INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian FEBRUARY 18, 2018 - by Kitty Empire
RICHARD RUSSELL: EVERYTHING IS RECORDED
As head of XL, Richard Russell shaped UK music for three decades. His own debut release finds its voice in many singers.
Imagine, for a moment, being the man who signed Adele. You run a label - XL - home to mavericks as diverse as Dizzee Rascal, Radiohead and Arca, and you produce records by your heroes - Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack - in what one might laughably call your spare time. By many people's definitions, you'd be about as fulfilled, three-dimensional and jammy a human as there is. In 2015, your net worth was guessed at £75,000,000, but your impact on British music is harder to calculate.
Then imagine being paralysed. One minute, you're putting out Gil Scott-Heron's final album. And then - insert an obscure sound effect here, the kind that you collect - you're laid low by Guillain-Barré syndrome, an auto-immune disease that attacks the nervous system. It's 2013, you're in hospital, and you can just about twiddle your fingers. Geoff Barrow, on behalf of Portishead, sends you a dinky synth - a pocket piano by Critter & Guitari to be precise - to retrain your synapses and stop you going mad. You can't help but read Russell's paralysis as one of those defining moments that would map the road ahead, if he could ever get his motor skills back.
Russell is now recovered, and is releasing what is effectively his debut album as artist: Everything Is Recorded. Throughout, he makes the beats and plays synths, guitar, bass and the pocket piano, but doesn't sing. EIR is not entirely about his neurological brush with the abyss. It's about memory, our inability to express ourselves and other pitfalls of being human, refracted through a lifelong love of hip-hop and soul and a dedication to sampled textures. But time and again, the album returns to a sermon by TD Jakes, an Oprah-endorsed pastor, and the statement "There are moments in our lives where we feel completely alone."
Russell jammed this record together, keeping the tape rolling after he wrapped up the latest album by Ibeyi - two Beyoncé-endorsed French-Cuban sisters combining hip-hop, soul, Yoruba legend and twenty-first-century digital technology. He called on the kind of people you can call on if you're Richard Russell: Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, arranger Owen Pallett, the amazing Warren Ellis.
Kamasi Washington, the LA horn player and leading light of woke jazz, contributes on tracks like She Said (also featuring Obongjayar), while people like Scritti Politti's Green Gartside and Peter Gabriel are ancillary presences. Giggs is here, representing XL's stake in UK rap on Wet Looking Road (which samples a reggae track, Keith Hudson's Dark Night On A Wet Looking Road). On it, the rapper who the Met Police's Operation Trident warned Russell not to sign sounds almost personable. A significant slice of these artists formed part of a four-day-long Everything Is Recorded art installation-cum-gig in Hackney, east London, which ended this weekend.
The ace up Russell's sleeve, though, is a Mercury prize-winning voice - Sampha's - whose capacity for simultaneously conveying hurt and succour is hard to rival. You want to punch the air every time Sampha turns up - on the title track, or other standouts like the almost passive-aggressive Show Love, also featuring Syd. "I know what my purpose was," Syd sings, "show love."
Everything Is Recorded can be read a few ways - there's the Orwellian dystopia we're sleepwalked into, for one, where every internet search or WhatsApp message is logged. From the producer's point of view, however, recording is salvation. The album begins with a few beeps, a sound that means "this thing is on". Producers want to capture everything, in case the artist does something immense once the record button is turned off. It's OK, Russell is saying (perhaps to himself): we've got it locked down.
Here, though, is where Everything Is Recorded becomes more slippery. What is Richard Russell - teenage hip-hop head, rave pioneer, enabler of others - about as an artist, now? His default sound-bed is a kind of headphone-dazzling trip-hop, where susurrations and just-so samples provide a canvas on which the assembled artists can create freely.
Reluctant to take centre-stage vocally, Russell ends up delegating. Ibeyi sing a cover of a Gil Scott-Heron song, Cane - some XL dots, nicely joined - but what is the significance of this allusive song, about the lives of women in the southern US in the 1920s, to Russell?
It's unclear, too, whose words take precedence. At its least interesting, Everything Is Recorded is a compilation album, not a million miles from Albarn's Gorillaz (forty-something English guy makes hip-hop-derived album with stellar cast). But it is one whose centre remains tantalisingly unreachable. How much is Russell letting his vocal collaborators speak their own truths - you don't put words in Giggs's mouth - and how much of Russell's essence are they tasked with conveying?
On Close But Not Quite, Sampha's vocal audibly reacts to a sample of Curtis Mayfield's The Makings of You, sampled so extensively on the track, it becomes a sort of duet. It's unclear, though, who's in the lyrical driving seat.
The same thought recurs on possibly the best track on the album, Bloodshot Red Eyes, which foregrounds the dulcet tones of newcomer Infinite Coles, who happens to be the offspring of Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah, alongside Gartside. There's rancour here, about wasted time and wasted love. Whose? For a man who hit the UK Top 10 in 1992 with a banging rave tune, The Bouncer, as one half of Kicks Like A Mule, and whose roster, never mind his record collection, ranges far, wide and deep, Russell frustratingly holds back, too, from any meaningfully esoteric or challenging music on Everything Is Recorded. None of this music looks into the void and holds its gaze.
By the time Be My Friend rolls round, though, you've given up trying to winnow out author from mouthpiece, intention from delivery. The point of Everything Is Recorded is its collaborative nature, and the song's meaning is abundantly clear. "Love forgiving, heal and mend / Never leave me / Be my friend," beseeches Infinite. Another TD Jakes sample unfurls, adamant that although we may feel alone, we are not.
Everything Is Recorded is released on XL