Interview: Paul Woolford on Special Request, Pirate Radio and Shut Up and Dance

Electronic music is engaged in a constant tug-of-war between nostalgia and futurism, and Paul Woolford’s Special Request project exemplifies the convergence of those two ideals. Special Request’s music is at once dated and familiar, succeeding both as a form of preservation and modern reinvention.

Woolford’s alias takes inspiration from the golden age of UK jungle, but came to prominence in a year when such references were particularly popular, whether it was Four Tet name-checking pirate radio in Beautiful Rewind or selectors like Ben UFO playing dedicated jungle sets at fabric. Yet even as a critical narrative asserts jungle’s general re-emergence, Special Request stands out. His debut album on Houndstooth, Soul Music, succeeds in educating without feeling like a lecture. It’s pastiche, homage, and essential contemporary expression all in one.

Special Request began as a reaction to Woolford’s frustration with the more professionalized aspects of his career alongside a desire for reinvigoration. The Leeds native had plenty of prior success, whether in 2005 with “Erotic Discourse” as Bobby Peru or this summer’s “Untitled,” an inescapable piano-house anthem originally released on Hotflush. Special Request is intentionally more introverted than the buoyant “Untitled”: Woolford has said that the project was borne out of “sheer self-indulgence.” In a series of emails with RBMA, Woolford discussed the seismic musical revelations of his youth and their manifestations in the Special Request project.

Paul Woolford - Ride VIP

The first Special Request EP came out in March 2012. Can you pinpoint a particular moment or listening experience that made you want to dive into producing these jungle/pirate radio hybrids as Special Request?

It was a combination of factors. I wanted to get some exhilaration back into the act of producing and I was reacting against a situation within the business side of the industry that I saw through. As soon as I started to make the tracks I felt invigorated – it quickly became clear that this was about unlocking something more than just the actual music. When the tracks almost write themselves, maintaining the flow is the smartest thing you can do. My life revolves around making this process as smooth as possible – there’s a lot of social sacrifice, but there always has been.

The fact that hardcore music was not in vogue at the time just egged me on even more.

What kinds of inspirations or non-musical thoughts did you find yourself unlocking, specifically? Or was it just a general creative reinvigoration?

I realised this had been staring me in the face for years and that the most important thing was to focus on exactly what I wanted to do – all the time. To a certain degree I had known this and done it – but Special Request felt like a door had opened. The nature of hardcore music and the fact that it was not in vogue at the time just egged me on even more – but not only that, the absolute conviction and faith in it was something I had not quite felt before. I think most artists have a gut feeling for how something will be reacted to – much of the impact is down to presentation, timing and so on, but with this project I really didn’t care for any of that. It was more important to me than “will anyone else get it?” – I didn’t really give a fuck about anyone else.

Is there something about this moment in electronic music that made such an effort seem necessary or fruitful beyond just your personal drive?

The whole project had been distilling for years before I recorded anything. Both the energy and the contrasts of hardcore/jungle are things that I’ve always felt were vital to dance music in their permutations. There came a point where I felt ready to dive back into it all again following a period of almost estrangement from my immediate surroundings in terms of the industry. Right at this point I decided to change agents, leave the management company that represented me, get rid of any PR assistance and focus solely on this project. The immediate pleasure was immense and I felt more inspired and invigorated than I had been for some years. In terms of the musical climate, there was definitely a point where it was clear that people would be more open to more drastic sounds – although this was more in the background. Special Request was borne out of sheer self-indulgence rather than looking to exploit a recurring theme.

The Ragga Twins - Hooligan 69

I’m an American who didn’t have the opportunity to experience the first wave of jungle as you did. Just for history’s sake, can you take us through your emotions during that period as a listener, discovering this new genre?

This was the soundtrack to my teenage years, along with a few other things. I was obsessively listening to tapes, pirate radio and collecting flyers from the raves in Leeds. There’s a guy in Leeds called DJ Shock and for years this guy has been involved in the community service of pirate radio in my area. Right from those days I have listened to this guy but particularly then, radio stations like PCR, Dream FM, People’s FM, Energy Radio and various others on. Recording hours and hours of these broadcasts.

On the weekends I would go and buy mix tapes from the clubs and raves in surrounding areas. The power, bass weight and tempo of a lot of hardcore records was something that house and techno lacked, and of course I would hear so many samples from original records that I already owned. I remember the first time I properly heard Shut Up And Dance was on Dream FM one Saturday night. The record that immediately pricked up my ears was “Hooligan 69” – I knew the sample of MK’s Area 10 track from the Techno 2 compilation on Virgin, but hearing a bassline like that flipped over a breakbeat sounded wild. That was a key moment. The exhilaration of hearing that to my teenage mind is something I find hard to put into words.

The gauze of memory hasn’t faded the glow at all. It’s warm music. Even in its darkest moments.

The pace of musical change was so rapid, hand in hand with technological advances – the more sample time available meant the quality of the records started to shoot up. We went from listening to tracks like Urban Shakedown’s “Some Justice” made on Amiga computers to people using Akai S900s and the onto the more advanced EMUs within a small space of time. Labels like Reinforced showed that you could take this music in a myriad of directions. That layer of crust from the low-resolution samples started to ease off slightly (but it was still somewhere in there), and things became more high-tech, more futuristic. Things like Source Direct’s remix of Goldie “This Is a Baad (Razor’s Edge)” and Dillinja “The Angels Fell” on Metalheadz – I can’t even describe how those records hit me. You spend your childhood as a boy obsessed with Star Wars, Blade Runner and sci-fi, and then someone makes a record that sounds like all of that and more. Fucking wild.

