Rebel without a pause

by Amar Patel in ,

Attention all beat junkies and collectors of record art. There are lots of screenings of The Man from Mo'Wax happening this weekend across the UK. This is the story of the rise and fall and resurrection of visionary James Lavelle, who emerged in the Nineties to run one of the most daring and infuential record labels in the world. 

Mo'Wax released albums such as DJ Shadow's era-defining Endtroducing and UNKLE's star-studded Psyence Fiction, as well as seminal tracks by artists including Attica Blues, Dr Octagon and DJ Krush. The latter recalls how "Mo’Wax at that time was a label that tried to break boundaries and convention, creating new ways to build sound and art. The mentality was reflected in my music and I tried to find a new way as well."

A tape compilation called Some Scientific Abstract Type Shit was a constant companion on my travels after university, stretching my appreciation of music, introducing me to graphic design and opening up my mind to a world of outernational sounds.


Another important connection is that Lavelle, then known as the "Holygoof", got his big break writing a column called Mo'Wax Please in Straight No Chaser magazine, an important hub for club culture around the world. It was also where I began writing in London. I still remember publisher and editor Paul Bradshaw telling me the story of how this lanky kid with spectacles strolled into the office on Coronet Street and declared, "You need me."


I had a chance to watch the film the other night and it was absorbing on many levels. The producers said they wanted to make a film for the label fans, documentary lovers and the uninitiated. They have definitely succeeded on all fronts. The archive footage is tremendous, particularly those grainy moments from Nineties' London clubland (nights such as That's How it Is at Bar Rumba). The flow and pacing are superb given the amount of material collected over the past 10 years (close to 700 hours apparently). A lot of it was recorded by Lavelle on various video cameras in the studio and on tour. Mo'Wax obsessives can dive into a deluxe DVD release in September.

Feel the rush as a naive and impetuous teen from Oxford sets out to become a DJ, infiltrate the London scene, cultivate his own and then create a blockbuster-like universe around the music he loves. The artwork, the characters, the streetwear, the toys... Along the way, he brings together a crew of exceptional talent, among them graffiti artist Futura 2000, designers Ian 'Swifty' Swift, Ben Drury and Will Bankhead and director Jonathan Glazer. Sampling and synthesising in that #hiphop spirit…

You forget how young Lavelle was, negotiating with unscrupulous music executives and calling on heroes such as Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown, Massive Attack's 3D, Mike D from the Beastie Boys and Thom Yorke. “I wanted to do everything I possibly could,” he has said. But few could grasp the vision or keep up. By 18 he was running one of the coolest labels on the planet. By 21 he had earned a million pounds.

As he hurtles from goal to goal with unshakeable belief, amid all the hedonism and mounting ego, it is painful to watch friendships fracture and personal relationships disintegrate. And those wounds are still sore. The close of the first UNKLE chapter and his split from DJ Shadow are among the most awkward moments on screen.

A couple of reviews argue that there is too much focus on the 2000s and Lavelle's struggles to release more UNKLE albums with various collaborators such as Rich File, Pablo Clements from the Pyschonauts and Chris Goss. "A constant series of love affairs and divorces," as he puts it. I am not really into the music but this period is equally enthralling as the A&R man tries to become the artist himself and find new expression in turbulent times. It would have been nice to hear more reflection from Lavelle on mistakes and regrets. And there are a few absent voices such as Tim Goldsworthy, who grew up with him in Oxford, co-founded Mo'Wax and was there at the very beginning of UNKLE.

As with all great films, it’s the story within the story that makes this compelling viewing. One man trying to stay afloat as his dream implodes, the debts mount and a flailing industry begins to close in around him. But if there’s one thing about James, he is a survivor. I have always admired his hustle. Clearly, the project has been a painful but cathartic one for him. The Man From Mo'Wax is a cautionary tale, but beyond that, it is a great inspiration to get out there and make it happen your way. 

The Man from Mo'Wax is nationwide in selected cinemas. More information here

Amar Patel