Cover Story: As Special Request, Paul Woolford is Happily Destroying Dance Music's Dividing Lines

One of house music’s most colourful hitmakers is paradoxically also a hero of electronic music’s darker underground. With four Special Request albums released in 2019 and no sign of letting up, Gabriel Szatan travels to Leeds to find out how Paul Woolford juggles it all.

28 min
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Apr 28, 2020
Gabriel Szatan

Paul Woolford is the King of Leeds, Angel of the North, an alias-switching dynamo with a superhuman work rate, one of dance music’s most popular and seemingly indestructible characters. But it wasn’t always this way.

2020 marks Woolford’s 20th year as a producer, a nice synchronicity with 20:20 Vision, the label on which he released his first smash, “Erotic Discourse.” Since that breakout moment in 2006, Woolford has been on a consistent upward curve, becoming a durable fixture of big-league house and techno. He has a litany of anthems to his name that countless ravers will recognise: “Stolen,” the ten-minute brain-vaporizing voyage that wowed Carl Craig; “You Already Know,” a sweetly hit to accompany sunkissed road trips and sundowns on Iberian beaches; “Untitled,” a dynamic piano house slammer with a name-calling hook; and “Hang Up Your Hang Ups,” perhaps the most typically Woolford anthem of all — a full-fat banger with crunchy low end and soaring vocal courtesy of the gone-too-soon Detroit legend Kim English.

Fate has been on his side in the 2010s, as the increasing aptitude of clubgoers for heavier fare has matched Woolford’s itch to blast them with it. He gigs relentlessly, switching with seemingly no friction between ritzy festivals under his birth name and grotty basement all-nighters as alter ego Special Request, hitting the studio in between. As well as his own solo catalogue, he has clocked up edit credits on well over 200 official releases. So active has he been, a music quiz I ran had a round dedicated to the only three certainties in life: Death, Taxes & Woolford Remixes.

It can get a bit confusing to see the same person release on Positiva and throw out a black metal-styled album with mere days apart, to unleash alluring vocal house screamers at one gig and break sound systems with tear-out drum & bass the next. As I’m about to find out, it boils down to one thing: “I just make what I love,” Woolford states. That approach has paid off. 2019 was his most unrestrained, prolific and — surely no coincidence — successful year to date. With that in mind I arrange to meet Woolford, hoping to chew over the aftermath and the next episode.

Wooly (as he has been affectionately tagged since who knows when) is at Leeds Station ahead of time. I’m handed a pack of sealed Special Request records he’s just picked up from the post office, though I’m sure he knows I have them already. He is unfailingly courteous, always dropping back to allow people through a door or alley first, acting as my tour guide as much as an interviewee. We grab some food and this gadabout nature doesn’t let up: Woolford leaps two-footed into winding stories about tour mishaps, beams at the restaurant staff, says hello and how’s the wife to all, and tips handsomely on his way out. You’d struggle to paint a more obvious caricature of what a man-about-town looks like.

Woolford made his name here in Leeds, coming up in the 2000s as a resident DJ for the city’s flagship night Back To Basics. He was at the epicentre of a notoriously messy scene, and loving it: when in his early 20s, Woolford would celebrate the completion of a track with a bender the length of its writing process. For years he was thick as thieves with the sprawling circle of residents, promoters, drug barons and hangers-on who ruled the town’s house scene.

It ended acrimoniously. As close compatriots got trapped in locked grooves of dependency and abuse, Woolford told people what they didn’t want to hear, and was not received kindly for it. Credible threats on his life were made. Having had his fair share of dust-ups as a teenager, he had the iron will to stick it out, but the mood was toxic and exile loomed. “Erotic Discourse” offered a way out and into the glitz of the Ibiza circuit. Almost as soon as his stint at Back To Basics had ended, a new one with We Love… at Space began. That 9-year long residency formed the bedrock for Woolford to launch an international career, one which he has maintained ever since. Watching the man swan about his hometown in the present day, and it’s evident that he emerged from the darkness better for it.

We move on to Whitelocks, the oldest remaining pub in town, a low-roofed and tiled-glass kind of old-world boozer that remains resistant to the homogenisation of modernity. The mere suggestion of it thrills Woolford. At heart, both his nature and musical provenance lies in the northern half of England: surging jungle from industrial cities in the Midlands, speed-addled rave from Manchester and Leeds, and the rudeboi rompers of Sheffield’s bleep & bass scene.

