Paul Woolford

Illicit broadcasts for contemporary dancefloors

Text by Angus Finlayson

Photography by Shaun Bloodworth

“There is a pirate station that my local cab company often have on in the cars. The percussion I hear on some of these pieces of music – Dholak and Dholki drums – is incredible.” Paul Woolford is waxing lyrical about his continued love affair with pirate radio, some two decades after he first twiddled the dial and discovered a world beyond Radio 1. Woolford, raised in Leeds, is a veteran of the international house and techno scene, but the past year has seen him return to his roots with the alias Special Request – a tribute to the medium that first shaped his tastes.

“As a teenager you absorb things differently,” he says. “Once I found the pirate stations in the north, suddenly I was met with a wall of sound – every new record was something I’d never heard before.” The experience sparked Woolford’s lifelong appetite for electronic music. “Suddenly the world opens up infinitely. You can feel that there is an enormous amount to discover, the hunger for more is something that you can never satiate.” This hunger is still evident in the producer’s recent activities. While many artists of his generation have happily retreated into their own aesthetic culs-de-sac, Woolford continues to embrace new sounds and forms. Lately he has been singing the praises of youthful UK labels such as Hessle Audio, and his recent work draws inspiration from this younger generation’s daring, distinctively British take on house and techno.

Woolford continues to produce under his own name too, but nowhere is his neophile attitude more evident than in his work as Special Request. He self-released a string of singles under the alias last year, expertly crafted cross-pollinations of jungle and hardcore’s roughneck intensity with the slower sensuousness of house. This year, an EP and album followed for Houndstooth, the new label from London club Fabric. And while the tempos and precise rhythmic properties of each release may fluctuate, they’re unified by a refreshing bluntness and a subtle but pervasive sense of mischief – Woolford calls it their “illicit” quality.

The appeal of Special Request productions is at least partly down to their grainy surface – a clever imitation of the rough-edged sound of a pirate broadcast. As Woolford explains, he experimented with quite literal ways to achieve the effect, by broadcasting audio over his own FM frequency and sampling the results as they drifted in and out of signal. “As soon as I plugged in the FM tuner and brought up the frequency there was an odd sheen across the music that I can’t describe,” he says. The technique subsequently became central to the project. “In effect you are creating an event and documenting that event by sampling it back. It’s like creating a false memory.”

Woolford’s choice of words suggests a particular reading of the project. It’s tempting to view Special Request, in its attempts to evoke the energy of a lost era, as part of an ever-growing fascination with nostalgia in dance music circles. Woolford, however, is resistant to the term. “The ‘n’ word is frequently used as a tool to dismantle a piece of work,” he says. “It’s used as a way to dismiss material.” Instead, he sees his use of the familiar as a way to access the new. “With Special Request, what I am doing is on occasion using crude, clichéd elements as Trojan horses to trigger memories, and then turning them on their head.” One example is the Amen breakbeat, ubiquitous in hardcore and jungle in the ’90s and beyond. “There is nothing as obviously generic as the Amen breakbeat. So if I use it I am challenging myself to create something absolutely necessary. I cannot hide behind it.” Where Woolford’s exploratory approach will take him next isn’t clear, but it seems he will remain open to new possibilities. “You can go in any direction if you have the clarity of vision,” he says. “This is key before you even switch the equipment on.”

Untitled by Paul Woolford is out now on Hotflush.

  • Paul Woolford