On Curating Meltdown: Will The Real James Lavelle Please Stand Up

Ed Gillett examines the decision to select the Mo'Wax founder as this year's Meltdown curator

When James Lavelle was first unveiled as curator for this year’s Meltdown festival, the contrast between him and his predecessors was stark: not even Lavelle’s most ardent fans would claim that he wields the same cultural weight as Yoko Ono, David Bowie, Morrissey, or John Peel. Even so, there’s something of a question mark over just how far his influence and importance extend.

With the first Meltdown line-up announcements due sometime soon, perhaps they will provide the clearest indicator yet: is Lavelle really one of the key figures from the last 20 years of independent music, or just a canny hustler, coasting on his reputation from the 90s?

Mo’Wax Records, founded by Lavelle in 1992, grew to become one of the most successful and celebrated independent labels of the decade: at a time when insular and conservative Britpop ruled the waves, Mo’Wax was diverse, ambitious and forward-thinking. Artists from Asia, the Americas and Europe covered everything from abstract hip hop to foggy ambience; sunny pop soul to digital dancehall; cosmic jazz and psychedelic folk to deep techno and Miami bass. Its best releases, like DJ Shadow’s classic Endtroducing, collapsed multiple genres, time periods and places in on themselves, creating something both deliciously alien and dreamily familiar.

Around the music itself, Lavelle developed a unique aesthetic based on street art, hip hop culture and new British design, working with everyone from veteran graffiti artist Futura 2000 to Tokyo fashion label A Bathing Ape and homegrown talents like Will Bankhead, Ben Drury and Shynola.

With its beautiful artwork and limited edition releases, Mo’Wax cultivated an air of effortless and exclusive cool: it was hip to the point of elitism, and yet the broad appeal of acts like DJ Shadow, and easy overlaps with advertising and film (see the terminally overplayed ‘Clubbed To Death’) meant anyone could buy into it. It was a hugely successful formula, driven by Lavelle’s prodigious curatorial and entrepreneurial skills.

This sense of youthful invulnerability (Lavelle started the label when he was only 18) was finally punctured by the fateful decision to sell Mo’Wax to A&M in 1996. With the music industry coming unstuck at the turn of the century, major label concerns constrained Mo’Wax’s output, until it finally ran out of steam in the early 2000s. Lavelle’s since described the sale as "the worst decision I ever made".

Since that mid-90s peak, perceptions of Mo’Wax and Lavelle appear to have been revised downwards. Shackled to the trip hop tag they helped to inspire and propagate, they’re now seen to embody that most superficial and noncommittal of genres: metropolitan dilettantes producing lazy wallpaper music for all-night student weed sessions and media professionals’ dinner parties.

So, which of these arguments are we to look to, when trying to predict Lavelle’s intentions for Meltdown or the recently-reactivated Mo’Wax name? Which of these perspectives will ultimately come to define the label and the man?

Certainly, there’s some truth in the criticisms thrown Mo’Wax’s way. It’s unavoidable, given the breadth and volume of their output, that their quality control suffered: for every record like Endtroducing, where hip hop collage was stretched into new and ambitious forms, there were plenty of limp pastiches, with a generic breakbeat lazily slapped over some polite jazz licks. What’s more, by stripping out hip hop’s vocals or jazz’s revolutionary origins, and focusing instead on abstract beats and immersive textures, the signature Mo’Wax sound was more often than not denuded of lyrical or social context, and felt sanitised as a result.

The label could sometimes suffer from a kind of cultural tourism; again, the breadth of the Mo’Wax discography made it difficult for them to engage deeply with all of the genres and cultures they covered. A dancehall compilation here, a couple of Miami bass LPs there, the odd bit of post-punk or Chicago house with a remix chucked in – the result was excitingly varied but, perhaps inevitably, also felt superficial and ephemeral at times.

Similar criticisms are inevitably also levelled at Lavelle himself. The argument goes that he was a bit too selfish and middle class, riffing on street style but ultimately driven by ego and business concerns – a successful but faintly unloveable character, with far more industry than artistry about him.

You could maybe point to Lavelle’s rotating cast of collaborators on the UNKLE project as evidence of this (or the fact that he steered its artistic direction without necessarily playing or producing much of the music, at least on their early albums). In particular, there’s the Psyence Fiction LP in 1998. Ambitious and beautiful in places, heavy on celebrity appearances and self-mythologising, it marked Mo’Wax’s high point in terms of media attention, the beginning of the label’s decline as a creative force and (probably not coincidentally) the point at which Lavelle first started marketing himself as an artist rather than just a facilitator.

Interviews on the Mo’Wax Please fansite with Charlie Dark from Attica Blues and the label’s original designer Swifty also point to subtle but important changes in their working relationships with Lavelle. "Everything changed after the A&M deal… we felt surplus to requirements," says Dark; Swifty describes being edged out by a younger crowd when Mo’Wax became more successful.

Not that unusual a scenario perhaps, but you can still detect a faint edge of resentment, dulled by the intervening years. Perhaps the tight-knit scene around Mo’Wax made such changes harder to deal with: "It’s all water under the bridge now," says Swifty, "but I still feel like I lost a friend rather than a client". Lavelle himself alludes to something similar: "I think a lot of [my] relationships last for a certain period of time… people tend to move on and do their own thing, which I’ve learned to accept".

Mo’Wax Please has also uploaded a telling interview with Lavelle, culled from a book about young British business owners, written in 1997 and dealing with the then-recent Mo’Wax / A&M deal. Speaking about the future, Lavelle lays out his bold aspirations: "With A&M, it’s about building a company. Essentially, we are a joint venture… one day, we could be viewed in the same way that A&M is within Polygram".

