Lex Records: The Story So Far

In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, while major labels were in pursuit of the latest hustler-turned-rapper stereotypes, it was up to independent labels to offer something different. One of those labels was London’s Lex Records.

Lex Records was almost a non-starter. The seed of an idea was planted when three Sheffield-based graduates, all coincidently named Tom and inspired by albums like Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever and Ghostface Killah’s Iron Man, were running a hip hop night called Dropping Science. One of the Tom’s, Tom Brown, was working for Warp Records, and before their idea of running an independent label concurrent to Dropping Science was able to develop, he was whisked off to London, where the label relocated.

Warp had been active since 1989, and was best known at the time for releasing records by British electronic acts, like Aphex Twin, Nightmares On Wax, Boards Of Canada and Autechre, later venturing into left field hip hop by signing artists such as Prefuse 73 and Anti-Pop Consortium. After moving to the capital to run Warp’s live events and mail order store, Brown approached his bosses, Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett, to tell them of his plan to start releasing 12-inch singles.

His intention was to start his own, small, independent operation in his spare time, but the bosses came back with an offer to support Brown and Lex Records was born as an imprint of Warp. Mitchell and Beckett did lay down ground rules, though: Brown would only release singles, and couldn’t work with artists that Warp were either already working with or on their immediate radar. Given that most of these were in the British electronic realm, and Brown had a background in hip hop with Dropping Science, he set his sights on US hip hop acts.

Boom Bip - Closed Shoulders

He’d been working closely with Prefuse 73 and while the terms meant that he couldn’t continue this relationship into Lex, he introduced Brown to Cincinnati beatmaker Boom Bip; the producer offering up his couch so that the pair could attend Scribble Jam, a mecca for the mid-west independent rap scene at the time. Brown found the opportunity too good to refuse. It was there that he would come face-to-face with the likes of Atmosphere, Sage Francis, Edan, Mr. Dibbs, Fat Jon, Boom Bip and Sage Francis for the first time, meetings which would prove invaluable to building the relationships that would get Lex off the ground.

From the off, Lex was an unusual set up. Many notable independent hip hop labels of the time – Stones Throw, Def Jux and Rhymesayers – were based in the States, where the majority of their artists resided, but Lex had the appeal of Warp’s backing to give them an edge in the eyes of many unsigned artists. Boom Bip and Sage Francis’ group, the Non-Prophets, were particularly interested in working with Lex beyond singles, and soon Brown found himself back in the Warp boardroom, negotiating the idea of releasing albums.

As Lex grew, it thrived on hip hop’s tradition of collaboration: Danger Mouse would seek out Brooklyn’s Jemini the Gifted One to record a single, which became an album; a guest feature from the rapper’s friend Prince Po opened the door to another album, recorded in Danger Mouse’s house and featuring a verse from DOOM. As Brown describes it, “It’s kind of that ‘What If?’ thing. It would be amazing if these guys got in the studio together. That normally seems to be the route; that was how we started working with DOOM, Ghostface and most of the artists over the years.”

Danger Mouse & Jemini - Ghetto Pop Life

Amongst the records that Lex would work on, Brown wanted to leave growing space for creative anomalies. Often, hip hop labels would present themselves as crews; contributing verses and beats to each other’s releases, and performing together. While Lex encouraged interplay between signees, Brown didn’t want to close doors to other opportunities by appearing cliquey: “If people don’t really have much of a perception of the label, it’s not going to seem out of place if you want to put out something like Neon Neon, or an audio book with Alan Moore.”

Alan Moore & Mitch Jenkins - Act of Faith (Official Trailer)

Alan Moore, the Northampton-based writer best known for his work in comics (Watchmen, V For Vendetta, Batman: The Killing Joke) has famously turned down opportunities with major film studios – refusing to even watch any of the Hollywood adaptations of his work – and fallen out with publishing giants Marvel and DC Comics in the process. Yet when Brown came across Unearthing (Moore’s essay on friend and mentor Steve Moore) through a mutual friend who’d been hired to shoot a Neon Neon video, he persuaded the elusive writer to record an audiobook version.

