Paul Woolford’s alter ego Special Request is behind some of the most brutally exciting releases in dance music this year
Words: Joe Muggs
Photos: Shaun Bloodworth
“I was playing in the second room of a big warehouse party in London recently,” says Paul Woolford. “There must’ve been two thousand people there. Four Tet and Daphni were headlining the main room; they were playing really solid Chicago-style house whenever I passed through. I went on after Appleblim, and I thought, ‘Right, I’m just gonna play jungle’. A party this size, room two, let’s have something different – but it went down like a knackered lift. The expectation was there for a kind of music and you couldn’t fuck with it.”
How did he deal with this, wonders Mixmag. “Oh, I stuck with it,” laughs the softly spoken Yorkshireman. “Fuck ’em! It’s rare that I’ll be that pig-headed, but if you just always roll over, well, what is it that you’re saying? I think the thing was, I’d have expected that from a normal house night, but not this kind of event.”
There, in a nutshell, is Paul Woolford’s musical approach in 2013. At 38 he’s a veteran of the house and techno world, but increasingly finds that not only is he drawn to the exploratory bass music scene, but he is willing to be more radical and risk-taking than a lot of his younger compadres.
We’re having lunch in a restaurant in his home town of Leeds to discuss his almost-finished album as Special Request for Fabric’s new Houndstooth label. His Special Request releases so far have been some of the most startling 12”s of the past 12 months, fusing raw analogue electro, rave, house, grime and – yes – jungle into brutally effective new forms, and he’s been dropping DJ sets to match. Add to that a massive piano-techno tune about to drop on Scuba’s Hotflush label that looks like completely owning the summer, and you have not only someone on the best form of their career, but simply one of the most important dance artists of the moment.
How he got here is a story in its own right. Paul has been part of dance culture for his whole adult life, ever since the days when he would leave his admin job in a bank at midnight on Saturday night and head straight for Leeds’ infamous Back To Basics. Regular attendance turned to becoming a resident DJ, chance meetings at Basics got him into studios “pretty much any time I wasn’t in the club”, and a career grew slowly and steadily, making and playing high-class house and techno rooted in the classic sounds of Chicago and Detroit – until, in 2006, his track ‘Erotic Discourse’ blew up worldwide.
It was understandable that the deranged ping-pong-ball riff and rugged funk of the track made it the biggest multi-genre crossover track since ‘Doom’s Night’ – but for Paul the support of mainstream DJs was counterproductive. “When it got picked up across the board I got so many bookings,” he says, “but so often they wouldn’t stop to check who I was or what I actually played. I’d literally arrive in Brazil and find they were expecting a prog house or electro house
DJ, and I’d be thinking ‘wow, you make your bookings on the basis of one tune!’ It could get pretty miserable sometimes.”
All of this made him step back and reassess everything – from the music he was making to the structure of the industry. He shed his agents and management, determined to play it his way or not at all. Then two things happened. First came the patronage of Carl Craig, one of his musical heroes, who after some years of Paul sending him tracks not only released him on Planet E, but got him to play as a key DJ in the label’s 20th anniversary celebrations in 2011. Then, Fabric hired Rob Booth of the Electronic Explorations blog to A&R their new label Houndstooth, connecting the new bass generation with the history of underground electronica and techno, and Paul’s Special Request project found a home.
“I’ve turned down so many gigs,” he says, “and I’m worse off financially, without a doubt, but it’s worth it to be able to do what I want.” By detaching himself from the house mainstream he’s been able not only to free himself up in the studio but to connect to the younger post-dubsteppers who don’t (yet) have the conservative, mafia-like mentality of the 90s superclub generation – and he’s loving it. For every misfiring jungle set there are many more like the show he’s just done in Space, Ibiza: “I played back-to-back with Midland to 3,000 people, and it was fucking brilliant – it felt like they were ready for anything,” he says. “And Joy Orbison and Ben UFO followed us, not holding back, and we were all like, ‘Look at this! Look what we’re playing!’”
For any DJ that’s a magical moment; to achieve that after almost 20 years in the game is something else entirely. As we head out to go and get a couple of afternoon beers in his local, he smiles. “There’s less money in music now anyway,” he says, “but we’re at a point where the whole history of dance is available, and people are – as often as not – open to it. In that situation wouldn’t you want to take a few risks instead of playing the same old stuff, day in day out?” Well, wouldn’t you?
'Untitled' by Paul Woolford is out now on Hotflush Recordings.