- 29 May 20
As Adele unveils her new slimmed-down look, the label boss who discovered her talks life, love, death and Britpop.
Richard Russell was close to finishing his memoir, Liberation Through Hearing, when, on March 4 2019, he received word that his friend and long-time collaborator, Keith Flint of Prodigy, had hung himself at home in Essex.
“Keith passed away tragically and I was writing at that time,” recalls Russell, who, as the guiding force behind megawatt indie label XL Recordings, helped catapult Flint, Liam Howlett and their fire-snorting Prodigy bandmates to international fame through the ’90s . “It made its way in there. I wish it hadn’t. I wish that wasn’t something I was writing about.”
Liberation Through Hearing is ultimately an optimistic book. Russell’s passion for music shines throughout, as he recalls his part in the ascension to pop immortality of Prodigy, Adele, M.I.A. and The White Stripes. All were beneficiaries of XL’s magic touch and peerless quality control. Yet death casts a shadow, too.
“During the initial period [of writing] a number of musicians who were very important to me passed way, though I didn’t know them personally. David Mancuso, the DJ. David Bowie. George Michael.”
He pauses. “Life and death – it happens.”
Russell doesn’t shy away from acknowledging Flint’s dark side. “Keith was not a poseur,” he writes in the book. “He was the real deal: constitutionally counter-cultural, marginalised and rebellious…But I would witness dark disturbances.”
He recounts an incident on tour in America when someone shared with Flint a tabloid story that a close family member had passed on for a fee. For Flint, who’d had a difficult childhood, it was an unspeakable violation.
“Keith’s mood plummeted as a result of this public betrayal. I was fortunate to see a lot of Keith’s most playful side, but his darkness and its causes were never far away.
“You can say that about a lot of people in the book. I include myself. Creativity… it’s like the flip side of the darkness,” Russell tells Hot Press. “I believe those things are intrinsically linked. It’s not about being some kind of perfect, happy person. The world is not like that. The world is full of pain. Being a musician or an artist – you’ve got to do something with that pain. Something constructive. That doesn’t mean the pain is not there.”
His conversation with Hot Press comes at an apt moment. A few days later, Adele will torch the internet to the ground when she appears publicly for the first time in years and is revealed to have lost weight.
This has generated a rolling debate as to whether any of us has a right to comment on a woman’s body. Obviously we don’t – but let’s not go there. Instead, let us return to Russell’s book and his thoughts on Adele, whom he is credited with discovering when she was fresh out of Croydon’s BRIT School for performing arts in Croydon.
“I had completely the wrong idea of the music Adele planned to make once she signed,” he writes. “Because I’d seen her perform solo with guitar, I thought we would be making a stripped-down, folky record... But when she explained that she wanted to work with pop-oriented producers, I had no objections.
“It would have been churlish to suggest she become a bit more left field so XL could help her infiltrate the centre. And by aligning herself with us we would in fact be starting from a credible position…Otherwise the music snobs might have missed her quality.
“She made it very easy for people to understand what she was doing,” Russell tells Hot Press. “She was extremely clear about it and her own mind. It’s very easy to work with someone like that. It’s the same with Liam [Howlett]. He was very clear about what he wanted to do and, more importantly, what he didn’t want to do.”
These are the artists, he says, with whom the business has historically had issues. The sort that know their own minds.
“They are the type the music industry has always said are ‘difficult’. The problem has always been with the people calling them difficult rather than with the artist. You’re calling them difficult because you’re making them be something they don’t want to be.”
Russell never set out to be a record mogul – and reading his memoir, it’s clear that isn’t how he sees himself. A starry-eyed Jewish kid from the drab north London suburb of Edgware he’d grown up obsessed with hip-hop, to the point where he moved to New York as a teenager to work in a record store.
When he returned home, he became entangled in the fledgling rave scene. As one half of Kicks Like A Mule in 1992 he even had a bone fide hit in the sample-happy ‘The Bouncer’ (“Your name’s not down you’re not coming in,” goes the chorus). This led to an appearance on Top Of The Pops, where he danced behind his keyboard sporting what looked suspiciously like a man-bun.
