size? collections – A conversation with James Lavelle – aka UNKLE
Throughout the '90s he sat at the forefront of a very progressive movement, founding Mo' Wax Records and UNKLE, which helped mould the foundations of the street culture we all know and love today. Innovative collaborations both musically and on the art side of things with Vinyl Toys, sneaker collaborations, it was all happening, and James was one of the original instigators of it all.
So looking back towards the earlier side of your career, when you first started working on major UNKLE material, were there artists and influences that you and DJ Shadow were listening to that helped shape the sound that you were working on for Psyence Fiction?
"Yeah definitely. I think like every debut album you make you kind of throw every influence you possibly can into that record. Your early years are such a period of mass digestion of music, especially in your teenage years and the amount of information you consume in such a short period of time. So I suppose you had this period of growing up on hip hop, and electronic music, and then all of the influences that came along with that, and then finding yourself making this record, you were almost taking every influence you had possible and throwing it into that.
"We were obviously also trying to have a foot in the future, trying to do something new, but its kind of like every sort of reference point and emotion was being thrown into that record. And I think that’s quite indicative of most debut records, and usually why a lot of the time in music debut records can be the defining album in an artists career. Especially in the moment of kick-starting something new, its always going to be remembered for that moment and I think that can go through any kind of music."
Was the level of collaboration you were doing with different artists on the record a normal thing at the time or was it way out of the ordinary?
"No, it wasn't normal not at all. It was very unique to have an English and American artist collaborating together on a record, with collaborators of that nature and the areas of music people were coming from.
When that record first started, and even before Shadow came on the scene with the idea of doing a debut album, it was probably geared towards coming out of more of a soul and funk and hip hop kind of background. Especially in the way that the influences were things like Massive Attack's ‘Blue Lines’ and stuff like that. But yet when it came to doing Psyence Fiction, suddenly we’d met socially and all these different artists were coming from more of a Rock music background in many ways.
So to have people like Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Badly Drawn Boy, or Ian brown for example on this record was very unusual. It was also the timing of the record that was very unusual.
Predominantly, the people on the record were relatively underground when it was being made, and then a few of those artists end up becoming the biggest in the world like Radiohead and The Verve.
Also, just the whole nature of the process of it being recorded - the fact that it was predominantly made on an MPC and a lot of it was sample-based mixed together with live recordings. Travis mixed the record then went on to mix and work on some of the best records in the last two decades, including people like Adele.
So we were all kind of in this very experimental period, but everybody involved had pretty amazing ideas so everything was pushing the boundaries really, and hadn’t been necessarily been done before, or wasn’t very common within the music business. It was kind of an anomaly."
"We were learning as we were going along. Around the record itself, I envisioned it to be like a movie and wanted to create this sort of ‘other world’ going into merchandise and toys and packaging. It's not like it hasn’t been done before as I was looking at things like Star Wars, Kiss, The Beatles and how they'd merchandised stuff and how that had then influenced me.
I was still relatively adolescent at the time when we started to make that record. I was 24 when it came out, so we probably started making it around 21, so the influences are still coming from your childhood. I wanted it to be like: ‘How could you make a record be like 2001: A Space Odyssey’ or Blade Runner or Star Wars, both emotionally and sonically. But also, how could you make that record have the other universe around it.
It was pretty unique, and I was lucky that my manager and label at the time were really behind these ideas. But it was definitely sort of, unknown territory, and a lot of effort trying to break down barriers to get things done. So the idea of making toys and getting 5” records made with pop up covers and all these other things, it was kind of mental to most people! It was a pretty amazing time, but it was also very draining and quite an intense period."
Were there any interesting stories about how you became connected with certain people, chance encounters that led on to bigger things in the future?
"I mean like most things there were a few. You get called by a band from Oxford to do a remix; you like the music; it’s kind of interesting; you meet up with them ‘cause you’re from Oxford as well... and it ends up being Radiohead. You’re at Rock City Jam in the Park because you’ve been going over to New York with Fraser Cooke (Nike) to buy sneakers and records, and there’s Mike D (Beastie Boys) so you go over and talk to him!
Or Virgin Records want to sign you, and there’s a band you like called ‘The Verve’, and they’ve split up but you’re still really into them, and the A&R man happens to be friends with them. Then you’re in a café with them talking about David Axelrod, and the next minute you find yourself in a studio with them when they're making Bittersweet Symphony, and then you’re playing in front of 70,000 people at Haigh Hall! So it’s pretty mad!
