Most people equate James Lavelle with his leftfield hip-hop imprint Mo’Wax, which propelled artists such as Peshay, DJ Shadow and DJ Krush to widespread popularity in the mid-nineties. The label was founded on sample-based music rooted in classic soul and funk breaks while being immersed in b-boy culture and turntablism.
Since the subsequent decline of the label, Lavelle has reinvented his deejaying sound and opened himself to new influences. While he began playing next to the likes of Gilles Peterson and Norman Jay, his celebration of eclectic jazz and hip-hop sounds has taken a backseat to the bombastic stylings of London’s underground breakbeat and tech-house scenes. This seemingly radical shift can be partially attributed to Lavelle’s Friday night residency at Fabric in London. His deejay sets at the forward-thinking club have focused his sound, as he now prefers playing for a room electrified with hands-in-the-air energy rather than attempting to be overly clever or obscure as a selector. In short, he’s taken a more populist approach — no more playing to impress the trainspotters.
Lavelle also plays and records under the ever-evolving UNKLE moniker, which in its current incarnation consists of himself and Richard File, his longtime friend and production partner. It is here that the early crate-digging days and inspirations remain alive, with the duo time-stretching samples on the fly, cutting in re-edits and generally applying a subtle hip-hop aesthetic to the dance floor.
With the Global Underground series, Lavelle was originally drafted to add some breadth and variety to a label that mostly showcased progressive house and remained strictly rooted in the rules dictated by 4/4. His first mix from Barcelona, released in 2002, seemingly broke many of these — the long fluid mixing in key, the seamless and often boring connections — and shook things up by throwing in hip-hop, samples and breakbeats while still appealing to fans of the series and selling 100,000 copies worldwide.
Now, Lavelle returns with his next installment, inspired by a set played at Studio Martin in Bucharest, Romania. The mix is divided into two CDs, the first representing the more breakbeat-based side of Lavelle’s sound. His recent mixes, Fabriclive 01 and GU Barcelona, started with more psychedelics and downtempo hip-hop, gradually gathered stream and ventured uptempo into breaks, and ended with tech-house. This fluid and genre shape-shifting dynamic is not present on the Romania mix, to the dismay of Mo’Wax purists and fans of Lavelle’s early deejaying ethic.
Instead of the characteristic beats, dusty breaks and samples one could expect early on in a Lavelle set, the first CD of the Romania mix launches directly into a sharp snare drum and snarling bass line assault with UNKLE’s reconstruction of the Queens of the Stone Age track “No One Knows.” From here, many of the recent UNKLE re-edits are showcased, ranging from DJ Shadow’s “GDMFSOB” to South’s “Colours in Waves.” These tracks are interspersed with nuschool breakbeat tracks, ranging from PFN’s electro-charged “Flow” to the sublime open chords of Santos’ “Unknown.” On the first CD, the buildups of old are decidedly lacking, and the tempo of the mix remains more or less constant. A sizeable fan base, ranging from Mo’Wax enthusiasts to Fabric regulars, likes Lavelle’s sets for their disregard of the rules, and this CD ends up adhering to them, resulting in monotony despite the strength of individual tracks.
The second CD is decidedly darker and more metallic, starting with the almost-comical “Ask Yourself” by Richie Hawtin, which personifies the sound of bad acid. Fortunately, the refined production style of fellow Fabric resident Craig Richards carries us out of this moment and kick starts the more fluid and cerebral of the CDs. Highlights include an unreleased Medway remix of “Invasion” from the newest UNKLE record, a dynamic sub-bass funk monster from Photek and Ewan Pearson’s excellent dub of the Chemical Brothers’ “Golden Path.” It concludes with a Sasha mix of UNKLE’s “In a State,” which, oddly enough, is also featured on the first disc in its original form.
The mix succeeds at its intention, which is to capture Lavelle’s evolution as a deejay and represent the sound he is currently playing out. It does dwell on occasion, leaving the listener yearning for some of the innovative and eclectic selections Lavelle made in the past, even as recently as the Barcelona mix. This is in part salvaged by the strength of the UNKLE reconstructions, which make the recording more unique as compared to a generic battering of big room tunes. It must be remembered that capturing the energy of a dance floor is an often-insurmountable task for a mix CD, but with this release, a bit more variety would have kept the listener more engaged when listening outside of the club context.