Richard Russell: XL Recordings boss on Adele and Dizzee Rascal's success

By Sinead Garvan
Newsbeat entertainment reporter

  • Published
dizzee rascal, adele, the xx

Richard Russell is spending lockdown at home with his family and things have gotten very creative.

"Our 11-year-old turned the kitchen into an aeroplane the other night and we had dinner as if we were on a flight.

"She was dressed up like a stewardess and we had bits of string on our chairs that were like seat belts."

It didn't stop there. The next night, Richard - owner of one of the world's most-successful independent record labels, XL Recordings - turned the kitchen into "my teenage son's favourite Portuguese chicken chain restaurant".

He based the food on that restaurant's menu and even had uniforms with badges he had cut from packets of their seasoning.

Image source, Richard Russell
Image caption,
The man at the top of XL Recordings, Richard Russell

Richard, a musician and producer himself, has given a home to The Prodigy, The XX, Dizzee Rascal, FKA Twigs - and not forgetting Adele - at XL Recordings over the years.

He is able to work from home, a luxury not everyone in his industry can afford, and he thinks the impact of coronavirus will be huge.

"Everything is interconnected and currently the live music sector is dead," he says.

"I deal with making records and putting records out - you could say it doesn't directly impact me and my staff, but it really does because it's all interconnected."

Image source, Tim Mosenfelder
Image caption,
Adele signed to XL Recordings when she was 18 years old

He has just released a book, Liberation Through Hearing, which charts the rise and success of XL Recordings - the label he now owns.

It's full of incredible stories, including how his early success with The Prodigy shaped the future of the label.

"They were just on such a mission and I thought, 'This makes total sense, and I'm going to help them get this to people'," Richard recalls.

He says he never wanted to dilute who they were and was committed to taking the risk with them, "so there was this blueprint to show you can work with people who are incredibly strong, have original ideas and don't fit into a mould".

Rock bands dominated the mainstream in the 1990s, so taking a chance on a dance act seemed wild to many people.

But it worked - in 1997 their album The Fat of The Land went to number one in both the UK and the US. No dance act had ever achieved that.

Image source, Martyn Goodacre
Image caption,
The Prodigy created the blueprint for how Richard Russell would run XL Recordings

Then there was Adele.

Richard first heard some of her music when an A&R - the people at a label in charge of artist recruitment and development - nervously played a song off her MySpace page.

The A&R was nervous because the track already had 11,000 plays. He thought it might look like he wasn't on the ball.

Luckily for XL, he didn't let that bother him enough to not play the song.

Richard then went to see a young Adele at a small west London venue, which is now shut, called Cherry Jam.

"Adele was just completely confident on stage, incredibly distinctive and incredibly convincing from the first song," he says.

"She just seemed certain she knew what she was doing, and therefore so did I, because she created that certainty."

Other fascinating discovery stories include Dizzee Rascal. When Richard first heard I Luv U, he says he was blown away. This was back when grime was entirely underground.

Image source, Dave Hogan
Image caption,
Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Prize with his debut album Boy In Da Corner released on XL Recordings

"I felt like Dizzee had just cracked the code," he explains.

"He just kind of nailed everything in one piece of music, in terms of his production, which is unbelievable. His voice didn't sound like anyone else."

A 16-year-old Dizzee Rascal met Richard with his manager and producer, Nick Cage. Richard remembers Dizzee wearing a pair of Nike ski gloves and saying virtually nothing.

"I just thought, 'He's taking in everything'. I could just feel his radar, I could feel his alertness," Richard recalls.

"I really believed in him. I believed in the scene and I believed that it could change things in this country.

"And it did, he kicked those doors open and people piled in and they should be grateful to him for that."

Dizzee Rascal's debut album Boy In Da Corner won the Mercury Prize a few years later, in 2003, and is widely regarded as a modern classic.

Image source, Emma McIntyre
Image caption,
FKA Twigs is signed to the Young Turks label which is under the XL Recordings umbrella

There are many factors that seem unique to the running of XL and perhaps indicate the secret to the label's success.

For a start, they only release six or sevens albums a year - others release two or three times that much - which Richard says allows XL to put more money and energy into each artist and getting their work out to as many people as possible.

Richard and the label have never looked to grow into a massive company.

He says they have the same amount of staff as they've had for the last 15 years, they are in the same building and there is a strong team spirit.

That clearly comes from Richard being a passionate music fan and having that rare skill of spotting and working with artists who others might shy away from.

"I'm all about the stuff that doesn't fit in," he says.

"I've been very fortunate to have been involved in mainstream success - but that is not the be-all-and-end-all.

"And I think if you're chasing that, you're going to miss a lot of really important things."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
MIA is another XL artist who isn't afraid to speak her mind

But that doesn't mean he is ever without his doubts.

"You have to ignore that little demonic voice saying, 'Oh, you shouldn't be doing that' or 'If you do that people are gonna laugh at you'. All of that stuff is the enemy of creativity.

"It's about seeing them for what they are and kind of ignoring them, that's really the path of doing interesting things."

Artistic freedom is another major factor in XL's success - and why a lot of musicians want to work with the label, aside from its proven track record.

Richard remembers one meeting with Adele where she put her foot down, and he agreed.

"There were various festival offers coming in for her on the first record," he explains.

"It's every artist's dream to play festivals and it's lucrative but she just said, 'I'm not doing that'. And she didn't play a festival until her third album."

Image source, Tim Mosenfelder
Image caption,
Vampire Weekend released their first three albums on XL Recordings

It was a similar story with The Prodigy. They didn't want to go on Top of The Pops, so they never did.

"I love that though, that's what being an artist is about," he says.

"I really want artists to recognise that they are free."

Richard says that doesn't mean there won't be people making suggestions about their music or career.

Is that what makes XL work? For Richard - yes. It's about "taking risks - and putting yourself out there".

As for the discovery of future talent, well, his 17-year-old son has been helping out with contributors to Richard's second collaborative album for the project Everything Is Recorded.

"He actually showed me Aitch before anyone had heard of him.

"I couldn't believe it, I thought he was so great, his flow and his whole vibe was amazing."

Liberation Through Hearing: Rap, Rave and the Rise of XL is out now.

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