Badly Drawn Boy was another good one. We had a Mo’ Wax Christmas party in Soho, he had a single out that I’d just bought or been sent, literally maybe 50 people have got it at that time? He’s in town, and he comes to the party, and the next minute you’ve offered him to come to San Francisco two weeks later to record on the UNKLE record. Then you're there helping him arrange to get flowers sent to his missus because it’s Valentines Day and he’s never done it before, and then he goes home and marries her!
It’s amazing stories like this happened and that sort of magic at a time when everything's so new, and you’re having these incredible discoveries and moments of meeting people. It was a really special time."
I’ve been into Mo’ Wax myself for a number of years and listened to a lot of the different artists on the label, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is my favourite album of all time, I think I’ve got it in 4 different formats! What I like about the real earlier period of Mo Wax was that the records all still sound fresh in the modern-day, listening back through Endtroducing or some of the records Krush was putting out, they're very timeless sounds.
"Yeah I think there were some really great records. While I've been in lockdown, I've been having some time to really go through a lot of stuff that I just haven’t had the time to do and been wanting to do.
I've been working on the Psyence Fiction reissue recently. I've been sitting here and finally going through a load of mixes and old tracks, creating new mixes – like the one I’ve done for you guys – and just listening to a lot of those records. It's been really great that so many of them sound so good still today!
There were a lot of great artists, and it was a really good creative time, especially those early days. There are some records which definitely are of that moment. I mean a record like Endtroducing, to have been involved and been a part of a record like that which is so special. I remember being there when I got the DAT tape and going up to my office and calling Will Bankhead who does Trilogy Tapes to come and listen to it with me for the first time.
I’d heard parts of it and elements of what was happening from going back and forth A&R'ing the record, but listening to it in its entirety and the way Josh had put it together, you knew it was something extraordinary.
There was a lot of good stuff that came out at that time, and it was also an international thing, it shows a sort of map of what was going on at the time globally which was unusual for a label like that really."
In 2018’s documentary you mentioned how you came to meet creatives like Swifty and Futura to work on the visual side of the label, but I've always been interested to find out how you started working together with Will Bankhead and Ben Drury?
"I started off at Bluebird Record shop, and then went on to Honest Jon’s in Portobello, and down the road from the shop was Slam City Skates which was in the basement of Rough Trade Records. One day two people came into Honest Jon’s; I’d just started Mo’ Wax and they said they really liked what I was doing.
One was called Russell and the other was Andy. Russell ran a clothing label at the time but I can't remember the name of it! It was an independent British skate brand, and Russell also imported a lot of other brands, so he was starting to get involved with things like XLARGE and FUCT.
So he came in and said he'd like to sponsor me and to come on down to the store and they'd give me some clothes. He was writing for a magazine at the time and wanted to do an article about me, and we took a photo of me in the clothes outside. He said “I want to introduce you to somebody, it always seems like you're really young, but you play with people like Gilles Peterson and DJ's that are a lot older than you, there’s this kid you should meet who’s your age that I bet you’d get on really well with him!”, and it was Will Bankhead.
So Will took the picture, and we just started hanging out and became very close, and he went to Central St. Martins with Ben Drury. So I met Ben, and when I set up my office in Mortimer Street they’d come and hang out. They were studying photography and design, and I think at that moment, it was a very key moment in Mo Wax when I met them because suddenly there were these guys, Simon Richmond, Tim Goldsworthy, there was a crew of us that were of a certain age group, and there was this natural evolution for us to kind of embark on a new adventure with what we were doing.
We were all coming at it with the same references, the same ideas. Will and I were particularly obsessed with collecting records, with streetwear, finding books on certain artists like Basquiat, Warhol, and it was just like every reference point you could think of we were sharing, this whole world of information that we’d all grown up with at a certain age. So it was a real turning point with Mo Wax I think.
Shadow was the same, he was our age. I was actually always the youngest which was bizarre at the time. There was also Andy Holmes who worked with Russell. Russell started the brand Silas, which is basically part of the sort of legacy of Palace really, as Gareth Skewis worked with Russell.
Andy came and started working at Mo Wax, he became the label manager, and he also worked with me doing the Futura 2000 book, and we did a skateboarding book called ‘Dysfunctional’.
We'd started Mo Wax Arts which was where we started doing this kind of unusual projects with people like photographer Glen E. Friedman and Mark Gonzales.
Our actual first foray into footwear was trying to do a sneaker with Vans quite early on with Ben, that didn’t actually happen but there’s a couple of images of the prototypes in the Mo Wax book. Ben ended up designing probably 95% of the label with me after that. There were a few people involved in other stuff, and we had Futura who was employed for a while as part of the creative team in the early days, and we started doing a few bits with Stash and A Bathing Ape and things like that."
