XLR8R November 2002
James Lavelle appears in the November 2002 issue of XLR8R.
This partial transcript was from the XLR8R website in 2002. NOT A BOY, NOT YET A MAN Founder of the leftfield British hip-hop imprint Mo’ Wax, James Lavelle has seen his fortunes amass and dissolve. That label made a lasting imprint on DJs, collectors and other artists in the mid-’90s, and launched the careers of DJ Shadow, DJ Krush and Attica Blues. His albums with UNKLE have been alternately desrcibed as “genius” and “rubbish.” But Lavelle soldiers on. Returning to his love of DJing for solace, he maintains a residency at London’s Fabric, and is hot to trot with his new mixed CD, Global Underground: Barcelona. Though no longer the beathead Basquiat he once was, Lavelle sits down to chat with us about how getting old ain’t nothing compared to getting old-school. TEXT Anna Chapman IMAGES Marcus Clackson
“It’s a weird feeling to communicate when you can’t see anything,” observes James Lavelle, squinting in the late afternoon sunshine. “I’ve got this weird deficiency. Because I’ve worn glasses since I was two, my eyes are so over-protected, I can’t wear contact lenses.” Lavelle refuses to be photographed in his specs. So here he is, half-blind in a North London park, revealing his insecurities while I try to figure out how a guy who’s lived the teenage dream of making a comfortable living off his hobbies came to compile the latest in the vaunted Global Underground DJ mix series.
On the surface, the man who started Mo’ Wax looks as you’d expect. Image-conscious as ever, he sports the latest Bathing Ape gear–a box-fresh pair of sneakers, white Bathing Ape t-shirt and jeans. He’s even brought along a couple of t-shirt changes for the shoot. “I love wearing clothes from Japan. I love the way they’re cut, the way they’re made, the designs, the people involved.” But Lavelle’s instant justification of his choices betrays his defensive side: “People say ‘He’s into Bathing Ape. It’s boring.’ But that was my identity. I’m not going to leave that because it’s not cool to be into anymore. That’s me. I’m not going to wear suits–that doesn’t interest me.”
Lavelle blames the scorned specs for hindering his pre-adolescent hunt for a cool identity. “Glasses aren’t deemed the most attractive thing when you’re 12 or 13 and you’re just discovering girls. You were always seen as uncool.” He became obsessed in his teen years with hip-hop culture –Grandmaster Flash, the Wild Bunch and Futura 2000. Even though being a DJ wasn’t cool at the time, he wanted to be part of a crew because “there were clothes and an identity.”
The story of Lavelle’s speedy rise to fame has been told many times. In order to buy some decks for a one-off party, the 15-year-old made a deal with his mum, who had come into some money having just split up with his dad. “She gave me a year’s allowance and said ‘If you make money on this, you give me the money back.’” He paid in full, then went on to fuel his love of DJing by working at London record shops like Bluebird and Honest Jon’s, learning from selectors like Gilles Peterson, Ashley Beedle and Norman Jay in the early years of acid house. He soon discovered the Japanese scene and one of its top hip-hop outfits, Major Force, who were a huge influence when he launched Mo’ Wax at age 19. Via a remix he heard in 1992 of African hip-hop group Zimbabwe Legit, Lavelle tracked down DJ Shadow, who became the first in a series of increasingly high-profile collaborators and associates. Suddenly, Lavelle had the golden touch and a contacts book to prove it.
“I don’t want to sound big-headed, but I don’t think any other British label that’s been around in the last ten years–with the exception of Warp–has been involved with the kind of spectrum that includes Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Richard Ashcroft, the Beastie Boys, David Axelrod, Futura 2000, 3D, Thom Yorke, Trevor Jackson and Output. Mo’ Wax was an amazing cultural thing.” Lavelle is proud of its continued influence, even staking influential claim to his old schoolmate and ex-partner Tim Goldsworthy’s involvement in DFA. (“It’s the hot new label in New York,” he boasts.) Aside from his well-established music jones, Lavelle’s gained parallel notoriety in the underground toy-collecting world via his close association with the massively popular Bathing Ape, which among other things manufactured a “Nigo vs. James” pair of action figures that now fetch ridiculous prices on eBay. How, exactly, does one become famous over these rather puerile pastimes? “I don’t know. I’m not better than anybody else,” he sighs. “At the time, it was exciting that someone of my age wanted to do something. I got involved with [dance music and the related youth culture industry] early. I was completely obsessive. Then you get it, and–it’s very English–[once you’re successful], everybody hates you for it.”