Review: Richard Russell – ‘Liberation Through Hearing: Rap, Rave & The Rise of XL Recordings’

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This book is something different to what I thought it would be. I was hoping for truth, brilliant anecdotes, and some lovely words on how music is made, produced, and how keeping a record label alive for decades can be like.

I’m happy to say it turned into something else. I’ve never met Richard Russell but if he’s like his words in this book, he’s probably a humble and astute character.

He’s also a fucking fanatic when it comes to music, more so than a simpleton capitalist:

In 1985 Mike D, just out of his teens, purchased two copies of a 12-inch single from a record store in Manhattan, an establishment on Carmine Street in the West Village called Vinylmania. Back in Edgware, I was turning fourteen. Five years later I would be Serving customers from behind the counter in this same New York record store. Mike had never purchased doubles’ before.
This record Justified the outlay. It was Schoolly D’s self released, reverb-heavy, proto-gangsta monster, ‘P.S.K’, with another classic on the flip, ‘Gucci Time’.

The original pressing of this record is to this day a perfect artefact, representing a special moment in the history of music. The song is incredible, and so is the physical object.

Mike D, on ‘P.S.K’: It was the record we wanted to make.

Sure, I love Beastie Boys—and I must give Russell an arse-kicking for writing ‘the Beastie Boys’—but what enthralls and made me read this book quickly is Russell’s proliferous spirit: he makes music that I’ve not heard of seem alive and makes me want to dig in.

The classic US soundtrack to the early UK events did not just sound outstanding at the time but resonates with great power today; some of the greatest gospel-tinged soul music of all time, rejected by the US mainstream, lovingly embraced in the UK. The nostalgic effect the biggest songs Joe Smooth ‘Promised Land’, CeCe Rogers’ ‘Someday’, Phase II’s ‘Reachin”, Frankie Knuckles ‘Your Love’ – still have on anyone who was present can be almost comical. On hearing these tunes, even in a domestic setting, I’ve seen grown people of my age group lose their composure, the structure of their grown-up, responsible lives dissolving as a moment of connection to pure rave essence occurs.

I actually used to love Russell’s own music as Kicks Like A Mule (KLAM), whose song ‘The Bouncer’ I still love. About it:

Our friend Sam Spivack could probably come up with a better vocal hook. He was entertaining us by impersonating a local nightclub bouncer rejecting our attempts to gain free entry with a surprising de of accuracy: ‘Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in’, which we duly recorded on to a TDK C90 cassette tape using a no-brand Walkman knock-off tape recorder.

“The Bouncer’, which we chose to release under the name Kicks Like a Mule, was written, recorded and mixed in one day. Not that we knew we had performed three separate functions – we’d just strung the samples together until something new existed, something that we’d be happy to DJ with, adding a one-finger, two-note synth riff and equally monophonic bassline, keeping the lo-fi recording of Sam’s vocal performance intact. With the help of Paul Connolly, now apparently our publisher, we took the tune to a few labels, thinking it might be better to keep some separation between the records we released on XL and our own efforts. None of them were interested.

That song broke the band onto the burgeoning UK electronic-dance scene.

Another thing that I love about Russell’s writing is how he seems to be honest by seemingly mixing the good with the bad and self-deprecating. An example of this:

The weakness of our ‘road-test’ approach was illustrated when I purchased Aphex Twin’s self-released white label ‘Analogue Bubble Bath’ from Zoom Records on Camden High Street. I took the 12-inch vinyl home to my flat around the corner on Delancey Street, and remember having some vague inkling that there was something special about it, but there was no way I could fit it in my DJ set, and I had a gig that night, so I exiled it to the high shelf.

This was before Aphex Twin was affiliated to Warp Records, so I was in effect at that moment failing to recognise the then-unsigned most visionary experimental electronic musician of my lifetime.

Then: The Prodigy. Liam Howlett, the person who made nearly all of the music in the band, sought out XL Recordings because he felt they would represent his band and his music well. He became friends with Russell.

When The Prodigy became really big with their second album, that’s when eyes in the USA started widening.

Ruthless boss Jerry Heller, one of the most controversial figures in the history of rap music, manager of NWA and with Eazy-E, co-owner of Ruthless, formerly agent to seventies superstars such as The Who and Black Sabbath, was welcoming enough, though, in his way. Ushering me into his old-school exec-style office, he asked me a couple of questions about myself and XL and, idly, if I’d ever considered moving to America. He then showed me a framed picture on his desk of a blonde in a bikini and said, ‘This is my girlfriend. You can have anything you want in this country if you have enough money.

Lovely people. Not.

It’s interesting to see how Russell writes about The Prodigy’s song Smack My Bitch Up:

I never considered its questionable nature. I did not even think about it. When we scheduled the song for single release, Martin Mills unusually made the short journey to my office at 25 Alma Road and questioned the validity of releasing this piece of music as a single. He approached the subject calmly and attempted to make me consider my actions. I ignored him. In the light of two decades-plus later, this says much about him. And about me. I wished to make my own mistakes.

The Sex Pistols had their swastika armbands. The Prodigy had this sample. Did anyone ever become a Nazi because of Sid Vicious?

No. But were people entitled to be offended by the use of the armband, or the sample? Yes. Is it insensitive to victims of abuse?

Yes. Were we thinking about that? No. Was that thoughtless? Yes.

Should The Prodigy have been censored in any way? I don’t think so. Is it pleasant? No. But is it art? Yes, just about, and a great deal of art is not pleasant. Was any woman ever abused because of The Prodigy? My instinct is no. But how can I be sure? So, do I regret releasing a single on XL with the title ‘Smack My Bitch Up’? No.

