An exclusive interview with the music industry icon and owner of XL Recordings.
Richard Russell is a living legend and a highly inspirational creative mind. What started in the 1980’s in London with his first rave records then turned into a long, successful and inspirational trip through the music industry. In 1989 the now 49-year-old Briton co-founded his independent record label XL Recordings, together with Tim Palmer and Nick Halkes. A record label that until today stands in for a strong vision, always putting taste and talent before commercial success and refusing to be categorised by genre. Russell has worked with music icons such as Gil Scott-Heron, Lee Scratch Perry, The Prodigy, Radiohead, The White Stripes, Dizzee Rascal, Adele and M.I.A. , just to name a few. Driven by an interest in discovering new artists, Russell managed to sign some of the most influential artists an XL Recordings has become one of the most influential indie labels in the game with Richard Russell following his passionate vision. Now, the Mercury Prize nominated musician, producer, label boss and talent conductor is looking back on 30 years of the ups and downs of the music industry, reflecting on the past decades. His memoir Liberation Through Hearing has been released last month, so did his album Friday Forever, a second multi-artist collaboration within his Everything Is Recorded project, a bold unfiltered creative statement. Numéro Berlin spoke with Russell about punk spirits, Kanye West vs Jay-Z, what he’d tell Gil-Scott Heron if he’d be still alive and about why record lables today are potentially not important anymore.
Sina Braetz: Hi Richard, how are you in these strange, difficult times?
Richard Russell: I’m fine. I have built a kind of new scratch set up for my studio at home, some bits and pieces. That is quite refreshing. It really comes back to basics, sort of DIY recording at home. And you know, I have my family here, so I’m really fine. And so is the record label, the way recording music works, it is going to survive this. At the same time of course it is awful what is going on in the world and I am worrying. It has more to do with the places in the world that are suffering a lot, to see the flung places in the world, their food shortages and things like this. To see the struggle going on there, that sort of reality, is horrible. It is a very strange time in the world.
SB: How has the pandemic changed your perspective on life?
RR: There is a global reset happening. On a tiny personal level, I had a couple of resets so I can now see this happening on a big level. I think it is going to be very painful but I also believe that good does come out of these things. Obviously the environment is getting a bit of a break which is one positive aspect.
SB: Do you think that this reset might also have a positive effect on the creativity in music?
RR: I do. I think in terms of that, what music and creativity suggests is no bad thing. A lot of music that I do and that I am involved with is perfectly fine. I believe it is one of these situations where in some ways you get a slightly bigger perspective. What you do is something global, something mutual. Music is a positive thing for people. If you are an electronic music maker that is nice, but that doesn’t really get into the fact that something is creating acute food shortages in Kenya. There is this book from Bob Dylan that I have in my studio which states that art is a pulse that makes you alive. No one knows more about art than Bob Dylan and there are very few people living that have named more great art than Bob Dylan. He knows the importance of it.
SB: Is there any particular music that you are listening to right now at home?
RR: There have been a few records that came out during this time and that I am really listening to a lot. The new Jay Electronica album (A Written Testimony) is an album that has taken 13 years to be made and it is coming out in such a strange time. It is a very deep, spirtual type of record, I think it is a great album. And actually the new song from Bob Dylan, Murder Must Foul, is really amazing as well. So there are a few great things that came out during this strange time.
SB: Also your book. Liberation Through Hearing was published last month. What made you decide to write your own memoirs?
RR: I was offered the opportunity and I thought it sounded interesting. I used to enjoy writing but in rejecting school I kind of rejected writing as well which was a shame. So I thought it was an opportunity to pick up something that I felt I might have some aptitude for. I think it’s very important whatever abilities and interests you have as a person to use them. It applies to your hobbies, to everything. All these things in life have a huge positive potential. And I think people should not lose those things as they get older. So when someone was giving me the opportunity to write, I thought, well, I liked writing, I should try and make it as big as possible and go about it in the way but just because it’s possible.
SB: How did it feel to write about your personal life story?
