The Man From Mo’Wax and top 10 classics from James Lavelle’s label

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DJ Shadow and Mo'Wax founder James Lavelle

DJ Shadow and Mo’Wax founder James Lavelle

Seminal record label Mo’Wax is celebrated in a new documentary on our cinemas this month, Getintothis Peter Guy reflects on its greatest sounds and why it changed music culture forever.

It takes something more than the music for a listener to become fanatical about a record label.

Like sporting your favourite fashion brand, obsessing over the career of a top film director or becoming a collector of a certain motor vehicle – it’s often the narrative that surrounds the label which makes for compulsively buying into the sacred whole.

And that was certainly the case for Mo’Wax. Like Trojan, 2 Tone, Sarah or Warp, the Mo’Wax imprint built a story and mini empire where the collective was far greater than the solo star studded guest list.

Formed in 1992 by obsessive record collector and science fiction fanatic James Lavelle and producer Tim Goldsworthy (later of DFA), Mo’Wax quickly outlined its vision and what it stood for: turntablism, underground hip hop and graffiti artistry – all of which were characterised through it’s distinctive logo by UK graphic designer Ian ‘Swifty’ Swift.

By fusing together Japanese culture and art, comic book artwork, vintage jazz and soul – and in particular those on Blue Note Records, and the very best in rising hip hop from around the globe, Lavelle‘s insatiable will to release records saw the label team up with iconic, yet relatively cult figures, including DJ KrushKool Keith aka Dr Octagon and Money Mark. However, it was the release of Endtroducing….. by rising relatively unknown producer Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow which would cement Lavelle and Mo’Wax as overground success stories.

The 1996 debut album was recorded over a two year period almost entirely of samples taken across the entire contemporary musical spectrum; it’s scope was titanic fusing jazz, hip hop, soul, spoken word, film footage, sampled found sounds, instrumental orchestration, pop, funk and everything else in between becoming a cornerstone of the hip hop canon and for many one of the greatest albums of the ’90s.

For Mo’WaxShadow and Lavelle, the sky was the limit. Or space even. And they fused their talents and love of sci-fi as the duo UNKLE which traded on interstellar dark dance music with a truly stratospheric guest list of vocalists and collaborators including The Beastie BoysRadiohead‘s Thom YorkeIan BrownQueens of the Stone AgeThe Verve‘s Richard Ashcroft, Massive Attack, Talk Talk‘s Mark Hollis, Black Angels, Autolux, Badly Drawn Boy and many more.

DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing at 20: a record that changed the musical landscape for good

But what made the project so enticing for fans – and as such part of Lavelle living out his boyhood fantasies – was the rest of the package; along came UNKLE toys and merchandise, design and fashion brands with adidas one of many collaborating, spectacular promo videos which became entire events in themselves, graffiti events with the likes of veteran Futura2000 and Massive Attack‘s Robert Del Naja and a constant source of online added extras which allowed fans to buy into the bigger part of the Mo’Wax experience.

With Blackalicious, Major Force WestDan the Automator and a vast galaxy of stars collaborating on the 1999 compilation album Quannum Spectrum the label became even more prevalent in showcasing the very best in new hip hop while the UNKLE brand reached a new level of mainstream recognition altogether.

With drugs, major label involvement and ‘lunatics taking over the asylum,’ Lavelle shut the whole thing down in the mid-2000s.

For Lavelle things never stopped – constant DJ sets, touring under the UNKLE umbrella with a range of guests, hosting Meltdown and a myriad of other projects – he’s as busy as ever. But those seminal, game-changing days of the mid 90s couldn’t last forever.

They are, though, to be told in a new film, The Man from Mo’Wax which comes to cinemas in August – so with that in mind, we’ve dusted down the twelves and reached deep inside the crates to unearth ten must-listen to Mo’Wax delights. Get ready for “songs about life, death, love, hate, wealth poverty, racism… just a few things been running through my head…”

10. Rob D: Clubbed To Death – 12″ single (2006)

Also known as the song which became the song which soundtracked The Matrix – Clubbed To Death the original 12″ is sparser and less dramatic than Kurayamino‘s subsequent remix but retains an undeniable sense of disquiet and unsettling death-disco classicism.

9. David Axelrod: The Shadow Knows – from David Axelrod (2001)

Much like XL boss Richard Russell did for Gil Scott-Heron all those years later, James Lavelle and DJ Shadow worked with one of their greatest inspirations on the 2001 self-titled album David Axelrod. 

Comprising tracks new and old, The Shadow Knows takes its name from Josh Davis‘ moniker and features searing guitar work, thick-as-smog organ raging amid 70s Blaxploitation funk and soul. Central to it all of course: the beat.

8. UNKLE featuring Ian Brown: Be There – bonus track from Psyence Fiction (1999)

Building on the Psyence Fiction instrumental track UnrealIan Brown takes centre stage on this reimagined sci-fi slice of swaggering foreboding hip hop.

Replete with whirring effects, tribal dub drones and rattling Eastern effects, it’s a claustrophobic hit of paranoiac electronica. It’s also worth revisiting the extended version of the single which comes complete with the Underdog remix; all spine-breaking raw primal beats and the Noel Gallagher remix The Knock On Effect featuring Beastie Boy Mike D, nifty flute work and some rampaging riffs which make you wonder why they weren’t better utilised on an Oasis album at the time.

7. Dr OctagonEarth People from Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)

The debut album by Ultra Magnetic MCs‘ Kool Keith is as preposterous as it is seminal.

