August 24, 2018
Critically derided, UNKLE’s 1998 album Psyence Fiction has since gained cult status for its chaotic collages and maverick collaborations. Eliot Wilder explores the record’s complex appeal, 20 years on.
The ’90s were a fertile and fecund time for rap and hip-hop. From groups like the Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, Outkast, and Public Enemy, to rappers such as Dr Dre, the Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac, it was the decade in which the music emerged from the underground into the mainstream. Think of the great music of that era and records like Fear of a Black Planet, The Chronic and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill jump to mind. Such was the creativity of the period, that room was made for experimental works in the world of sample-based music, from artists such as the Beastie Boys (their seminal Paul’s Boutique), A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory, Beck (Mellow Gold and Odelay), and my personal favourite, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. Other categories emerged such as trip-hop (see Massive Attack’ Blue Lines), acid jazz (Jamiroquai, Brand New Heavies and St. Germain), and electronica (think ELF, Everything but the Girl, the Chemical Brothers, and Air).
Record labels were discovering fresh artists and catering to audiences seeking radically new sounds. They were, as Shadow himself once said, “kind of halcyon days. There was a real infrastructure built around artists to help them succeed on a financial level and a career level. I think that’s been completely removed, and everybody’s now on their own. It’s like a hundred thousand different islands as opposed to a landmass where you can mobilize and work together.” Indeed, bold artistry, public taste, and corporate savvy coalesced to forge one of the great epochs in popular music.
One of the more prominent figures kicking up a dusty groove in this cultural maelstrom was James Lavelle. A DJ at the age of 14, by the time he was 18 James had borrowed enough cash to start up Mo’ Wax, where he would be at the vanguard of trip-hop, turntablism and what might best be described as alternative hip-hop. He signed such acts as DJ Krush, Dr Octagon, Attica Blues, and, most notably, DJ Shadow. His foresight, energy and enthusiasm cut a swath through the U.K. underground scene. “What made Lavelle successful,” Shadow has said, “was his unbelievable drive; he was like a hummingbird. He had absolute love for music. He was voracious.”
In addition to his musical proclivities, Lavelle was also known for his taste-making fashion sense, his keen artistic eye (working with the likes of Ben Drury, Futura and B+), and the rare ability to recognise and initiate trends. All the disparate influences in Lavelle’s orbit came together in Mo’ Wax, which embraced not only music but graphic design (its iconic logo was rendered by U.K. designer Ian Swift a.k.a. “Swifty”), as well as toys, clothing, and merchandise.
But Lavelle was always more a facilitator than a musician. “UNKLE,” Shadow has said, “was always essentially James with other people doing the work. That’s not meant to sound any worse than it does.” Lavelle himself admits that he “became a DJ because I couldn’t breakdance and I was no good at graffiti.” However, he did have the knack for spotting talent, and the artists he’s either nurtured or been engaged with read like an alternative who’s who: Richard Ashcroft, Kool G Rap, Mike D, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Badly Drawn Boy, Ian Brown, Thom Yorke. He would call on all of them when it came time to produce UNKLE’s debut.
Released 20 years ago to a flurry of hype, Pysence Fiction was, for Lavelle, a confluence of all wheelhouses that moved him. It featured bits of scratching and tons of sampling, all mixed with fat hip-hop beats and, lamentably for some, guitar-driven alt-rock.
The entry point for many listeners was that DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….., released two years earlier, had been so groundbreaking, critically beloved, and well-received by the public. As Shadow was all over this record, both as a composer and performer, the expectation was that Psyence Fiction would be a sort of Endtroducing….. Part II. And in some ways, it was.
The album kicks off with the very Shadow-sounding ‘Guns Blazing’, all cracking drums, clanging cow bells, spacey sound bites, and Kool G Rap’s ferocious wordplay. Its mash-up of effects and styles is jarring and not completely seamless. “Too hardcore for rock dudes, too out there for rap dudes,” Shadow has said. But it did, and still does, lunge at your ears.
The track segues into ‘Main Title Theme’, which grinds its way along with dubby beats and sinewy guitars, again a sound that many have pointed to as a weakness in the album. Too much of a concession to the alternative rock movement of the time, fingers wagged. That leads to ‘Bloodstain’, which again embraces rock elements. At this vantage point, the track is terrifically moody and no little bit harrowing.
‘Unreal’, featuring Richard Ashcroft’s miles-away-in-a-fog vocals, is similarly dark and foreboding, and the ever-present guitars shade it with a cloud of languor. Ashcroft also appears on the hypnotic and haunting ‘Lonely Soul’, which, thanks to Shadow’s moody beats, conjures a sense of isolated remove.
Mike D brings his inner Beastie to ‘The Knock’, which sounds like it could have come from some dreamed-of distorto-rock-rap hybrid. Badly Drawn Boy blasts his way through the smoking ‘Nursery Rhyme/Breather’ and Thom Yorke warbles a disturbing ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’, all dirty windows and greasy smells.
But despite its many virtues, it has remained somewhat admired, but little loved. And the critics drubbed it.
“Not beautiful (or weird) enough for its own beats,” said rock dean Robert Christgau. Joshua Klein at AV Club said that “Psyence Fiction can be chalked up as an ambitious failure; its principals can put it on their résumés, but cultural historians needn’t put in their books.” And the NME said: “The prevailing air of (the album) is one of clumsy compromise rather than mutual inspiration. Overwhelmingly, there’s the feeling that DJ Shadow – who builds almost all the music here – is uncomfortable in his role as collaborator; that this deeply solipsistic artisan rarely gels with Lavelle’s chosen singers or even comes to terms with the song (as opposed to groove) format of much of the material here.”
But Stephen Thomas Erlewine over at Allmusic was more charitable, saying that it “may not add up to an overpowering record, but in some ways Pysence Fiction is something better – a superstar project that doesn’t play it safe and actually has its share of rich, rewarding music.” And that’s pretty much how I see it.
Despite its flaws – relating largely to a scattershot approach and lack of overall cohesion – it feels today like the kind of crazy, alt-star-strewn mash fest that it is. There’s a scrappy let’s-put-on-a-freakin’-show-and-see-what-happens mentality to it. A let’s-break-the-rules-and-not-give-a-fuck-all attitude.
How else could an album like this ever exist, other than because an ultimate fanboy turned mod entrepreneur willed it into existence? Other than because this adroit stylist took joy in cutting and pasting, mixing and matching to his heart’s delight? Or because this scene maker had some pretty cool friends at his disposal? So why the hell not?
That exuberant type of character seems to have all but vanished 20 years on.