RR: The fact that I was going to write about myself, I wasn’t that comfortable with, I actually just liked the idea of writing. So I was slightly sort of regretting that I didn’t have a subject to write about that wasn’t me. But then, when I started, there have been all these other stories and all these other people. So a lot of it is about them and that music and these places, things I’ve been lucky enough to participate in and see. So it was really an opportunity to kind of process things that maybe at that time were way too fast, to really examine things that I haven’t examined before. To go back and listen to what I’ve been involved with. It was very interesting, I enjoyed it.
SB: Why did you feel so uncomfortable writing about yourself?
RR: I wouldn’t have done it unless I was going to be very honest, I didn’t want to lie about myself. I wanted to make sure that the book is real and authentic. At the same time I wanted it to be encouraging for people. Then I realized that I was supposed to write about things I’m enthusiastic about and share this with people. And I’ve actually benefited a lot from reading. In terms of my musical awareness, reading things has opened me to listen to things. It helped me explore and was an opportunity to maybe identify some threads of music and some things which I could point people towards. I guess I could have written a book about things I am not enthusiastic about but there would not have been much point in that.
SB: In your book, you also mention the importance of literature in your life. Which books in particular have strongly influenced your perspective on life?
RR: There have been a lot of books that had a big impact on me. I think books can really do that, they can definitely shape and influence you. I talk about that in my book too, particularly about some spiritual books, about books of living and death that had an enormous effect on me and that I read many many times. The title of my book is connected to that, as well as Everything is recorded and the artist’s name and users. And then there are lots of music books which definitely have opened me up to different things. In terms of writing, Patti Smith’s Just Kids is one of the best chronicle books. And then there are books such as Check the Technique. The two volumes analyze the making of great rap records of the late eighties and early nineties with a lot of oral history. With stories of people talking about those records and explaining how those records were valued. The book is subtitled liner notes for hip hop junkies. It really gives you a deeper insight into that music and an understanding of how classic records were made, how these producers created the connection between their parents‘ record collection and making this kind of modern music that hadn’t been heard before. That’s a very powerful thing. In a show last month for my radio show on NTS I talked about my favorite books and played songs that were related to those books.
SB: You started to create rave records at the end of the eighties. How would you describe the punk spirit at that time?
RR: We didn’t live but we were aligned to punk when we were small children. The spirit of that was something I was very aware of as I got into my teenage years. I understood and I connected to that spirit. So did Liam Howlett and The Prodigy, they understood something about this special kind of “do it yourself” spirit. It was very important to us to maintain what we wanted to do in our music. These new drums suddenly shaped punk and hip hop. That was something that we were really not using before. So the spirit was both of these aspects and expressing it through rave music. Rave music was the medium of the moment at that time.
SB: A certain punk spirit was big in the early years of hip hop, especially thinking of performances such as the one from Public Enemy at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1987. You once mentioned in an interview that this performance changed your life. Did we lose this rebellious punk spirit?
RR: No, I don’t think so. I believe that this spirit is always alive but it is in reaction to authoritarians and conservative ideas which will always exist. Hip hop is resistance music. It is the music of the oppressed and it has always been. It’s just constantly reinventing itself, like this, it continues to mean something. But it does so without being highly influenced by the music of the past. Every hip hop artist wants to be the greatest hip hop artist of all time. Whereas if you put a Rock’n’Roll band together, you won’t think that you will be better than the Beatles. That puts you in a bit of a disadvantage I think. But that focus, trying to be the best and getting that leading land also means that it is about music, it is not just about America anymore. It is made all over the world and every country in the world has its incredibly powerful black music that competes with American music in that country. It has taken a long time to come to parts of the UK and it’s very helpful at the moment. It is great to see artists making great records and put out new stuff on YouTube – that is punk to me.
SB: I recently watched the Beastie Boys live documentary. What struck me most, was the way they described their process of a kind of creative liberation, especially after their time at Def Jam records. Do you feel that there is still a drive for liberation? Or has this been killed for the majority of big artists by their record labels pushing them more and more to certain directions which are commercially successful?
