When legendary DJ and U.N.K.L.E. creator James Lavelle started his career, he felt overwhelmed and out of his depth. At the tender age of 18, he had no experience, no money, and he was competing against established, successful records executives with deep wallets. But he didn’t let that stop him. He went on to produce some of the most exciting, original and cutting edge records of our time. Here’s how he did it and how you can apply the same mindset to your own industry. Whatever it is…
Your record label “Mo’ Wax” was known for producing groundbreaking records by unconventional musicians, with unique artwork and packaging. Were you ever worried about doing things that hadn’t been done before?
James: That’s what fueled my fire and still does. I find it very frustrating because if you’re an artist with a good sense of visualizing things, you tend to see things in a way that other people don’t. You see it in your head and you think, “If I want to buy it, I’m sure others will want to buy it”. But you’re fighting a system that says people just want the same shit.
I think it’s essential for all creatives to push the boundaries whatever way they can, no matter how big or small. It’s just about taking something and giving it a sense of love and detail, trying to be unique. It’s the most important thing that we can do.
You were certainly breaking the mould at a very young age. Talk me through the process of starting the record label when you were just 18 years old.
James: I was completely naive at the time, I was always hustling to get in and get by. I made a lot of contacts in America – because at that time, Hip-Hop tracks were only being released on CD. So the only way you could get hold of them on vinyl was to hook up with a record label. I became friends with two really influential people, Alby who ran Tommy Boy Records and DJ Jules who was big in the New York Hip-Hop scene.
I told them I was starting a label through my column in the magazine, Straight No Chaser, and people just started giving me demos. I borrowed some money from Mark Ainley who owned a record shop, and another friend hooked me up with an independent music distributor.
When I started putting out records through Mo’ Wax, I was basically learning by my mistakes. It was pretty much like the lunatics were running the asylum. It was never a fully planned business venture. It wasn’t about how many records I sold, it was more about the ideas. We were completely in our own little bubble.
It sounds pretty daunting, what were the biggest challenges you had to overcome?
James: Just being 18 and setting everything up was hard enough. And although I had people’s support, I also had the feeling they thought I couldn’t do it. I was always the new kid on the block, the youngest and most inexperienced one. It was pretty hard to gain respect.
There were great bands around like Tricky and Portishead, and I was well aware of them way before the major record labels. I’d worked with both these artists, but they wouldn’t get involved on a serious level because I was an 18-year-old kid. Even though I had my own record label, the people I was up against were very successful record executives.
How did you handle the business aspect of running a record label? There must have been a lot of tough decisions?
James: If you want to run a record label, be prepared to not have many friends. It’s very difficult. You build a world around yourself. The music industry develops a lot of egos – some things work and some things don’t, and ultimately you’re the one who is accountable. The artist is never responsible; it’s always the label – sometimes rightly so, sometimes wrongly so.
There’s also a “glory day” period where everybody works perfectly together, and it’s “All for one, and one for all.” Then suddenly one band does better than another and gradually the jealously creeps in, frustrations erupt, and people aren’t happy anymore. You have to sort it all out, and you have to remember it’s a business. I really struggled at first; I was young and inexperienced.
On the ball
It sounds like a really challenging environment, what were the key lessons you learned?
James: I was obsessed with putting out records and music I truly adored, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the business side of things. So I think one of the greatest lessons you need to learn is who you choose to surround yourself with. I was quite anarchic in my attitude, which was, “A spliff and a handshake is all that’s needed, and don’t worry about making money.”
I had pretty eccentric people around me, and as a result they didn’t have the qualities which were required. But I didn’t want to be Island Records. I didn’t want to have to sign some band just because they would be commercially successful. Essentially what we did musically crossed over globally. We changed people’s perceptions of music, we embraced multicultural avant-garde ideas. But it was also something that made Mo’ Wax implode, and it became a burn-out in the end.
I work very differently now. The people I have around me are organized and on the ball. They know exactly what needs to be done, and they focus on the most important aspects of the business.
But being young obviously never stopped you from taking action, I know your music career began even earlier than this. At 15 you got work experience in a record shop. What inspired you to decide to get a job involving music?
James: When I was a kid, music was played a lot in my house. My father was a very good jazz drummer and a folk singer. He used to play with an Irish folk band called The Dubliners. Plus my grandmother was the first Irish woman to get into the Philharmonic Orchestra. She was also the first woman to ever get a music scholarship. Also, my grandfather was a singer on BBC Radio 2. I never met him, but there was a massive musical influence from that side of my family.
