UNKLE - Biography
By David Downs
Trip-hop concept band Unkle is the ward of UK producer/DJ James Lavelle who originally teamed up with engineer/producer Tim Goldsworthy alongside Kudo in the early '90s in London. Lavelle was already a notable DJ doing popular remixes with Goldwsworthy and Kudo. The three helped fuse the UK's raging rave culture to American Hip Hop, taking it downtempo, steeping it in samples and creating a new sub-genre called trip-hop, which would later included Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky. Lavelle ditched Goldsworthy and Kudo, for hotshot American DJ Shadow, releasing the late '90s bellweather LP Psyence Fiction (1998-Mo' Wax) to great hype. The album went gold in the UK on the strength of production by Shadow and vocals by Thom Yorke of Radiohead in signature Unkle track "Rabbit In Your Headlights". Two more full LP's followed, Never Never Land (2003-Mo Wax, Global Underground), and War Stories (2007-Surrender All), but Lavelle has never met the hype preceding even Unkle's first release. Despite somber sales, Unkle can claim 194 releases of its material in one form or another as well as 198 remixes and its tracks appear on 158 different albums. Lesser known works Self Defence: Never, Never Land Reconstructed and Bonus Beats (2006-Global Underground), B-side compilation More Stories (2008-Traffic), End Titles ... Stories for Film (2008- Surrender All) and End Titles ... Redux (2008-Surrender All). Lavelle still DJs, records and tours, currently with Pablo Clement.
Unkle kingpin Lavelle was born in Oxford, England in 1974 and started off playing the cello before becoming a DJ, producer and record label owner. At age 15, he realized he couldn't dance or sing, so he hosted block parties in Oxford and by eighteen he had started the Mo Wax label. His DJ night “That's How It Is” with Gilles Peterson lent him even more credibility and he began remix projects for A-list musicians. Lavelle was prescient in his conviction that Hip Hop, Rock, skateboard culture and B-Boy culture were all related. Mo Wax embarked upon the release of some 200 records in five years, leading to working relationships with Tim Goldsworthy (friend from childhood who would later form the DFA Label with James Murphy) and Kudo of Japanese label Major Force (and a member of the on-again, off-again psychedelic beat crew Skylab).
"The Time Has Come EP" of 1994 features an early Portishead remix and remix projects for Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Tortoise and The Verve as well as a handful of singles "Berry Meditation" (1996), "Rock On" (1996) and "Ape Shall Never Kill Ape (ft. Nigo)" (1997).
In 1996 Mo Wax also released DJ Shadow's masterful hit Endtroducing...... and started working with Shadow, ditching Goldsworthy and Kudo. A mountain of hype piled upon the collaboration which also featured Richard Ashcroft of The Verve at the height of its fame, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, and Thom Yorke or Radiohead. When Psyence Fiction did appear in 1998, it failed to match such hype despite "Guns Blazing" (ft. Kool G Rap) helping it climb to number eight on the UK charts in 1999. A commercial disappointment, the record is still quite an artistic achievement, considering Kool G Rap, DJ Shadow, Lateef The Truth Speaker, Lyrics Born, and Mike D were all attached to it. The haunting, classic “Rabbit In Your Headlights” features Yorke on bass and synthesizer with music by DJ Shadow, and vocals and lyrics written by Yorke. It's an uncompromising, commercially troublesome single for similarly unpalatable record .
In 1999 Unkle single “Be There” found a huge audience, but 2000, 2001 were quiet on the Unkle front, though Lavelle never tired of DJing or remixing. The single with South "Cocaine & Camcorders" appeared in 2001 as a promo only then almost nothing for 2002. Lavelle's friend singer/songwriter Richard File then stepped in and made the second Unkle full-length possible. Never, Never, Land (2003-Mo Wax) lacked the star power of its debut or the major label press attention, despite featuring Ian Brown (The Stone Roses), Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Robert Del Naja (Massive Attack), Mani (The Stone Roses, Primal Scream) and others. Shadow was long gone to work on his own projects, and former Unkle member Goldsworthy was hitting big with DFA. Mo Wax soon folded, and Unkle's soldiered on. Ian Brown propelled sales for single “Reign”, Jarvis Cocker and Brian Eno appeared on “I Need Something Stronger”. "Eye For An Eye" hit number 31 in the UK while "In A State" made it to #44 in the UK. "Reign" also made it number fourteen on the US Hot Dance Singles Sales chart.
Again, 2005 featured nary a peep from Unkle before 2006's Self Defence b-side compilation. In 2007, singles "Burn My Shadow (ft. Ian Astbury)", "Hold My Hand", and the "Nights Temper” promo EP failed to impress critics. Lavelle and File returned with War Stories (2007-Surrender All), with Homme joining new associates Astbury, Chris Goss, Autolux, Del Naja. Rock's influences are more prominent on the release, and it preceded 2008's More Stories containing remixes and outtakes. End Titles... Stories for Film features collaborators Homme and several others. In 2010 Unkle released Where Did The Night Fall.
Despite weak sales, jilted former collaborators and a uneven output – Unkle has been immensely influential. Video games like Assassin's Creed and GTA IV, BBC TV shows, and countless advertisements and sports events have embedded Unkle riffs in the populace at large. Unkle has also remixed Explosions in the Sky, Massive Attack, and Oasis.
If Lavelle's project is considered an underachiever, it is only because Unkle failed to match the potential of its producers and all their collaborators. Instead of making pop music millions like the Verve or Radiohead, Unkle headed into the broody, noncommercial woods – where Lavelle reveled in esoteric samples and artwork. His vision has its share of detractors, but few of them can claim as many production credits, or releases. Rarely disputed is Unkle's disproportionately large influence on electronic music during the genre's most crucial and historic juncture.