A decent career as a producer stretched ahead. But when he heard Prodigy and Liam Howlett’s work, he jacked it in. How do you compete with perfection? By then he was working with upstart indie label XL Recordings as an A&R scout. Within a few years, he was running the place.
Russell’s ear for talent and hustling manner made him the perfect record company executive. He was ever-present at the side of Prodigy as they progressed from shell-suited cheeky chappies from Essex to the world’s most terrifying band.
With 1997’s The Fat Of The Land, they set off to conquer the US. Madonna, who signed Howlett and his crew to her Maverick label in the US, was attending meetings (she was fully engaged, brimming with ideas). They were top of the world.
Still there were mistakes. In the book, Russell talks openly about ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, the 1997 Prodigy single that repurposed a Kool Keith sample – “change my pitch up/ smack my bitch up” – and which would today result in the immediate cancellation of all involved. He takes the reader through the process by which XL came to put out a record with such an offensive title.
“That’s a moment you look back on and think, ‘what were we doing… what was that about… what were we thinking?’ And, more to the point, not thinking. And to what extent were we not thinking? That relates to the age we were at the time. We weren’t necessarily thinking every ramification of it through.
“It was important to be open about that and discuss it,” he continues. “I was going back and forwards with myself in order to explain how I felt about it. I was trying to work out how I felt about it. In the end I thought all I could do was basically include my own thought process.
“I felt the process was more important than any specific conclusion. I was definitely having a debate with myself, trying to consider it from the viewpoint of me in my early 20s compared to my view now in my late 40s. That’s the journey I’ve been on. It’s the journey everyone goes on.”
He writes about the sexism which Adele and M.I.A. have suffered. Does he despair that some things will never change?
“Unfortunately hip-hop really has not gone as far as it should in relation to this,” he says. “In that particular area there is still a lot of misogyny in lyrics, a tendency to play to stereotypes and a shortage of powerful females. I guess that’s just a gradual journey. We will gradually get somewhere.
“Pop music is much more dominated by women now. There has definitely been change. There has been a bit of a reckoning, hasn’t there? The world that we grew up in was straightforwardly sexist and homophobic. It just was. Our teachers were that way at school. Everything was. There has been positive change…People in positions of authority or power are able to get away with less discrimination than they used to be.”
Among his proudest accomplishments was working with Gil Scott-Heron towards the end of the American soul and jazz poet’s life. Russell tracked down Scott-Heron, who was at the time in prison on Rikers Island on New York’s East River on drugs-related charges. Their collaboration was sometimes bumpy – and Scott-Heron continued to use drugs until his death in May 2011 at the age of 62.
And yet, reading Liberation Through Hearing it is apparent that his time with Scott-Heron impacted on Russell profoundly. The album they recorded together, 2010’s I’m New Here, today stands tall as a classic.
“I had never worked with someone with whom I had that level of history as a fan,” he says. “His peak was at a similar time to Bowie’s – from the start of the ’70s to the very early ’80s . With Gil, there was a lot of pressure. I thought: ‘this has to stand up to the work he’s done before’… It definitely had its ups and downs. You go in expecting that.”
One quality that comes through powerfully is that for all his success Russell has always regarded himself as an outsider. Perhaps that is why he felt so alienated from Britpop, which was on the rise as he was masterminding the Prodigy’s early run of hits.
“You couldn’t deny the excitement of Britpop,” he says. “It was a moment where music was capturing the imagination of an awful lot of people. There were a lot of huge characters. A lot of it was to do with those characters. Coming from my musical background, where the sonic side was important… well, that obviously wasn’t the priority of Britpop. That was more about certain attitudes – and a certain spirit.
“They were re-packaging music from the ’60s I guess. I’ve been involved in scenes where there’s a lot of repackaging. You always want some exciting new element. It’s a magpie approach. There’s a lot of theft going on. You add a new thing to make it more exciting. With Britpop it was slightly more straightforward repackaging. That is what made it more popular and more resonant.”
• Liberation Through Hearing: Rap, Rave And The Rise Of XL Recordings by Richard Russell is published by White Rabbit