The Joy of Lex (#06 Extended Feature)

We are proud to present the outtakes of the Lex Records feature from Bonafide Magazine issue 06 (cop it here). Written by former Hip Hop Connection editor and Original Dope label boss, Andy Cowan, the Joy of Lex goes deep into the label’s roots, expands on their big breakthrough and tantalises on the treats still to come…

In just over ten years of trading Lex Records have made a healthy habit of bucking trends. By building up a maverick-heavy roster that includes artists like Boom Bip, DOOM, Danger Mouse and Jneiro Jarel – all renowned for their shape-shifting abilities – their success is directly traceable to the wide-ranging A&R policy, vision and commitment of its founder, Tom Brown.

You recently celebrated Lex’s 10th birthday. Did you ever imagine the label would last this long?
When I started Lex I definitely didn’t think about things in the distant future like 10th anniversaries. At first, I was thinking that if I could put out one 12 I’d be happy. I would have done it. Then just one album…

 

We had a strong connection with hip-hop, but from the start I wanted it to be about individual artist, not a musical style. I had a lot of respect for early Def Jam, Warp and Factory.

What was the impetus to start a label?
I’d been running a lot of live music events and liked doing my own thing. I loved working with artists and trying to sell out little shows, then build it up to something bigger. I loved working with designers and graffiti artists to design the flyers and posters. Working at Warp made me think, ’If they can run a label it can’t be that hard’. I told [Warp founders] Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett that I was going to start releasing 12s and they came back and offered to fund the label if I kept it in Warp.

How did you make the initial connection with Warp?
I saw an ad in a Job Centre in Sheffield that read, ‘Must love music. Mustn’t hate computers.’ I was determined to get a job where I didn’t have to wear a tie. The job was part time, packing up orders and answering emails from customers at Warpmart [now Bleep.com]. I worked hard and the timing was good, people got into buying things online and the shop grew quickly. Once Warpmart was officially a success Warp gave me the opportunity to do Lex. They gave me free reign. The only rule about signings was that it had to be music that wouldn’t normally come out on Warp.

I saw an ad in a Job Centre in Sheffield that read, ‘Must love music. Mustn’t hate computers.’ I was determined to get a job where I didn’t have to wear a tie. The job was part time, packing up orders and answering emails from customers at Warpmart [now Bleep.com]. I worked hard and the timing was good, people got into buying things online and the shop grew quickly. Once Warpmart was officially a success Warp gave me the opportunity to do Lex.

How tight were the budgets when you first started – was there a pressure to recoup early?
In the beginning Lex was only going to release 12s, so the only budget was the lavish sleeves and the mastering costs. The initial plan was that Lex would just be a series of 12s in matching sleeves – a little self-contained project. I was running Lex on the side while also putting on Warp’s events in London, such as the Nesh raves in Angel.

Did any other labels particularly inspire you?
I never wanted Lex to be strongly associated with one sound or scene and most great labels grow out of a scene or a genre. We had a strong connection with hip-hop, but from the start I wanted it to be about individual artist, not a musical style. I had a lot of respect for early Def Jam, Warp and Factory. Some more anonymous labels like Skam, Underground Resistance and Schematic inspired me to keep it cool and low key.

How would you describe the Lex ethos?
We’re here to support the development of our artists. We sign artists on long-term deals or for large projects that will take years to unfold. We want to be a blank canvas and keep things artist focused. I want artists to feel that they can do something unexpected and that Lex will embrace it.

I’m happy when Lex artists move from one scene or sound or background into another. Like Boom Bip moving from instrumental beats to whatever Neon Neon is; or Danger Mouse moving from a golden-era rap sound to the lush dark alternative rock he releases now. It makes me feel like they have enough space to feel comfortable doing that. It’s cool when artists collaborate too, because you know it’s going to go off in a direction that’s new for both of them.