I've got both the Mo Wax and Futura books in front of me now actually. Looking back through the back-catalogue, I think that period really elevated the label in terms of merging both photography and graphic elements together. Even though each release is obviously is very different, when you see them all together they all live within the same family if that makes sense?
"Yeah well that was the whole idea really, for Ben and Will to create this language, and sort of collaborate. I wanted records to stand alone as pieces of artwork in their own right, so I didn’t want a lot of graphic detail on top of covers. I wanted things to feel like objects, and I was really into pushing the boundaries of packaging, and also a sort of cohesiveness within the label.
"Its a pretty amazing amount of work that came out, because every format had numerous designs. There were four vinyl designs per promo record, then there were the four sleeves that actually got released, and then the international versions, and the promo cassettes and CDs, so there were like 20 formats to everything you did!
And within a few years, the amount and volume of work that they created is quite extraordinary, especially considering how old we were. I mean at the real height of that period I was 21 when we moved to A&M? So that’s when it was really going mad I suppose, between 21 and about 24. I look back at the amount of stuff particularly that Ben did, it was quite extraordinary."
On the physical artwork side of things, aside from Lenny himself, do you think you’ve got one of the most concise Futura 2000 collections in the world?
"I think I did, but not anymore to be honest with you. I think there’s a few collections now which are on another level. I think probably for a good couple of decades I did, but not anymore, no. It's gone onto another level now, there’s a collector in France who I think has hundreds of them!"
Have you ever had a bucket-list of people you’ve always wanted to get the chance to work with?
"Of course yeah, there are people that kind of are reoccurring and then there are people that are in your dreams! It's sort of endless to be honest with you, there’s so many people in so many different creative worlds that would be amazing to work with, but a lot of the time it tends to happen in a sort of strange way.
Even the way I met 3D, Lenny, Swifty, Ben, everybody. All those people even up until now I've kind of met in a relatively organic way. I did a big project a couple of years ago with Stanley Kubrick’s family, and that was something I really pushed to try and do.
Most things tend to happen through either a chance encounter or knowing that such a person might want to do something, or has approached you, or some kind of situation where you’ve been asked to work on a project. So there is I suppose always sort of a bucket-list of things that are way beyond that, but I've not necessarily asked. You’ve got to find the right moment and work out how to get there."
Moving onto fashion and your own personal style and the trainer aspect of your history, what did you find yourself wearing in your early years before really discovering Hip Hop, and how did that change once you finally found it?
"I think really hip hop defines the beginning of my identity as a kid you know? And that was right at the beginning of hearing Electro, and early hip hop records through seeing kids breakdancing. There was that massive phase in my middle school where it was BMXing and breaking that was like a nationwide craze.
That whole thing was like Tracksuits, Sergio Tacchini tracksuits, and sneakers would be things like PUMA, that was really dominant at that time. PUMA’s were probably the first sneakers that one would’ve bought as a kid, you know ones that had that more of a definition of style? Rather than wearing them for the functionality. Then it sort of grew through hip hop and dance music, that would define my youth as far as the sneakers that I would wear and the clothes I would buy.
In the beginning, I had things like PUMA Dallas and then getting into adidas Superstars because of RUN DMC and the Beastie Boys. Beastie Boys again were into a bit of PUMA as well. I remember being around 13/14 and having really vivid images of seeing someone called Bobby, who was this unbelievably cool Asian guy in Oxford who was a DJ, who wore a black bomber jacket, Levi Straight 501s with Superstars, I think snakeskin shelltoes? Then he was hanging out with Paul Southey who was in the group Fresh 4, and he was wearing Superstars and some fuckin’ mad hat, and just seeing them as an image was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen!
Even just consuming hip hop through the film 'Wild Style', that’s why I've put it at the beginning of the mix, it was one of the first real visual references you ever saw of Hip Hop other than what was on Top of the Pops. In the early days of hip hop don’t forget a lot of it was still quite disco-looking, because it was Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash and they were dressing up in lots of sort of ‘Ohio Player’ kind of looks!"
Lots of leather! Ha!
"So I suppose it was when you were seeing things like Wild Style and graffiti and breaking having an influence on how you looked, and seeing pictures from New York. I remember a sneaker that was really game-changing for me in ’87 was the first Air Max 1, that was the first Nike I bought and getting into that sort of look.
Then you had the rave thing that started happening, so I was then going up to London and you had records by people like Soul2Soul and Fresh 4 and the whole Soundsystem thing, but you also had what was going on with hip hop, acid house, Def Jam, there were amazing American and British records coming out.
The image at that time, people were getting really consumed with that kind of ‘hip hop look’, and I was going up to stores like 4 Star General which was the shop that every artist that came over from America would go to, and they'd sell things like Def Jam and Public Enemy baseball jackets and TROOP.
