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Lex Records: Hip-hop that won't stop!

Written by Imran Mirza

Looking back to when hip-hop was considered as nothing more than a passing musical trend in the early-80s, to look upon its rise to prominence in the 21st Century is nothing short of spectacular. Hip-hop’s fashion, music and artists have long made the leap, and firmly established themselves, as a part of popular culture, with the UK even now boasting its own home-grown crop of stars reaching an international platform.

A strong element of hip-hop’s appeal lies in its multi-faceted takes on it – for every rapper who rhymes about cash and partying, or sex and violence, there’s another more socially conscious artist, enthralled in politics and black history; and for every commercial-sounding or trend-hopping artist, there’s another keen to carve their own lane and push the boundaries of the genre’s perceptions. And it’s in these alternatives where Lex Records soar. Lex Records initially started off as an offshoot of iconic Sheffield-based label, Warp Records, and spearheaded by Warp employee, Tom Brown. Tom’s love for music and hip-hop had already started taking shape whilst studying at Sheffield, and was already making a name for himself by holding theme nights in bars and clubs, “We started off just getting DJs that we knew to DJ in bars for free during the week and then we got more ambitious and started getting hip-hop groups, trying to get lineups that were individual”. Brown further explained, “It wasn't like a money-making enterprise, it was being actively involved really. I think that level of involvement is kind of what makes the music industry work – smaller shows, making mixtapes, writing stuff on websites and stuff like that”.

Looking to spread his wings further while under the Warp umbrella, Brown was entrusted with managing a series of projects along with a compilation from America, which was to celebrate the opening of their New York office. The 15-track release was dubbed Routine, and consisted of work from their current roster, including Polygon Window, Tricky Disco, LFO, Plaid, Squarepusher and Autechre to name a few. The Milk Factory described the release as, “Encompassing the best of what Warp Records is all about, Routine is an essential addition to any record collection, either as an introduction to Warp, or as a complement to Warp 10 series.”

Lex found its identity started to grow through acts like Boom Bip and MF Doom, along with Danger Mouse (whose career had started to take off with ‘The Grey Album’ – his remix/mash-up LP of Jay-Z’s one-time swan song, ‘The Black Album’ with The Beattles’ ‘The White Album’ – which was soaring to critical and commercial praise). At the same time, Warp had just signed Maximo Park and found itself pushing a lot of resources into making that a success, so feeling the need to take a different approach to Warp, Brown felt it was time for Lex to stand on its own, “I suggested we get another company to buy it off them and they seemed open to that and then I thought about it for another month or so, and then said ‘what about if I bought it off you’, and they said ‘yeah, great’. It just made sense at the time for Lex to go a separate direction and it was all completely amicable”.

Lex’s independence has allowed its artists to flourish – under the guise of Dr Who Dat?, Jneiro Jarel entered the fold in 2006, and the MC/producer already has two critically acclaimed solo releases under his belt, along with his 2009 collaborative release with Goodie Mob’s very own Khujo Goodie, Willie Isz; Boom Bip, one of Lex’s longest-standing members, who actually started out during its Warp Records days, has seen several releases under the ‘Lex’ banner, including a joint project with Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals, Neon Neon; and then of course, there’s Danger Mouse, whose solo projects, along with collaborative efforts as a part of Danger Mouse & Jemini, and Danger Doom (with MF Doom), continue to solidify the his legacy along with Lex’s.

Beyond these being tighten-your-wallet times, record labels’ continuing battle with the internet is still an ongoing war. While the music industry struggles to find a balance between the information highway being the proverbial gift and curse, like any record label, Lex finds itself having to adjust to the current climate: “Basically, someone was saying to me the other day,” explained Brown, “They explained it as we’re in Year Zero, so if you’ve got an artist who broke, someone who got to a sustainable level of sales and is making money, and their campaign’s a success, like MF Doom – that happened before the Year Zero, so his fans will still go out and buy his record, so if I get a new artist, and hooked them up with Doom, it would be a lot easier to get it off the ground than it would a new artist without that kind of support.”

Lex’s commitment to its artists is one of its most endearing qualities as a record label, and it’s this type of attention and care that I believe will see them safely through as they enter into the ‘Year Zero’ phase of the industry. Tom Brown concluded, “We always wanted to, at Lex, to keep the number of releases really low so we could be really hands on with everything, and not necessarily to grow the company in terms of number of people, but to work on growing individual artists, and that's still the case now – we’ve still got a really small roster and we've never dropped a signed artist, it's about investing in new artists from really early on in their career, and working on the production side, and investing in them for a long term deal.”

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