21 years ago : DJ Shadow’s In/Flux, the second birth of Mo’ Wax
“There are many imitators, but only one originator”. A celebration of DJ Shadow’s In/Flux, the tune that changed it all, for Mo’ Wax, for the music, and for me, too.
Today marks the 21st anniversary of the release of the seminal In/Flux by DJ Shadow on Mo’ Wax, and I just wanted to pay homage to it.
Up until In/Flux, Mo’ Wax was stuck into the cheesy sound of acid jazz, with James Lavelle himself admitting that some of the earlier releases were quite bad. In/Flux is the first non jazz-influenced record released on Mo’ Wax, and is certainly a cornerstone in the history of the label, marking the definitive transition between acid jazz and the blunted hip-hop/electro sound that will define the label for the years to come, taking the art of sampling to a new level, and paving the way for fantastic acts, such as DJ Krush, Attica Blues, Andrea Parker and so much more…
Let’s listen to it for the 2000th time.
That bass! This is pure genius, I can’t get bored of it.
The liner notes of the original 12″ read :
This is headphone music. The confines of “Jazz”, “Soul”, “Hip Hop” as categories of music do not apply here. More of a story as a song, the arrangement of turntable techniques and pure, raw beats combine to convey a soundtrack of experimentation. The result is subtle, subliminal and elusive to define. Clear your mind and listen. This is music without boundaries.
I can’t say much more, really.
In/Flux was a special order from James Lavelle to DJ Shadow, after he heard Zimbabwe Legit and they met up for the first time in California.
That record was a moment. It worked. And then it became really cool. It was the moment my confidence was installed (James Lavelle)
Let’s see what DJ Shadow has to say about the Mo’ Wax hook-up and how In/Flux came to birth, with an extract of Endtroducing, an amazing book by Eliot Wilder :
When did you get involved with [UNKLE/Mo’ Wax chief] James Lavelle?
Well, the next thing I did was a track of entirely my own production—not a remix, not a mega-mix—for a group from Africa. Funken Klein decided to sign a rap group from Zimbabwe, called Zimbabwe Legit. I did the track all at home, and when I felt it was finished, I sent it off. I considered it to be the follow-up to “Lesson Four,” which was very B-boy, very break-beat-y, very kind of dance-y in its own kind of bteak-dance-y way. I wanted to set a precedent where everything that I did was a complete 180 from the last thing I did. So “The Legitimate Mix,” as it was called, was entirely different. It was very down-tempo, very moody, a lot of spoken-word samples.
The record wasn’t a hit. It was a good concept, but I think people in America don’t care what people outside of America have to say, basically, when it comes to rap. It’s still that way today. But what the track did do, in addition to being yet another calling card for myself, was attract James Lavelle. He heard the song about a year after it came out. A new scene, which I knew nothing about, called acid jazz, had started in England and had crossed over into America in some of the more underground clubs.
A guy in LA named Orlando, who had a label called Brass, played “The Legitimate Mix” for James, who apparently was blown away by it, at least based on all the conversations we’ve had since. He’s always described “The Legitimate Mix” as being exactly what he wanted to hear on record. With Mo’ Wax, James would make only a couple thousand copies of all the early stuff that he put out. It was all acid jazz, Gilles Peterson kind of stuff. Which didn’t have much to do with hip-hop. But James grew up admiring hip-hop and he wanted to be associated with more hip-hoppy stuff than just the acid jazz he was doing. So, like I said, it was a year later, and by this point, Funken Klein’s health was going downhill. [Funken Klein eventually passed away in 1995 after an eight-year battle with cancer.] Hollywood BASIC, which had put out many a legendary rap record, was going the way of the dodo, along with his health. I was starting to panic a little bit because I no longer had Hollywood BASIC to rely on as an outlet. All these other labels that I kept doing demos for were just getting more and more conservative. I just didn’t know where else to turn. Enter James Lavelle, who called me out of the blue.
We hit it off over the phone. He was impressed because of my connection with Funken Klein and with my understanding of the UK hip-hop scene. What made Lavelle successful was his unbelievable drive; he was like a humming-bird. He had absolute love for music. He was voracious. He asked me to do something for him. He said, “I want you to follow what you were doing with ‘The Legitimate Mix.’ “I said, “Well, that’s a real relief because everything I’ve been trying to do lately, people just keep trying to get me to sim-plify it or use more recognizable samples or this or that.”