Around the corner you also had Passenger, and whilst that was going on you had the beginning of the whole rave thing. So I was really into Hip Hop with certain kids I was hanging out with, but then others started getting really into the Manchester rave scene. So you were going out to raves like Energy and Perception, and you’d go to places like Passenger and Mash and buy things like coloured Champion sneakers, that was a big thing. You had brands like TROOP, Champion, and coloured Kickers.
I was working in Blue Bird Records and people like Michael Kopelman (Gimme 5) Tim Simenon, Alex Turnbull (OG UK Stüssy Tribe) who were coming there, and they just looked unreal, and it was that American kind of style. They were Stüssy crew so they were coming in wearing that and different Nike’s, it was the beginning that kind of look that you see now within contemporary streetwear.
It was just mind-blowing, and I started getting really into that look, particularly things like Stüssy. It was my first time starting to understand more about Japan and also Major Force, which was a record label that I started collecting, and eventually was one of the reasons I first went to Japan.
Because I’d become friends with Michael K, he’d started Gimme 5 so was bringing in Stüssy and Japanese brands like Hysteric Glamour and Hiroshi’s GoodEnough, so I was starting to wear all that kind of stuff along with Nike, that’d be the look. I’d also met Fraser Cooke who’s now at Nike, I’d met him when I was 17, and he was a big trainer head, and he was buying stuff from America and selling it here. He’d worked at Passenger, and I think American Classics? And at that time it just became about me wearing shelltoes. You know what, I actually remember buying a pair of snakeskin shelltoes off Frazer when I was like 17 and was like Fuck! I’d finally got them! It was so hard to get stuff like that then.
I moved into a flat with him on Portobello when I was working at Honest Jon’s, and I started going to New York with him and we’d go and find sneakers. We’d go everywhere. There was a crew of us, and we’d hang out with people like DJ Jules, who was also Stüssy Crew, and guys from Tommy Boy Records, so I was the first person in the UK to have one of the Tommy Boy Carhartt jackets, and was also one of the first aside from probably Tim Westwood to be getting records like House of Pain, Brand Nubian etc. I gave Westwood Pharcyde’s ‘Passin’ Me By’ when I was working with Delicious Vinyl and going over to LA.
Then I was getting Vans and XLARGE. So I was at the epicentre of things from being in the position of starting to put records out and DJing. I was travelling all over the world, New York, Tokyo, LA. When I got to Japan I was really interested in getting the crazy shit, you know the weird stuff. I think I was maybe the first person to bring Footscapes back from New York, or Mocs as well. From probably about the age of 18 to maybe my late twenties I was very much at the forefront of that kind of sneaker collecting culture really.
I met Nigo when I got over to Japan and then introduced him to Futura, and he’d started A Bathing Ape and was starting to put out BAPE STA’s. I think maybe Michael K and I were some of the first to wear them outside of Japan?
London was also kind of the centre of it all. America didn’t seem like it had such a ‘collecting’ culture, you did have guys like Bobbito, but actually, the irony is that like records, we were going over to America and getting all the cut-out records, soul, jazz and sneakers and bringing them all back here.
I think also you had the terrace football culture here which was intrinsically trainer and fashion-led, and you also had the whole rave scene alongside that. It was very tribal in England, like coming from punk, these tribes were very distinct.
So originally people like Nigo and especially the Japanese crew,s like Jun from Undercover or Hiroshi Fujiwara, everybody was coming to London. So especially that period from when I was about 18 to mid-’20s, it was very London-led really. If you could manage to go to these countries you could find amazing things. I loved getting records and clothes, toys, and collecting shit!"
It's interesting how you explain that with it obviously being a time pre-internet, you being from the UK and being influenced by Japan, Japan was also then being influenced by the US and American culture as well. I guess it becomes like a proper cross-pollination of cultures?
"We were all being influenced by the Americans, both Japan and the UK, but you know there was also some great stuff in Europe. France was really interesting and Germany was very on it.
I think there was just a thing about people growing up, and there was this sort of mysticism about America because you'd grown up on things like Star Wars and ET, and seeing Back to the Future, Nikes, Public Enemy.
Everything was sort of Technicolour. Whereas in England it still felt very black & white, there was still an element of the Second World War within the culture. Especially in the 80s, there was a lot of strikes and riots. We had three TV channels, over there they had fuckin’ Pay per View!
You could only buy 20 Star Wars figures in England, but in America, they made 50! Everything was bigger and better, so all of us had been influenced by that culture, and we wanted it because we couldn’t get it. You could get bits of it from going to London in certain shops, but it was very limited. But if you actually went over there, you were like a kid in a sweetshop!
