MO' WAX

“The musical legacy of Mo’ Wax is undeniable"

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Words by Iain Akerman

I first encountered Mo’ Wax in the summer of 1994. I had picked up a compilation album called Royaltie$ Overdue by chance and, based on the notes ‘Sixteen ill electro trax spannin’ two years of music, clubs, art ’n’ all that shit’, had taken it home for a speculative spin. 

It was the label’s first compilation and I was just 22. It had everything. Turntablism, break beats, hip-hop, jazz-funk, even a remix by Portishead. It’s impact was immediate.

For a short, but important period of time, in the mid-90s Mo’ Wax could do no wrong. It gave birth to hip-hop hybrid trip-hop, blended music, art and design, and gave us DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, DJ Krush’s Strictly Turntablized, and Attica Blues’ Contemplating Jazz.

The Italian label Schema, the epicentre of the new bossa jazz scene, would hold similar sway over me in the early 2000s, and Brighton’s Tru Thoughts when it was pumping out 7ins from The Quantic Soul Orchestra and Natural-Self, but neither had the far-reaching impact of Mo’ Wax, which had been founded by James Lavelle in London in 1992.

“The musical legacy of Mo’ Wax is undeniable, with almost any electronic musician who grew up in the 90’s citing it as a strong influence,” says Dale Cooper (real name Ben), a DJ, vinyl head and radio host based in Dijon, France. Back in 1996, he was into hip-hop, DJing and doing “crap scratches for a crap rap band”.  

“That year I won a sampler of Faces Z (a Mo’ Wax compilation released in France) at a local radio station, which ended up untouched on a pile of CDs for some weeks, until one day I randomly loaded it in the player,” he recalls. “I was very sick and feverish and heard the whole album while I was semi asleep: Attica Blues, DJ Shadow, Clubbed To Death, Money Mark... I had never heard of any of them before. One hour later I was caught, forever. I know it might sound excessive, but that was one of the most intense musical experiences of my life.

“I was already into vinyl, but with Mo’ Wax it quickly became an obsession. I loved the idea of multiple versions. I discovered the pleasure of knowing the catalogue number of every single one of them and trying to find them all. I started digging in the crates and visiting London at least once a year, mostly to find Mo’ Wax records.”

Unlike other labels, Mo’ Wax was a multi-faceted brand. It brought together music and art and, regardless of whether you enjoyed the label’s music or not, Lavelle’s use of graphic design was pioneering. Throughout the label’s 10-year history it produced more than 400 record sleeves, the majority designed by either Ian Swift or Ben Drury, with artwork from the likes of American graffiti artist Futura and Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja (aka 3D). 

“Mo’ Wax opened my mind to music, but also design, street art and streetwear,” says Cooper. “Just like any Mo’ Wax fan, I instantly loved Futura and I’m still utterly obsessed with him. As James Lavelle likes to say, Mo’ Wax was ‘a whole package’, combining music with art and fashion. Lavelle did not invent anything, but created a place for a lot of people and cultures to meet. Futura would not be where he is today if it wasn’t for Mo’ Wax. And I might be wrong, because I was never that much into it, but I think streetwear owes a lot to Mo’ Wax, with Lavelle bringing A Bathing Ape to Europe.”

Japanese fashion label A Bathing Ape, founded by Nigo in 1993, was one of many cultural strands that connected the creative energies of Tokyo and London. Hip-hop beat maker DJ Krush, who released the dark and influential Strictly Turntablized in 1994, would become one of the label’s biggest names, while production duo Kudo and Toshio Nakanishi released a handful of tracks under the name Major Force. MediCom would also produce collectible toys for the label, although they were mainly distributed in Japan.

 DJ Shadow - Endtroducing

DJ Shadow - Endtroducing

“I was deeply involved with Mo’ Wax from 1994 to 1998,” remembers Hideaki Ishi, better known as DJ Krush. “I had quit Krush Posse between 1990 and 1992, and gone solo, making demo tapes only to make a living from music. I worked on the remix of the TVO soundtrack during this period, which led me to get worldwide recognition. I think this period was when I built a solid foundation of my music.

“Paul Bradshaw at London’s jazz magazine Straight No Chaser liked the remix and my demo tape, and James Lavelle, who looked up to Paul, listened to them as well and approached me. That’s how I remember it went down. It was when acid jazz was blowing up, but we were already moving forward to the new creation.”

Strictly Turntablized was a dark and menacing contributor to trip-hop, although it can easily be classified as instrumental hip-hop. ‘Excursions into the hip-hop avant-garde’ were the words printed on the back of the album’s sleeve.

“I think it was a big experiment to make an album only with break beats back when hip-hop was all about having rap,” says Ishi, who has since travelled the world as a successful producer, remixer and DJ. “That said, Strictly Turntablized gaining attention was a big thing to me as a DJ.

 DJ Krush

DJ Krush

“A lot of exciting music was born at that time,” he recalls. “There was a show in Bristol as part of the second Mo’ Wax tour with DJ Shadow back in the autumn of 1994. The venue was packed and there was no ventilation fan so the walls were dripping wet with the heat. My record got wet and couldn’t scratch, and I thought to myself that if I scratched as I got electrocuted, I might come up with a new trick.”

“We were all surrounded by the same equipment – turntable, mixer and so on – but we defied convention and came up with a new approach without being afraid of the criticism,” he adds. “We made music in our own way. It’s difficult to get rid of the boundaries, but I still think it’s important to seek that thing beyond.”

