ CAS has a taste for the analogue synthesiser sounds of the 1980s, music that soundtracked my youth and was popular around the time he was born.
I have programmed my Roland TR-808 drum machine in order to echo the feeling of the year that the machine was first released: 1980.
This item is my favourite material possession. Its sounds and groove have been enjoying a renaissance in popularity since the James Brown samples of classic East Coast hip-hop made way for the more electronic palette that was being used by rap artists from the South. Its distinct sonic character is still a crucial part of the hip-hop production landscape.
Drums are only part of the story. In creating music for this session, I have enlisted someone who not only has the ability to craft unforgettable melodies but owns a collection of the vintage analogue synthesisers necessary to sonically execute this job properly. He sits behind one of these while his daughter Missy and his best friend Remi potter around. His name is Damon Albarn and, as frontman of Blur, mastermind behind virtual band Gorillaz and all-round musical polymath, he has scaled every imaginable height of creative and commercial success.
Damon and I are both fortunate to have benefited enough from our musical endeavours to each have our own first-class recording facilities in west London. We are in this particular location because of the third musician. We want him to record a hook for the song and this is where he wished to do it. He possesses a deep, deep soul voice that evokes not just the specific time we wish to reference, the mid-eighties, but the theme CAS wants to explore in this song, which is intended for his debut album, for release on XL Recordings.
This theme is the ephemeral nature of fame. The song is to be called ‘Everything’s For Sale’. It may become a worldwide hit. Or it may never be released, or even completed. At this formative stage of the creative process uncertainty is a given.
This third musician’s name is Alexander O’Neal, and he is a sixty-five- year-old former Prince associate from Natchez, Mississippi, by way of Minneapolis, where he was the original lead singer for The Time, before making three solo albums with legendarily great production and writing duo, and fellow Prince acolytes, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. These albums were quite successful in the US, but in the UK he became a huge crossover pop star, scoring Top 10 singles with his songs ‘Criticise’, ‘If You Were Here Tonight’, and his duet with Cherrelle, ‘Saturday Love’. His second album, Hearsay, went triple platinum in the UK, and he sold out three consecutive nights at Wembley Arena.
His appetites were always legendary. Along with most other eighties success stories, his star faded through the nineties. With each new decade music changes irrevocably and only a tiny number of musicians can transcend the decade they found fame in. In recent times Alexander has appeared on reality TV programmes Just the Two of Us, Wife Swap and Celebrity Big Brother.
When CAS gave me a list of the eighties voices he wished to try to feature on his album, I knew that Alexander O’Neal was the one to pursue. My guess was that we would find him in LA, perhaps living near the airport, but it turns out he lives in Manchester.
We’re here to capture the voice of this weathered soul survivor, and prior to the session he has been supplied with a map in the form of a recording, a guide version of the song that Damon, CAS and I made in London. Our preparation and planning have been exemplary and, while I have experienced enough ‘best laid plans’ scenarios to know that nothing is ever guaranteed, an hour into the session we have a heartbreakingly soulful performance from Alexander O’Neal on our hard drive. CAS says to me that it is important to absorb moments like this. I agree. I have had many of them but they always feel dreamlike. Alexander says he needs to buy a bed, inexplicably, and with that he is gone.
ABOUT RICHARD RUSSELL
Richard Russell (b. 1971) is a British record producer, musician and the owner of the British record label XL Recordings. He has nurtured and guided some of the most influential recording artists of our time including Adele, Dizzee Rascal, The Prodigy, M.I.A. and Giggs. As a producer and musician, Russell has made albums with the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack, Damon Albarn and Ibeyi and most recently launched his own artist project Everything Is Recorded, whose self-titled debut album was nominated for the 2018 Mercury Music Prize.
ABOUT XL RECORDINGS
XL Recordings is a British independent record label founded in 1989. Widely regarded as one of the most influential labels, XL releases on average just six albums a year and has worked with artists such as Adele, Arca, Beck, Dizzee Rascal, FKA twigs, Gil Scott-Heron, Giggs, The Horrors, Jai Paul, Jungle, Kamasi Washington, King Krule, M.I.A., Nines, The Prodigy, Peaches, Radiohead, Sampha, SBTRKT, Sigur Rós, Tyler, the Creator, Vampire Weekend, The White Stripes, and The xx.
ABOUT WHITE RABBIT
White Rabbit is a new imprint published by former Faber Social impresario Lee Brackstone launching in April 2020. In its inaugural year of 2020, White Rabbit will publish twelve titles by music industry legends like Carl Cox, Richard Russell, Mark Lanegan, Annie Nightingale, Chris Frantz and Jehnny Beth of Savages amongst others. Dedicated to publishing the most innovative books and voices in music and literature, Brackstone aims to build on the uniquely successful publishing he was responsible for at Faber Social with authors like The Beastie Boys, Viv Albertine and Jon Savage. Brackstone’s titles for his Orion imprint indicate the range and personality of a list that will encompass memoir, history, fiction, translation, illustrated books and high-spec limited editions.