Mo’ Wax JAMES LAVELLE | Interview by Jack Smylie
DJ, producer, label founder, musician, composer, cultural anthropologist, curator; the name James Lavelle means many things to many people.
Founding seminal London label Mo’Wax alongside Tim Goldsworthy in 1992, Lavelle’s musical output, both personally and under the Mo’Wax banner, came to be defined throughout the ‘90s entirely by its undefinability.
Introducing a potent blend of hip hop, jazz, breaks, cinematic overtures and sampling to legions of left-field listeners, Lavelle turned the British electronic underground on its head, pioneering a style that is still revered and reverberating through today’s musical landscape.
As a natural explorer, Lavelle’s quest for originality often didn’t begin in London but abroad; seeking new sounds and subcultures in Tokyo and the US and bringing musical deities as significant as DJs Shadow and Krush to the wider world’s attention for the first time. In his own capacity, Lavelle’s production unit, UNKLE, has seen critical success beyond the Mo’Wax years, (which ended somewhat abruptly in 2002), and he continues to compose, produce and tour under this moniker.
2014 has been a momentous year for Lavelle. For a start, it’s the 21st anniversary of Mo’Wax, a milestone which has been celebrated with the release of Urban Archaeology, a retrospective book published by Rizzoli. This hard cover takes a detailed look at the Mo’Wax years, the music created and the people behind the stories, but also extends the conversation to the visual creatives who worked under the Mo’Wax umbrella.
Heavy hitters like Will Bankhead and Futura 2000 make up an integral part of the label’s visual identity, an element which is nearly as well discussed and lauded as the music itself.
Lavelle also curated 2014’s Meltdown festival earlier this year, which is a testament to his ongoing involvement in – and relevance to – pioneering global music. Held at the Southbank Centre in June, the festival’s location was the site for an exhibition which examined the label’s visual presence over the years.
Last week, Lavelle was invited to give a talk at Shinebright Studio, a temporary creative space in Shoreditch hosted by glaceau vitaminwater, which aims to showcase London’s creative talent. Here, Lavelle shared a candid account of the Mo’Wax era, alongside a few words of advice for anyone with a hankering to set up their own label in 2014.
CHAMP caught up with the man himself ahead of this talk to chat about a few points of interest to us as part of the Mo’Wax legacy.
A large part of your focus in the last year has been the book, Urban Archaeology, the exhibition and Meltdown. Other than 2014 being the 21st anniversary of Mo’Wax, was there any other reason this year felt particularly relevant to take a retrospective look at the label?
The opportunity came up, to be honest. The publisher wanted to do it. It came out of a conversation last year and felt right. Me and Ben [Drury] had been talking about it for a while and it felt right the planets aligned, really.
Why did you choose Rizzoli as a publisher?
Because they asked, and what they were doing working with Supreme, A Bathing Ape, etc. it just felt right for Mo’Wax. And they saw the vision, you know, a lot of people didn’t understand it and Jacob at Rizzoli was a big fan and allowed me to do what I wanted to do with the book.
Obviously the pioneering thread that began in the early days of Mo’Wax, through to what you’ve done with UNKLE and beyond has always been present, but it hasn’t been solely focused on the music. You’ve worked with creatives on the art side, the design side and so on. Swifty and Futura, Will Bankhead in the early days… what drew you to these people?
Essentially an emotional and creative mixture. What they were about as human beings and the concoction that you have visually with these people. Futura was one of my heroes as a kid, but at the time we developed a very strong working relationship. Swifty had done Talkin’ Loud which was a big inspiration for me. Will was always about the new. It was about getting together with like-minded people my own age and that goes for Ben as well but, you know, we just had the same reference points, the same inspirations, the same emotional connections.
I wanted to talk about the visual identity of Mo’Wax that goes hand in hand with its musical identity. A lot of labels these days don’t have that same identity surrounding them. How important was it to you to grow that element of the label?
It was essential, because that was what I had grown up with. I grew up on Def Jam, Major Force, Blue Note, Factory, Warp, you know?
An interesting aspect of the Mo’Wax movement was the connections you formed between London, Tokyo and New York. How were you finding out about the subcultural movements in these places?
