Sunday, 15 March 2015

Legendary Label In The Limelight: XL Recordings

Extra Loud. Extra Lauded. Extra Legendary.

Hey good looking,

"Pay close attention, I'll take your brain to another dimension" spat Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith on the classic hip-hop track 'Critical Beatdown', a lyric that Liam Howlett of The Prodigy sampled, reversed and spliced together with Max Romeo's 'Chase The Devil' and a cheeky little boing effect on the band's 1992 single 'Out Of Space'. That was how XL operated originally - looping up old funk & hip hop breaks, playing 33⅓ records at 45 rpm, and sticking a shed load of synths into the mix to create some of the most energetic, original rave music of the jilted generation.

Over two decades later and, unlike 'Firestarter' at a warehouse party, this eclectic indie has never once gone off (see what I did there). Today it remains every bit as fresh and groundbreaking as before, if not more. For me XL has always been an outlet for uncovering new favourite bands. Whether it's Radiohead, The White Stripes, early Dizzee, M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, The Horrors, Sigur Ros, The xx or some other irritatingly talented musician, Richard Russell & co. are experts at spotting up-and-coming artists with both the potential and the longevity to blow people's minds album after incredible album.

You might think any label with such massive mainstream acts must have the most gigantic dollar signs in its eyes (and, let's be honest, most of the big 'uns do) but that's what makes XL so brilliant - they're actually genuine music lovers. Screw being a business. There's no specific style or genre either, instead it's about releasing fascinating music, setting trends never following them and constantly trying to push the boundaries as far out as possible. Furthermore they allow their roster to take the reins on their own creative output without being forced to sacrifice exposure. Best label on the planet if you ask me.

To document 25 years of exceptional music the label released a whopper of a birthday boxset - four vinyl LPs and a DVD - back in August 2014 with the title/demand 'Pay Close Attention'. The first two 12-inches celebrate XL's passion for dance music. Starting at their underground breakbeat roots, we're taken on a whistle stop tour (glow sticks at the ready) through garage, house and grime, arriving circa-now with the future electro of Jamie xx.

The second half focuses on some of the unique, forward-thinking bands & artists who, thanks to XL, have provided the soundtrack to numerous people's lives all over the globe. It's a bizarre collection of songs; the fact that Tyler, The Creator rubs shoulders with Adele is testament to what brilliantly diverse and adventurous tastes the label has. I'm not going to lie, I was secretly hoping they might use this opportunity to release a new Jai Paul single, but how could I ever call 'BTSTU' a disappointment? It's pop perfection.

Most independent record labels would give their right arm for just one of the acts that I've mentioned so far in this article, and yet XL are able to spot these potentially classic musicians sometimes from as little as a handful of songs. So what's their secret? "Looking for people who have that strength of personality," head honcho Richard Russell told the unofficial king of Radio 1 Benji B, "Strength of character. Where you've thought there is that spark and that they were going to do their own thing. A vision."

And it's those strong personalities that are going to make the next twenty five years sound possibly even more amazing than the last. Just listen to the latest additions to the XL roster. There's SBTRKT making brilliantly bonkers dancefloor anthems, King Krule with his deep, dark, disenchanted drawl, there's Sampha, FKA Twigs, Lapsley, Ibeyi and so many more besides.

True, it won't all be to everyone's taste (I don't know if you've had the misfortune of watching QT's Boiler Room session but it's so gimmicky it makes me physically squirm) but there's such a diverse range of acts on the list that you're bound to discover at least one great one. If there's only one thing to be gained from all this it's to be more adventurous. Who knows what'll happen.

'Pay Close Attention' is out now as a deluxe vinyl boxset, double CD or download.

Founders: Richard Russell, Tim Palmer, Nick Halkes
Established: 1989
Roster: Adele, Atoms For Peace, Bobby Womack, East India Youth, Empress Of, Eyedress, FKA Twigs, Friendly Fires, Giggs, The Horrors, Ibeyi, Jack Penate, Jack White, Jai Paul, Jamie xx, Jungle, Kaytranada, King Krule, Koreless, Lapsley, Le1f, Novelist x Mumdance, QT, Radiohead, RATKING, Sampha, SBTRKT, Shamir, Single Mothers, Sigur Ros, Thom Yorke, Vampire Weekend, The xx
Did You Know: The White Stripes originally planned to sign to Bobsled Records in Chicago but changed their mind because the label's green logo clashed with their red, white and black colour scheme.

Pay Close Attention

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