Richard Russell Shares Exclusive Extract From His Book ‘Liberation Through Hearing’

As you can probably imagine, XL Recordings boss Richard Russell has accumulated more than his fair share of stories to tell. His massively influential label has been home to some of the biggest stars and weirdest experimenters alike. A-listers like The Prodigy, Vampire Weekend, Basement Jaxx, M.I.A. and Adele have sat side-by-side with rave pioneers SL2, cut-up specialists The Avalanches, Thom Yorke’s solo outings, Gil-Scott Heron’s later works, Jai Paul’s reclusive experiments, King Krule’s croonings and even more esoteric releases. Basically, he has seen it all.

So it’s only right he collect some of those experiences into his new book Liberation Through Hearing: Rap, Rave & The Rise Of XL Recordings, a look back through the nearly four decades the label has soundtracked. We could ramble on indefinitely about the countless jaw-dropping revelations in the book — Damon Albarn, Gilles Peterson and M.I.A. have all praised it — but we wanted to focus on one particular section in which the revered head honcho spoke with Giggs during the recording of Russell’s 2018 album Everything Is Recorded, which also featured Sampha, Kamasi Washington, Peter Gabriel, Syd of The Internet and more.

In the early 2010s, XL became home to Giggs’ Let Em Have It and When Will It Stop and, in the below extract, Giggs details his first introduction to Russell’s label and how he almost signed to EMI. It also goes into some of the controversy surrounding Giggs’ music at the time, how he struggled to book live shows without police interference, and how Russell became completely enamoured with Giggs’ music as well as his thoughts on the Peckham rapper’s legacy. The book is out now.


London Quieten Down, I Need To Make A Sound

Back in the UK, this level of rap glamour and success was still a dream. But something was stirring. Something raw. Giggs had been on the scene for a while making and self-releasing mixtapes, the latest of which was Ard Bodied. It contained the song “Talkin’ Da Hardest”. The authenticity of this felt like a reaction not just to the more polished and shiny UK crossover rap attempts of that moment, but also to the now glamorous and institutionalised US scene. And “Talkin’ Da Hardest”, with its witty and eerily real-sounding tales of street life, was becoming a bona fide club smash as well as early viral video hit. Listening to Giggs, it struck me that while we’d been hearing stories of street life from the US since the mid-eighties, I had never heard much real UK gangsta rap. It existed but had not yet transcended the scene it came from. Giggs was unapologetic about where he came from, and ready to be seen and heard.

On the follow-up to Ard Bodied, the Walk In Da Park album, on the song “Cut-Up Bag”, Giggs gave the audience some instructions over the outro: “Trust me, you know what I want everyone to do right now? / Wind down all your windows, turn this up / Loud, let the bassline bang showing no respect / No respect for the law / Get me? Screaming out: ‘‘caine in a cut-up bag!’”. What he was saying was considered unacceptable in the UK. At this time, Giggs relied only on the people around him. DIY. Self-reliant. What could be more punk-rock? Mike Skinner of The Streets, always astute and connected, had asked Giggs to guest on a song and video of his called “Slow Songs”, and this helped Giggs to start attracting attention beyond his core audience. And he brought Giggs to meet me at XL. I was barefoot. Giggs’ reaction to this was, “This is a bit deep for me.” Fair enough. Maybe I should have put some shoes on.

Giggs: “I’d just left the EMI building. When you’re from the streets the idea of getting signed is like going to paradise. And EMI was all new, all shiny glass. I didn’t really understand what XL was. I was saying I don’t know… I don’t know if this is the place. I’m trying to get off the streets and this looks like a shed. I was just thinking… what the fuck. But then I saw all the new Macs, and that was an interesting contrast. The look of it just wasn’t what I thought this world was gonna be. Now I realise how heavy it was. Now I don’t wear shoes and socks when people come to my yard.”

I saw us all as equal. We all had different strengths, and the ability to help each other. Giggs decided to sign to independent XL rather than the competing major-label option. The paperwork was ready to sign when things took an unexpected turn. Or at least it was surprising to me. Less so to Giggs. I was staying at a friend’s cottage in the Oxfordshire countryside when Ben Beardsworth, by now managing director of XL and in charge of day-to-day activities, called me to say that Operation Trident had been in touch with him at the label, and they had said that they did not want us to sign Giggs. This seemed like an odd call for them to make. The nature of Giggs’ former activities was common knowledge, particularly given the revealing nature of his lyrics, and he had already paid the price for this. XL saw his music as artistically valid and was looking to make records with him, so why would a division of the Metropolitan Police attempt to impede his progress into a legitimate and worthwhile career?