RR: No, I think that has always been the case, it’s always the same. The Beastie Boys had been responding and pushing back against the things they considered oppressive at their time. I am not sure if they talk about it in the live documentary but in their book they do: When they delivered Paul’s Boutique to the record label they didn’t understand it, didn’t think they’d be able to sell it and said they were going to be busy with another Osbourne record. So that record was completely misunderstood at that moment and wasn’t successful because it was ahead of its time. Many groundbreaking revolutionary records I grew up with didn’t have commercial successes. So I think that has always been the case. I try to not become too nostalgic because I think that becomes self-defeating. The objective is to look at how things are and provide resistance to what it really is that you’re not happy about. This provides you energy that is always going on.
SB: Looking at contemporary artists: Kanye West for me is a very good example of how creative freedom can look like. If you compare his approach of making music to hip hop icons such as Jay-Z who is less experimental, you can see a big difference. How would you personally judge these two creative concepts of Kanye and Jay-Z? Who is the stronger artist?
RR: Well Kanye West and Jay-Z are two very, very great artists. These are two of the greatest artists of my lifetime, their records provided me a lifetime inspiration and enjoyment. First of all, we are talking about different types of artists: Kayne West is a producer, he comes from a background of record production and has produced many great records for other artists. That is how he started, as someone who was concerned with the sound. Jay-Z however came from that street background and was someone who was able to talk about that life and explain what he has been through, in a very, very authentic and vivid way. He is a brilliant and I would actually say spiritual artist in terms of what he could communicate. His most recent record 4:44 is magnificent. Jay-Z also contributed to the new Jay Electronica record and the work he has been doing is very, very deep. I think it feels like he is reinventing how hip hop artists can be as they get older. Maybe he is actually inventing that because it hasn’t really happened before. So he is big to me. He is in a very groundbreaking place at the moment. I think Kanye opposed that, had this run of records – almost like David Bowie in the early 70ies – with this sort of creativity that is just completely off the scale and how powerful is that! Almost like beyond the work anyone is doing in that field. But these runs don’t last forever, like David Bowie’s run did not last forever. People do sometimes manage to bring it back around as well. Many artists are influenced by the work Kanye and Jay-Z have done. I think they’re both very important artists.
SB: Jay-Z once said about record labels: ‘I love XL. I use them as an example of how a brand is built. On great taste.’ How difficult was it for you to always defend your vision, to focus on good art and taste rather than on commercial success?
RR: I think you have to live it, that point of view. I think it has to be sort of fairly deep rooted in your psyche as a person. I think that is an artistic outlet. I believe that as an artist, you have to have a vision and you have to say „this is what I’m doing and this is what I want to present to the world as an artist” because the more interesting it is, the harder it is going to be understood. This artistic approach has always inspired me. When it comes to the curatorial work that a record label does, I think the approach still has to be artistic. And the artistic viewpoint is all about really being able to say no and say let’s do the things that matter and not do the things that don’t matter. Every artist has to have this viewpoint since it is an artistic viewpoint. This is the difference between art and commerce. Commerce is about trying to do things that you can sell. Art is about trying to do the things that are right to do. So I’ve always just tried to try to sort of defend that vision. And we were not the only label that has done so. If you look at Warp Records, this is now 30 years of music that has been curated in such a specific way, I’m not sure people can even see how great it is – unlike the last contributions the world has made to music and culture. I think everything can be done in an artistic way, even a record label. It’s not really about what you do, it’s how you do it.
SB: But what about the huge financial pressure a successful record label with big artists has to deal with? If the financial drive doesn’t come from the record label itself, it will come from the artists themselves?