Now it’s just a bit exhausting, but in those days, to see that there might be 3 colours of a Jordan in a shop was amazing, but there might be 5 or 6 different types of sneakers, there’d be an AF1, a Jordan, a Dunk, and then there would be something weird! And none of that stuff would end up coming to the UK because none of the companies were really working together. You had the American Department and the English Department, and like with movies, everything would come out there 6 months before.
So I suppose if you were on it and you could get there, it was a really amazing time to get shit because not a lot of people were doing that. Now it’s a very different world.
The irony now is that you can get anything at a cost, but in those days it was just about knowing, and being there at the right time. It was the beginning of that network of pre-internet social networking, these tribes and relationships built up globally which then really went into things like Mo’ Wax where you had Futura and Stash; Jules and James Jebbia in New York; The Beastie Boys in LA and that crew with XLARGE. In Paris, you had Source and Pedro and the beginnings of Daft Punk; in Japan, you’d have Nigo, Hiroshi. Eventually, it all cross-pollinated and came into developing that side of street culture.
Nigo and I were much younger, so you had a generation before that who was kind of the original ‘OG Heads’, so that scene had already been happening.
You saw it in magazines like iD, they were the faces of it. The Kopelman’s, the Jules’, the Hiroshi’s. But people like me and Nigo were the new heads.
Nigo in Japanese means literally means ‘Number Two’ because he worked underneath Hiroshi Fujiwara. So we were consuming it in a new way, and trying to then push it and globalise it. You were part of this new movement and defining a new way of presenting and expressing yourself. It was an amazing moment because it was also really innocent, because who knew that it would become what it has today?"
Had you started wearing Bape before you met Nigo? Or was that kind of your introduction to it?
"I got a couple bits of Bape from Michael K, there was a girl called Hitomi who worked with Michael, and she grew up with Nigo, they all went to University together. I think she introduced Michael to him and he started getting some t-shirts into the UK, and I think he gave me the first Bape t-shirt?
The way I originally met with Nigo is that I used to work with a couple of guys called Toshi and Kudo who ran a label called Major Force, they were like the proper OGs of Japanese street culture.
Hiroshi and Toshi both brought in Punk and New Romantic, so they're those kinds of faces that were right there at the beginning of everything prominent in Japanese street style. I was making records with them and that’s sort of how UNKLE started, and everybody who was anybody, if they came to town they’d come to that studio. That was in our Mo’ Wax building, so everybody came through.
I was really into what Nigo was doing, and that’s sort of the start of our relationship."
Was this before he started rocking the big chains and everything then?
"Yeah, I mean during that period he was really into The Beatles, Wild Bunch, Soul2Soul. He was a massive Beatles fanatic, collecting guitars, memorabilia, mad about it!
During my (20:20) Mix I sort of highlight it so there as a bit of a timeline, because when N.E.R.D. hit, that’s when Nigo really changed and suddenly it was like ‘Super Hip Hop’ with gold chains, and it was kind of strange. I remember for me, when you're hanging out with a friend but his chain is worth more than your house, it became a very different connection."
What was the first year that you first got to visit Japan? Did it have a lasting effect on you from that first point that you went there? I've been a few times now and it still resonates with me creatively.
"I was really into martial arts, that was my big thing when I was a kid, so part of that journey was also how I got into hip hop.
I was doing martial arts from the age of about 8, and I was going to London to study it in Soho. I wanted to go and study King Fu at the Shaolin Temple, and I was trying to do that in my early teens and also trying to learn a bit of Chinese, so the idea of getting to Asia was there.
I’d done karate and I’d done swordsmanship, so I wanted to go to Japan or China to study that. So there was always this thing, and the influence of martial arts movies and Bruce Lee, there was always a fascination with Asia in my youth. As I mentioned I also got really into Major Force as a record label, and I liked the design aesthetic, and Manga, so it was just somewhere I needed to get to!
I started working for a magazine called Straight No Chaser, and there was a tour happening in Japan – I went and I think I was maybe 18? It was one of the most extraordinary trips and experiences in my life. Because on that trip, still to this day, I've not been to as many places in Japan as I did then. It was mad, I went to places like Takamatsu, Tokushima, Okayama, and all these really coastal towns.
Obviously, the first thing I kind of noticed in Japan was the aesthetic, you know from that point it was basically Bladerunner, you'd never seen anything like it in your life. Going to New York, that was some also crazy shit, but Tokyo, there’s nothing else like it. The food, the aesthetic, and then, the record shops and sneaker stores. I was like: 'Are you kidding me?!'.
