This story is taken from Issue 18 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.
Mo’ Wax impresario and UNKLE founder James Lavelle is a true pioneer, an OG disruptor of the UK music underground whose cross-disciplinary approach in the ’90s was years ahead of its time. Through hookups with iconic brands while working at the intersection of music, fashion, and art, he helped pave the way for today’s collaborative culture. Today, he continues to push the boundaries, whether through UNKLE or his work as a cutting-edge curator. We visited Lavelle to look back at his career in music and beyond.
“It was about trying to push boundaries and create your identity while going against the old guard, so there was a big element of disruption about what we were doing,” James Lavelle tells us in his West London home, surrounded by rare toys and artwork from his Mo’ Wax archive. “We wanted to create something that had an impact, to represent our language and our culture and to do something different. So disruption for me is about that eternal search for being individual and representing something real.”
By the mid ’90s, Lavelle had become one of the most influential record label owners of his generation, a pioneer who combined music, fashion, design, film, and art. “Create your own universe, find your own identity. The rest is a product of your environment,” was one of his mantras. The Mo’ Wax imprint he founded in his teens soon had a roster of beat-making virtuosos, from DJ Shadow in California to DJ Krush in Tokyo. With a sharp visual aesthetic as iconic as Blue Note in the ’60s, Lavelle’s label shaped a cultural identity that connected style-conscious beat heads from Hoxton to Harajuku.
Working with radical graphic designers Swifty and Ben Drury alongside street artists Futura 2000 and 3D (Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, the man suspected by some to be Banksy), Lavelle expanded his creative vision for Mo’ Wax through art, streetwear, and toys. Collaboration with brands, the norm today for musical artists from Pharrell Williams to Kanye West, was pioneered by Lavelle through partnerships with streetwear label A Bathing Ape and collectibles manufacturer Medicom Toy.
Lavelle’s interdisciplinary output over two decades was presented at “Urban Archaeology: 21 Years of Mo’ Wax,” an exhibition to accompany the Meltdown festival he curated in London in 2014. More expansive exhibitions under the title “Daydreaming With…” have seen Lavelle bring together experimental creators working in music, art, video, and street culture. Meanwhile, last year’s documentary The Man From Mo’ Wax offered a personal insight into the life and creative process of one of late 20th century music’s great innovators.
Lavelle grew up in Oxford, 60 miles west of London and roughly the same distance from Bristol in England’s Southwest. In his youth, hip-hop showed him how different art forms could be mixed. “There was the music, the art side, the visuals, the language, the dancing — and all that stuff coming together created something really fascinating,” he says. “So a combination of that and an obsession with things like Star Wars and martial arts, these were my foundations.”
Lavelle started traveling regularly to both London and Bristol. His mecca in the capital was Four Star General on Carnaby Street, a bastion for fans of hip-hop gear like Kangol hats, Public Enemy varsity jackets, Def Jam T-shirts, and adidas trainers. He also frequented Oxford Street’s Mash, where he’d peek at rave flyers, and Soho’s myriad of record stores, where he honed his crate-digging skills. It was a time of a new DIY culture in which music, fashion, art, and design overlapped. Back then, the uniform signified membership of a tribe much more than it does today, with “underground” culture now commodified and merchandised to the masses.
“Create your own universe, find your own identity. The rest is a product of your environment.”
“The clothes people wore were so distinct that, just looking at them, you immediately knew [these people] were into the same things as you,” Lavelle says. “I started to engage with those tribes and just threw myself in and became obsessed with it. The ideas of crews and communities were central to what was happening — and I wanted to be part of it.”
Lavelle first came to London to study martial arts in Chinatown on the edge of Soho. He recalls how the kids he trained with were equally as into hip-hop, funk, and breakbeats as they were Bruce Lee. It was worlds away from his middle-class Oxford life, which Lavelle describes as very traditional.
His first time in a London club atmosphere was a Soul II Soul vs. Shock Sound System warehouse party. He went alone aged 14, soaking it all up like a sponge. The experience left a lasting impact. “It was like walking into a science fiction film, what with the clothes, the haircuts, the dancing — it really was crazy,” he recalls. “There was also this sense of danger. It was just all very inspiring.”