RR: The challenge with a record label comes when it gets too big, then everything gets tricky. So that was one of the reasons why I said at some point: Okay, let me make a very, very strict limit on how many records the record label puts out, so really just a very small amount of records. That’s a good way to go, because as an artist you can only make a small amount of work. It takes a long time to make good work and then you get this idea of business at night, this terrible idea that the business has to get bigger and bigger. And I just thought fuck this, that’s not the right way of looking at it. That is going to ruin yourself. So that I was able to kind of protect this vision, to go for a small label that had no desire to get any bigger because I think that would ruin the fun and vision – that was it. That enabled XL Recording to stay where it is.
SB: Which lessons did you personally learn within the process of making big decisions for the record label?
RR: A series of lessons. If you’re doing work in an interesting way, you’ve got to be there, in the time. It’s all about trying to find things out. What became most important to me at some point with the label was that it was run and operated by people other than myself but who understood the vision and who also had a personal vision for how to do things. I really wanted to be liberated to get back in the studio – that is what I’ve been doing for the last decade. This has been really important to me. I love my work, I love what I do and I’m kind of available if people want to talk to me and ask me about things, but I’m not there for what they do in the studio. In that way, I’m sort of leading by example whether it is about the creativity or about the music. A record label is never about one person only anyways. It is always about a team of people. So at one point I realized I had to really put the actual focus on the purpose so that I was free to make music.
SB: Nowadays an artist can drop an album or a single without any record label at all. Thanks to social media there is a bigger control from the artist’s side itself. How important are record labels at all today, with the massive change of the industry?
RR: Well, they are potentially not important, they are an option for an artist. They used to have a much more powerful position. They were the gatekeepers and everything had to go through them but that is not the case anymore. Artists have different options to get their visions out there to the world. The record label is not crucial anymore and I think that is very healthy.
SB: You are speaking from the musician’s perspective. That is quite impressive.
RR: Yes, absolutely, because it empowers artists to do things how they want to. As an artist you want to be completely free of any type of structure and you can hopefully work on a team around you. That gives the record labels less power and I see this as a healthy thing. Record labels actually provide a service if people want to use it. It’s a revolution really, an artistic revolution that happened. The artists have a lot more power now.
SB: As a result, do you think that there is a different role that record labels have today?
RR: Well, I think there have always been different record labels of different sizes and different roles anyway. So there has always been quite a broad spectrum of activities going on, with different record labels, who do different things at any given time. I think it’s more the question of what is the role of an artist? Well, it’s completely different with anyone depending on what you see versus what you want. It is not really how you get it, it is how you do it.
SB: If Gil Scott-Heron would be still alive, what would you tell him?
RR: I would be listening, I wouldn’t tell him anything (laughs).I was actually recently thinking about talking to him. At this moment, I am sure he’d have many interesting things to say. He was making records about the environment in 1971, he was talking about America, he was talking about the damage we were doing to the environment, 50 years ago! He was incredibly prescient and ahead of his time with what he had been saying. I am sure a global pandemic would be something he would have interesting things to say about. Yes, that relationship was about listening and learning.
SB: You also once spent 20 hours in Switzerland painting record sleeves with Lee Scratch Perry. What are your memories about this experiment?
RR: It was an idea I came up with because I was inspired by a quote I saw – that a man is tethered to be sure of money and will be until he finds a more spiritual form of exchange. And I just had this idea of swapping. I had this piece of music with the sound of Lee Scratch Perry. And I wanted to make great records and swap them. To make them have real value in order to swap them with the people excited and inspired to make something great to swap with us. I wanted to paint the sleeves, so I went to Switzerland, took the 250 blank sleeves with the boxes, went to his house and we painted. Then we swapped them. People could swap the record with everything they wanted, but they had to make it. Some people got their children to make things and I sent them back. I said: ‚Your children are creative already, you do it! It’s all about adult creativity.’ We received the most extraordinary assortment of things that people made and it was an amazing experience, kind of reprogramming the mind. Lee is such an incredibly inspiring person, one of a kind. His work had a massive impact on music. Lots of things that happen now in terms of how the studios and the technology are being used was stuff that Lee had been doing when people thought he was crazy. What he has done was really revolutionary. I am very grateful that I was able to spend some time with him.