Shibuya was just curated for you, it was like a dream. There are 10 record shops, and they have every record you’ve ever been looking for right there in front of you. And then every sneaker and others that you'd never seen before, it was beyond your wildest dreams as a young consumer of that world!
To this day there is still nowhere in the world when it comes to that kind of detail. At that time, especially being pre-internet with records, it was crazy. It was the ultimate trip, but also just felt like home, I really gravitated towards Japan especially.
I don’t go so much now, but for many years I was going 6/7 times a year to Tokyo. We had Mo’ Wax Japan, where I worked with a lot of the brilliant artists of that time, and it was quite a big deal to set up a label in Japan and have its own identity. That’s where I started collaborating with Nigo and Medicom, so I was the first person to do a toy with Medicom outside of that 'core' world.
There was just lots of interesting stuff going on there at the time. Portable record players were being made; we made our own Money Mark Vinyl Killer car which drove around a record and would play the music! It was a crazy time of being able to make amazing records, packaging etc.
Also just going to Harajuku and hanging out with all that lot when things were still underground, seeing those shops start to open. The first BAPE shop opening and having those first designs in. A Bathing Ape was interesting to me, I love Comme Des Garcons, and I love the designer aesthetic. So the real early days of Bathing Ape made them like the CDG of streetwear, the ‘couture’ version of it.
Every detail, every element, was just fuckin’ unreal. We were just making ideas happen, whether it was making toys, or furniture, collaborating on all these things. Even those early days, the simplest things could be so revolutionary, just to have t-shirts made in a certain way as you wanted them.
When I was meeting Nigo I’d also be meeting Shinsuke who started doing Neighbourhood, who was also working as the merchandise guy for Major Force. There was Bounty Hunter, Medicom, MadHectic, Supreme, Silas, all these things happening. Myself, Michael, Tim, Wild Bunch, we were the only people that had really gone over, and then probably 4-5 years later is when things really started kicking off."
Did you find yourself hoarding a lot of shoes and clothes during that era, or were you constantly sort of rotating the wardrobe and getting rid of bits as you went?
"No I didn’t get rid of anything really, I mean I gave stuff away to heads now and again. At the height of working with BAPE I got everything from each collection that was made, probably for nearly a decade? Nigo would also ask me to gift stuff to people, either people that I’d recommend to him that they'd be down to wear, or others that he liked and wanted to wear it.
It wasn’t being sold in any other stores so you couldn’t get it anywhere for a certain period. Whether it was Ian Brown or Noel Gallagher through to all the kind of Mo Wax Heads and bands/DJ’s. Toby Feltwell who now does CAV EMPT worked for me, and a lot of people came through Mo’ Wax in that way, we were kind of a conduit to a lot of those brands and that world, especially BAPE.
For a good period of time, everything would be getting to me first. It was pretty exciting! We sort of wanted to try and do that kind of Stüssy crew thing, that was the idea with Nigo, I was saying we should give stuff to people like the Beasties, and you'd all have your personalised baseball jackets. I’d do these Bathing Ape tours and there were records that we put out that were collaborations, it was a really cool time."
Moving onto some of the different footwear projects you’ve worked on over the years, are there any real particular favourites from the releases with Converse, Bape, and obviously Nike SB as well?
I love the 'Dunkle'. I think it's interesting how it's lasted the test of time, because during that era doing something pink, and the garishness, outlandish style of the shoe. It’s had a recent resurgence and seems to be up there in the top Dunk collaborations, so I’m pretty proud of that. And the low top is also really interesting.
Everything you do collaboratively has a different story to it, so its always interesting because it’s a moment in time. Everything that I've worked on has that kind of value to it, but I think with doing that Dunk, you’ve got to understand at the time, there’d never been anything like that before.
Nike didn’t make sneakers for bands or artists, they only made sneakers for sports stars. And they also made a few maybe for some movies. Then they did a couple of shoes, including one with Haze, and that sort of opened the doors.
I managed to get a meeting with Mark Parker and Sandy Bodecker who helped set up the Nike SB program. So me and Frazer and Michael were introduced to them by Stash, and they came to London to meet us! And they were just like, 'so what do you want to do?' and I was quite, I don’t know.
I was a bit sort of ambitious at the time, and I said 'I want to make my own fuckin’ sneaker man! Come on, give me an UNKLE sneaker!', and they sort of laughed and then said 'Okay, let's do it!' and that was a bit of a moment. Are you kidding me? I'm going to make my own Nike? In those days, to make things was really hard. You couldn’t go to a factory and get them to make 100 of something, they weren’t interested, they didn’t want to do that and didn’t have the function to do it. So to go and make a bespoke sneaker, or a toy for that matter was really difficult.