If my descriptors seem a little too florid, if anything, I’m dialling them down. Where most musicians run away from genre tags, Woolford runs toward them with glee. Potentially no DJ on earth takes such joy in categorising the music they’re going to play. Some of Woolford’s chosen favourites when plugging himself include: Spannered Electronics, Psychedelic Disco Throbbers, Scrambled Modern Hardcore, Tops-Off Breakbeat, Splurgecore, Belgian Panel Beaters (also known as High-Octane Panel Beaters and “Pagger”), Wigged-Out Hoover-Jams and, fittingly, Every Shade Of Rave Racket Under The Sun & Moon.

In 2012, Woolford found an outlet for all this and more in Special Request — a name play on pirate radio call-ins, as well as a hat-tip to a series of anonymous 12-inches listed only as Various Productions. With the project initially swaddled in secrecy, it gave him a place to siphon ideas that would have seemed incongruous with what Paul Woolford was supposed to represent. He grins at the memory of watching it take hold. “I knew it felt right as soon as it began. It was total freedom. I love making house, but house is so fixed. There are walls, and there’s a ceiling, and you have to work within that.” By moonlighting as Special Request, he could touch on reference points of snare rushes and bassbin blasters — Unique 3, Omni Trio, Basement Records, Doc Scott, LFO — that had no place on a terrace or wafting along at 126BPM. Soul Music, released at the tail-end of 2012, hit like a meteor.

“What people missed at the time,” Woolford recalls, “is the nuance. They just went, ‘Mmm…jungle!’ I have to remind people, one of the first two white labels was done with Kassem Mosse. It was ravey, sure, but it was analogue techno. The media ran with it being a jungle revival thing, and that stuck.” As popular as Special Request was becoming, misconceptions were rife. “Around the time of Soul Music, I remember a friend saying to me, ‘Oh, well, that’s that then.’ Like, it’s done now, you’ve had your fun, step away and get back to Wooly.” He would double down instead, shaping Special Request into a secondary suit of armour.

At least, that was the plan. The follow-up album, Belief System, was a near-2-hour monolith that wove between hardcore bombast and tender beatless instrumentals, a reflection of Woolford’s hard-earned artistic freedom and increasingly rooted personal life in the suburbs of Leeds. Woolford still adores it to this day. But in his eyes, the project bricked. “I’d been making it for years,” he says, “researching the area I’d moved to, getting the studio to sound right in the new house, really harnessing that history. The artwork was a political comment, a reflection on society: we are at the gates of hell. To see it completely fly over people’s heads…” Woolford trails off here and has a gulp of his pint. He remains visibly chastened by the reaction to it. “It’s not that you should be rewarded just for input, but at the time I was thinking, ‘Fuck me this is a bit rough, isn’t it?’ Three times the effort of Soul Music and it’s a big fucking shrug from the world.”

There was a resolution to never be misunderstood again. But Woolford was equally as committed not to retreat to safer ground. “I think most people in dance music are only doing a version of what they love,” Woolford muses. “Everyone self-edits to a mad degree, and for a few years I was self-editing too. That’s over now; everything’s going in. Even if I get fucking slated for it, I don’t care. I might even enjoy it on some perverse level. Why would you not take glee in something that is exactly what you want it to be?”

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January 1st 2019 was the day the editing died. Upon entering his third decade in music, a time when most producers would be content to don slippers and settle into reflection mode, Woolford conceived his most audacious project yet. The stated aim was to release four Special Request albums by the end of the year, each with its own distinctive sound, all while doing keepy-uppies with the big-room pleasure of Paul Woolford as usual. The implicit aim was to reframe himself publicly as a Renaissance man, and detonate the dividing lines people kept placing around him. Above all, it was a challenge to himself.

VORTEX arrived in the last week of May, a bombastic first-born. Unusually, the album’s artwork was the starting point, with an eye-searing colourway, Resident Evil-style calligraphy and tonal menace that you rarely see adorning club records. “The sleeve came from Christophe Szpajdel,” Woolford says. “He’s an unbelievable genius. People call him Lord of Logos; all the metal bands go to him, he does it all by hand and charges peanuts. He’s an artist in every sense of the word. I actually have another 11 logos on top of the one people have seen, because the final album was going to be called Obliteration. I’m going to follow through one day and put those out because he’s just that good.”

