Jockey Slut August / September 1996
Aug/Sep 1996 Vol. 2 no. 3
James Lavelle invited Jockey Slut in to the Mo' Wax offices to chat about the label, UNKLE and the new Headz compilation.
Transcript from old Sole Sides website.
James Lavelle, the man behind Mo’ Wax, is having a busy year and it’s about to go ballistic. In between modeling in fashion shows, going Star Wars shopping with legendary street artists and working with or signing up all the coolest artists in the world, Lavelle has his UNKLE album to finish and is putting out the second genre bending Headz compilation. He is still only 22. John Burgess plays with his toys, Rip photographs them.
"Yo, yo wassup!?" shouts James Lavelle, the man, the “mogul” behind Mo’ Wax records sits swiveling in a huge leather chair, his skate-wear clothed feet propped up on his large desk chatting on the phone to a buddy in France in a patois that veers from New York to Oxford. Between his fingers he twiddles a 24 carat gold C-3PO occasionally swapping the Star Wars figurine for a huge Cuban cigar. "Yo," he continues, "I’m modeling in a fashion show in Paris tomorrow for Yoshi Yamamoto, maybe we can hook up?"
This is just one minute from a day in the life of Lavelle, the 22 year old record company boss/DJ and man from UNKLE. The gold and cigar shit I made up, but hey, it could happen! Since signing a licensing deal with A&M records Lavelle has green-lighted numerous projects including these plush offices on the Caledonian Rd. He’s kept me waiting long enough to survey the surroundings which are - as he would no doubt say - "the shit".
Lavelle’s personal office on the top floor is crammed with toys past and present: The Millenium Falcon, the Technics decks and a Glock gun (boxed) are most prominent, though their careful owner probably has little time to play with them. He has artwork to approve for Dr Octagon’s “Blue Flowers” (he doesn’t approve), he has his records to sort out for a slot at his club That’s How It Is, tomorrow he’s off to Paris to model (super!) in an exclusive fashion show and then Friday he’s back in the studio to spend two weeks completing his debut album as one third of the project called UNKLE. He is indeed, a busy B-Boy.
This year Mo’ Wax will celebrate their fourth birthday. Already they’ve released acclaimed albums by DJ Krush and Dr Octagon (Kool Keith’s sleazeball alien creation) and Lavelle has compiled a mix for Cream. Carl Craig’s seminal “Bug in the Bass Bin” (as Innerzone Orchestra) will soon come reworked, remixed and repackaged; the second Headz compilation - featuring even more genre bending action than ‘94s best seller - is clear for launch and DJ Shadow - the San Fran artist that helped mould Mo’ Wax has his long player ready. New signings include Andrea Parker (with a 40 piece orchestra in tow), Stasis (pure techno funk last seen on Peacefrog), Psychonauts (Yeovil based DJ collective) and books from ‘street’ artists Futura and Mike Mills. Add to this the UNKLE album which should receive critical and commercial acclaim and propel Lavelle’s name even further into our cultural consciousness.
Mo’ Wax is, indeed, about to go X-Large. It is the Monday after Tribal Gathering and James Lavelle is sat relaxed on a sofa, his oversized pants, unfeasibly large trainers and sloganeering t-shirt (reads: Ape shall never kill ape) are topped off by a peroxide Mohican-like quiff.
"Tribal Gathering was wicked man," he enthuses. "I expected the shittest sound system, the worstly set up decks which is always the way when you play my kind of music, but it was wicked. I played loads of breaks and beats and acetates of new Mo’ Wax stuff, classics like Mantronix ‘King of the Beats’, Joe Smooth’s ‘Promised Land’, then, at the end, Orbital’s ‘Chime’ and Joey Beltram’s ’Energy Flash’."
If there’s one word that’s been bandied about more than the word “zeitgeist” this year then it’s “eclectic” and it sums up that set at Tribal. It’s writ large across the DJ booth at Lavelle’s Monday night club That’s How It Is, like a huge warning: “we’re gonna jump from techno to hip-hop to latin to weird shit and you’ll wanna follow us.”