I have a binder full of magazine cuttings from i-D, The Face, The Wire, DJ Mag, Mixmag and so on that documents hardcore turning into jungle at the time. By a fluke my Dad dropped it off amongst some old papers a couple of years ago when he came round to my house. When I read those articles now it’s almost as strong a sensation as listening to some of my old tapes, the gauze of memory hasn’t faded the glow at all. It’s warm music. Even in its darkest moments. Soul Music.

How might your experience of the music differed from others who were simultaneously experiencing this same phenomenon?

My initial contact with dance music was solely through the radio, and subsequently through buying records and then tapes recorded from local clubs like The Gallery, Ark, The Orbit and Back To Basics in Leeds – it was later that I went to these clubs and experienced them firsthand. My ideas of what people were hearing in clubs only crystallised once I heard mix tapes from the actual nights.

When Shut Up And Dance came out and squeezed it all together, everything just made perfect sense.

The airwaves were wider-ranging, the DJs playing on pirate radio were braver in their choices than many clubs would be. You would rarely hear records on labels like Nu Groove out in clubs, although it did happen occasionally. I didn’t know that at the time, and now I see how this always played a part in my own choices of what records I pick to play out right up to this day. I knew my experience had been shaped differently when I began swapping tapes with kids at my school – they often had tapes from a club in Leeds called Ricky’s, and there was a rotation of very similar records that many of their DJs played.

I would give them my early mix tapes from my record collection which was constructed from things like Frankie Bones & Lenny Dee’s LoonyTunes EP and the Bones Breaks EPs, various Italian records like Morenas’ “Hazme Sonar” (which incidentally has been sampled time and time again in various jungle records like Droppin Science Volume 1), acid house tracks from compilations like Urban Acid and House Hallucinates, Detroit records like “Feel Surreal.” The comments I would get back from the other kids showed that we were on slightly different terms. When Shut Up And Dance came out and squeezed it all together, everything just made perfect sense, despite it being completely chaotic in many respects.

Ragga Twins - Lamborghini

What do you think Shut Up And Dance did differently from their predecessors that made them so influential in connecting those previously disparate listening groups?

Well to me, they were the first producers to marry those contrasting elements. Even in a track like “Lamborghini,” which was massive on Northern pirate stations in the UK, the contrasts were as odd as they were recognisable. The Eurythmics loop was instantly familiar, but that bizarre pan flute riff at the beginning with the bleeps just sounded really… odd. Nobody quite made records with these edges initially, and then the floodgates opened. Big respect to PJ & Smiley – they need more recognition really. The shit they went through for the samples effectively shut them down in their prime, which is a crying shame.

Looking back on the period now, what are some of the compositional or social quirks of jungle and pirate radio culture you didn’t recognize then?

I would say the main thing is realising how shoestring these things were really – and how fragile the whole situation was. When you are 15 and listening to something like pirate radio, it seems like a world away, it seems organised, and of course there always needed to be organisation for these things to work. If anything it means even more that people were risking their liberty to bring us the music. Today we are surrounded by corporate interests that use music to get to the youth, music is a tool as much as a device of pleasure depending on who you are. Pirate radio provided community service originally and with far fewer resources at a potentially enormous personal risk to those participating.

You’ve described your intent behind the Special Request project as purely sensory. Does it feel at all strange, though, that many listeners likely hear Special Request, immediately identify the jungle and pirate radio signifiers, and assume the project is just about nostalgia?

Walk into any gallery in any city in the world. Look closely at the work. There is always reference somewhere. Appropriation is rife. It just so happens that I am choosing to appropriate my own work as much as the things I sample, from within. I could make an album that takes all the inspiration from the same places without using any breakbeats for example and if I had done that, we would not be having this discussion – the connection to people would be way less because the overall sound would be less defined. In this sense, the drums are almost a fast-track to triggering a sensation in the mind of the listener.

My intention is to create moments that people will remember for the rest of their lives. It’s completely sensory.

To follow the argument of revivalism to the core, am I staging a micro-revival every time I sample one of my own tracks through the FM transmitter? Of course not, but in an academic sense you could take it that far. These arguments will go on forever. I’m not aiming to provoke them whatsoever, it’s immaterial to me. My intention is to create moments that people will remember for the rest of their lives. It’s completely sensory. The people that don’t get it will never get it, and probably didn’t get it the first time around. That’s no problem at all, it’s not for them. I love Herbie Hancock’s music but I don’t love everything he recorded – the ones I’m not feeling are just not for me. It’s the same with any artist.

Are you pursuing any collaborations with old-school junglists that became interested in the project? In general, what’s the response been from that first wave crowd?

I’ve had some great support from original heads like Doc Scott, Shy FX, Sean O’Keeffe (2 Bad Mice, Deep Blue), DJ Lee and the Metalheadz crew who I played for at Fabric recently. I’m engaged with some of the younger producers like Ulterior Motive and Blocks & Escher from Narratives Music who are absolutely incredible.

And how would these sort of positive accolades feel to your 16 year-old self, hearing these guys for the first time on Dream FM?


By Aaron Gonsher on December 13, 2013

On a different note