From there, the demos were jacked up to meet the strength of the cover. Equipment was sourced to relive a specific moment in time, Woolford says. “There was a period between ‘92 and ‘93 where the BPMs were going up radically, but you’d still hear 4×4 kicks. Hardcore records would be pushing north of 150BPM, but still with a techno rhythm. I wanted to lock into that particular sound.” Live drums were added, extra breakbeats were lobbed in and various embellishments were added, all intended “to communicate directly to the listener the love that I’m putting into each track. I wanted them to feel as good as I feel when I’m doing it, because it was blowing my mind as I’m feeling the potential and making it happen.”

The resultant album was a lesson in how to travel at warp speed without inducing motion sickness. It’s rare to hear a rave LP hang together this fluidly, battering its way to a 220BPM climax, but with each track built to go off in the club individually: full of surprise trap doors, tempo flips, and powerhouse finalés (Ben UFO even remarked that he had to train himself not to mix out of “Vortex 150” early, because the second breakdown was even more powerful than the first). “You can tell from the press release,” Woolford says, “that it was a play to stir things up: ‘Oh, fuck all this conceptual guff.’” This time, the effect paid off. VORTEX was a supply of rocket fuel in the USBs of countless DJs, and was regarded as one of the electronic albums of the year.

The set-up was so productive that Woolford left it in place to make Offworld, a record that, ironically, was pretty conceptual, based around synergising the separate ‘80s powerhouses of Metroplex and Jam & Lewis. The songwriting came to him quickly as he harnessed the melodic funkiness of his influences, before adding the drums separately. “I was using an additional studio in Leeds called Black Lodge,” Woolford explains. “It’s run by a guy who used to produce Sugababes and work with Richard X. He’s a bit of a quirky character — already, as a Lynch fan, I was like ‘Black Lodge, okay okay.’ He had voodoo dolls everywhere and this vibe of the dark arts. But the engineers are bang-on and it was a great environment.”

Between VORTEX and Offworld came Bedroom Tapes, a collection of rediscovered material from Woolford’s teen years. During Belief System’s press cycle in 2017, Woolford had told Truants that he wished to “do an album solely of archived cassette tracks from the four-track days.” It had been on the cards, discussed with Rob Booth and Rob Butterworth, Woolford’s point men at his long-term label Houndstooth, as something for way down the line. A stroke of good fortune brought this to fruition ahead of schedule: Woolford moved his parents into a house down the road from himself to keep an eye on them. While breaking from blinders-down studio sessions to have a cup of tea with his mum, the Wooly Mama-th revealed that she had found a box of what Paul calls “old shit — it sounded like it had been recorded through biscuits, a lot of rubbish hardcore, but some of it was pretty good.” Adding a wash of reverb to give it a coherently nostalgic feel, Bedroom Tapes arrived just a few weeks after VORTEX.

This is usually the kind of fixture clash most labels would be at pains to avoid, but Woolford says not only was this intended, “if anything, we wanted three to go at once — bang, bang, bang.” In the end, Offworld was released in September. It was held back due to summer festival season taking up people’s mental bandwidth, as well as a realisation that unlike VORTEX’s raw muscle, Offworld needed some a lot of extra context to sell it. This is where the wheels began to come off. Ideas for a Special Request Live tour were stalled (“the scale needs to be fucking stupid, so I’ll do it when I have more resources,” he concedes), tension flared between Woolford and his team, and a gnawing feeling set in that the momentum was slipping away again and he was falling short of his own lofty ambitions.

Zero Fucks was indicative of how the grand masterplan ended up. Dropped as a free mixtape in the dying days of December 2019, it was akin to Indiana Jones rescuing his hat seconds before a door slams shut. Edits of Jay-Z and Travis Scott nestled up against heartfelt liquid drum & bass, the last juices of an exhausting year. “If I had done this ten years ago,” Woolford reflects, “my head would have exploded. The whole situation would have been a shitshow. I was determined for that not to happen. It made me more steely about it. I needed to see it through.”

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By now, the Special Request moniker has come to mean more than a junglist re-run. Take Woolford’s monthly BBC show. He is one of the only residents to have his slot on the Radio 1 Residency carried over from 2019 into 2020, a mark of how he keeps the format fresh. A show from February this year started with celestial drift from Dust-e-1, strutting through boom-bap and loping jazz, then onto dancefloors. At one stage, he pulls off a mix from The O’Jays to SHXCXCHCXSH — constructing perhaps the only known bridge between the synchronized suits of Philly soul and the black robes of Swedish techno shamans — before ending with emotional rave cuts that reach back to the cosmos. It feels like a consistent loop, universe folding into man, Uncut Gems style. There’s more than a hint of Adam Sander’s Howie about Wooly, and not just in the capacity to get roughed up from time to time. A three-way parlay on house, breakbeat hardcore and ‘80s synth — why not? The difference is that when Woolford bets big, he tends to win.