This was Lavelle’s mission - to break boundaries and mess up headz. Mo’ Wax broke through in ‘94 with cuts from La Funk Mob, Shadow and RPM. Rumblings from the West Coast and the Far East - coupled with the Chemical Brothers and the Heavenly Social proved that there were others out there pissed off by purism, tampering with generic conventions. Looking at the proliferation of similar clubs, labels, artists and attitudes that have been formed since the headz explosion it seems that Lavelles mission has been accomplished. Time for more of the same but bigger and better.
Last year Mo’ Wax moved on up out of the realms of cult by signing the aforementioned licensing deal with A&M. Lavelle shrugs that Mo’ Wax could have gone bankrupt if he hadn’t made the move to a major, "The deal is pretty unheard of - we do what we like," he says, perhaps a little naively as countless other folk have boasted about their “freedom clause” many times in the past.
Three reasons pulled Lavelle to A&M. He had a mate working there, Danny Miller of Mute fame was involved - "he’d ran Rhythm King which I respected" - and they bought him a nice picture. "I’m really into street art as you know and A&M said ‘come to us and we’ll give you a Jean Michel Basquiat.’" He points to his prized possession which sits in a frame still wrapped up in the corner of the office.
The A&M deal has given James the chance to sign the likes of “Bug in the Bass Bin”, "fourth Beastie Boy" Money Mark and Dr Octagon, like a kid in a candy store he’s getting to snap up his heroes. "Yeah, I am like that in a certain way," he says lighting another cigarette (he’s trying to give up). "But then, so is anybody else. I’m in a position now where I can do what I wanted to do. I have got a habit of wanting to do loads of things. I’m not into one thing enough, I’m not into techno enough to just sign techno records. I don’t want just loads of DJ Shadows."
James Lavelle, North Oxford kid, son of a drummer, erstwhile “Holygoof” was just 14 in 1988 and working Saturdays at Blue Bird records in London. He recalls this "golden era of music" with affection, spending any money earned on wax. "It was brilliant. There was a massive influx of music like Massive Attack, Nu Groove, Strictly Rhythm, Warp’s bleep stuff, Orbital and breakbeat. Those records were sick!" Sick as in ill, ill as in “the shit”. Rather good then.
Hoping to break as a DJ, even at that age, Lavelle hooked up with kindred spirits in an Oxford soundsystem called Underground Movement. "That’s where I found myself," he laughs, admitting to being a bit of a loner at school more keen on Doug E Fresh and "electro tapes made up by friends brothers" than the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Lavelle’s first club venture was called Mo’ Wax Please , "Kinda based on Talkin’ Loud at Dingwalls." The label followed emerging from his influential column in Straight No Chaser. "I had all these records being sent for review, all these records that nobody else could get. I used to search high and low for weird b-sides, hip-hop instrumentals." The demo’s he’d receive became the first Mo’ Wax releases.
"Acid jazz had gone stale," James says of the time. "Talking Loud had gone quite commercial and there were kids into hip-hop, but not really motivated by the hip-hop thing at the time, trying to find something different and didn’t want to go the house route. Kids that had grown up in the same musical time that I had were wanting to put records out."
"I felt very lost at the time because I was 18 and everybody else was a lot older. The scene didn’t seem to be about young kids, it seemed to be about 28 year olds. I needed to appeal to people my own age. I hooked up with Slam City Skates because I was into all the clothes and I met Will who designs all my sleeves now and he was my age." James had been a massive techno fan up until ‘91 when hardcore and hoovers took hold. Will re-introduced James to the genre. "I had only been listening to Black Dog at that time."
"I played Will this DJ Shadow record and he said ‘me and all my mates have been waiting to hear something like this. We love hip-hop but we’re getting really bored by it, we love techno as well because of the soundscapes’. So now with Shadow you had hip-hop soundscapes. Sure there had been records like this before: DJ Premier b-sides, early Nightmares on Wax, “33% God” by the Beasties that sort of shit...But it had never been this focused."
