“I try and work on instinct; a sort of collective instinct that XL has developed by being a close-knit team. The things other people think you should be doing are irrelevant. The rules, as much as people think there are rules, are nonsense.”
Back before the internet; before Google, social media strategies and TV talent judges with big red buttons, there was the rave scene. It was disruptive, energised and brimful of disdain for the worst of popular culture. And it taught Richard Russell a heck of a lot.
Rave’s rise in the late Eighties had roots in the pills’n’thrills’n’bellyaches of the acid-house era, enhanced by a brazen blend of American breaks and Jamaican dub, plus a big dumb whack of European electronica. These multifarious influences were an enticing draw for Russell, then a teenage north London hip-hop obsessive and prolific club DJ.
He loved the music, identified with its biggest fans and – by unleashing the freshest cuts each and every week on pirate radio and in front of saucer-eyed, hedonistic dancefloors – cultivated a refined nose for its smashes-in-waiting.
Alongside friends Nick Halkes and Tim Palmer, the owner of regular haunt Groove Records in Soho, Russell set up a niche label to capitalise on the trio’s closeness to the scene, and to concrete their position within it.
“We couldn’t really get it wrong,” recalls Russell in XL Recordings’ Ladbroke Grove London offices, 23 astonishingly successful years later. “The records we were putting out were sort of road-tested. There was very little planning. No one considered themselves as an ‘artist’ – we never used that word. Our tunes were simple, made quickly and were fucking great.”
Listen to XL’s efforts from that era now – including Russell’s own chart hit The Bouncer by Kicks Like A Mule – and you’re confronted by a reckless, repetitive aural assault; strikingly of its time yet liberatingly uncommercial. This is the sound of Russell’s unconventional A&R education; the bedrock of an uncompromising, tastemaking XL ideology that has helped launch the careers of artists as diverse as The White Stripes, The Prodigy, Adele, The xx, Radiohead, Dizzee Rascal, The Horrors, Basement Jaxx and MIA.
“Those rave records were the first phase of a kind of unconsidered DIY spirit [at XL],” explains Russell. “It’s one very similar I would imagine to where the first flush of English indie labels came from – Martin with Beggars and the rest. My parents tell me I was quite anti-establishment from a young age. I think I’ve always had a mistrust of institutions.”
Interestingly, Russell has never had a job outside of music. As well as his fledgling DJ career, his teens involved stints working for Island Records, music export company Caroline and two retailers: Loppylugs in Edgware and Vinyl Mania in New York – where he surprised bosses by pitching up, aged 17, following a semi-serious transatlantic job offer over the phone.
He adds: “I did work experience in the warehouse of Island Records back in its golden period. In a way, that version of Island has been the model for all of this – it was what I foolishly thought all record companies would be like: multi-cultural with incredible taste and different styles of music – brilliant.”
If rave and punk were responsible for XL’s rebellious spirit, and Island can claim inspiration for the diversity of its roster, Russell’s belief that his artists should heavily contribute to label decisions was empowered by one individual: The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett.
“As soon as Liam and I met there was definitely a very close connection,” he says. “We were exactly the same age, were hip-hop fans from suburbia – and we were ambitious.”
The Prodigy’s first LP, Experience, hit shelves on XL in the centre of the rave scene that spawned the label. It was a triumph, with singles such as Charly, Out Of Space and Everybody In The Place beginning to trouble the mainstream. But the group’s second effort was a more driven, aggressive beast.
Music For The Jilted Generation railed against the corporate mutation of the rave movement. It turned the scene on its head, and became both Howlett and XL’s first mega-hit.
“When Nick [Halkes] left to set up Positiva after the first Prodigy album, Liam just had this focus,” recalls Russell. “Things really clicked after a TV appearance on a show called Dance Energy. Liam didn’t think it was good and he said: ‘We’re not going on TV again.’ It was a brilliant decision, and saved the group an awful lot of time, trouble, aggravation and stress. It wasn’t their medium, they didn’t need to do it. I realised that if you’re working with the right artists, they don’t have to do everything. If a label tries to make them, it only comes from a place of fear.
“That moment with Liam leapt into my head during a meeting here with Adele 20 years later. She said to all of us: ‘I’m not doing festivals, it’s not my place.’ That was before she was even successful – very few artists would have the confidence to make that decision. Some people would say she was risking earning less money, but it doesn’t work like that. Maybe you’re going to earn less money, but maybe you’re going to be a lot more successful because you’ve got the balls to not just jump through every hoop. That’s definitely what I look for and what interests me in an artist – not being a follower.”
You only need spend an hour in XL’s modern-day HQ to see just how prominently that strong-minded spirit cuts through the company – and how much belief it places in its artists’ decisions. The writing is quite literally on the wall.
Amongst the well-wishing from performers and counter-culture music media relics, Russell’s office – a spacious, open-plan shack adorned with slacker brown leather sofa and rarefied acoustics – projects a daily reminder of the exec’s place in the scheme of things. ‘THANK YOU FOR YOUR MUSIC’, reads a gaze-grabbing sign – only the ‘YOU’ has been scratched away. In its place, that most primal of punk syllables: ‘FUCK’.