The Soul II Soul store in Camden was also a regular stop-off for the wide-eyed teenager. A retail hub for the Grammy-winning music crew, its mix of music, fashion, and lifestyle — with the slogan “a happy face, a thumpin’ bass, for a lovin’ race” and Funki Dred logo — nurtured a seed planted in Lavelle’s mind.
“At the time, I was really into the sound system culture of Soul II Soul and The Wild Bunch in Bristol,” Lavelle says, the latter later becoming Massive Attack. “I just really loved the way they put everything together and created this whole alternative community. So I started my journey going between those two cities and soaking it all up, getting to know how all the different parts of the culture were connected, from the clubs to the record shops.”
Back in Oxford, Lavelle started his own club night called Mo’ Wax Please, spinning vinyl he had sourced at London’s most cultish record stores. One such outlet was Bluebird Records, which specialized in US dance imports. Never short on confidence, the teenage Lavelle talked himself into an internship at the shop.
“These types of independent record shops were like social meccas for this underground culture,” Lavelle says. “As well as hearing all the new records, you would see all the real heads from the clubs, see what people were wearing, how they were speaking. Every part of it was an education.”
Perhaps most importantly, it was a place to make connections. “You had so many interesting people coming through the store,” Lavelle says. Among them were DJs such as Gilles Peterson and Tim Simenon (aka Bomb the Bass), Michael Kopelman, founder of streetwear distributor Gimme Five and seminal boutique Hit and Run, and Alex “Baby” Turnbull of Ronin Records and the International Stüssy Tribe. “I just wanted desperately to engage with and learn from those people.”
Lavelle went on to work at Honest Jon’s Records on West London’s Portobello Road, where he established a reputation for bringing in new music. There, he cultivated relationships with labels around the world, from Tokyo’s Major Force and Munich’s Compost to New York’s Tommy Boy and Delicious Vinyl of Los Angeles.
It was through connections made at Honest Jon’s that Lavelle was introduced to Paul Bradshaw, editor of Straight No Chaser magazine. Conceived in 1988 on the dancefloor of Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge’s Talkin’ Loud and Saying Something afternoon sessions at Dingwalls in Camden, Straight No Chaser informed readers what was happening in the dance music underground beyond London and the UK.
“This was pre-internet, of course, and what was important about Chaser was that it opened your mind to what was going on all over the world,” says Lavelle. “It was also the place to see what records were coming out through the charts of DJs from this eclectic global movement.”
In his preface to Urban Archaeology: 21 Years of Mo’ Wax, a tome documenting two decades’ worth of the label’s influence, released to coincide with 2014’s exhibition, Bradshaw recalls a precocious Lavelle walking into Straight No Chaser’s Hoxton HQ. “James was 17 years old when he arrived at the Chaser office, with the clear intention of hustling a column,” Bradshaw writes. “His final salvo at the end of our conversation was ‘You need me.’”
Lavelle did indeed hustle a column. Like his Oxford club night, the column was called Mo’ Wax Please and helped cement the worldwide connections that led to Mo’ Wax the label.
“I had all this music being sent to me from all over the world to review for Straight No Chaser, much of it unreleased,” Lavelle says. He was also still developing his network through the shop, meeting artists such as Charlie Dark of Attica Blues and Palm Skin Productions’ Simon Richmond. Lavelle had toyed with landing a position at a label, but instead decided to strike out on his own.
“Straight outta Brooklyn,” read the liner notes on Mo’ Wax’s debut 12“, 1992’s “Promise” by Repercussions, a neo-soul band affiliated with New York’s weekly Giant Step party. The sleeve was designed by typography virtuoso Ian “Swifty” Swift, who was a protégé of Neville Brody at The Face and Arena magazines and the man behind Straight No Chaser’s iconic look, as well as flyers for many of London’s underground clubs.
Bradshaw sums up Swifty’s aesthetic perfectly in the Mo’ Wax book, writing, “Looking at the first generation of Mo’ Wax artwork today, you can see a host of influences at work, from classic 1950s and 1960s soul and jazz labels to the graphic art of Saul Bass, and from the Dadaist Rotoreliefs of Marcel Duchamp to East Coast street art.”
