Special Request Interview: Ethics, radio, and rave culture
Martin Guttridge-Hewitt caught up with Special Request aka Paul Woolford about technology's affect on society, the importance of radio and his FabricLive release.
Date published: 7th Apr 2017
The beautiful thing about dance music is its lack of rules. By nature of how it is produced and played things are relatively limitless - only tied down by what can be achieved with the equipment at hand, or an artist’s desire to be defined as this, or that. Whether dropping other people’s records, or messing about with kit to make new noises of your own, there’s no need for things to sound like anything in particular, other than what sounds right at the time.
Few back catalogues make this clearer than Paul Woolford’s. From his productions on 2020 Vision- the Leeds house label on which he carved out an electro-edged niche- to his Special Request work, which draws from early jungle and hardcore breakbeat whilst still coming across fresh- his range is impressive, before anyone mentions imprints like Planet E, Hot Flush, Running Back, and XL. This variety is also logical- indicative of how many links there are between the various soundtracks of basements, warehouses, and fields.
Having just unveiled a Special Request FabricLive mix album, supported by a new EP on fabric sister label Houndstooth, not to mention his ongoing UK dates, it seemed like the right moment to call him up at home in Leeds for a chat. What follows is what was said, unabridged, touching on everything from politics and class, to the resurgence of radio and what makes a great party- a conversation that backs up that theory of interconnectivity.
Hi Paul, how’s it going today. Good weekend?
I’m good, thanks. Weekend was good, I was in Berlin Thursday, got back Friday, then Saturday I was in Barcelona with Young Marco from Dekmantel. We played back to back at Nitsa, which was magic.
We only met before very, very briefly, and agreed to do this night. Then he asked in the week if I’d be up for going back to back. I’d seen him play so I knew what he was capable of. It’s funny, we went for dinner first and had a great connection straight away. Howling with laughter. So I knew it would work. But when we played it was literally just one-on, one-off. We didn’t give ourselves that safety net of building a narrative between tunes.
Usually it would be two or three each, so you know you can build it a little at a time, then maybe finish one each. In this case it was just so instinctive. Some real magic happened. So I think we’re going to do a really long one at De School in Amsterdam. We were both saying it’s why you do this - I’m going to feel good from that experience for ages. I’ll still be thinking of the night for years.
It’s funny how one event can keep you nourished, in terms of partying, for so long. It shows how good the good times really are.
Exactly. I think it’s easy to become complacent, and cushioned from the real world. Airport to hotel to dinner to club. And the cycle repeats. After a few years you travel better, and it becomes easier in some ways. Then everywhere you go everyone wants to have a party. So that takes its toll on you after a while.
I think everyone who does this professionally, at some stage you become lost in it all. The way to keep away from all that is to make sure you’re not just existing in your own little wormhole, but in things beyond this scene too. Beyond nightclubs. Beyond just having your head in music. As much as it’s incredible and mind blowing at its best, you have to look outside it really.
Sometimes it can feel very caught up in itself - compare the political aspect of dance music in the past to what exists today. Do you think that’s been lost?
I think it would be easy to think it’s a generational thing. I’m 41, so when the government brought in the bill outlawing repetitive beats, that was bizarre. I was talking to my dad the other week about this, and he couldn’t even believe it had happened. That the Tory government had gone that far.
"How come I didn’t know about that?" he asked me. And I said, "it’s because you were more annoyed about the Poll Tax and shit like that. I was saying, at the time- this is terrible. But to you I was just banging on about music".
But it was about much more than that. Personal freedom, liberties, all things like that. The human race has developed over years and years to try and make a place that’s good to live for everyone. Not just the most privileged who never leave Westminster. And yet we’re going backwards. You can’t even go to a fucking library anymore. It’s like the ladder has been pulled up.
But kids know what’s going on. They’re not daft. We can all see what is happening here. I think the biggest threat to our children’s futures is the smartphone. What’s happened to people with those devices. I was reading this study, I can’t actually remember where and I should know before I start saying this, otherwise it sounds really vague...
Don’t worry, we do this all the time too...
Well, there’s this study saying how much drug use has dropped amongst kids in the younger generation. And this is in direct correlation to the rise of the smartphone. We all see it. Get on a bus, go for a walk - what’s everyone doing? Staring at a phone. There’s a lot of good they can do. I don’t want to just get on a rant about phones. But the negatives are unbelievable and people are not even realising what they are really.