Nonetheless, Lex seemed to be being pigeonholed based off what was happening in the wider context of underground hip hop – even if that wasn’t really of much interest to Brown. “Def Jux were really big at the time, and all anyone ever played me was like crunchy, glitchy, electronic, abstract hip hop,” Brown remembers. “But what I really loved was A Tribe Called Quest. El-P is an incredible talent, but I didn't want to put out that kind of sound.” When DJ/producer Brian Burton, AKA Danger Mouse, who had finished studying in Atlanta and decided to relocate for a short stint in the UK, dropped a bunch of mix CDs on Brown’s desk at Warp, a vital era for the label would begin.

The Beatles vs Jay-Z [The Grey Album]

The discs contained mash-ups of indie rock tracks with hip hop acapellas, a trademark of DM’s early work. When Burton acquired the acapellas from Jay-Z’s so-called retirement record, The Black Album, he came up with the idea of combining them with the Beatles’ The White Album to create The Grey Album. Rather than substituting the Fab Four’s vocals for Jigga’s raps, Danger Mouse crafted new instrumentals built of samples mined purely from the Beatles’ 1968 LP.

As soon as EMI, who owned the rights to the Beatles catalogue, caught wind of the project, they slapped it down with a cease-and-desist order, but by then it was already circulating online for free download and the controversy only fuelled the fire. On February 24th, activist group Downhill Battle led an online protest in which over 170 participating websites posted links to the album for 24 hours. Dubbed “Grey Tuesday,” the album was downloaded over 100,000 times.

As the controversy snowballed, Remi Kabaka Jr. of Gorillaz dropped by the Warp offices in search of beats for the virtual band’s second album. Brown passed him a copy of The Grey Album and Danger Mouse ended up producing the Gorillaz’ Demon Days – somewhat ironically, an album which contains no samples, and was released on EMI/Warner. “I don’t know why anyone would’ve picked me after The Grey Album,” Danger Mouse would admit to NME. “Luckily [Damon] got to see there was a lot more to me than hip hop and sampling.” Producing Demon Days demonstrated the wider appeal that would have him transcend the “hip hop producer” tag, later producing records for the Black Keys, Norah Jones, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sparklehorse, amongst others.

Suddenly, Brown was thrust into an extraordinary position: Lex had one of the most exciting breakthrough acts of the year, but was unable to make a return; money was being spent on the promotion of The Grey Album, but there was nothing to sell. “If you just invest money that you can make an immediate return on, anybody could do that, you don’t need a record label,” says Brown, “but what you have to do is help artists get to the next level. That extra investment made sense, because Danger Mouse was signed on a long-term deal. That means that even if you don’t make it back on the record that you have at that moment, you can make it back on a subsequent album.”

On the other hand, Warp had watched labels like Domino and Wichita enjoying the success of indie bands like Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, and signed Maximo Park. While they usually worked with artists that operated on smaller budgets – who didn’t requite huge tours, do a lot of press or push singles to daytime radio – Maximo Park’s campaign would be a costly one. In February 2004, Warp put an end to Lex. “I’d been working on [Lex] for four years and I didn’t really have anything else going on. I’d put everything, personally, into that,” Brown says, recalling the crushing news. “I was in this position where I could let Warp wind it up, or find somebody to buy the company.”

DangerDoom - Sofa King

After meeting labels about the prospect of buying out Lex from Warp, it became clear that there was more demand for the imprint than expected: “Everybody was like, ‘What? You have Danger Mouse signed for four more albums? We definitely want to do a deal,” but nervous of the future, he decided to buy out Lex from Warp himself. “It was a lot to take on,” he remembers. “I went home over that summer [due to] the stress, my girlfriend at the time left me… it wasn’t a breeze, but I came out with what I’d been working on for the past year.” That September, he finally signed the papers to take full ownership of Lex and “it was an amazing rush. Suddenly, I had the DangerDoom album [dropping a month later], and both artists couldn’t have been any hotter.”

While Brown wasn’t set on a mainstream takeover, he suspects that Danger Mouse’s ambitions exceeded his own. “I’m pretty sure Brian was relentless in his ambition,” he says. “He didn’t draw a line anywhere. He was headed for the mainstream, because that was where the money and recognition was at, I guess.” DM had initially met Cee Lo Green of Goodie Mob when the eccentric vocalist was recording a verse for Ghetto Pop Life’s “What U Sitting On? (Remix);” the same session yielded another song, “Storm Coming,” and plans for a full-length developed soon after. Then, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing Andre 3000’s storming hit “Hey Ya.” If anyone could follow up with a crossover smash that blended the Dungeon Family’s funk with a pop appeal, it would be Cee Lo.