The Mo’ Wax vibe is best represented on the second Headz compilation due out in September. The first triple album from ‘94 was more beats based with the tag line “instrumental excursions from the hip-hop avant-garde”. Headz 2 sprays a broader canvas. James reads out the final list which features Wax Doctor, Dillinja, Plaid, Peter Ford, Beastie Boys, Jungle Brothers, Kirk Degiorgio, Tortoise, Luke Vibert and DJ Food. "Howzat!" Lavelle looks pleased as he ends the roll call of the coolest names. It should bring hip-hop heads and techno kids closer than the stripes on a pair of Adidas gazelles.
Like LTJ Bukem, Lavelle wants to push his projects to the masses. Eyebrows were raised when Cream’s latest “live” mix compilation included Lavelle’s “abstract musical science” next to the mixes of Paul Oakenfold and Nick Warren. “A lot of people told me not to do it but then thanked me for putting their records on it," James smiles. "Cream is so much a part of northern club culture, it’s important for those people to hear those records. I can’t really get into that thing where you’re so hardcore that you have to keep everything in its shell and nobody will hear what you do. If Shadow could sell as many copies as M People then great. It’s good music at the end of the day."
"I know Black Dog split up because of that. Half of them were like ‘Bjork wants to work with us, we like Bjork’ and the other half wants to sell to kids on the internet. You’re in this business to educate people, to contribute so long as you don’t compromise." James Lavelle talks his concepts well, packaging his plans, be they records or books in the finest sleeves. However his detractors (being young and successful = cynics and jealousy) are still skeptical of his musical talent, his skill as an artist and a DJ. For example, The Psychonauts are credited for performing most of the mix work on the Cream CD. "I wanted it to be technically the bollocks," he admits. "I’ve never touted myself as the best DJ in the world. People will listen to it because of my name so you may as well get the best people in to work on it and have good cuttin’ up, have it mixed well, edited properly. It was more like James Lavelle presents... I chose the records."
UNKLE should have finished work on their debut by the time you read this. "We started it in LA, we spent a week at Meat Loaf’s old house. This massive mansion with a Jacuzzi and swimming pool on the Hollywood hills. A right laugh," James recalls. Not much work got done!
UNKLE are a trio: Lavelle, Tim Goldsworthy - who he grew up with - and Kudo from the seminal Japanese label Major Force. James spins through the personnel involved in the album. The words ‘kid’ and ‘candy store’ come into close approximation again. "We’ve worked with Mario Caldato (Beastie Boys producer) on a track called ‘Berry Meditation’, we’ve done a track with the Dust Brothers called ‘Rock On’ with Rammell Zee, a legendary rapper who’s worked with the Beastie Boys. We’ve got Deborah Anderson who did ‘Feel The Sunshine’ with Alex Reece and also Richard Ashcroft from The Verve and Thom from Radiohead..." Hey! Those last two are angst-ridden rock sorts. Should be interesting. "I’m really into Radiohead at the moment," he enthuses. "Thom listed Headz as his favourite album of last year so we met up. We’re both from Oxford too which is cool . I’d like to sample Radiohead, I love the way they get their sounds and The Verve, that record ‘History’ the strings are brilliant. I like melodic rock stuff."
"The album’ll be like UNKLE meets Shadow with vocals. I don’t know what’ll happen..."
Maybe he doesn’t know what’ll happen because as Tim said in The Face last year James "hates the studio".
What is your role in UNKLE?
"My role is to be the creative controller, the concept person," he replies. "I envisage what it should be like and everyone else puts it together." James comes up with the breaks and ideas, but is not well versed in knob twiddling or Mac programming. A director rather than producer.
Lavelle is the vibe controller in the studio, behind the decks and behind his desk. It’s the concepts that he works best. His ideas mould the Mo’ Wax mid-nineties lifestyle where growing up is left to the straight cats. "I’ve got friends like Futura who’s 40. I go Star Wars shopping with him," James argues when asked if he’ll ever grow out of his world.