Every bit of information on your phone is getting co-opted, sold, 24-7. At the moment, those in control are of a certain ilk. All it takes is for the next person to come along and have a bit more of an extreme view, and then the next to be even more extreme. If someone says ‘actually, you know what we can do with this information...’ At that point you’re in the realm of nightmares.
In fact it’s already there to be fair. All banks want everyone using smartphones. All our information, doctors appointments, medical records. These are being sold. It’s already been sold. The damage is already done.
So to get back to your original question, has politics been lost from music- people are angry and they are engaged. But what they are doing is reading about it on their phones. Do not underestimate how intelligent and clued up the designers of this stuff are. Everything coming out of Silicone Valley, the people responsible are well-versed in making things addictive.
Read an interview with a lot of them and when they are asked how many devices they have in their home, or how many they allow their kids to have- often it’s none. I know I sound a bit like a luddite, but I’m not. I have a phone. It’s just about being aware, because down the lines there will be repercussions.
At the risk of descending into one of our 5AM, post-club rants, we’ve always found the faith in Google quite odd - the company motto is Don’t Be Evil, but history has shown us that trusting big companies on their say-so is foolish.
Of course. I tell you what I find interesting - if you get locked out of your Google account now, the next thing you know you’re training Google AI. ‘Click the box with the helicopter’. What are you teaching them there?
Yesterday I was reading something about Elon Musk, and how he’s involved in this technology linked with implants and AI. Driverless cars and the rest I get, but when you’re talking about implants in the brain, to me that’s when it’s a bit like, "get fucked".
We heard a documentary on Radio 4 about language implants - the ability to understand all languages without learning them. It struck us this is losing something - making an effort to communicate with each other.
Exactly. You remove any effort. It’s just pure convenience. That’s at the heart of what tech is doing. A lot of ideas come from someone asking "Maybe we can do this?" And that’s a great, probing question. So thank God people have been asking it for so long. But you also have to think "why are you doing that. Is it really useful?"
I remember when people first started videoing and streaming club events. How can you take a moment like that, and then try to look through it? Boiler Room works on many levels because it’s more about context. You’re seeing people around the focal point. But some, where you see it being streamed just of someone in the booth. There’s a limit to how much you can convey with that.
On the subject of business impacting society, the recent controversy surrounding Radar Radio springs to mind; the money to set it up coming from the Sports Direct empire has left people arguing whether it’s now impossible for grass roots to exist without corporate involvement.
To be honest I don’t know about that. From day one I was always surprised how resourceful my friends were. Even before I had a pair of Technics - which I was lucky enough to be able to borrow the money for - I had these belt drive decks, and was canibalising hi-fi systems, trying to make it work.
But then there were kids in my school who just went out on the rob, stealing things and then paid for Technics, they got them two years before me. It’s wrong, obviously, but it shows the resourcefulness of youth. I’m honestly not saying it’s a good thing. I’m not recommending people going out robbing, but there are always ways.
Also look around at the current trend for lo-fi aesthetics. Really that’s about fetishising things that were made cheaply. You can buy a brilliant drum machine for £50- the Casio RZ-1. That’s been a cornerstone of house and techno for years- Steve Poindexter records like Work That Mutha Fucker. Then get a cheap keyboard, maybe an effects unit. Find something to record it on - even a cassette. Then put it on Bandcamp.
So between these bits of gear, pissing about with them, putting them on tape, and finding a mate to master it, that can be done for £200 or £300. If you’re on your arse that seems like a vast sum, but still where there’s a will there’s a way. Where you come up against it is CDJs. Then if you don’t have money you’re fucked. No change out of £3,000 if you’re getting them brand new.
Going back to the Radar thing, I read something really interesting on Ransom Note, where the guy had said, you know, it’s not ideal - the ethics are what they are, but where do you draw the line? The parent company that owns Warner Music, they worked out that for every copy of Hard Drive Deep Inside sold, it contributes to the current U.S. prison system of profiteering from locking people up, because of who the parent company ultimately is.
