Paul Woolford on His Search for the Perfect House Record
Paul Woolford’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” is a dance-floor jackhammer, a vocal house record as spare as it is adrenalized. The track’s immediacy isn’t necessarily unexpected; Woolford is a veteran U.K. producer with several well-known club singles. What is more surprising: Though Woolford mainly releases tracks through esteemed small labels like Planet E (run by revered Detroit techno producer Carl Craig) or Running Back (helmed by the impressively open-eared Frankfurt-based DJ Gerd Janson), “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” has been receiving play on decidedly mainstream outlets like BBC Radio 1. More than a decade and a half into his career, this producer has a modest mainstream hit.
“As the years have rolled by, I’ve suddenly started to feel like the shackles have come off a little bit,” Woolford muses. “Not that I felt restricted before, but I feel more in charge.”
He’s been restlessly prolific most of his career, but his pace appears to have picked up: In 2017 alone, he released the “Chaos” single, a double LP as Special Request and an entry in the Fabriclive mix series. Now he’s working on a follow-up to “Hang Up Your Hang Ups,” a set of remixes for Krystal Klear and other collaborations.
But it’s not just that Woolford’s productivity that has increased; he’s also striving to hone the “most direct version” of his records. “To a degree I got close [to this goal] years ago with a track ‘Erotic Discourse,'” the producer says. “I got close with the track ‘Untitled (Call Out Your Name).’ But both of those tracks happened almost by accident; they were things I struck on while I was doing other things. Whereas now I’m quite ruthlessly zeroing in on exactly what this thing is.”
In particular, he’s inspired by the model of classic crossover singles like “Big Fun” by Inner City, a seminal Detroit dance record. “The radio edit of it, it sounds like almost the perfect house record,” Woolford says. “The concession is only length — it’s been taken from a club record of seven-and-a-half minutes down to three and something, but it still bites just as much. That’s what I love about this sort of cross section: Records can still be completely perfect dance-floor records and yet work in this way where they become something that you would hear on commercial radio in the U.K. and in Europe.”
That’s the balance struck by “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” The single is based around a vocal sample from Kim English, who possesses the kind of flinty voice that’s synonymous with classic vocal house. (English has contributed to the house canon through releases in the 1990s and 2000s on the New York label Nervous Records.) As she sings terse, urgent phrases — “I’ve got to know who I am inside” — Woolford lays out a racing cymbal, a clobbering kick drum and a bass line that rises in three stages before falling on the fourth. The final touch is a shimmery synth ostinato that has a softening effect.
It took some refining to get the track into its current form. “The first version I did in March, and I tested it out at a gig over in Ireland,” Woolford recalls. “It was a very early arrangement, a bit of a mess, and the track was too long.” But people who caught his set kept inquiring about the song. A subsequent version that Woolford sent to Janson caused an impressive reaction on the dance floor of one of Berlin’s most famous clubs: “He sent me a message that said, ‘destroyed Panorama Bar, like pogo-style destruction,'” Woolford recalls.
A similar situation played out in corporate boardrooms: In its final form, “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” incited a major-label bidding war. (The title is an homage to a Herbie Hancock record of the same name.) The rights to the track were won by Full Frequency Range Recordings, which is run by the English dance music impresario Pete Tong and distributed by Warner Music Group.
Though the dance world can still be oddly divided between “underground” and “mainstream” factions, Woolford doesn’t mind his “increased footprint.” “It’s nice to get the affirmation from a wider range of people,” he says. But that’s not his only source of vindication. “I’m getting goosebumps while I’m making these things,” he adds. “I’ve got a feeling that that’s coming through in the music as well.”