"You aren’t going to grow out of buying records or going to clubs. I remember when I was 14 and working in Bluebird and I was thinking ‘Why the fuck are all these older people buying dance music? It’s because you get to a certain age and you’ve got money to buy stuff . It’s our generation, it’s our culture. You’re never going to wear a suit are you? This is our world. Obviously there aren’t loads of people who are as extreme as I am. The world I live in is very material. I buy clothes, records, videos, computer games. Look at George Lucas he’s about to make another three Star Wars - you can’t say to him ‘hey George grow up! You’re 40, now start making movies about politics in South America. It’s like the Beastie Boys, they’re better than ever and they’re 30."
The Beasties have also grown out of the dicks and chicks on stage aesthetic having recently staged a huge Lollapalooza style benefit for the oppressed people of Tibet. A criticism raised against “trip-hop” (call it what you will) is that leaving out the lyrics de-politicizes hip-hop.
"I’m not politically motivated," Lavelle shrugs, "I do agree with what you’re saying but hip-hop didn’t really relate to our country anyway. What the Wu Tang Clan talk about has no relevance to you or I. Hip-hop used to be more universal with Public Enemy, De La Soul, even Run DMC but it’s now very hardcore New York or LA. I’ve never really been big on it (politics). I’ve always been engrossed in what’s around me so I haven’t paid much attention."
Some people may say that what’s around you (the toys etc.) is a little geeky?
"It’s not as geeky...," James starts defensively. "It’s not like I won’t buy clothes so I can buy records or I won’t buy food so I can buy a Star Wars figure. Fuck that! I’m in a lucky position where I can do what I want. The toasters and microwaves are the last things to come though. But they’ll come eventually." He later shows me a toy car from Blade Runner. "That’s Deckard’s car," he grins "I’ve been looking for that for ages." Like he says, toasters later.
The Beastie Boys, and in particularly Mike Diamond, the bands business head, are obviously a massive influence on Lavelle. He wants to embrace other mediums, like the Beasties did with Grand Royal. In a month or so the first product from the Mo’ Wax publishing wing will hit the shelves. "We’re doing a Futura book and a skate art book with Mike Mills who does all the designs for X-Large." He trots off to slide the Mills book out from the shelf , it resembles a record sleeve but has 12" prints inside instead of vinyl. "It’s a visual sampler," James says pointing out the neat tag line, No music. File under interior decoratings. It’s an ill thing."
"I’m as motivated by books as records now," he says stepping around the office, flicking through things on his desk. "I’m really picky. I’m a bit irritating I guess. There’s so many records come out that sometimes I can’t get motivated. I always need to be busy which is bad as I over complicate myself."
Picky, he said it. James Lavelle is ever so slightly picky. His head is full of Mo’ Wax press clippings which he metaphorically flicks through during the afternoon. "I get really niggled about things in the press," he’ll start. He mentions NME giving Mo’ Wax three singles of the week and then saying his label wasn’t cutting it anymore, "too jazzy" they said.
It riles him that Mixmag came up with the dreaded word trip-hop and that they believe they are thus responsible for Mo’ Wax’ success. "I was successful before Mixmag coined the word trip-hop. I got angry about that because they didn’t ask us what we called our music."
What do you call it?
"I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it!" he laughs.
He also doesn’t like the way the press will react badly to one Mo’ Wax release and tar the rest of the label with one stroke of the same brush "Don’t criticize it for a vibe, criticize it for a tune. I just sound like a fucking whiney git.”
I wonder why he lets it all bother him so much? He’s off to Paris tomorrow, Carl Craigs a buddy, he’s working with the Beasties producers... "I suppose I’m too sensitive," he beams. "I do give a shit about what people think which is a really bad habit but, yeah, I get to do what I like so ultimately who gives a fuck. I do believe in what I’m doing and that a lot of what I put out is good shit."
James Lavelles youthful zeal has a lot to do with the amount of care he puts into everything and the reason why he devours his press with a hint of paranoia. If he was ten years older he really probably wouldn’t give so much of a shit and despite the fact that he’s got a job that would green many a music fans cheek he’s still concerned about the quality and attention to detail he gives to his label rather than larging it up on jolly boys outings every day. He sits musing.