The first toys that we made were vinyl because they were easy and cheaper to produce, and easy to prototype. The first UNKLE toys that were made were actually resin, so they’ll break. You couldn’t get plastic moulded toys made unless you wanted to put £50,000 down on a mould. The same applies to sneakers.
In the world we live in now, the technologies there where you can make 10 of something, or 1000, or 2 million exists. So you can make this amazing array of editions and everything But at the time just to be able to make something, like I was saying with the early days of Bathing Ape, to make a baseball jacket with that amount of detail on it was like 'Fuck!' That was what Pop Stars did, or if you were in a crew or you were like a film star you got one.
The simplicity of things was so amazing, and just to be able to make that sneaker, to get it a and hold it in your hands and be like: 'I have my own Nike sneaker. I’m 29 years old, I live in London, I’m some kid that did a Label, and I just did a Nike sneaker'.
Nowadays it’s not so crazy. There's so much stuff that doesn’t have the same meaning in many ways to me. But at the time just to see that happen and be part of it was mental. It wasn’t about business, you know it didn’t make any money, it was just this creative desire, and also this egotistical desire I suppose!
Ha! You always wanted your own thing, I was into making my own shit, I wanted to go into town and DJ, and I was out every night of the week, you were going to ‘Cuts’ every Saturday to get your hair cut, you were in that phase in your life. Every night you want to be the person that walks into the dance, and you’ve got your own unique jacket and sneakers, that was like some next level shit."
Back then I guess it was a lot easier, well not ‘easier’ as you still had to put the work in to acquire these things, but it was easier to be able to stand out as an individual.
"Yeah I guess it was, but also Tribes were defined, so if you walked into a room and wore a certain kind of style, there was a certain kind of communication. Whereas nowadays the lines are really blurred, if you walk down the street and you see somebody wearing Supreme, or Bathing Ape, or a pair of Reacts, it's hard to tell what theyre into!
It was much more defining. But it was still hard to stand out you know. Like anything, it's like, you’re still only walking into a certain community and wanting to show off, so your’e still trying to outdo everybody else, its that kinds of youthful thing of wanting to have that thing I think.
I was right in the heart of it at the time. In many ways for a period, probably the first person to wear most of those kinds of sneakers and designs. Whether it was getting Air Wovens from Hiroshi, to Dunks. It was pretty exciting.
I agree with your point about collaborations in the present day. Back in the day it was a lot more slimmed down, especially with Nike the gates were properly closed for a long time.
It was kind of a dirty word back then ‘collaboration’, it wasn’t really seen. Record lables didn’t want to collaborate, everyone was about owning their own shit, and protecting it, it was quite hardcore back then with the music business. If you had a shop or a brand or whatever, it was quite gangster you know? These weren’t global companies, it was very territorial and it was different in that way."
Can you remember how long it took you to make the Dunkle from start to finish?
"It probably went on from about 6 months to a year maybe? I can't exactly remember."
Was the Low F&F version always on the table from the start as well or did that kind of come a bit further down the line? That was only 25 pairs in the end, wasn’t it?
"So the original designs were actually for a Low, and they were different.
Ben Drury was involved at the beginning of the design process and submitted some versions, but those didn’t end up happening. If memory serves correct, I think Sandy suggested that he wanted to do a High version because it was kind of different to everything else happening at that time.
This was at a time when they were going to introduce the new 'Pink Box,' so he was like: 'Let's do a High top, but we’ll also do 25 Low’s for you and your crew to get.'
I wanted to really push it with the highs and use every material that we possibly could, so they was a ‘sampling’ kind of collage effect to the shoe. He was talking about the pink box, and I thought if we did something in pink that could be pretty fuckin’ insane, but it was a bit of a risk. There was definitely an element of anarchy going on in that process at the time.
We went back and forth a bit on the design process of more of what the shoe was going to be made out of. I wanted it to be quite garish in a certain way? But how to have something garish but it not be like, colourfully over the top. So we were trying to find that sort of middle ground.
Eventually, I got the prototype and it was mental, you hadn’t seen a sneaker like that before."
Were there a few different versions of the sample that you got to keep when you were doing it then?
"I have a sample of a low I think that was slightly different, and I kind of remember it having a camo insole, which they didn’t end up doing on those, so it was sort of a Mo’ Wax Camo, it might have been slightly more embossed as well? I think it was a slightly off-green, it wasn’t the nicest looking colour. Unfortunately, there are a few things I’d like to send some pictures of but all my things are stuck in storage!"
Was the Futura artwork featured on the Dunkles from one of the paintings in your collection?
"Yeah the artwork comes from the piece made for the 'Never, Never Land; album, and I did have it but I don’t have it anymore."