Did you start recording for him then?
I had just met Dan “the Automator” [Nakamura] in San Francisco. Automator had put out a few records in the late 80s. His first was called “Music to Be Murdered By,” which was a cut-and-paste thing with some Alfred Hitchcock dialogue. It was really good. I completely ingested that record. When I met him I recited his entire career back to him—like I did with everybody that I was impressed with back then. I don’t think Automator had ever met anyone he didn’t already know as a peer who had taken what he had done that seriously. From that initial meeting, Automator was very cool and accommodating with me and said, “If you ever need a studio, let me know.” And it was at his studio where I recorded “In/Flux,” which was the first record that I worked on for James Lavelle—and it ended up being the first single for Mo’ Wax that I did. It was the first record with non-jazzy leanings, it would be safe to say, that James put out. It was a departure for him. It was well received in England [in ’93] because acid jazz was kind of starting to annoy a lot of people, and it was a fresh sound, I think, for a lot of people out there.
I looked up to Automator. He was a guy who had been to New York in the 80s buying hip-hop records, he had a lot of breaks that I didn’t know and he had a knowledge that was a lot deeper than most people in the Bay Area. He knew what he was doing. He was the first person I knew that had ProTools, and he taught me a lot about recording techniques, taught me a lot about how to sync up machines.
Thanks to Paris, I got my first sampler. He picked me up in Davis and drove me to San Francisco, to the Guitar Center, and helped me negotiate the price down for an Akai MPC. He wasted a whole day driving me all over the damn place, which was really, really cool of him. And that’s how I got my sampler. “In/Flux” was the first record that I did on it. The MPC wouldn’t really catch on, with hip-hop at large, for another few years. So, again, I felt lucky on the technological curve, and was doing stuff on the machine before about 95 percent of producers were.
When did you finally meet James in person?
He had come from England to LA to DJ, and he took the opportunity to head north and visit me. One thing that I remember about when we met is that I was playing a tape I had made of a David Axelrod song. James, who had never heard of David Axelrod before, said, “What’s this you’re listening to? Oh man, OK. Wow! This is amazing. Where can I get it? When are we going to go record shopping?” So right from the beginning we got along real well.
In late ’93 I went with James to do a tour of Germany. It was a really important trip, because it cemented James’ and my relationship. It was eye opening. Nobody in my family had ever been outside of America. It was not something I ever thought I’d be able to do. Growing up, my mom always would say, “Oh, I’d love to be able to travel.” But we couldn’t afford it. So, I felt honored and lucky to be able to go out there. I felt like my music had taken me somewhere that I never dreamed I’d be able to go.
How were you received?
The only people that knew who I was were like the people who booked us. And they probably made an effort to discover who I was, since they paid for me to be there. But James is the type of person who likes to bring new people into his life to keep him constantly learning and evolving. I guess at that particular time he thought, “Well, I’ve got to do this tour in Germany. But I really want to do it with somebody who would be fun and fresh and new.M aybe I can teach him something. And maybe he can teach me something.”
I flew to London first to meet James, and I remember I was so wound up before I got there that I didn’t sleep the night before, and then I couldn’t sleep on the plane, because I had never been on an international flight. And it didn’t get any better because I landed and James picked me up, and even though I was feeling ill from lack of sleep I just couldn’t get enough of what London looked like, and the fact that I was actually in another country, which seems kind of quaint to me now. But at that time, it was really exciting. I had no idea where I was in London. I remember feeling nauseated by all the diesel fumes, because they run on diesel out there. Just walking down the street, I felt like I was suffocating.
So, I landed in London at noon. At about 5, we had to get on a plane for a gig in Germany that night. We got there about 8, and the promoter—his name was Marley—picked us up at the airport and drove us around. He was with us on the whole tour. It was through Marley, and through James, that I started to just trip off of the lifestyle of these guys and the club scene and the drug culture involved with it all. I was like “Whoa! This is definitely not in my background.”