"As you get older you get into darker things. I’m quite...I’m not the happiest person in the world. I’m quite a moody person. I’m not depressive but as you get older you see things differently. You’ve got to earn money to live. You have to work harder and harder to do something."
It seems like the force is strong in this one and he’s edging closer to the dark side as our interview concludes.
"I should be laughing but I’m trying to find the Holy Grail. I know that what anybody says we have already instated a part of history in music. Whether we become the shittest label in the world or sell 20 million records we still started something that nobody can take away from us. But I still want to make a record as good as (Massive Attacks) Blue Lines," he muses. "I could kill myself over it, go mad. No one’s ever found the Holy Grail but do you ever find you’re own holy grail? For me it’s always over there. Over there is the best."
Hey, lighten up “Darth”! Let’s go over there. Over to your club, that is. That’s How It Is began its run at the Bar Rumba two years ago. Gilles Peterson is the other resident alongside Ben Wilcox and the surnameless ‘Debra’. It’s a Monday night, for most clubs the slackest night of the week and the place is packed with 500 cool kids going loony to potty drum ‘n’ bass on dub plate, veteran latin wax, big beathead jams and the odd (as in unusual) record that Gilles introduces on the mike as "different! Stay with it, this is different..."
Judging by the faces of the crowd they like different. Different is good. "Me and Gilles were both bored with clubs two years ago so we started this. It took six months to get going and its been packed ever since," James grins just before he takes to the decks. "It’s cool because we can play what we like." Judging by the amount of future Mo’ Wax slates James slams on the decks That’s How It Is is his test lab, the crowd the grateful guinea pigs. He checks the reactions to Carl Craig’s ‘street mix’ of ‘Bug In The Bass Bin’ and his forthcoming Phase 4 cut; an UNKLE mix of a Can record, and the first two releases from the UNKLE album: ‘Rock On’ and ‘Berry Meditation’ ("Money Mark suggested to name tracks after fruits. The samples are from a meditation record.") He may not be a showy, trickster jock (though he does like to tweak the EQ Hawtin-style), like Gilles he’s more of a ‘record selector’. It’s what’s on the platters that matters.
Lavelle’s set comes to a close, he pulls on a spliff and surveys the scene through his thick specs. Despite the numerous foreign trips, the pop star pals, the materialistic pickings it’s still the wax he gets the biggest buzz off. He slips into a long black cloak-like coat - very Dark Lord of the Sith - and bids me goodnight. He has to leave early, got to go to Paris tomorrow to model in that fashion show. That’s how it is, if you’re James Lavelle.
James Lavelle’s All Time Top Five Favourite Designer Labels 1. Stussy 2. A.P.E 3. Supreme 4. X-Large 5. G.F.S
James Lavelle’s All Time Top Five Techno Records 1. Rhythim is Rhythim – “Strings of Life” 2. 808 State – “Pacific State” 3. Innerzone Orchestra – “Bug in the Bassbin” 4. Paperclip People – “Oscilator” 5. Laurent X – “Machines”
James Lavelle’s All Time Top Five Artists 1. Basquiat 2. Futura 2000 3. 3D 4. Warhol 5. Yves Klein
James Lavelle’s All Time Top Five Black Dog Tunes 1. Scoobs in Columbia 2. Object Orient 3. Virtual 4. Tacktile 5. Summit
James Lavelle’s All Time Top Five Hip-Hop Albums 1. Tribe Called Quest - Low End Theory/Midnight Marauders 2. Jungle Brothers - Done By the Forces of Nature 3. Ultra Magnetic MCs - Critical Breakdown 4. Beastie Boys - Check Your Head/Paul’s Boutique 5. EPMD - Strictly Business
James Lavelle’s All Time Top Five Films Other Than Star Wars 1. Blade Runner 2. Aliens 3. Apocalypse Now 4. Style Wars 5. Nikita
James Lavelle’s All Time Top Five Toys 1. Star Wars 2. Bruce Lee 3. James Bond 4. Dragon Ball 5. Fantastic 4 - The Thing
Transcript of Article on Sole Sides (Archived)