I was obsessed with martial arts and was already very up on Asia. It was somewhere that I obsessively wanted to go. I became very obsessed with a label called Major Force, became friends with them some of whom were living in London. I also worked with Straight No Chaser magazine who had a big connection in Japan. The editor is married to a Japanese woman, and they took me out there for the first time when I was 17.
Was that when you were introduced to the streetwear scene out there? NIGO and those guys?
I was aware of that before. I knew Michael Koppelman who did Gimme 5, and Tim Simenon after I started at Bluebird [records] when I was 14. And those were my heroes. It was what I was obsessed about as a kid. And you would find out about it reading certain magazines… The Face, maybe.
That’s another thing which is interesting – the fact that 21 years ago you could only find these things through word of mouth, or through reading magazines, or perhaps by somebody sending you a cassette tape. It’s obviously very different now. How have you seen the cultural landscape change in that sense?
I mean, it’s changed massively because of the internet. Unfortunately what it’s done is it’s homogenised all those places. I don’t think that Tokyo is anywhere near as exciting as it was in the ‘90s, and I don’t think that New York is either. I actually think that London has something , something has changed here. But you know, you had to go to the places that you wanted to go, you had to make sacrifices for that journey to see that whole new world. When I went to Tokyo the only Westerners I’d see would be bands or bankers. There’d be no graphic design studios setting up in Harajuku, that was for sure. But I loved that. And that’s why these days I like going to Eastern Europe or South America, these places that haven’t yet been discovered and homogenised. It’s one of the most fundamental things in life that has changed dramatically. Everything kind of ends up the same in the end.
So have you got your eye on South America at the moment?
Not particularly, but I’ve never been to Sao Paulo which is somewhere I’d really like to go to you know, the no-advertising, street-art thing. There are still great things in places like Italy, somewhere like Naples, it’s still like you’re going somewhere unique and special and it’s still got a bit of danger and discovery. There aren’t Starbucks every five metres. You know, the things that I really cared about, obsessed about, the things I was trying to find; it was never really about owning the physical thing, it was more about the journey to get it, and that’s changed because I can get it any day now, pretty much. I think that’s why art’s gone so mental, because of the uniqueness of a one off thing in a world where everything’s mass.
At the same time, everyone knows every artist. It’s just a case of actually being able to attain that one-off.
Yeah, but there are a lot of great young, (and old), artists out there that people have no idea about, and that’s great. Don’t get me wrong, the internet has done some great things, but it’s changed things too. That world is not the same. You can buy Supreme in London, or you can buy it online. You used to have to go to New York for ten years to be able to get it.
And they may or may not have sold it to you even then!
Yeah! I mean, I’ve known the Supreme store guys for nearly 20 years now and it was rough going in there back in the day! But I like all that because it was tribal and you had to be part of it. You had to know what the fuck you were doing. Now it’s different. I don’t wanna down what goes on now because there are some really great things, it’s just a different discovery. I like to go places where it feels you’ve discovered something new.
What sort of advice would you give to this generation? People who might aspire to do the things you’ve done, but in 2014?
To me, it’s always about trying to find the holy grail, this eternal search for trying to create something unique. Creating your own world, your own environment, and that has come from sample and collage culture, for me. Look at everything around you and how that can influence your emotion, your creative output. All of that stuff is so important. I was always very inspired by going somewhere that hadn’t been discovered. Hearing sounds that hadn’t been made. I think that’s an essential thing to creativity. Maybe kids do it in a different way because they’re exposed to the internet so much there must be reactions and subcultures and kids trying to find their own take on things…
I feel like subcultures exist offline but they’re being driven and hyped online.
Perhaps as soon as they’re given a name they cease to be as they were…
Well, look at what Will’s got going with The Trilogy Tapes. I think that’s really interesting. He’s created his own identity, his own universe. You’re buying into it culturally and becoming a part of it.
And I think people are taking notice of that both here and overseas.
Absolutely. And again, I think that’s a case of using the internet in a really interesting way, because you still don’t really know what it is. It’s there and it’s available and you can buy it, but it’s really about the power of the myth.
And perhaps the visual identity, again.
Yeah, it all comes back to a really great visual identity.
More information on Shinebright Studio can be found at:
Interview by Jack Smylie
Photos by DK Woon