Although Danger Mouse was signed to Lex, Brown realized that the project would be too big for his newly acquired label to handle and so, despite being “pretty bummed out,” Brown shopped the record to Warner – who had already proven themselves in selling 10 million copies of Demon Days – for the good of the release. “It was about giving me the opportunity to keep working with Danger Mouse,” he says. “On one level, you’ve got a bit of paper that says someone’s signed, but you don’t want to ruin a project by forcing it to come out on a label that barely exists.” Lex’s branding would appear on the album and its various singles, but the campaign would be handled by Warner. The response was historic: “Crazy” was the first single to reach #1 on the UK Singles Chart off downloads alone, and the album debuted at #1 on the UK Album Chart.

Gnarls Barkley - Crazy

The Gnarls Barkley deal would also bring a financial reward that allowed Lex to become, in Brown’s words, “a proper company.” They were able to get their own office, members of staff, and sign a number of promising new acts one of which was DOOM; a mysterious rapper with a huge cult following who had crossed Lex’s path back when he appeared on Prince Po’s “Social Distortion.” Lex had the resources to give him a good offer surrounding a collaborative effort with Danger Mouse, and together the pair formed DangerDoom and created the cartoon-inspired album, The Mouse and the Mask.

“If I may interject, rap these days is like a pain up in the neck,” DOOM spat on “Benzie Box” – and audiences seemed to agree. Building on the response that Danger Mouse had achieved with Jemini, Lex was offering up an alternative to what mainstream rappers like 50 Cent were delivering: with DM’s psychedelic, multi-layered projection, and DOOM’s cartoon-inspired stanzas, they were an antidote to seriousness.

Until then, DOOM had done a fair bit of label-hopping. In fact, he’d never stuck with one for more than a single album. But the in-demand rapper would stick with Lex, following up the best-selling The Mouse and the Mask with another solo album, 2009’s Born Like This, and two more collaborative records, 2012’s Key to the Kuffs with Jneiro Jarel, and 2014’s NehruvianDOOM with Bishop Nehru. Part of the reason for this, Brown believes, was a result of DOOM’s enforced re-location to London. The rapper originated from the city, but moved away to New York before he was old enough to remember. Then, after a mix-up at customs in November 2010, when he was leaving the UK after finishing up a world tour, he was left stranded thousands of miles away from his wife and three kids – and has been in the capital ever since.

NehruvianDOOM - Darkness

“After meetings at hotels in L.A. and seeing him in Georgia for a couple of hours at a time, suddenly we were spending really long evenings out in London, talking through everything,” Brown explains. “With DOOM, it’s about finding a way to work with him and supporting him with the resources he needs to make an album.” The relationship between DOOM and his label became more than just business. In an interview with The Guardian, DOOM describes the Lex staff as his only friends in his new home: Brown and his staff would even take him in that Christmas, and set about finding him a home and studio, settling him into his new environment by the New Year.

When asked why he keeps going with the label, Brown’s response is simple: “I love putting out good records, and it feels like a lot of the stuff we put out might not have happened if we weren’t involved.” Brown pauses to remind us he isn’t “some anti-major label evangelist,” yet it’s labels like Lex that encourage artists to create and experiment in a way that the majors would scarcely allow. The experience for the artist is a very different one: “If Alan Moore was into [working with majors] he’d probably have put out an audiobook through Universal,” says Brown.

“He’s not short of offers. He gets asked to write comic book franchises for major studios quite frequently, from what I can tell, but he’s a real artist who wants to work on his art. It’s the same with DOOM. So many people are into him that, if he wanted to be on Sony, he probably could have struck a deal. But I think it’s a different kind of experience for an artist working with an independent record label that supports them, making the art that they can make, instead of trying to churn out something that works for the company’s balance sheet.” It’s creativity and the unexpected that keeps Lex moving forward, while there are new paths to be explored: a long-term deal with new band Golden Rules; an art project with Turner Prize winner Keith Tyson, plus more plans with Alan Moore are brewing; it’s not likely that Brown, his team or his roster will leave a stone unturned.

By Grant Brydon on May 19, 2015

On a different note