Krush released the album Kiseki in June this year through his own label and has another one coming out later this year. Still incredibly productive, he composed a sizeable chunk of work for Mo’ Wax, including the album Meiso in 1995. Strictly Turntablized’s Kemuri also appeared as a B-side with Shadow’s Lost and Found.

“We have different styles, but we both live to experiment and are not afraid to take a risk,” says Ishi of Shadow. “I guess we both have a young mind. I sometimes see James [Lavelle] overseas, but with DJ Shadow, The Bays, Simon Richmond (from Palm Skin Productions), we’d be like ‘what’s up’ when we see each other at festivals. It’s the same with Gilles Peterson too."

“Mo’ Wax was a label that destroyed convention, got rid of invisible boundaries, cultivated new paths, and built sound and art in it’s own way,” adds Ishi. “It reflected my music, I sympathised with it, and I cultivated my path.”

“As much as I love Strictly Turntablized, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing was and still is next level,” asserts Cooper. He has had the first Attica Blues album on repeat for years, but apart from DJ Krush and a secret love for Andrea Parker, for him the game-changer was California hip-hop innovator DJ Shadow. It was Shadow’s 1993 single In/Flux that came to epitomise the whole Mo’ Wax sound.

If nothing else, Mo’ Wax and Lavelle “gave us DJ Shadow. That alone justifies everything else” ran a comment in The Guardian back in 2013. It was a fair point. As Peter Margasak wrote in Rolling Stone in 1996, just prior to the release of Shadow’s debut album Endtroducing, In/Flux “transformed the building blocks of hip-hop into something astonishingly ambitious”.

At more than 12 minutes long, In/Flux was a sample-driven instrumental masterpiece greater than the sum of its myriad parts. The bass groove was from David T. Walker’s Never Can Say Goodbye, the drum beat from Jimmy Smith’s Number One. Everything else was taken, juggled and sampled from all over the place.

“The Alternative Interlude ’93 version of In/Flux was one of the tunes on Faces Z,” recalls Cooper, creator of Mo’ Wax Please, a site dedicated to all things Mo’ Wax. “It was my favourite track on the album and it is still my favourite track of all time. This is the one that changed my life really. To me it’s perfection made music, simple as that.”

Shadow, who’s real name is Josh Davis, discussed the making of the track with Eliot Wilder in the book 33 1/3 Endtroducing. It had been recorded in the studio of hip-hop producer Dan The Automator (Daniel Nakamura), who would become well known for producing Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagonecologyst three years later, and was commissioned by Lavelle after he’d heard Shadow’s Legitimate Mix on Hollywood Records.

 DJ SHADOW / DJ KRUSH - LOST AND FOUND - Kemuri Released 1994

DJ SHADOW / DJ KRUSH - LOST AND FOUND - Kemuri Released 1994

“I looked up to Automator,” Davis told Wilder. “He was a guy who had been to New York in the 80s buying hip-hop records, he had a lot of breaks that I didn’t know and he had a knowledge that was a lot deeper than most people in the Bay Area. He knew what he was doing. He was the first person I knew that had ProTools, and he taught me a lot about recording techniques, taught me a lot about how to sync up machines.

“Thanks to Paris [rapper Oscar Jackson], I got my first sampler. He picked me up in Davis and drove me to San Francisco, to the Guitar Center, and helped me negotiate the price down for an Akai MPC. He wasted a whole day driving me all over the damn place, which was really, really cool of him. And that’s how I got my sampler. In/Flux was the first record that I did on it. The MPC wouldn’t really catch on, with hip-hop at large, for another few years. So, again, I felt lucky on the technological curve, and was doing stuff on the machine before about 95 per cent of producers were.”

The second track Shadow produced on the MPC was Lost and Found, released by Mo’ Wax in 1994. It is one of his favourite tracks.  

“When I did it, I thought James [Lavelle] was going to hate it, actually,” Davis told Wilder. “I thought I was really doing something that was flying in the face of the whole acid jazz vibe. I thought that whole scene was really weak. Especially when hip-hop was so strong, and I’d be trying to play hip-hop to audiences in Europe. And after two songs, they’d just start giving up on me. This was when really important hip-hop records were coming out, the New York sound. It was a real exciting time, and I identified with that stuff. I didn’t really understand all this acid jazz kind of dopey sentimentality.”

Mo’ Wax was far from perfect. Lavelle himself, who had launched the label at the age of 18, divides opinion. Writing in The Guardian, Joe Muggs once described him as ‘bumptious’ and ‘precocious’, and much of the label’s output does not stand the test of time.

“It’s actually fair to say that Mo’ Wax released some crap records,” says Cooper. “I mean, what was the point of licensing DJ Assault or Magic Mike? And who has actually listened to the Sukia LP more than once? As for the Nigo album, I guess it was just for the hype.

“I remember reading reviews claiming that some of those records were too ahead of their time, but even 20 years later a lot of them are still pointless. I’d like to know James Lavelle’s opinion on this matter, but I think he was just doing what he wanted to do, as always, but it didn’t always work.”

However you look it at, Mo’ Wax as a label often feels underrated, which, considering the output of Shadow and Krush alone, sometimes feels strange.

“Yep, that’s true,” says Cooper. “The thing is, record labels are not something people care about if they’re not really into music. From my experience, for most people Mo’ Wax is just a funny logo they may have seen on the covers of Endtroducing or [UNKLE’s] Psyence Fiction. But something I still can’t understand is why, even in the 90’s, Ninja Tune was much more famous to the public than Mo’ Wax as a record label.”