The Man from Mo' Wax Review
As told by Matthew Jones’ documentary, The Man From Mo’ Wax, the arc of James Lavelle’s career is a classic story of a man who had it all in front of him at a young age, only to let it go to his head before it crashed down around him. At the same time it is also a story about ambition, determination and an important period in the evolution of modern British music.
That was back in the 90s, when at the age of 18 Lavelle formed an independent record label called Mo’ Wax. While he wasn’t blessed with musical ability (this is key to remember later) he was a sharp-eyed A&R man able to spot cutting-edge talent which enabled him to create a strong visual and aural identity for the label. The roster was full of exciting and experimental artists, with the jewel in the crown being American turntablist master DJ Shadow.
The mostly instrumental music released by Mo' Wax was often – and horribly – referred to as trip-hop, due to its smoked out sound and hip-hop roots. It built on the late-80s foundation laid by the likes of Massive Attack and the Wild Bunch, and arrived at a time when American rap was going mainstream and the underground scene started to influence kids on these shores. Elsewhere in the UK there was the Acid Jazz movement, British dance music spread from the clubs into the charts, Britpop exploded in the middle of the decade and drum'n’bass also begun to emerge.
Due to low rents and its location London's Shoreditch suddenly became a cultural centre point for labels and artists looking for space to grow with Mo’ Wax and Lavelle heavily in the mix. It's rapid rise saw A&M Records give the label strong financial backing and by the time he was barely 21 Lavelle had struck it rich and was something of an underground icon. What he needed next was a record to really make a statement. Step forward DJ Shadow and Endtroducing… a masterpiece of sampling that changed the way every electronic-based artist approached their music.
Jones’ film follows a traditional through-line, using archived camcorder footage of Lavelle during his peak at Mo’ Wax, through to the gradual downward trajectory of his career. The turning point seems to be his teaming up with DJ Shadow in UNKLE, which saw Lavelle the A&R man and record label owner determined to stake a claim as an artist. Shadow wrote and produced all of the music, while Lavelle was the man bringing in collaborators like Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke and Beastie Boys’ Mike D.
Psyence Fiction was one of the most anticipated albums of the moment but despite its sharp line-up it failed to live up to expectations. More importantly, so too did record sales. The bromance between the two quickly ended and while Lavelle remained the face of the group and a celebrity in his own right, Shadow was quietly resentful and bailed from the project. This is a pattern that seemed to repeat itself time and again over the next 15 years, with Lavelle teaming up with new collaborators for further UNKLE releases, only for each one to be less successful than the last and a number of close friendships were lost in the process.
Lavelle racked up huge debts as a result, while the music industry reacted to Napster and the growth of the internet, but the partying and jet-set lifestyle continued. There’s two failed marriages, fatherhood, numerous broken business and personal relationships and a pig-headed refusal to admit his skillset didn't match that of a recording artist. Either way, he is honest enough to let Jones put all of this failure out there on film, because there has been plenty of it over the years.
Lavelle's journey is one filled with ego and bad decisions and his unwillingness to learn from repeated mistakes cost him dearly in the end. The Mo' Wax era is the most fascinating period to look back on, and Jones could've dug a little deeper into those years as it was an influential scene we rarely hear discussed on TV or film 20 years later. While there is more than enough to cover, the two hour runtime labours the point in the end to make this a documentary never able to capitalise on its potential.