The artwork’s most distinctive feature was its Japanese-style obi strip running down the outer edge on both sides of the sleeve. “I was heavily into music culture and fashion from Japan,” says Lavelle. “One of the things I really loved was the obi that translated the record’s information into Japanese, and I said to Swifty, ‘I want to do that,’ and also to have a constant identity. Swifty really did that with the design of each sleeve, using the fonts he was so good at. Those labels I grew up with, like Def Jam and Tommy Boy, had really strong visual identities, and that’s what I wanted with Mo’ Wax.”
As well as spinning at Giant Step and building relationships in the music industry abroad, Lavelle also made connections with street fashion figures, including James Jebbia of Supreme. But the connections made through London’s club scene remained of primary importance.
In 1993, Lavelle and Gilles Peterson set up Monday night session That’s How It Is. That same year, the Blue Note opened in Hoxton Square, hosting nights that included Goldie’s legendary drum and bass night Metalheadz, Coldcut’s Solid Steel, and Lavelle’s own Dusted. Mo’ Wax grew out of this fertile cultural landscape, joining other innovative labels such as Ninja Tune, which put on the Stealth night at the same venue.
“I always had grand ambitions,” says Lavelle. “I mean, if I could have signed A Tribe Called Quest when I started Mo’ Wax, I would have done.”
From 1992 to 1993, Lavelle’s imprint put out 16 highly collectible 12“ singles, EPs, and samplers, including releases by Palm Skin Productions, DJ Shadow and the Groove Robbers, and Attica Blues. Mo’ Wax was often lazily pigeonholed as a trip-hop label or sold in the acid jazz racks, but in reality its output was diverse and distinctive, with Lavelle always seeking new spins on established sounds.
“My first love was hip-hop, but I’m always looking to find alternative versions of the music,” he says, recalling how he’d dig around for records from Japan, France, Germany, and elsewhere. “I always liked cut-up instrumental hip-hop records that were good to play in clubs, so things like Coldcut. At the same time, I was also a huge fan of Massive Attack. Then I was also really into the abstract electronic music from the north of England with labels like Warp. I guess the Mo’ Wax sound came from fusing all these things together.”
One of Mo’ Wax’s most pivotal early records was DJ Shadow’s towering, multi-part instrumental hip-hop opus “What Does Your Soul Look Like,” which the label put out in multiple formats in 1994.
“I first heard Shadow on his remix of “Doin‘ Damage in My Native Language” by American hip-hop group Zimbabwe Legit on the Hollywood Basic label,” recalls Lavelle. “It was just this amazing version, nothing like the original. It had this classical thing about it, almost like Pink Floyd doing hip-hop, and eventually I found out who he was and contacted him — and the rest is history.
“I think when “What Does Your Soul Look Like” came out alongside things like Attica Blues, Le Funk Mob, and DJ Krush, it really felt like we had created a new sound and identity for me and my community.”
Some of Mo’ Wax’s most interesting 12“ releases came from Japanese artists such as DJ Takemura, El-Malo, and DJ Krush. With the release of 1993’s Jazz Hip Jap Project compilation, Lavelle became a regular visitor to Japan. He appreciated the country’s unique duality, its mix of venerable tradition and modern ideas and technologies, something he describes as Blade Runner-esque.
“The attention to detail in everything from food to fashion just blew my mind,” he says. “Everything I was into was so beautifully done. I fell deeply in love with it and became incredibly influenced by what was going on there. Through the relationships I built at the record shops and Straight No Chaser, I was able to start working with people there and began my deep journey into that world.”
Toshio Nakanishi, founder of influential Tokyo new wave group Plastics and pioneer of Japanese hip-hop and electro, co-founded the label Major Force in 1988. Through a series of cult 12“s under aliases including Tycoon To$h and Sexy T.K.O., Nakanishi became a figurehead in Japan’s nascent hip-hop scene. But just as important was Nakanishi’s artwork and graphic design, which influenced Mo’ Wax’s own aesthetic. Lavelle’s collaboration with Major Force, which began with 1994 EP Mo’ Wax vs. Major Force: Time Has Come, led to the foundation of the Major Force West sublabel.
“I had a studio in London with Toshio and [regular collaborator Masayuki] Kudo, and because of their legacy, anyone out of the music, fashion, and creative world from Japan would come to see them,” says Lavelle. “They exposed me to a lot of fashion people, including Hiroshi Fujiwara and NIGO of A Bathing Ape.”