Introducing the MC’s alter ego Dr Octagon – a time-traveling alien gynecologist and surgeon from the planet Jupiter – it loosely tells of his murderous ways with his patients or grim sexual exploits with an array of nurses. While the lyrical content is absurd, it’s Keith’s delivery married to the sublime production work of one of Mo’Wax‘s most frequent collaborators Dan “The Automator” Nakamura which makes this such a riveting listen.

Along with Blue Flowers, Earth People is undoubtedly one of the picks of the bunch, with it’s comic book synths and Keith‘s stabbing rasp – push forward two decades later and it’s impossible not to think of much of the best work being repeated on The Prodigy‘s world-conquering Fat Of The Land.

6. South: Here On In – from From Here On In (2001)

Chalk Farm Londoners South are somewhat of an anomaly in this top ten. Sure, much like their label mates, they’re a band you can get heavily stoned to, but there’s little on their lost treasure of a debut which bears the customary Mo’Wax musical characteristics. For here is a band rooted in simple drums, bass, guitar and vocal melodies.

Much of From Here On In wouldn’t be out of place on a Shane Meadows kitchen sink drama and it’s of little surprise that the band were mentored by a certain Ian Brown what with its hushed campfire grooves and soaring choruses.

While break out ‘hit’ Paint the Silence was scooped up by US teen TV smash The OC, it’s the quite beautifully triumphant Here On In which will pull at your heart-strings til they’re on the verge of collapse. Backing vocalist Lily Mahler deserves mention too for it’s her counter balance which helps retain the brittle fragility of this barnstorming punch the air anthem.

5. DJ Shadow: Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt – from Endtroducing (1995)

Such is the familiarity and subsequent reuse of the piano sample, the twisted guitar fusion and the hymnal female vocals from Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt it’s almost impossible to disassociate the music from DJ Shadow – yet there’s five key pieces at work (see below) in this timeless classic.

Jeremy Storch‘s I Feel a New Shadow forms the backbone aligned to Frankie Seay and the Soul Riders sparse funky beat while it’s the funk of Lexia who provide the blistering axe work. Amid all this Axelrod cauldron is the otherworldly monologues of Mort Garson and George Marsh interviewing Terry McGovern forming a cosmic soup quite unlike anything else. Melding sounds of a distant past with a divine futuristic vision became one of Shadow‘s most potent powers – this is one of his greatest ever hits.

4. UNKLE featuring Richard Ashcroft: Lonely Soul –  from Psyence Fiction (1998)

Tailor-made for the big screen, UNKLE‘s combination of cinematic orchestration, blockbuster beats and emotive melodies reached their pinnacle when married to Richard Ashcroft‘s sky-scraping vocals.

Rife with OTT imagery and profoundly bleak lyrics, Lonely Soul perfectly captured the intense fallout of the Britpop era – only Jonathan Glazer‘s blood-curdling promo video from the Thom Yorke assisted Rabbit In Your Headlights could top the savage intensity of this monolithic ballad seemingly summoned up from the depths of an abyss you could barely imagine.

3. DJ Krush: Kemuri from Strictly Turntabalized (1994)

A Holy Grail in trip hop, Tokyo’s Hideaki Ishi aka DJ Krush found prominence through his Mo’Wax album Strictly Turntabalized – and Kemuri is its doped out exotic break out track.

Brooding, edgy and laced with a beat which wouldn’t be out of place on any RZA produced Wu-Tang Clan record – this is hip hop at it’s very finest.

2. DJ Shadow: Stem / Long Stem / Transmission 2 from Endtroducing (1995)

There’s little doubt that it’s DJ Shadow‘s talent for lifting samples for which he’s most renowned for. However, his skill at aligning strings to beats is perhaps his most underrated. And, it’s the marriage of violin and cello to the foreboding malevolent build in the epic Stem / Long Stem / Transmission 2 forms the unforgettable centre piece to his greatest album Endtroducing. 

In truth, the entire album works only as a whole, and to break it down into tracks appears a somewhat crass statement of intent, however, this nine and a half minute suite serves to the breadth of craft at work in isolation in one piece of music. It is truly epic.

Heard in isolation the sample of Nirvana‘s (UK) Love Suite is a testament as to how Shadow recreates and completely transforms the original piece of music and weaves an entirely new fabric of music – here the plucked stringed introduction is given a chilling looped repetition aligned to the machine-gun breakbeats which renders the listener almost incapacitated to its ferocity. Moments later an organ swirls amid echoing brass and staccato instrumentation. It’s breathtaking orchestration from a master at the very peak of his powers.

1. DJ Shadow: In/Flux (1994)

It’s impossible to understate the importance of DJ Shadow‘s In/Flux to the whole Mo’Wax story.

The 12″, released in 1995, stands a precursor to Endtroducing and therefore the entire imprint’s masterworks – it was here that the iconic Akai MPC60 sampler was used for the first time – and as such the empire began being built.

This leviathan of a track fuses all the key elements of both the artist and label: sampling, turntablism, iconic pull quotes (who can forget the first time they heard: “MEANWHILE UPTOWN, THE DJ IS PLAYING!”), jazz-infused rhythmic plumes, flute loops, timely breaks, jarring scratches, minimal soul flourishes, deep hip hop bass and that extra bit of special DJ Shadow magik before appropriately closing with the words: “The record ends, and we must begin again.

And with that, we invite you to go on another journey.

  •  The Man From Mo’Wax is showing at ODEON Liverpool One on Thursday August 30 at 8.30pm. Tickets here.

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