We can all have ethics, but look around. You buy your food from a supermarket and that means having to look at fucking everything. You can find a way of discounting everything. It’s up to individuals to find a way of moving forward in a way they feel comfortable with. It’s definitely problematic. But then some of the kids on Radar, the fact they have access to that equipment is amazing. Especially given the backdrop of cuts at the moment. We need these outlets.
Our first run in with dance music was a tape of Carl Cox from Angels in Burnley from the mid-90s - we maybe missed the heyday of underground, pirate dance radio. It feels like radio has become a much more important platform again, though.
Yeah, I agree. Look at what Rinse have been doing for a long time. They are slightly different, maybe, as that actually started as a pirate station. But NTS is a good example - something formed to provide a real platform for that culture.
My first contact with it all was an accident really. I was upstairs on a Friday night listening to Radio 1, and wanted to go downstairs and keep on listening. So I took this little portable downstairs. I was going right across the frequency spectrum and suddenly was vaguely listening to this thing. I thought, "they weren’t playing this on Radio 1 upstairs".
I don’t remember what it was - something really fucking banging. I managed to tune it in, just about, and it blew my mind. "What the fuck is this?" I had records that were similar, and mix tapes I used to buy from this shop in Leeds, which sold recordings from The Orbit in Morley, and Ark raves. So then having this direct route for that into my kitchen, and then someone getting on the mic who sounded like one of your mates. You’re so used to the slickness of commercial radio. Then you can hear someone lugging on a spliff whilst telling you what the tune is. Especially at 16, I can’t tell you the power that has.
By that age I was already a night owl. Reading all the time, lights off at 3AM and up for school at 7AM. From then on I was up round the clock, just taping everything I could. It’s funny seeing the resurgence now, because to me they’re a really viable medium.
Your Special Request project takes some inspiration from those stations, or what they represented- hardcore, rave, jungle. Tell us about the new FabricLive mix- was there a grand plan?
I’d been discussing with DJ Kicks for a while about doing something and the format for that was slightly different. That conversation stalled, then fabric came in. So I had the framework already. I was going to do a mix. Then I realised I didn’t want to do that for the fabric mix as I may still be working with DJ Kicks.
Anyway, the most obvious approach would be a kind of history of hardcore. But I wanted to avoid that, and dip into some of the Special Request DJ sets I’ve been playing in clubs. What I’ve been doing with those is playing a lot of electro tracks, stuff definitely related to pirate radio and my experiences of pirate radio, but maybe not as obvious in that connection.
It’s been funny seeing the reaction from friends. A few have heard it and said, "fucking hell, I didn’t think that would make sense, but it does". To me there was no doubt it would. You could almost say the mix is half electro, half jungle. But that’s a really simplistic view. And doesn’t do the mix justice. Yet you can boil it down like that. On paper maybe it shouldn’t work.
A good friend of mine who I really do respect the opinion of, he grew up in Essex and was at all the raves. He’s been an archiver of this culture for years. Anyway, I did two Special Request gigs at Berghain. He came to the second and beforehand was asking, "what are you thinking then? You can’t play jungle in here". So I said, "I’ll probably lead in with maybe 45-minutes of retro stuff, Dutch records and things like that".
He was baffled, I couldn’t really understand why. Well, I did, and I do understand, but I also don’t. To me they are all different sides of the same coin. Different parts of the tree. They all overlap, especially when you’re looking at British techno, UK techno, electro. Aphex Twin, people like that. B12, all the Warp lot. Speak to the Autechre lads and breakdancing and electro are part of their background. The Street Sounds albums are maybe the common factor in all that, and that overlaps in a lot of beat programming, certainly all over UK techno.
And then that links to Detroit, and to Holland. It’s a huge Venn diagram, the whole thing. So what I wanted to do was make a few connections within that and then a few connections into other places. The sort of noise bits that are on the mix, like the Shapednoise track, then later on the Music For Serge Modular. I think the original of that is about 20 minutes long, and it’s really just spannered noises from a modular. What I wanted to do was take it from one place to another. Maybe make a few connections that resonate beyond the sensory. You always want it to sound good and be listenable again. That’s thing with any mix that lasts. Maybe over the years this one will reveal itself a little more. Hopefully, anyway - that’s the intention.
Special Request plays at Hope Works on Friday 21st July. Tickets are available below.