Through all this, he has not abandoned house music. If anything, he is more committed to it than ever. This June, a collaborative single with Diplo will come out, fronted by a Atlanta-based vocalist Kareen Lomax, who Woolford describes tantalisingly as not far off a young Tracy Chapman. He’s coy about the details, but it’s something he hopes could be a bona fide chart hit. That’s not the end of it, either: there’s another single in the pipeline with chart-topping Camelphat. It’s something that puzzles listeners who arrive at him via Special Request first: how is this guy simultaneously a supersized dance icon and the natural descendent of those pioneers, from Warp to Metalheadz, who stuck two fingers up at the glossier end of the spectrum?

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“These are things that I still love and adore,” he reasons. “I’ve ended up breaking them off. Anything that isn’t strictly arena-sized house is Special Request. The house, that’s Paul Woolford; that sells.” He resists underground heads attempting to control the narrative — whatever they might assume is cool or not doesn’t trouble him. It all stems from the same excitement inside, and he’s delighted to split the time between both sides of himself. “One of the biggest things I’m not afraid to say is that I have always wanted to be number one. I grew up listening to the radio every day as dance music was kicking off, watching Top Of The Pops. I want to make number one records in the shower! And I can say that now, but for a long time I could never be so open about it.”

By this point, a few pints deep, the earlier cloak of sheepishness has been thrown off. He is positively rocking, outstretching his fingers as if electricity was surging out of them, a one-man Tesla experiment. “Every day I wake up, swim like a bastard, then get in the studio. The endorphins are rushing and I just go for it. Vic [Paul’s wife] comes in from work at 6:45pm and I might turn it down but I have to keep going for a couple of hours. When I get giddy, I go and stand at the top of my stairs, feeling certain parts of the house vibrate, and I’m yelling with joy. I’m standing there going,” — at this point his emphasis is causing heads to turn in the pub, momentarily transforming him into Ric Flair — “Aaaaahhh! Woooooo! Fucking hell, come on, let’s do it. Let’s do what we love, every fucking day, do it and surprise ourselves by how much we love it.”

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My train home is imminent. Wooly offers to sort out another ticket so we can have longer to chat, but I think there’s a real possibility I won’t get home until next week at this rate. The conversation has taken on a velocity not unlike the final stages of VORTEX. There’s so much more to talk about. We had intended to go over his tour schedule — which, had it panned out, would have seen him attempt such timezone-bending tricks as playing at Austria’s Snowbombing and Japan’s Rainbow Disco Club in a 72-hour window. Coronavirus means, obviously, this is pointless. For now, Woolford will now be putting in even more studio time than he did last year; an alarming prospect. When gigging does restart though, Woolford is keen to continue throwing low-cost or outright free shows in cities wherever possible to aid those priced out of bigger events. He cites an impromptu San Francisco gig last year, cobbled together in a matter of hours to keep the energy from the previous night flowing and with no door price at all, as “one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.”

This conscientious streak sets him apart from other festival-toppers. Case in point, Woolford posts vigorously online about a range of topics, sometimes speaking compassionately about the critical importance of a social safety net, other times kicking off about current affairs. Occasionally he does get overheated — a vice, he admits later over email, he’s not quite in control of yet. “Compassion is the number one quality I implore others to hold on to, and I hope that they do. I remain forever the optimist about these things, although I see the fuckery of the modern world in even more stark relief these days.” But at a time when clubland’s bubble has burst and an extensive rebuilding project lays ahead, his willingness to engage rather than shirk the challenge is commendable.

And that’s who Paul Woolford is. The innate glee he derives from his life in music, and how he pays it back in spades, is central to his character. Few who get 20-odd years deep into dance music have the public goodwill to swerve between such wide musical lanes, not only retaining their commercial prospects and underground clout, but boosting their reputation as they go. Everything — from the flamboyant genre descriptors to the political missives to the gregariousness — feed into a distinctive signature that is moving past Woolford or Special Request, and perhaps morphing into just Paul. He is, as Midland put it to me recently, becoming “the Andrew Weatherall of our day.” There can be no higher compliment.

Gabriel Szatan is a freelance journalist living in London. Find him on Twitter.

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