Lavelle had been introduced to A Bathing Ape by Michael Kopelman, who brought many of the new Japanese streetwear brands to the UK. Lavelle met NIGO at his tiny studio in Harajuku and embarked on a tour of the nascent Ura-Harajuku backstreet shopping scene, including NOWHERE, the store NIGO shared with UNDERCOVER’s Jun Takahashi, and the similarly influential clothing label FORTY PERCENT AGAINST RIGHTS.
Mo’ Wax made its first forays into the art world in 1994, starting with UK graffiti artist Req’s sleeve for RPM’s “2000” / “Sorti Des Ombres” EP. One of Lavelle’s all-time graffiti heroes was Futura 2000, who rose to fame alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in ’70s and ’80s New York City. Futura’s abstract graffiti made him one of the most mythologized of all street artists and, alongside Massive Attack’s 3D, the one Lavelle most wanted to use for his label, a wish he fulfilled that year.
Alongside 3D’s sleeve for the Headz compilation, Futura’s abstract paintings for DJ Shadow and DJ Krush’s “Lost and Found (S.F.L.)” / “Kemuri” split and Krush’s Strictly Turntablized LP created a new identity for the label.
“I always loved the old graffiti but didn’t want that wildstyle stuff or tag-based street art,” Lavelle says. “With 3D and Futura, there was something almost science fiction about their work, and that imagery really matched the abstract music coming out of Mo’ Wax at that time.”
During this period, NIGO kept an apartment in London near Kopelman’s Gimme Five office, which was distributing BAPE and its Very Ape UK line, and the designer’s friendship with Lavelle deepened.
“We were a similar age and had a lot in common,” says Lavelle. “Above him in Japan were people like Hiroshi [Fujiwara] and I was in a similar place because I was looking up to people like Michael [Kopelman]. We just had really similar reference points. We were into the same records, collecting toys, Star Wars, and all that. We were coming up at the same time, me at Mo’ Wax and him at A Bathing Ape, so we just really connected.”
That meant it was only natural for the two to work together. According to Lavelle, their first collaboration dropped in 1996, a mix LP anniversary-edition box set. Lavelle provided a Mo’ Wax CD and it was bundled with goodies such as T-shirts and stickers. The set marked one of the earliest collaborations between a streetwear brand and a music label on limited edition gear.
“We wanted to create something that had an impact, to represent our language and our culture and to do something different. So disruption for me is about that eternal search for being individual and representing something real.”
“From there, we started building a relationship through Mo’ Wax Japan and started making T-shirts and other merchandise for records that were being made for us,” says Lavelle. “Then we started working together with Medicom, making these James and NIGO action toys, and eventually NIGO released the Ape Sounds LP for Mo’ Wax.”
Mo’ Wax reached a new peak in 1996 with DJ Shadow’s instrumental hip-hop milestone Endtroducing….., which went on to sell more than 290,000 copies in the US alone. The record’s success gave Lavelle the motivation to aim higher. The result was a project that shook off his label’s underground roots: UNKLE’s 1998 debut album Psyence Fiction. The record was put together by Lavelle and DJ Shadow and included guest spots from major figures of the era, including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Beastie Boy Mike D, and The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft.
For the artwork, Futura worked alongside new Mo’ Wax designer Ben Drury to create Psyence Fiction’s iconic sleeve. The cover’s Futura-designed Pointman character would go on to become one of the label’s symbols and was immortalized when Lavelle and Futura hooked up with Medicom Toy for a series of Pointman collectibles.
“That was weirdly received [by the press],” notes Lavelle. “The idea of being in a band doing these strange things with merchandise wasn’t really understood.”
Whether others got it or not, collaboration has always been important to Lavelle. “I think it goes back to the hip-hop records I loved, which were basically collages of ideas, from the music to fashion,” he says. “So whether it’s making records and videos or clothes, it all comes from that idea of collaboration and collage.”
In 2005, Lavelle set up a new record label, Surrender All, as a way to release future UNKLE albums outside the mainstream, and the similarly named Surrender clothing line. The result was one of his most sought-after collaborations, the Surrender × UNKLE × NEIGHBORHOOD Metal Savage jeans. But when asked which of his collaborations he holds in fondest regard, he looks to his work with BAPE and Medicom Toy.