Neon Neon Lex Records Stainless Style

Boom Bip and Sage Francis were on board very early. How important were they in terms of giving the label credibility?
It definitely helped. Anticon and Mush had been releasing music from that scene and they had some momentum in the States. I got in touch with them both at different times to ask if they wanted to release 12s on Lex. They both got back saying that they had whole albums we could release, so I think they could see what Lex could offer too. We helped a lot with their profile in Europe, putting on a lot of the breakthrough London live gigs for both of them.

Sage only ever signed for the one Non-Prophets album. It was our first record to do decent numbers in the States and I think coming around the time of Ghetto Pop Life it really helped establish Lex’s hip-hop credentials and also stood out from the crunchier, weirder indie rap that was prevalent at that time. Boom Bip signed a long-term deal, and he’s really part of the core of the label. He released the first artist-album on Lex and, as half of Neon Neon, he’s one of our biggest-selling artists.

You moved very quickly from the Lexoleum EPs to Boom Bip’s Seed To Sun album. Did that mark a pivotal change in how the label operated?
It made sense to move on. Out of the first four artist albums on Lex, the Boom Bip, Non-Prophets and Danger Mouse & Jemini albums did really well and Tes did respectably so there was no turning back… We signed multi-album deals and made bigger plans.

Anyway, Scott’s DJ went back to Atlanta and bumped into Brian Burton [Danger Mouse] and told him to go out to London if he wanted to get noticed…

How did you discover Danger Mouse?
I was running the Nesh parties for Warp, and releasing the first few things on Lex. One spring night at Nesh we put on a room full of Atlanta based electronic artists, including Prefuse73. His DJ started playing loads of big new mainstream hip-hop tracks I hadn’t heard. He played Southern Hospitality and I bounded up all lanky, red-faced and sweaty from the crowd and wanted to know what it was. Next tune, I bound up again. And so on… Anyway, Scott’s DJ went back to Atlanta and bumped into Brian Burton [Danger Mouse] and told him to go out to London if he wanted to get noticed…

When he came out to London, he dropped some mixtapes on my desk in the Warp office and I called him back and we got talking. He was obviously really talented and ambitious and I loved his beats. Pretty soon he’d signed to Lex and we got cracking on [Danger Mouse & Jemini's] Ghetto Pop Life. It was the most fun album to work on. Brian and I were really green. We just knew what we liked and were trying to make it happen.

Danger Mouse Brian Burton Lex Records

How important was Danger Mouse’s success to the label’s development?
Ghetto Pop Life definitely opened a lot of doors but, more importantly, Lex really grew up on that album. We got our first front cover on Hip-Hop Connection and got to try out a lot of things that you can’t do with low-key albums. However, it was The Grey Album when things really popped off for Danger Mouse and Lex. Brian came up quickly with the idea and turned the mix round really fast. It was clear that it was going to be hot but no one predicted it would be go bonkers and take on a life of its own. Seeing Brian and Ben Harris [Lex's PR] on Channel 4 News with Jon Snow was the highlight for me.

Is there another album due from him on Lex?
I think that there’ll be more Lex-branded Gnarls Barkley out on Warner and there should be a follow up to the Rome project at some point. We also have Kill Your Heroes. It’s kept in a crystal of frozen Grey Goose that will shatter when hip hop most needs an album of split-personality thugged-out braggery over goofy beats and trombone samples.

You maintain close working relationships with your artists. How exciting is it watching them develop?
It what it’s all about. It’s what we do. DOOM’s been in London on and off for the last year, Boom Bip’s recording here soon. It’s great to work with artists closely when they’re into it. In the last few years we’ve also been working with artists who are established when they come to Lex – like Alan Moore, Gruff Rhys and DOOM. That’s cool too because they still want to do something completely new.

Lex prizes quality over quantity. How much work, effort and planning goes into each release?
We try to get three albums out per year. The plan is to avoid becoming a production line. Some albums take years to put together. It’s even more important now to make sure every album is special, that people can buy it and keep getting something out of it for years. We have a huge project in the works called Nevermen that started in 2008. It has a huge art element, three front men in the group – Tunde Adebimpe, Mike Patton and Doseone – and it sounds unlike anything I’ve ever heard.

