Richard X ‘Being Scrubbed’

Producer Richard X talks about his Girls On Top single ‘Being Scrubbed’, the pioneering 2001 mash-up of early Human League and TLC tracks

“I’d been working in studios as an engineer for a few years by 2001. I picked things up quickly from being around artists, and that gave me a skill set which I used on my own music.

“I went to loads of Rough Trade nights in West London, and I was DJing a bit for them. There was a lot of electronic music coming through the shop, released on seven-inch singles, and when the idea for the Girls On Top bootlegs came to me, it was almost a reaction against all of that. It was inspired by the new things I was hearing, which I felt had more of a link to the electronic stuff I grew up listening to.

“‘Being Scrubbed’ and the B-side, ‘I Wanna Dance With Numbers’ were made in a single weekend, because that’s all the time I had between jobs in the studio. Both tracks reflected the music I’d been listening to in the late 1990s. Exciting things were happening in the charts then, like TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’, which had a specific type of production by She’kspere. It was super-programmed but had a super-interesting funky sound, and it reminded me of the records I liked, especially early Human League and drum machine-based synthpop.

“These two things fitted together in my mind, so I took ‘No Scrubs’ and put that on top of the original mono version of ‘Being Boiled’ by The Human League, which is really dry and DIY. You had the minimalism of ‘Being Boiled’ mixed with those two-step, programmed drums. I don’t remember experimenting with lots of different ideas to see what went together, it was just, ‘Oh, that’s the idea for that’.

“I’d used Akai samplers before. With a sampler, you could set up a drum loop and speed it up or slow it down, but when you did that things got pitched, so there wasn’t a lot of musicality about it. A new program called Sony Acid had been released around then. With that, you could sample longer sections than with an Akai, and it allowed you to alter the pitch in semitones. That meant things stayed in the key they were in when you sped them up, and got around the issue that people mixing on decks would always have.

“I used the original TLC vocal from ‘No Scrubs’, but it sounds a little bit different because of that pitching. The other cool thing was that you got some artefacts when you sampled, like digital noise, which actually became part of what I liked about doing these tracks. To me, that was the sound of numbers crunching. It had this lo-fi quality, but not in an analogue way – more an early digital media way. I’ve seen plugins that try to recreate that now, for when someone wants to replicate the sound of a RealMedia audio file.

“For ‘I Wanna Dance With Numbers’, I bought a second-hand 12-inch of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ in Kingston around 1993, from one of those cheap boxes in a record shop. It had an a cappella version on it. I had a Technics SL-1210 setup, and I always annoyed people by trying to mix Whitney Houston’s voice over random tracks. I put the Whitney vocal together with ‘Numbers’ by Kraftwerk, which had been a breakdancer’s tune, so various people had looped it and done stuff with it over the years. I basically rearranged it back as a song, almost like a 12-inch version.

“‘Being Scrubbed’ and ‘I Wanna Dance With Numbers’ were very much in the spirit of the times. Different things were constantly being combined together in the early 2000s – that had become part of the culture. It was magpie, pick-and-mix, cut and paste – those sorts of techniques were all suddenly relevant again. The bootleg movement was quite an arty thing to start with. Humour was part of it too. There was also the cheekiness of actually putting out a single like ‘Being Scrubbed’. It’s funny to think now that majors would be bothered about someone selling 300 seven-inch singles, but people were mad. I was getting letters, and I kept my head down for a long time because of that.

“The act of releasing it felt even more dangerous. Punk sensibilities were very relevant to it – the seven-inch format was interesting because that’s what popularised punk, and that really appealed to me. It sold out really quickly, thanks to some support from Rough Trade and others.

“I didn’t expect to get signed to a major label when I was doing bootlegs like ‘Being Scrubbed’ – I had just wanted to release a record. But when you started hearing bootlegs in London bars and parties, that’s when record companies took note. Virgin signed me. They thought they could clear the Kraftwerk and Whitney Houston samples because they had a good relationship with Kraftwerk – who, fantastically, thought it was the worst record they’d ever heard, but in the best sleeve.

“Virgin were keen for me to work with commercial bands, and that’s what I did on my album ‘Richard X Presents His X-Factor Vol 1’. One of the tracks on it was ‘Being Nobody’, which again used ‘Being Boiled’, but this time Liberty X sang the lyrics from Rufus And Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’ over the top. That version of ‘Being Boiled’ wasn’t sampled – I had to recreate the song, and ended up buying one of the original Korg synthesisers that The Human League had used, in order to get the right sounds. That was a fortuitous use of record company money.

“I separately produced ‘Freak Like Me’ by the Sugababes, which used the lyrics from Adina Howard’s song with the music from Tubeway Army’s ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’. That blew up. All of a sudden, there was only one way to go forward, which was to embrace the poppiness and commerciality of what I was doing. You can’t really go back to pressing 300 singles after that. Even so, as I look back, it’s ‘Being Scrubbed’ that’s responsible for most of the change in my life. It’s definitely been a quite interesting blessing.”

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