SB: Our current issue of Numéro Berlin is about new luxury, what does luxury mean to you personally? How would you define new luxury?
RR: It is about simplicity really. In setting up the studio I’m using right now at home, I have one interface, microphone, percussion instruments, a sampler – these things are incredibly luxurious to me because of the simplicity to it. I know that if anything stops working, I can fix it. We’ve worked in a more kind of a high end studio before so now it is actually a real reminder that simplicity can be the greatest luxury. I think sometimes when you surround yourself with too much stuff, it could really take something away from the kind of joy you aim for. So for me, minimalism can be a luxury.
SB: You suffered from a rare autoimmune disorder, the Guillain-Barré syndrome in 2013. Looking back today, especially in these difficult times, did it change your personal view on life?
RR: Yeah, I mean those experiences make you realize that it is very difficult to appreciate the basics until someone takes them away from you. Maybe some of this is going to happen with the pandemic now. Basic expectations are being taken away from people. And so maybe they are going to appreciate them more when they get them back. But the thing that the internet is still pretty functioning – people are still shopping, they’re buying things they want to buy, they’re socializing, they’re getting all the news and all their information. I do think that for real reset, the internet would have to disappear for a bit. But of course if that happened, we’d also have complete chaos, a total meltdown of society. I think what happened to me with that illness was a bit like as if the internet had disappeared for the world. I mean the basic functions weren’t working. So when you’re getting them back, you definitely see things in a different way. I became extremely grateful just to be able to look around, wake up and get back on the road. My level of gratitude and appreciation was massive. So in that regard, I gained a lot more than I lost with that illness. What I had lost was mainly a little bit of time. But the time seemed to kind of stop anyway for me which is the crazy thing about it.
SB: You grew up in a predominantly Jewish London suburb. What kind of role does religion play in your life? Is there any specific religion you believe in?
RR: Faith is very, very important to me. I’m very interested in all religions and I think there is so much beauty in all of them, so much you can learn from. To me, reading about different religions is really fascinating. There is a writer called Huston Smith, he wrote a book called The World’s Religions in which he invented the idea of comparing religions. He looks at every religion and at the threads of a sort of transcendence that runs through every religion and that has massive impacts on them. It was originally called The Religions of Man when he first published it. And then about 20 years later, I think it was his daughter who asked: „Why is it called the religion of man? What about women?” And so he renamed it. The book had a big impact on me.
SB: What did you learn from that idea of viewing all religions?
RR: I think to learn about the different religions is a very useful way of understanding a little bit more about the world. Because I grew up with Judaism it was a starting point for me. Since I had a Jewish education, I learned a few things from it, but it was a bit too claustrophobic for me. It was too much of it. So I think that sort of led me to reject it and reject all religions. But when I got older, I came back to the idea of discovering the positive side that existed in the different religions. So I do regard myself as religious, but not in terms of any particular religion. From reading about the different beliefs you can learn a lot of positive things but of course all religions can be used for negative purposes as well. However, I try to not to dwell on that.
SB: Why not?
RR: Smith talks about this in the book as well. He says when people complain about his book, they say,how come you don’t write about the negative aspects of religion?’ And he says, if you read the history of music, you won’t read about any of the terrible music. But there is way more terrible music than there is great music, that’s just not in the history of music. And that is kind of how I look at it.
SB: What are your aims for 2020?
RR: Right now, I am really enjoying this simplified music making at home. It feels like a kind of important moment for me to do that. I mean, I don’t really have any choice about doing that, but nonetheless, it still feels like something significant. So I think I’m going to probably just carry on doing this for as long as I possibly can. And actually, I’m trying to not make any plans for 2020 as much as I possibly can. At least I’m trying to do that. We have started talking about making this new record. But apart from that, I’m going to try to keep it as simple as possible.
Interview: Sina Braetz
Richard Russell by Ed Morris, Richard Russell by Koury Angelo, Richard Russell with Aitch by Ed Morris, Richard Russell with Penny Rimbaud and book cover of Liberation Through Hearing