“Just to make a T-shirt or create a toy was such an amazing thing for me back then,” he says. “It was all very naive and based around a collection of ideas and discovery, and was really part of a social experience. That idea of doing things with people came out of that community, whether through NEIGHBORHOOD, Supreme, or Kazuki [Kuraishi] of A.Four Labs.”
Among the Mo’ Wax artworks and ephemera in Lavelle’s front room are more recent pieces taken from his work as a curator on a number of ambitious exhibitions. “I started “Daydreaming With…” about eight years ago, following my LP Where Did the Night Fall,” Lavelle says of his transition into curation.
“I had the opportunity to do something in a London gallery called Haunch of Venison, where I brought together all these different artistic disciplines with the music I was making at the time,” he explains. “So I invited people like Nathan Coley and Jonathan Glazer through to Medicom, Futura, and 3D to react to the music of UNKLE. For me, it was a way of collaborating on a different scale and for people to engage with music in a different way, whether through video or paintings and sculpture.”
Possibly his most ambitious exhibition was “Daydreaming With Stanley Kubrick,” featuring interpretations of the director’s work by 60 experimental artists, including Futura, Michèle Lamy, Anish Kapoor, Haroon Mirza, Doug Foster, Gavin Turk, Nathan Coley, Doug Aitken, and Norbert Schoerner.
“I had built a relationship with someone who ran the Stanley Kubrick estate and they were looking into different ways to get people to engage with his work,” says Lavelle. “His widow Christiane was really into the idea of engaging with youth culture and doing something that was contemporary. It really was a dream for me, as he was one of my biggest inspirations.”
Lavelle’s interest in film has resulted in some memorable UNKLE videos, including the disturbing clip for Thom Yorke-featuring single “Rabbit in Your Headlights” starring French improvisational actor Denis Lavant and shot by virtuoso director Jonathan Glazer, who went on to make movies such as Sexy Beast and Under the Skin.
“The first videos that really inspired me were Massive Attack’s “Safe From Harm” and “Unfinished Sympathy,” which just blew my mind. They had this cinematic quality to them rather than the pop thing with most videos. [Their director] Baillie Walsh is just brilliant,” says Lavelle. “So when I came to do my work with UNKLE, I wanted to expand on that kind of aesthetic.”
DJ Shadow’s fingerprints are all over the music on Psyence Fiction, but Lavelle worked with different artists and producers on later UNKLE records. That collaborative approach to making music under the UNKLE umbrella gave Lavelle license to experiment with the visuals.
“The thing about UNKLE was that it wasn’t really a band, so we were never going to make a video with performers in it,” Lavelle says. “I wanted to make short films, which were a different kind of narrative.” The idea was for UNKLE’s videos to match the cinematic feel of the music. “Over the last 25 years, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best video directors, and I’ve tried to keep this thread of making more abstract short films.”
Whether through Norbert Schoerner’s 2017 video for “The Road” from UNKLE’s The Road: Part 1, the first in a trilogy of albums, or Mo’ Wax’s capsule collection with NikeLab and the AR.MAR collaboration with A.Four Labs, Lavelle continues to pursue a cross-disciplinary approach in his art.
“When I first started, collaboration was such a dirty word… but to me it was just a natural, organic process coming from the sampling and collaging of hip-hop.”
“When I first started, collaboration was such a dirty word, but now it’s become a business model that drives things for music and fashion,” he says. “Doing all those collaborations with Psyence Fiction, whether it was through all the different musicians or clothes and toys with Nike or A Bathing Ape, all that stuff was really frowned upon back then. But to me it was just a natural, organic process coming from the sampling and collaging of hip-hop.”
Lavelle describes his early collaborations as naive and based on community. That community is something he first discovered in the stores and clubs of London and Bristol, before leading him to Japan, the US, and elsewhere. “I was part of a cultural underground movement that has now expanded to become part of mass culture,” he says. But collaboration is nothing without talent. “At the end of the day, whether you collaborate or not, the ultimate thing is that your art has to be good. It’s all about the work you create.”
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- Special Thanks: Elliott Power