Like the rest of us, it was the parental record collection that switched James Lavelle on to music, early Lavelle sets included the likes of Stevie Wonder and Deep Purple, an eclectic mix that was an embryonic blueprint both for James Lavelle as a DJ and for his label Mo’ Wax; good tunes are good tunes – the genre doesn’t matter.
But back to the young James. And hip-hop, the one style of music that initially captivated him. It wasn’t just the music; the UK’s fledgling hip-hop scene was as much about Tacchini as it was Whodini and the breaks were the rhythms for breakdancing. Which James couldn’t do (see above). Not that it mattered, he was already sold on the breaks.
Inspired by the sound systems put together by the likes of Afrikaa Bambaata in the states and by the Wild Bunch over in Bristol, James started buying records by the bucketload and providing the soundtracks to his home town Oxford’s own blockparty scene. The first party he put on, at 15, made him enough money to get a pair of decks and with Oxford starting to run out of vinyl, London beckoned. There’s probably no better example of right place, right time.
Even during his work experience, at Bluebird records in West London, James Lavelle was selling tunes to the founding fathers of modern British dance. Pete Tong, Dave Dorrell, Norman Jay, Tim Simenon- the list is as long as it is distinguished. It also included Gilles Peterson, whose new Talkin’ Loud label, with its fusion of different sounds, had given James an idea for a label of his own.
Taking its name from the night he’d started promoting, Mo’ Wax Please, Mo’ Wax was set up in 1993 with a £1,000 from Honest Jon’s Records where James (still only 19) now worked. At Honest Jon’s, James had started putting hip-hop tracks alongside the classic breaks that had inspired them; from the outset Mo’ Wax worked along similar lines.
Out on the floor, James was again looking to do something different. He was playing Saturdays at the Fridge in Brixton and with Patrick Forge at the Gardening Club but was looking to take the anything goes eclecticism of Mo’ Wax Please to a bigger audience- which made starting a club on a Monday night seem a bit odd. But That’s How It Is, founded with Gilles Peterson at Bar Rumba was an instant classic and eight years down the line is still at the same time and in the same place. How many clubs can you say that about?
Meanwhile, Mo’ Wax was taking the Lavelle musical approach to even greater heights with the release in 1996 of DJ Shadow’s seminal ‘Entroducing’, a record that turned music on its head and catapulted Mo’ Wax into the spotlight as never before. James says simply ‘It changed everything’ and for a while things did go a bit mad with both him and his label in ever increasing demand. With his laconic DIY approach to music overtaken by business and celebrity James chose this time to decamp to Los Angeles to spend three months working on a new brainchild, an album of his own, to be called UNKLE. It took five years.
With contributions from Ian Brown, Richard Ashcroft and Thom Yorke, UNKLE was an immense piece of work, the Britsh alternative dance record that James had always envisaged making. But the sheer length of time spent in the studio inspired James primarily to get back into clubs and to start DJing again. A DJ support slot for the Verve followed, as did a season in Ibiza and opening night sets at London superclubs Scala and Fabric, where he started his now famous Friday night residency.
It was a back to his roots move; a chance to play the records he loved to people who loved them, to both entertain and educate a whole new generation of clubbers in the same way he’d been entertained and educated in the ‘80s. Because ultimately, James is just a music fan like everybody else. ’The school kid with the broken glasses who made it’ is how he terms it. ‘I don’t want to be in magazines, I just want to play records’.
In between playing records, James has found time to produce guitar band South, and provide the soundtrack for Jonathan Glaser acclaimed movie ‘Sexy Beast’ which threw him in at the deep end but gave James the chance to rediscover his DIY approach to music, an approach he never lost but one increasingly difficult to hold on to.
Not that he really needs to worry- his sheer enthusiasm for his music ensures its freshness. James is one of those characters who seems to be constantly pinching himself to make sure its true. ’I’ve got the luckiest job in the world’ he says, and you can’t help but believe him. This is the lad who has gone from stealing VW badges to being namechecked on record by Mike D, the same Mike D who said it was only Mo’ Wax that made it worth going to Britain, the same Mike D who partly inspired James Lavelle to make music in the first place.
The James Lavelle musical revoloution has gone full circle and that big wheel just keeps on turning.