You briefly touched on this earlier on, but were there any other collaborations that you'd been working on over the years that never made it to the end to release?
"Yeah there were always so many talks about other things. One thing which wasn’t so long ago was when I did the Converse, we were meant to do them as a releasing shoe. I was meant to do something when we did the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition, but that didn’t happen. There was going to be a whole thing with Supreme and the Kubrick show and Converse, but it was just a bit too complicated with all of the red tape around his world as it were.
There’s been other conversations with things with Bathing Ape that never happened, we talked about doing endless stuff. With Medicom, there are ideas that don’t happen, or they get too complicated, there was this Clarks shoe that was really interesting but never happened. Also a Vans shoe you can see in the book, which was actually the same kind of design as the Jack Purcell where it was and embossed camo into a low top.
The one collaboration which has nothing to do with sneakers or anything like that, but would’ve been the ultimate was when we were looking to try and do something with LEGO, where we’d get the bricks and each brick was going to be a sample. And then you could make tracks out of the bricks."
"So you could buy The Prodigy, and you make Firestarter out of the bricks or something. So we wanted to do a sort of Mo’ Wax Lego collaboration that we were developing, but that didn’t happen. I was also developing a Futura character film with Manga for a few years but that also never happened."
Are you still looking to work with people on projects nowadays product-wise or is that more of a thing of the past for you?
I still do yeah, I've been working on and off for people, the same kind of collaborators from the past really.
I’ve done some stuff with UNDERCOVER, Neighbourhood, I do quite a bit of stuff with Kazuki who used do design at BAPE but now does A.FOUR. I’ve done some more stuff with Bathing Ape, and recently when we did the Blazer we also did three of each Blazer in a white and grey which were sold for auction and were kind of one-offs, and I did the Box Logo with Supreme at Southbank at the same time.
I've also got Psyence Fiction coming up later this year, so there's a lot of stuff I'm working on because of that, that kind of seems fitting to do certain collaborations with certain people because that record is really the one which is synonymous with that kind of culture really.
I do my own thing still with merch and tee’s, and I'm always just collaborating with other people.
I did something with Rick Owens a few years ago, I chat to Virgil Abloh a bit, Frazers still one of my best friends, I had lunch with James Jebbia at the beginning of this year, so it's very much, a lot of it whether I'm working on it or not.
Socially there are many many people in that world that are still some of my close friends, but I suppose that I'm not as involved in ‘collecting’ as I was in that world anymore. I'm more of a sort of window shopper these days!
I love designer aesthetic, and I like a lot of elements of culture, so I like looking at it, but the collectability of things is not so much where Im at anymore.
I ended my mix with ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’ because I'm doing this Psyence Fiction Reissue, so the mix is like a timeline of periods and people within sneaker culture that influenced my life, so I've used these records as metaphors for that.
Whether it’s the earlier days of hip hop, or breakbeat records when we were talking about Passenger, or Mo’ Wax Records and Nigo, and then you’ve got things like NERD and Kanye and Jay-Z and that to me signifies that mass change in that culture, and how it became like when we were talking about Nigo becoming more ‘americanised’.
Virgil designing the cover for Watch the Throne, and then you look at him now and where he’s at with sneakers. But for me, the people that I really like within that culture are guys like Jun Takahashi, I still wear and buy things like the React Element’s, or Sacai, things that tend to have a little bit more of a Japanese design aesthetic to it. Also a lot of the Converse collaborations from that kind of world. I'm not sort of slow-rocking the dunks and the SB’s and Jordans and stuff like that anymore, its not really my style.
I’m always interested in people that are trying to push things a little bit, rather than the mass thing. It was interesting what The Soloist just did with Converse, some things like these I might not be able to wear, but it's interesting to see it as a sort of design and how things are designed."
Do you feel like you’ve kind of stripped things back a bit as you’ve gotten older and matured more? Tastes have changed etc.
Yeah I mean, I'm not dying my hair and going out in pink sneakers so much anymore! Ha! I wish I could, but I don’t know if its really a graceful way to go out!
I like things a little bit more discreet and simple, but I think there is an element of how style changes as you get a bit older. The thing is, the B-Boy is always there, so there's always an element somewhere of the B-Boy!
It's just part of where you’ve come from. I'm always like: 'I've got some really nice suits, I wish I could just be one of those guys that wear suits in the day, like super sharp'. But I've got my Visvim’s and that, but I just at home at the moment so I've just got a baggy t-shirt on! Haha! I'm not wearing the suit, I envy the guy that can do that.
I do quite a lot of my live shows on stage wearing suits, and he cuts it so it hangs around the arse a bit, so you’ve still got that sort of element to your swagger you know."