The Man From Unkle: A Look Back at Mo Wax and Psyence Fiction

Son Raw takes a look back at James Lavelle circa 1998 and Unkle's divisive (but actually pretty great) debut record.
By    October 22, 2018

Son Raw is getting ahead in the lucrative field of artist management

In The Man from Mo Wax, the very worthwhile new documentary on UK cool-hunter, label head and DJ James Lavelle, Unkle’s Psyence Fiction album is depicted as the moment it all went wrong, and Mo Wax’s five years of turning breakbeats into gold (and toys, and shoes) came to a screeching halt. Ostensibly a record by DJ Shadow and Lavelle – who (in)famously didn’t play an instrument or touch a sampler – Psyence Fiction was panned by the British music press and ignored by America’s*, all as the duo behind the album came apart. In archival interviews, a (presumably coked up) Lavelle boasts about the record’s creativity like England’s very own Puff Daddy while Shadow deadpans the camera with a look in his eyes that screams “just kill me now.”

The two performed a total of once, on Top of The Pops, and Shadow (allegedly) refused to let Lavelle DJ alongside him, relegating the group’s idea man to twiddle around on a mellotron. Shadow then quickly left Lavelle’s orbit for (somewhat) greener pastures and Unkle and Lavelle never truly recovered.

That’s the sort of drama that makes for riveting filmmaking, but it doesn’t really tap into why Psyence Fiction was so divisive among critics and listeners. It’s true that the UK music press is particularly fond of building up its heroes to knock them down, and by ’98 Lavelle was ripe for the picking. Throughout the ’90’s, his A&Ring had a Midas Touch that helped transition London club land away from rare groove and acid jazz and towards trip hop, and his international outlook saw him pluck beatmakers and emcees from Paris, Tokyo and The Bay Area – locales oft-overlooked by the mainstream in the ’90’s.

This hipster aesthetic even went beyond music at a time when music/fashion industry collaborations simply didn’t exist: as handy-cam footage from the Man From Mo Wax makes abundantly clear, Lavelle was wearing BAPE and making toys a solid 15 years before Pharrell. By neatly sidestepping Rave’s populist excesses, Rock’s conservatism, and Hip Hop’s harshness while plucking the most accessible bits from each of these genres, Lavelle sold a boatload of records and seemed impossibly cool… until he wasn’t.

Mo Wax’s cut and paste, retro-chic aesthetic embodied the 90s, but by the time Psyence Fiction dropped in the summer of 98’, the streets had already entered the new millennium, musically anyways. Stateside, Timbaland, Swizz Beats and Mannie Fresh were rapidly and definitively cleaving rap from the dusty breakbeats that had defined it since Marley Marl touched a sampler, while crews like Ruff Ryders, Rocafella, Murder Inc, Cash Money and Aftermath delivered rugged, streetwise raps then incompatible with smiley hipster tourism.

Meanwhile, Big Beat’s rave+rockstar formula sold records but felt instantly corny, particularly considering the far more interesting style of UK Garage was rapidly morphing into 2-Step on pirate radio. In both cases, the message was clear: breakbeats were sooo 90s, and listeners seeking fresh sounds were spoiled for choice. Psyence Fiction, the album overseen by cool-hunter Lavelle, was uncool on arrival.

That alone would have been enough to relegate Psyence Fiction to a signpost marking the end of an era: 97’s Wu-Tang Forever played a similar role for the mid 90s’ dusty boom bap. But Psyence Fiction isn’t just a bunch of breaks, it was Mo Wax’s grasp at rockist credibility and rock n’ roll excess, and that meant songs, man. Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Ian Brown and Badly Drawn Boy, the cream of the Brit Pop crop, all make appearances alongside string sections, film dialogue and other high-art, big money signifiers doomed to appear impossibly dated the minute the music industry downsized. It’s hard to fathom the amount of money spent on this thing, from flights to Skywalker Ranch to session musicians, to well, drugs. It’s as good a record as any to represent the naïve possibility and gaudy excess of Tony Blair’s early New Labour, laissez-faire capitalism.

And yet, despite all of this, in hindsight, Psyence Fiction is not a bad record. It’s actually kind of great.

Opening number “Guns of Death (Part 1)” is Kool G Rap at his finest, rapping over DJ Shadow’s busiest breaks, and while it’s a million miles from the Mafioso cool he’s remembered for on 456, if you squint you can see how a suburban kid raised on Road to the Riches might think G Rap would sound really cool out in space. Alice Temple’s voice on ‘Bloodstain’, surely the album’s most underrated vocal track, is positively frosty, and predicts Hype Williams (the band)’s entire aesthetic a decade early.

And despite their rock star ambitions, Ashcroft’s “Lonely Soul” and Yorke’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” totally deliver – a few years before the underground and mainstream definitively parted ways, this sort of soaring pop ballad with underground roots still had a shot at MTV and radio, and everyone involved gives their best effort to make sure the tracks hit their mark. Over the top? Definitely. But also brilliant pop music that blows away anything say, 21 Pilots or Imagine Dragons, has ever made.

Occasionally, things don’t quite gel. The cinematic breakbeat instrumentals do a solid job of tying the album together, but they also sound like Shadow running on fumes, and it’s unsurprising he’d make efforts to leave the style behind for his next solo project. Meanwhile Mike D sounds completely lost on “Drums of Death Part 2″’s noisy drum loops and Badly Drawn Boy’s punk rock noise blasts are one cliché that should have definitely been cast aside in ’92. Yet more often than not, the stylistic collisions work. There’s no way French chanteuse Atlantique Kahn’s heroin-chic folk number “Chaos” should work as part of this album and yet…

Too creative and rebellious to become a commercial Svengali Puffy or DJ Khaled but without the musical acumen and stability to evolve into Kanye West figure, James Lavelle’s post Psyence Fiction career could generously be described as spotty, and The Man From Mo Wax spends a fair chunk of its runtime detailing all of the false starts, dashed hopes and broken friendships Lavelle left in his wake. Considering later Unkle records feature Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, it’s safe to say Lavelle learned all the wrong lessons from Psyence Fiction. Yet if you’re looking for a stratospheric, over the top, maximalist testament to just how far the music industry can go when given access to talent, drugs and money, you could do far, far worse than Unkle’s debut.

*Reality doesn’t entirely bare this out, for what it’s worth. Reviews were mixed.

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