What kind of drugs? Just pot? Or something harder?
No. There was harder stuff that I saw later. Mostly, they’d be driving around, burning hash. [laughs] It was such a different life than in California, where the rules are so strict.
OK, so I still hadn’t slept. We got into Germany, and the gig was actually in East Berlin. The wall had been down for a few years, but when you cross the line everything gets a lot weirder.
Kind of like in Wings of Desire?
Right. Exactly. To promote the gig that night, I did an interview in an old military bunker that had been converted into a radio station after the wall came down. It turns out that MC Jamalski, a guy whose records I knew, was at the same radio show. I felt like I was completely in some fantasy world, because I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing there. So then, the gig started at 1 in the morning. There was another Mo’ Wax act called Palm Skin Productions that was the headliner. They were a real acid jazz group, with all the trappings: a bongo player, guys with the certain type of goatee, the whole hippy vibe. But they were cool. And then, I remembered falling asleep against the speaker at 2:30 in the morning; I had just had it. People were stepping on me, but I couldn’t move. And I had to DJ—James put me on at 4 in the morning. I just played hip-hop. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I had no idea how to cater to that crowd.
But over the course of the tour, I watched James and how he would read the crowd. He was on the mic quite a bit. He would tell me things like, ‘Don’t play more than like three funk 45s in a row, because people will desert you.” One night I went against James’ advice and played six funk records in a row, and the crowd seemed really into it. At the end of the night, I got on the mic and said, “Thanks for being funky.” Which is kind of a cornball thing to say. And I remember somebody going, “Fuck you.” I got all embarrassed, like, Geez, the one time I get on the mic, and this is the result I get! The person was just messing around, but it still affected me in some weird way.
What did you work on after “In/Flux”?
“Lost and Found,” which is definitely one of my favorite tracks. When I did it, I thought James was going to hate it, actually. I thought I was really doing something that was flying in the face of the whole acid jazz vibe. I thought that whole scene was really weak. Especially when hip-hop was so strong, and I’d be trying to play hip-hop to audiences in Europe. And after two songs, they’d just start giving up on me. This was when really important hip-hop records were coming out, the New York sound. It was a real exciting time, and I identified with that stuff. I didn’t really understand all this acid jazz kind of dopey sentimentality.
When I started working on “Lost and Found” I was really depressed. I was coming to the end of my college career and I was starting to get concerned about what I was going to be doing with my life—as far as being able to raise money, because I knew I wanted to be making music. I knew that going to school was something that, in my family, you just had to do. I mean, my mom’s a teacher. It wasn’t an option not to go to college. But, at the same time, I realized while I was there that music was all I wanted to do. I’m glad I went through school and got my degree. But, at the same time, I was just sitting there going, Well, OK, I’ve got another year to go. And I had already kind of figured it out.
So, In/Flux was released as MW014 exactly 21 years ago on 15th November 1993 as a regular 12″, in the classic Mo’ Wax sleeve with the stripe by Swifty, as well as a picture disc (the only one ever made by Mo’ Wax) with an incredible artwork by Solesides’ artist The 8th Wonder.
It was also re-released in September 1995 in a completely different sleeve but same cat number, with a CD version, the first non-album Mo’ Wax CD.
You can also find it in a large number of compilations, as well as some bootlegs.
Another version also exists, titled Alternative Interlude ’93 and featured on the first Headz, which is my favourite one because for me it was the highlight of the French Faces Z compilation that introduced me by accident to the wonderful world of Mo’ Wax. So, on a personal note, In/Flux has a special place in my heart. Today it is still my favourite Mo’ Wax tune, neck-and-neck with UNKLE’s Time Has Come, and without a doubt it is THE tune that changed my life.
So much that I’ve asked my girlfriend to press In/Flux on a record with my ashes ha ha… (yep, this is true).
So happy birthday In/Flux, and thank you Mr. Davis.
Eliot Wilder is a writer and a musician from Boston. In 2010 he has published the amazing book Endtroducing….. in the excellent 33 1/3 collection, after long conversations on the phone with DJ Shadow. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to order a copy, it’s absolutely essential to any Mo’ Wax or DJ Shadow fan.