To compound the bizarre nature of the conversation, the man from the Met advised Ben that we were not to mention this conversation to Giggs. At that precise moment, my children had a combination of three ailments: head lice, impetigo and teething. There were a lot of ointments, sheets to be kept clean and screaming going on. The Metropolitan Police attempting to involve themselves in our A&R decisions was more aggravation and I didn’t really need it. It was a nuisance, and one we wanted to ignore. As if A&R isn’t difficult enough. My diary entry at the time reads: ‘Countryside fun apart lice, boils, teething, Trident’.

When we told Giggs what was going on he was sanguine. He informed us that due to the bad relationship he had with the police he was not surprised, and that he would understand if we no longer wished to enter into a deal with him. The deal went ahead, and Giggs became one of the most constructive and collaborative artists the label ever worked with, endearing himself to all staff members with his natural enthusiasm, sense of humour and powerful spirit, and from this base he went on to build a platform for himself as one of the most beloved artists the UK has ever produced. He has helped open doors for a generation of other UK rappers who are now able to reach their audience either completely independently or with the help of record labels — as they choose. The power is in their hands.

Artists such as Stormzy and Dave make their music and communicate their message without interference. Their connection to their audience is direct and powerful, and they cannot be pushed around by the music industry, the media or the police. Real progress has occurred. UK rap is currently healthier than ever, and the audience now sees homegrown artists and sounds as at least as important as rappers emerging from hip-hop’s birthplace in the US. And what of US success? Perhaps the UK rapper who breaks there will not at that point be the biggest artist in their home market, because he or she will be doing something too different from anyone else. M.I.A. achieved great success in the US. The UK did not even consider her a rap artist and was painfully slow to embrace her. A misfit in one place can be a great fit in another. Equally, US success does not need to be any sort of holy grail for UK rap artists any more. A great career can be built without it, and it’s easier to hit a target you can see. The time that has to be dedicated to establishing US success is a gamble.

There is no guaranteed return and the energy has to be taken away from the UK audience, and that can easily weaken an artist’s foundation. And, of course, the path to success at home is still littered with obstacles. Our UK rap audience has always been obsessed with credibility and authenticity. When I began attending rap concerts in the mid-eighties, the UK audience was unforgiving of not just homegrown talent, but of US stars who displeased them with any overt attempt at commercialism. The audience is still similarly tough in its judgements, though the views are now expressed differently. Despite or perhaps because of the lack of outlets for audience feedback in pre-internet times, criticisms would be expressed in visceral ways.

When I saw LL Cool J live in 1986, I was fifteen and he had just followed a run of minimal, hardcore street smashes including “Rock The Bells” and “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” with “I Need Love” — a love song aimed at R&B radio. When he attempted to play this song, he was pelted with coins, a trick the UK rap audience had borrowed from its football hooligan relatives, a tribe who were equally unforgiving of any protagonist whose integrity was in question. One coin connected with the self-styled Ladies Love Legend in Leather, mid-flow. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. LL halted his set. He was not best pleased. He informed the grumpy London B-boy who had just connected with his Kangol-and-gold-chainwearing target that if another coin hit him, he would jump down from the stage and kick him in the face. The unimpressed fan with an accurate aim was nonplussed; he simply threw another coin. I suspect LL never had similar experiences in the US. The UK audience is demanding and not to be underestimated. But we now have an optimistic reality. It is possible to achieve lasting long-term success as a rapper from this country without making any compromise whatsoever.

This is the trail Giggs has blazed, and an artist such as Dave follows and extends. Seeing Stormzy’s headline Glastonbury performance in 2019 filled me with pride. He began the show with a clip of him and Jay-Z in conversation, both of them possessed of an effortless charm and a centred spirituality which has enabled them to transcend all expectations. In the space of the first three songs, Stormzy referenced three other artists who had inspired him: Wiley, Dizzee and Giggs. MCs who have inspired countless others. The day is here.

Posted on April 17, 2020