A merry room stuffed with independent music leaders fell silent last night as XL Recordings founder Richard Russell collected the Pioneer Award at the AIM Awards in London.
It was an apt trophy for a man whose label has consistently proven itself as a trailblazer for the independent sector – both creatively and in the mainstream arena.
From Dizzee Rascal to Adele, The White Stripes, Basement Jaxx, The Prodigy, Jack White, Badly Drawn Boy, Vampire Weekend, Radiohead, MIA, The xx and many more besides, XL has changed the cultural landscape of the music world time and time again.
As a sideline to his A&R work at the label, Richard has become a renowned producer and musician, recently working with some of his heroes – including Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack – on acclaimed XL albums.
Richard collaborated on Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man In The Universe (2012) with Damon Albarn, who introduced his friend on stage at London’s The Brewery yesterday evening.
Albarn praised Richard for founding “the greatest modern independent label in the world”, calling him “a brother of mine… and a genius”.
Richard then took to the stage, using the opportunity to pay tribute to many of those who have inspired him throughout his career.
Here are some of the best bits:
On Bobby Womack and Damon Albarn
I loved every minute of it, it was amazing – playing with Damon and Bobby, we had a great time. Then we went to play Later… with Jools.
We got there and looked around and there were lots of heads of major record companies, who were there to watch their artists performing.
Damon could tell something was a bit off. He said “Are you alright?” And I said: “I’m feeling a bit self-conscious about the performance.”
And Damon said: “You’re thinking about what other people think of you – I can solve that for you.
“Those people you’re worrying about, they all think you’re a c*nt. After this performance, they’ll either think you’re a bit less of a c*nt, or a bit more of a c*nt.
“But I can guarantee you, not nearly as many people think you’re a c*nt as think I’m a c*nt.”
On Gil Scott-Heron and independence
This [award] is about pioneers. When I looked up pioneer in the dictionary, it just sounded like Gil.
A pioneer is someone who breaks ground and goes places others haven’t been before. Gil Scott-Heron made a record in 1970 called Small Talk At 125th and Lenox that’s basically a rap record at a time when people didn’t really make rap records.
He talks about the media and how it sedates us. He talks about consumerism. And over the next few years he made an incredible run of records, where he talked about South Africa, the environment, addiction…
In 2005 it struck me that people should hear Gil again.
I took it very personally and seriously. By 2009 we’d completed [recording I’m New Here]. I was quite anxious about how it was going to be received because Gil had this enormous legacy.
It came out in 2010 and people liked it. Gil wasn’t really into promoting or talking to the press, but in the end he consented to do one interview.
Afterwards he said: “It was strange. They asked me strange questions. They asked me what it was like to be on an independent record label. Why do you think they asked me that?
“If I was you, I’d be a bit careful about this idea of independence. We’re all connected.”
I didn’t really understand that at the time.
Two years later in 2012, I was at an AIM AGM in London and I got this feeling that although all independent record labels have pressure on them, I don’t think they want other independent labels to fail.
I think while people want to succeed, everyone’s up for everyone else succeeding. I felt this sense of community at that AIM AGM which I think only really exists in the independent [sector].
On leading rather than following
In 2001 I was in a pub in North London with The White Stripes with some people from XL and Beggars. Jack White wanted to talk about what his next single should be from White Blood Cells.
It was suggested they [monitor] the reaction to the new songs at the next few shows. Jack said: “The reason I won’t let my fans choose my next single is that if my fans choose my next single, my next single will be me taking my shirt off.”
I’ve been working on a project recently that’s been quite communal and had a lot of different people involved. One of them is the rapper Giggs, who I’m a huge fan of.
We’ve got this song, and it sounds great. A person from the media came by the studio to listen to it. Afterwards Giggs said to me: “Do you think they got it?” I said: “I’m not sure.”
He said: “They didn’t get it. They’re not meant to get it. They’re meant to follow us. They get it at the same time the audience get it.
“It’s our job to be ahead of that.”
On being inspired then – and now
I’ve had this privileged life of working with musical pioneers, whether that’s Damon, Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack, Giggs, Jack White, Adele – who’s absolutely been a pioneer and broken ground that independents haven’t really broken before – MIA, Dizzee, Liam Howlett, Lee Scratch Perry… I’ve taken it upon myself to try and cultivate the pioneering spirit of all these people.
The reason I’ve done that is because it’s always seemed like the right thing to do. If enough of that pioneering spirit has rubbed off on me that AIM think I’m a worthy recipient of this, then I’m going to take it as a sign of encouragement to keep doing that and deepen my efforts.
I’ve had a quite incredible last few years. I’ve seen some things that a lot of people never really get to see – not all of which have been good. I’ve had some major health challenges that I’m out the other side of now.
The last few years could probably be described as a rollercoaster. But I’ve never felt alone on the ride. That’s mainly due to my wife, who’s here – she is my biggest fan, and expresses that by taking the piss out of me.
I also have incredible people around me in my professional life, which is also our personal life – Martin [Mills], Ben [Beardsworth], Caius [Pawson] and everyone at XL, Beggars and Young Turks.
I also want to thank everyone from all the other great independent labels. It’s not an easy job to do; it’s about passion and commitment and belief and tenacity. It’s not for p*ssies!
The work AIM does is incredible, and I’m a big fan of it. It really does mean something to get this from this community of people.