But I doubt that I would do it again.

I still remember the day that The Prodigy’s Firestarter was debuted on MTV Europe. I actually rushed home after school to see it. It’s like a world exploded to me, there and then, and I started thinking about how I’d buy the CD album the very instant it was released.

Soo Catwoman.

Punk was a big influence on all of us. We had been too to experience it first-hand but all related to the DIY ethic, Keith had decided to borrow and adapt the hairstyle created d first worn by one of the most influential original punks, Soo Lucas, aka Soo Catwoman. The do in question consisted of two parallel shark fins, everything else shaved clean, the fins them selves, in Keith’s case, dyed bright green for good measure.

Soo Catwoman, a powerfully enigmatic figure who has always shunned publicity (her website says ‘solicitation for interviews is futile’) had achieved the look originally by asking an obliging barber in Ealing, west London, to shave the middle of her head. An old Myspace post of hers gives an insight into her views on punk style: ‘It seems quite funny that what started out as anti-fashion became a fashion in itself. I’m sure for many people around at the time none of them (despite their claims) could have known the impact the whole thing would have, and still be having so many years on.

It’s obvious that this book is very marked by the suicide of Keith Flint. It’s harrowing to read about his dark periods and how he both seems to have possessed wondrously expressive skills as well as an intensely dark side to his person.

Instead of turning this book into a classic sort of rags-to-riches kind of book, Russell delves into why he was feeling horribly.

While I was theoretically now in a more fortunate position than before, my outlook has changed in ways that were not healthy.

I’d lost sight of my core values. I may have been unconsciously imitating some of the wealthy and powerful executives I’d met in the US.

I thought that the fearful state I found myself in had come from re but now I see that it had a long gestation period. I was clinically depressed.

It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t experienced it to understand this illness. The inability to carry out the simplest of tasks ma life next to impossible. I woke up every morning in severe physical pain, sharp aches all over my body which resembled some serious physical affliction but were, in fact, just a psychosomatic manifestation of my condition.

I’d always had a lot of ambition, some of which was useful. But my ambition had become toxic, and was threatening to damage me and the people around me. I needed help. The process of putting myself back together needed to begin. I had to find meaning.

Initially, I was resistant to psychotherapy because it felt like an admission of defeat, so I imagined, hopefully or lazily, that there would be some sort of chemical solution. I vaguely presumed that I would be able to get a prescription and that would be that. While a course of antidepressants, Seroxat initially, was indeed necessary, it did not begin to address the underlying causes.

Our past traumas – and everyone has them to greater or lesser extents – can weaken and compromise the already fragile underpinning of our psyches. Once medication is prescribed that seemingly strengthens these foundations, the need to explore one’s history, habits and lifestyle, with the pain that entails, seems less pressing.

But this exploration is the best way of attacking our anxieties. The drugs do not, in fact, work. Not on their own anyway. And not on any deep level.

I embarked on seven years of therapy where I explored my upbringing and relationships, and was thus able to examine my own behaviour and motivations. The therapeutic process, where I explored the childhood experiences that shaped me, felt learning to walk. I began to keep a diary, and the emptying of my thoughts on to the page was cathartic. My constant inter dialogue lost some of its negative power when it was written down.

I saw the keeping of a diary not as any type of creative process but as a purge, like vomiting or a visit to the toilet. What is written in a diary is usually not art. It is of little interest once it’s written; it tends to be much the same every day, like a bowel movement.

But you’ve got to get it out. Keep it inside at your peril. Art and excrement do have similarities. It’s art if you can find one person who is interested in it apart from you. Your shrink doesn’t count.

Reading his words on trying to free and elevate musicians like M.I.A., Gil Scott-Heron (with whom he made a very good album), Bobby Womack, and The White Stripes, makes me happy. It’s obvious that Russell hasn’t written about them to show the reader his ego, but to make their music heard.

The parts about Keith Flint are truly harrowing:

On the morning of 4 March 2019 I learned of Keith’s suicide aged forty-nine. He had taken his own life by hanging. I had long, bewildered conversations with Liam, Maxim and John Fairs, feeling the infinite sadness.

In an effort to still my thoughts I tried to write about how I felt, but there was no way to process what had happened. I was stuck on the idea that there is a time when we are meant to go, and we are not meant to take that into our own hands. We are no more supposed to be in control of our end than we are of our beginning.

I was doubtless one of many people wishing, hopelessly and pointlessly, that they could have somehow changed the course of events. Surely this was an avoidable tragedy? That a person who was a source of joy and excitement to so many ultimately found his own pain unbearable seemed, in itself, unbearable. I was bewildered by the randomness of it all.

[…]

I am lucky to have shared many peak experiences with them. When John Fairs, Leeroy, Maxim and Liam entered the church, leading the coffin bearers, Liam sporting Keith’s ‘Champions Of London’ live belt over his shoulder, Keith’s dog Cyrus among them, I felt a mixture of pride and deep sorrow.

Liam referred to Keith that day as ‘my loyal friend and, indeed, Keith would have done anything for his bandmate.

But he could not live on for him. It was an extraordinary service, the send-off that Keith deserved. Although Keith only sang on a handful of songs, his spirit can be heard in every Prodigy record.

All in all, this is a remarkable non-fiction memoir about life in the music business. There are deeply human elements embedded in and throughout all of this book. It’s not often one can say that, I think, about books that are written not only about the music industry, but about books that are written by somebody who’s revered by a lot of musicians and others. I’m sure other people may have other stuff to say about Russell, and there are probably reasons as to why he didn’t include the words of others—as Beastie Boys did with their book—but that’s another story.

This is a human book and if you love music, regardless of genre, you might just dig this one.

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