So how did you go about actually getting the work experience in the record shop?
James: From the age of about 14, I frequently used to go to London to buy records. Eventually I managed to get some work experience for a week in a record shop called Bluebird. After that, I actually ended up continuing to work there for another two years, just working at the weekends. There were three stores in London, and they were the most successful import stores of that generation, so I really wanted to work there.
Did you just enjoy listening to music, or did you ever learn to play an instrument?
James: My grandmother was a piano and cello teacher, so from the age of 8 I had cello lessons until I was about 12 or 13. It was amazing, but I was a kid and it was a very pressurized situation. I was only learning because my family wanted me to. My grandmother was very strict, and for me it was extremely difficult to learn an instrument in such a disciplined environment. I found it hard, and I ended up rebelling against it and eventually I stopped playing all together, which is now something I regret.
Bank of Mum
After the work experience, you started putting on your own parties, how did you finance them?
James: We had our own DIY sound system that we would play at youth centers and house parties. I borrowed money from my mum, bought myself some decks, and I put on a party, which earned me the cash to pay her back. Those were the gigs where I first started DJing, and music was primarily influenced by bands like Soul II Soul, Massive Attack and The Wild Bunch, a mix of influences from Bristol and London.
How did you end up getting a job working for a music magazine?
James: A week after the record shop Bluebird closed down, I got another work experience placement at Honest Jon’s record shop in London. It was here that I started writing for the magazine, “Straight No Chaser”, and also i.D Magazine. I was also putting on “Mo’ Wax Please”, a club night in Oxford, which then metamorphosed into the “Mo’ Wax” record label.
Starting out as a music journalist with no formal experience or qualification you must have felt a bit nervous. Did you have any support from people around you?
James: Yes, people from Straight No Chaser magazine were very supportive, as were the guys at Honest Jon’s. I was also very good friends with a music journalist called Cynthia Rose who helped bands succeed, like “Soul II Soul”. She really encouraged me with what I was doing.
The first wave
So it sounds like, by just getting yourself out there you were meeting a lot of influential people from the industry. Who else did you meet that had an big impact on your career?
James: Yeah, it was pretty exciting, I met the first wave of the most influential producers, artists and label bosses of our generation. There were a lot of Hip-Hop producers from America and industry people from Japan at the record store. So that’s how I hooked up with my crew, people like DJ Tim Goldsworthy who then went on to form DFA Records, designer, DJ and record owner Trevor Jackson, and Richard Russell who owns XL Recordings.
I also met Karl Templer who became the men’s fashion editor for Arena and The Face magazine, Michael Koppelman who ended up running Stussy and Bathing Ape, and Fraser Cooke who is the head of international marketing for Nike. Those were the people who I was hanging out with in the record store, so it was an amazing time to be working there. I was also the resident DJ at Fridge, a club in Brixton. At 17, I was the youngest resident in London at that time, and I was DJing with Norman Jay and Gilles Peterson
So do you think meeting all the key figures in the industry was essential for your progression?
James: Oh yeah, of course! But there was also a big generational change happening at that time. It was a global change rather than just in the UK, and I was fortunate enough to be part of that, and I had met the people who really influenced that change.
You’ve worked with some world-class musicians. What’s the secret to having a successful working relationship with other people?
James: The people that I have long-term relationships with now are very good at tolerating my madness, because I’m probably an incredibly frustrating person to work with! Not intentionally, but I tend to try and push things as far as I can, to aim for the best. That can be quite demanding on people. So I think a lot of relationships last for a certain period of time, and then because of the intensity people tend to move on and do their own thing, which I’ve learned to accept.
Work with the best
How important is collaboration to you?
James: I love to collaborate. I’m not someone who wants to sit in a studio and make music on my own. I would rather work with the best person to mix it, the best artist to do a painting for the cover, the best video director, the best singer. Because it’s an incredible creative experience for me, I enjoy it, and I feed off other people.
For example, I never felt rooted in England, and I never felt particularly “English”. The generation I grew up with was about football, drinking beer, and being a lad. It wasn’t something that influenced me. I always looked towards Japan and America. I especially liked urban toys, design and street-influenced fashion back then.
