ARTS : Twenty something

ROCK : At 21, James Lavelle is running one of Britain's most exciting record labels. Ben Thompson meets the youthful godfather of trip-hop
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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE 1995 Brit-pop boom becomes history, there is at least one thing that will make people pause and scratch their heads. The dictionary has a word for that one thing, and the word is albescence: n. The process of shading into or becoming white. Where the Beatles, the Who and the Small Faces immersed themselves in black American R'n'B and derived their distinctive sounds from earnest attempts to mimic it, the current Brit-pop bands who revere them have cut themselves off from that well- spring, and play music that is drained of all blackness. A new generation is not obliged to acknowledge what influenced its predecessors, but given the cosmopolitan nature of pop music in this country, the Britishness of mid-Nineties Brit-pop is peculiarly insular. What makes this doubly strange is that in the years before the Blur/Oasis explosion the most vital new home-grown pop came from the heady cross- cultural fertilisations of Soul II Soul, the Happy Mondays and Massive Attack. In comparison, the renewed predominance of "classic" guitar-based pop groups feels almost like a step back from the future.

Fortunately, other musical forces are still at work. The hyped-up fervour of jungle and the languid trans-migrations of the music widely - if to almost universal dissatisfaction - known as trip-hop, both point ways forward rather than back. In the year or so since it was coined, trip- hop has become one of those unfortunate phrases (like "grunge fashion") that marks anyone who employs it as a geek. But it is a tribute to the richness and complexity of the music it describes that the attempt at a catch-all term should be so generally deemed inadequate.

Basically, the music we are talking about is the downbeat to jungle's up. British in base but international in outlook, it grew out of the hip- hop innovations of the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest and Massive Attack, and is now spiralling off, at its own pace, in innumerable different directions. Its two most celebrated practitioners - Portishead and Tricky - have already made the switch into the mainstream, but the music still exists as an undercurrent. An undercurrent whose flow can be discerned at its most inviting in the activities of a north-London-based record company called Mo'Wax.

Mo'Wax's founder and life force is 21-year-old James Lavelle. Sitting in his Caledonian Road office, surrounded by Star Wars memorabilia and the originals of the graffiti art which would make his label's sleeve design a landmark, Lavelle nibbles gingerly at a piece of toast. He snuffles piteously, paying the price for his jet-set lifestyle - just back from New York, just off to Paris - with a vicious head-cold. Lavelle already has a big name as a fan who makes things happen, but his name would be even bigger if he'd had the money to back up the judgement that led him to court both Portishead and Tricky long before anyone else. "I'd rather not get into that," he says, more cheerfully than might be expected, "it doesn't really have any relevance anymore." Thanks to a deal with A&M, Lavelle now has "that little bit of clout you occasionally need", and can henceforth put his money where his ears are. Recent Mo'Wax releases have included fine albums by Japanese DJ Krush and Beastie Boys keyboard player Money Mark. A new single called "Rocking Chair", to be released in January by orchestrally enhanced dance diva Andrea Parker, threatens to be one of the records of next year. One of Mo'Wax's achievements has been to break out of the parochialism which dogged earlier dance labels such as Talkin' Loud and Acid Jazz. Another has been to carry a torch for vinyl - Mo'Wax Please, meaning more vinyl please, was the name of a club Lavelle ran in his hometown of Oxford - at a time when the music industry was trying to kill it off. Lavelle started DJ-ing when he was 14, and came down to London on Saturdays to work in record shops. He still seems caught up in the magic of the record spinning on the turntable.

Isn't there something a bit sad about how much emotional investment middle- class British people are prepared to make in US hip-hop culture? "No," says Lavelle firmly. "I think if you try and act it out - if you try and represent what Method Man [scary American rapper] represents - you're a bit sad. But even though it's difficult for people to remember this now, hip-hop was very universal when it started - racially and in all ways it was very mixed. If you think about the Beastie Boys, they're not just middle-class, they're upper-upper-upper-class - Mike D's mum is the third or fourth biggest art dealer in America!"

Fears that Lavelle himself might turn out to be some Branson-esque mini- mogul prove entirely unfounded on meeting him. "I was always kind of a loner at school," he remembers. "I didn't really get on with that many people, and Mo'Wax was the one thing that was mine and nobody could take it away from me. Now because it's all going well, I've got so many more friends and people around me that I've kind of slacked off." Does his extreme youth cause him any problems in a field where respect is all? "Everyone snaps at you because you haven't got as much history as they have," he admits. "But I don't complain, because I know it's true." !