Liberation through hearing

A spiritual journey through music by the Mercury Prize-nominated musician and the man behind some of the world’s biggest recording artists including Adele, Dizzee Rascal and The Prodigy

For almost 30 years as a musician, producer, label boss and talent conductor at XL Recordings, Richard Russell has discovered, shaped and nurtured the artists who have rewritten the musical dictionary of the 21st century, artists like The Prodigy, Adele, M.I.A., Dizzee Rascal and Giggs. Growing up in north London in thrall to the raw energy of 80s US hip hop, Russell emerged as one part of rave outfit Kicks Like A Mule in 1991 at a moment when new technology-enabled a truly punk spirit on the fledgeling dance scene. Initially identified in the early 90s with breakbeat and hardcore before embracing a broader musical aesthetic, Russell’s stewardship of the label was always uncompromising and open to radical influences rather than conventional business decisions. 

Released in April 2020 via White Rabbit, Liberation Through Hearing sees Richard Russell telling the remarkable story of XL Recordings and their three decades on the frontline of innovation in music; the eclectic chorus of artists who came to define the label’s unique aesthetic, and Russell’s own story; his highs and lows steering the fortunes of an independent label in a rapidly changing industry, his celebrated production work with Bobby Womack and Gil Scott-Heron on their late-career masterpieces and his own development as an artist as Everything Is Recorded.

Richard Russell
Richard Russell

Read an extract from Liberation Through Hearing

Two weeks have passed. I’m driving down Sunset listening to the recordings I’ve been working on with CAS. I text him to say how good they sound. He texts back:

Its mad u should say that Ive been playing bits we made all week/weekend.

Another text:

I have never played my music so much Rich, man. Its exciting beyond comprehension.

And a third:

Got my new mask fitting Thursday.

I’m in LA with my wife Esta for Adele’s 31st birthday party. It takes place in the house where the Godfather horse-head scene was filmed. Adele has rented the property for the occasion, but should anyone be house-hunting, it’s on sale for $135 million.

It’s approaching midnight when I hear Esta urgently beckoning. I wander over to where she’s standing and she introduces me to a tall, tuxedo-clad man sporting shades and dreadlocks. He exudes a megawatt charisma. His real name is Shawn Carter but the world knows him as JAY Z. He is arguably the greatest rapper of all time and definitely one of my favourite artists, period.

Since making a failed attempt to license his first album for UK release in 1996 I have spent a great deal of time listening to his music over a period now spanning nearly twenty-five years. As well as being one of our greatest living storytellers, he is also a wildly successful entrepreneur, a former drug dealer who now has businesses encompassing the worlds of fashion, beverages, real estate and sports, not to mention his Roc Nation record label and management company. He would be able to purchase the property we are in should he so desire. He has a light energy yet possesses an intensely commanding presence.

There is a third member of the huddle. I’ve never met her either but she is intensely familiar. She is Beyoncé Knowles, and alongside our host tonight she is the world’s most beloved female artist, or perhaps artist overall.

Before I have formulated my first words to say to Hova, perhaps a ‘thank you’ for the lifetime of enjoyment and inspiration I have got from his music, he begins to talk to me. He is immediately intimate and engaged, aware of me and what I do, and full of enthusiastic praise for XL. I’m wrong-footed and not sure what to say.

The awkward silence is broken by Esta. ‘Look how much he’s smiling. It’s pathetic,’ she says, of flattered and starstruck me, to the billionaire B-boy genius christened Shawn Carter, originally of Brooklyn’s notorious Marcy housing projects. Her bullshit detector ever switched on, she has decided to challenge JAY Z, saying to him, ‘I bet you can’t even name three acts on the label.’

But he can.

Liberation Through Hearing
Grab your copy today

Looking for other great music biographies? Check out Duffy’s other reviews here