I stumbled upon a generation of people like Nino from Bathing Ape. We were all trying to achieve the same things. We all had made a little bit of money at a young age, and were able to buy into and support a scene that the older generation weren’t interested in. We developed a cool new culture making things like toys, cool clothing and the second generation of street art. It just happened that a pocket of us existed internationally, and we all found each other and started collaborating.
Ego, relationships, money
Do you think it’s good to have someone in the wings to push you, so you progress and develop your skills?
James: Absolutely! But a lot of people don’t want to hear that. Artists, musicians, and even people in general seem to get to a point, maybe a certain skill level or experience, and they don’t want to hear that they might be doing something wrong or that there’s a more effective way of doing things.
The biggest things that destroy what I do musically are ego, relationships and money. These are all things that don’t exist when you first start, but they gather along the way. I’ve made my own mistakes too, but now I surround myself with people who have an opinion, who are happy with where they are in life, and who want to achieve the same goals as me. These tend to be people with a lot of experience or who have gone through similar things themselves.
But this is because I’m at a different stage of my life now. So I guess the other side of what I’m saying is that sometimes the best things come out of the worst situations. It’s a nightmare because some of the best work I’ve ever done has come out of the worse periods of relationships or arguments. Although now I try to avoid chaos, and it’s not something that I need in order to be creative. Maybe that’s because I’m getting older! What we did with Mo’ Wax at that time was something unique, and I don’t think it could be repeated because all that madness and all that energy came out of naivety and non-experience.
You’ve just got to do it
You’ve done other creative projects including films, co-founded a fashion line called Surrender and produced urban vinyl toys. What’s your advice for people who want to branch out and venture into other areas?
James: It’s down to the individual person, on one hand they do need to focus and be the master of their art first. People will say that Jimmy Page is the greatest guitarist of all time, and bang, that’s it. That’s all he ever wanted to be, and what he’ll be remembered for forever. That’s a great achievement, but I’m certainly not going to have that. I’m one of those people who dance around and do different things, because I can’t stay still. I’m not sure if that has been beneficial financially, but it has certainly broadened my outlook creatively.
Ultimately you’ve just got to do it. A lot of artists and musicians put out some great pieces of work, but you could be John Lennon or Picasso, and there’s always going to be some people who aren’t into what you do. But just by getting your creativity out there, and building that body of work, you will progress. You’ve got to go out and try and change the world in whatever little way you can, and it is possible.
You’ve got to kick the fucking doors down and experience it yourself. It’s the only way you can move forward. Those ideas and those beliefs are so important especially when you have youth on your side! However, you can do it at any age. But I don’t think you can go and learn this trade at college though; you’ve got to go out there and do it.
People can be venomous
Has your attitude and your work process changed a lot over the years?
James: Yes, my attitude has changed a great deal! But that’s from experience, and I find making records a lot easier now than I did when we first started. But I’m also very un-materialistic now. I’m really happy that I was involved in making toys and doing all that kind of stuff, but I don’t really have much desire to do it anymore. I just find everything mass-produced and so over-done, it’s not special anymore. It’s lost its uniqueness.
Doing things so differently to everyone else, you no doubt get talked about a lot in the press and online, how do you handle negative comments?
James: I’m just doing what I like doing, and I think I’ve been involved in some really interesting things. But it can be hard you know, and people can be so venomous about what you do. It’s quite extraordinary. But you just have to believe in what you do.
I think if you can try and ride it out, hopefully positive things come from it, and essentially the most important thing is, the people who buy your work and appreciate what you do. They’re what really matter.
People hated Led Zepplin at the time, but now they’re considered the greatest rock band that ever lived. It’s kinda ironic, you know!
If I can do it, then so can you
Your work has inspired and entertained so many people…
James: Well, that’s the greatest gift that I could hope to ever have given someone. That’s the most amazing thing, and yeah, that’s a selfish reason I do it. I make records because I want to express myself, but ultimately to be able to contribute and inspire somebody like that is an incredible thing.
I want something that I do to be beneficial and have a positive influence. I don’t mean that in some overly spiritual kind of way! But, if I can do it, then so can you. That’s what’s important.
Over to you
James nurtured his passion for music from an early age. He seized every opportunity, nurtured every contact, and didn’t let people’s attitudes deter him. Like he said: “Whatever you want to do, just do it”. Follow his advice and take some action. Right now. Go kick some fucking doors down.
Connect with James Lavelle
Credits: Interview by Angel Greenham. Edit by Paul Montreal. Portrait by James Naccarato.