Warp were heading in a different direction. I think Lex was carrying on the old Warp model, but Warp were at a stage where they wanted to sign record-industry-hot bands like Maxïmo Park who were bound to get a big deal somewhere. With bands like that a label needs a huge budget to sign them and then market them and Warp’s priorities changed to accommodate that new direction.

Why was it important to go independent from Warp in 2005?
Warp were heading in a different direction. I think Lex was carrying on the old Warp model, but Warp were at a stage where they wanted to sign record-industry-hot bands like Maxïmo Park who were bound to get a big deal somewhere. With bands like that a label needs a huge budget to sign them and then market them and Warp’s priorities changed to accommodate that new direction.

They didn’t share the faith I had in Danger Mouse. Gorillaz’ Demon Days [produced by Danger Mouse] had been a huge album that spring – it sold something like 11 million copies – and I also had the first Gnarls Barkley demos, including Crazy. Cee-Lo had also written a massive hit that year [Don’t Cha for the Pussycat Dolls] and there was real buzz about them. It was really clear to me that the survival of all the work I’d put into Lex and Danger Mouse depended on going out on my own. It was a scary choice, but I didn’t consider any other options.

Stainless Style Neon Neon Ehquestionmark

Striking, innovative artwork has been critical to the Lex aesthetic from day one. What inspired that?
It was the combination of access to decent budgets from Warp and the fact that ehquestionmark [Lex's initial design guru] was hell bent on trying out every printer’s special possible. We decided to do one sleeve for all the 12s we released so that we could do something lavish by manufacturing a ton of them and saving on per-unit costs. We made something like 10,000 house sleeves in one go and it brought the price right down. After that, the albums were all decent sized releases, so we could afford ultra-deluxe initial runs of CD and vinyl. If Lex had been a bedroom operation I never would have spent that money on sleeves.

DangerDoom album Lex Records

Where did you find ehquestionmark?
It was at a Nesh party. I was working, running from one room into another, and a DJ who was a mutual friend introduced me. ehquestionmark was a graf writer and he gave me a magazine he’d done the layout for, but I didn’t check it out for a few days. The magazine had so much detail that I got in touch and asked him to do the house sleeve; the only request I made was that it didn’t have a big burner or outline on the front. I didn’t want it to look too corny. ehquestionmark delivered the artwork really really late, so we had to use it, and it had a huge graf outline on the front. It was the opposite of what I asked for but it looked amazing.

How important is packaging/artwork in an era when more often than not people will download music for free?
It’s important in the sense that you need to think very carefully about the budgets. At one end, albums that would have sold 10,000 CD copies a few years ago will now only sell 1-2,000. That means that for low profile releases it becomes impractical to make deluxe packaging for small runs. At the other end, with cult artists, it means that you put more effort into the deluxe formats.

Are there any releases you perhaps fluffed the ball with?
There are definitely albums that deserved to do better. Willie Isz [Jneiro Jarel and Khujo Goodie] is a micro classic. Humankind will still be listening to it in 50 years, but I suspect it will still be a very low number of humans.

There are definitely albums that deserved to do better. Willie Isz [Jneiro Jarel and Khujo Goodie] is a micro classic. Humankind will still be listening to it in 50 years, but I suspect it will still be a very low number of humans.

Pound-for-pound, what is your favourite Lex release to date?
It would be between Hymie’s BasmentStainless StyleGhetto Pop Life and the new JJ DOOM album. I can’t narrow it down any further I’m afraid.

What are the label’s immediate plans and long-term goals?
We have some great projects lined up this year. There’s the Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins’ digital film project, the JJ DOOM album and hopefully new music from Neon Neon. In the long-term I just want to carry on working with artists I really admire, making art. It would suit me if I can do that for the rest of my working life.

Words: Andy Cowan

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