Imagine a similar sentiment being expressed by one of Lavelle’s contemporary equivalents, say Ron Morelli selling L.I.E.S to Live Nation, or Kode 9 turning Hyperdub into the next EMI. It’s nearly impossible to visualise anyone else in their position saying, as Lavelle did in that same interview:

"There are lots of people out there who constantly repeat, "I do this for the music", and blah blah blah. Well, I do it for the music, too. But at the end of the day, I want to be here for twenty or thirty years. This is my career. I don’t want to be selling two thousand records when I could sell half a million, because people want to hear the music. What is music about anyway? It’s about getting what you do out to people."

Prevailing wisdom says that labels who carve out their own specific niche and make music without regard for market concerns therefore retain more of their artistic gravitas, are somehow purer or more laudable; and even when they don’t actually operate according to those ideals, their marketing tends to portray them along those lines. By comparison, Lavelle’s willingness to go for something so overtly capitalist sounds opportunistic and inauthentic.

And yet, whatever you think of Lavelle, his passionate belief in the music Mo’Wax put out or from which he took his inspiration is evident. Listening to him speak even now, you can hear a glimmer of that same teenage earnestness, a tribal affiliation to the music he’s spent his life working on.

What’s more, the eventual demise of Mo’Wax suggests that maybe his reputation as a savvy industry hustler isn’t quite so accurate. A more profitable approach would surely have been to keep knocking out standard-issue jazzy beats, leveraging the label’s indie credibility and not rocking the boat, rather than trying to have it all, and crashing out before the age of 30.

Instead, Mo’Wax tried repeatedly to push its core audience out of its comfort zone. In a run of five consecutive catalogue numbers in 1999, well past the label’s halcyon days, you’ll still find hip hop supergroup Quannum trying out old school retro funk, followed by the Psychonauts’ kosmiche disco, then an indie-rock 7" by South (unsigned and practically unknown at the time), an LP of filthy electro bass from DJ Magic Mike and finally Divine Styler’s abrasive, futuristic battle raps. Not all of it was good, and some of it was rubbish, but it was all defiantly ambitious in one way or another.

Lavelle may have planned to create a dynasty, but in reality his urge to pursue all of the things he wanted seems to have worked against him. Signing with A&M was supposed to have empowered him, but in fact he ended up hopelessly restricted, unable to sign the acts he wanted. He’s spoken a few times of the ones that got away in the last few years of the label: Felix da Housecat, the Neptunes, and so on; a 2001 UK garage record from Digital Dubz and Elephant Man was signed but never released; the label came close to distributing Def Jam in the UK, and so might have ended up focusing on straight-up hip hop.

You get the sense of numerous avenues left unexplored, any of which might have provided the next catalyst for Mo’Wax to continue as a cultural force. It’s intriguing to think what their curatorial recklessness and unique focus on integrating design and sound might have produced, if applied to the scenes which emerged later (it’s surely no coincidence that two of the most acclaimed and exciting labels to have come to prominence since Mo’Wax ended have been run by Lavelle’s former colleagues: Tim Goldsworthy at DFA Records, and Will Bankhead at The Trilogy Tapes).

Indeed, several Mo’Wax releases were hopelessly ahead of the game. In 1997 they put out a reissue compilation by 70s punk-funk act Liquid Liquid, to little or no fanfare; a few years later, the same band were re-rediscovered by DFA to massive acclaim. Another reissue, of Innerzone Orchestra’s ‘Bug In The Bassbin’, included a 4 Hero remix which mapped out West London broken beat eight years early. Skelf’s series of late-period 12"s are pure analogue hardware jams, sitting there waiting to be rediscovered by the outsider house crowd.

And so we come back around to Meltdown, either an opportunity for Lavelle to answer his critics and recapture some of the brash, fearless charm of Mo’Wax in its imperial phase, or evidence of his continued ability for self-promotion, given he’s done little of note in the decade or so since the label folded.

You could certainly dream up some fascinatingly weird lineups from Mo’Wax’s roster over the years. The London Symphony Orchestra performing the cinematic song-cycles of David Axelrod in the Royal Festival Hall, supported by Sly and Lenky’s abstract dancehall. DJ Krush sculpting his perfectly-poised and minimal beats in the Purcell Room, followed swiftly by DJ Assault’s raucous, hyper-sexualised booty rap. Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin and Kirk Degiorgio spinning deep spiritual techno in the basement alongside Money Mark’s bubblegum pop and Dr Octagon’s woozy raps about paramedic foetuses.

On the other hand, it’s possible that we’ll end up with a lineup drawn from the second half of Lavelle’s career: the gradual decline of Mo’Wax after Psyence Fiction; the fallow years following the label’s closure in 2003, with Lavelle flying round the world’s enormo-clubs to bash out functional tech-house; those later UNKLE albums of nondescript bloke-rock.

Or maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get neither of these options. As someone who grew up idolising Mo’Wax through my teenage years, and through whom I discovered almost all of the music I love now, I hope the next phase of Lavelle’s career will capture all the chaotic spirit of his earlier years, without attempting to nostalgically reheat its content.

At a time when so much critically-acclaimed electronic music is obsessed with recapturing the past – all-analogue gear recorded direct to tape, and endless variations thereof – the time’s surely right for someone with Lavelle’s ambition and single-mindedness to step in and offer us something which looks to the future.

So far, the reincorporated Mo’Wax are producing a book and art exhibition about their history, and a deluxe reissue of Psyence Fiction, all branded under the somewhat inaccurate ‘Mo’Wax 21’ banner. It’s good to have them back, but if they were to aim higher, dig a little deeper, who knows what they might achieve?

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