Nip to the toilet, and you’ll be greeted by hidden evidence of XL’s sales triumphs; Russell uses shiny gold and platinum BPI discs – so often the pristine pride of the major labels – to decorate the walls of the company lavatory.
And on the door of the in-house XL studio (loaned to artists for free and stuffed with techy toys), there is a message more indicative of less exultant times: ‘IDLERS, KEEP OUT!’
“All you can ask for sometimes is functionality, especially as a record company,” says Russell. “We’ve had our dysfunctional periods in the past, for sure. There was a phase after The Prodigy’s [third, record-breaking 1997 LP] Fat of the Land came out. We’ve recently put together statistics about how many records XL has released in its history – it was one that year. The focus had definitely gone. It was party central. That’s a fairly poor work rate I suppose, but you can see how that would happen: The Prodigy are exciting people, and that was an exciting time.”
In a more typical year, XL will still only release around six records – a taxingly tight schedule for a company that receives thousands of demo submissions every few months.
“The total number of records that we’ve put out in our history is around 100,” explains Russell. “This is an artistic endeavour for me, so that is the basis on which I make decisions. People say: ‘Oh, you should do this record, you can make money out of it.’ But I’ve got no interest. I’m not saying that because I’m some kind of saint or spend my time doing charity work. But money is not my motivating factor. It’s about, ‘Does it feel right? Has it got a shot at being important?'”
Russell’s “close-knit” workforce at XL are given a great deal of creative power. Signing artists is often a team effort, while the role of product manager and A&R are not treated as separate jobs. The boss likes his staff to stay “closely involved in a record throughout its life”.
Welcoming colleagues to enrich his artist-centric, fastidious strategy has allowed Russell and XL to diversify into new and enjoyably uncomfortable areas – whether the libidinous electric jolt of Peaches, or the raw electric blues of The White Stripes.
The signing of Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy, was an important milestone in the widening of XL’s scope away from Russell’s dance heartland. The singer-songwriter rewarded the label’s support with its first ever Mercury Prize in 2000 – a feat later repeated by Dizzee Rascal (2003) and The xx (2010).
“Damon’s The Hour Of Bewilderbeast was a turning point,” acknowledges Russell. “He had a nice sort of skew-whiff way of looking at the world, which I really liked. Until then XL was a dance label – there was nothing wrong with that. But you can definitely get bored once people start thinking of you as being one particular thing. Badly Drawn Boy helped us start existing in different worlds.”
Those different worlds soon included The White Stripes’ breakthrough third LP White Blood Cells and Dizzee Rascal’s industry-shaking debut – two records which showed like never before XL’s propensity to unleash records in unfamiliar genres that would go on to sell millions.
None of this risk-taking would have been possible, acknowledges Russell, without the steadying involvement of Martin Mills and Beggars Group in XL’s operations: “Beggars and Martin take care, very efficiently, of a lot of functions – and do so with a lot of dedication and a lot of love. That has enabled me to think clearly about the creative stuff and about getting it out in the world in a strong way. It’s a fucking nightmare to put a record company together, it’s like trying to put a band together. You need to look after the magic of it – and this structure is definitely how it’s meant to be.
“I absolutely feel part of an independent label community,” he continues. “For the sake of other independent labels, I wouldn’t want anyone to stop thinking of us or Beggars as independent because of our success. I want us to show there is no limit to what you can achieve.”
Russell’s commercial accomplishments in the past few years – not least with modern industry phenomenon Adele – will have made many eyes glow green within XL’s label peers. But although the exec counts his blessings, he’s also got a top tip for anyone taking home a wage from the music industry: stop fighting so hard for victory – you’ve already made it.
“You have to stay aware of the fact that you’re just privileged to be involved in any capacity in this business,” he says. “The big dividing line is between not earning a living and earning a living. Beyond that, people get very hung up on the amounts – but it’s really not that relevant. If you’re past the point where you’re ever going to have to go and get a proper job, that’s a fucking result.”
He continues: “I’m not actually that bothered if [a great record] is on XL or not. This isn’t sport – to me, that’s a massive mistake that music industry people make. It’s not about you winning and others losing. It’s fine to want to be successful; it is not fine to want someone else to be unsuccessful. The more people engage with that kind of negativity, the less successful they will be.”
And with that, Russell disappears, off to introduce his latest intriguing production work – an LP with soul legend Bobby Womack – to a friend behind closed doors.
The album will no doubt prove another absorbing addition to a pantheon of vital, enthralling records that bear the XL name; and an artist spectrum that has gifted the world everything from ‘hardbeat’ rave to bhangra-synth; indie Africana to a reborn rap master; and screeching Delta blues to the 21st century’s defining soul star.
Without Richard Russell, these bizarre, sharp, fascinating projects may never have been brought to public attention. He fights the good fight for the weird and the mysterious every bit as much as he does the driven and the divine. In doing so, he not only enhances our industry, but the very fabric of our culture.
It is precisely because of this bravery, this discerning ingenuity, that his name last week rightly took its place on Music Week’s revered roll call of Strat Award winners.
Thank fuck for your music, Richard. And thank you, too.