Tom Brown is the head of the much praised Lex records, the roster of which includes, among others, Sage Francis, Prince Po, Boom Bip and Andrew Broder. He kindly took the time to conduct a telephone conversation with DiS, and – despite having a bad cold – spoke amiably and in depth about his label’s recent and forthcoming records, his aims for the future, and the highs and lows of the job.
What became apparent was that his attitude towards Lex’s musicians and releases, which he spoke of during the interview, has led to the label forging a release schedule which demonstrates both his desire to showcase the creative development of the label’s fresh, diverse artists, and an aim to put out music which he feels should be heard before music which he might be expected to release; in short, to challenge his listeners before he appeases them. It’s this approach that, since 2001, has allowed Lex to come to prominence as one of the most intriguing and remarkably consistent record companies working inside and out of the hip-hop arena; one of those rare labels which serve as more than just a steady ground upon which its musicians might stand, but as a personal, influential entity that can add to releases – from the lavish cover packaging in which the Lex releases its music to the intuitively fantastic collaborations it encourages and fosters.
Here’s the interview in full:
DiS: 2003 was a great year for Lex; what have you got planned for 2004?
Tom: I think it’s going to be a better year for Lex, to be honest, because I’ve got more records coming out - we’ve been working on them all the way through 2003. The first thing coming out is a project called “Sleep No More” by DJ Signify, and he’s collaborating with Buck 65 and Sage Francis. It’s quite a dark concept album.
DiS: It sounds like another new direction for both emcees involved...
Tom: Sage and Buck have both rapped over Signify tracks before on their last solo albums, Signify produced [some of the material on “Square”] and on Sage’s “Personal Journals” there’s a track with Signify. I think there’s always going to be that group of them working together; Sixtoo as well. I guess the connection is Mr. Dibbs from Atmosphere – he’s the guy behind it all. I thought it was a great record to do on a lot of levels. Buck’s on Warner Brothers now and he’s done five tracks on this record, so it’s a good opportunity to put out some classic Buck 65 hip-hop stuff, because there might not be another.
DiS: Classic Buck 65? In the vein of the Stinkin’ Rich material?
Tom: Well, it’s themed on insomnia and Sage tells one story across three tracks and Buck tells his across four or five, and the music carries it along. So, the Stinkin’ Rich stuff is perhaps more traditional than this is.
DiS: And you’ve got the new Prince Po solo album coming out soon; how does his own material compare with the stuff he did with [seminal hip-hop duo] Organized Konfusion?
Tom: Well, it’s a mix really, because I think in some ways he still works best when he’s got someone to bounce ideas off of. When I first worked with him he recorded with Danger Mouse & Jemini on [the latter’s latest album, on Lex] “Ghetto Pop Life”. Jemini knew him from years ago – [Prince Po] produced his first record. So when they’d both written their raps they went in the studio in New York and I wasn’t there, but Danger Mouse was telling me that when each one of them delivered their verse the other one would be scribbling down, rewriting theirs, because there’s a lot of competition between them, and they’ve both been around so long it turns into a quite competitive thing. But it was a fairly regular song, but it ended up turning into one of the highlights of the album. We bore that in mind when we were putting together this album, so there are a couple of tracks on there where he’s working with MF Doom…
DiS: Another musician who had a great 2003...
Tom: Yeah, he’s done so much good stuff, and I think he has loads more material coming out as well, but he’s an easy guy to work with, and like Prince and Jemini he’s someone who’s been around for a long time, but is still very fresh. And there’s also stuff there with Cee-Lo from Goodie mob and Dungeon family.
I think MCs like Cee-Lo and Andre 3000, all the anticon guys and probably a few of the Def Jux people would admit that they owe a bit to Prince and Pharoahe Monch; because they changed what an emcee could do on a mic. So that’s shaping up really well, and the production is amazing.
DiS: The list of guests [on production] certainly looks exciting...
Tom: Yeah, Madlib’s produced a chunk of it; he’s done three tracks, Danger Mouse has done a lot of work on the album and J-Zone has done a couple of tracks as well. It’s working out really well; we’re just starting to master bits of it and the last few tracks are being mixed down. Hopefully that’ll be out in May, and we’ll have a couple of 12”s out before then.
DiS: Taking a look at UK hip-hop, I thought the Mummy Fortuna’s Theatre Company EP in 2002 was some of the best hip-hop to come out of the UK recently; do you have any plans to work with the Mechanical Insects Crew or any other UK artists in the future?
Tom: Yeah, definitely; I’ve always intended to, having started off with my hip hop shows in the North of England. That was what I did [before Lex] – I was broke at the time and I’d scrape enough money to put on little shows and it built up, and we’d get interesting hip-hop artists and non-hip-hop artists from all over the place come and play, and I’d have a bunch of people come and do stuff. Some of them are still around; there’s a group called the Red Eye Knights who now have their own label and Doyen D was always knocking around. And Kid Acne, Req and Andy Votel and people like that were always connected with the stuff we were doing, and we always intended to work with them. It’s just that Kid Acne’s taking a long time to get his stuff together! His record is pencilled in for release in the late Autumn, and it’s going to be a really deluxe release - like a pop up book, almost, with an album inside, and there’s some collaborations he wants to do, as well as working with the people he’s already worked with. It’s quite an ambitious project and it’s going to take the best part of a year to put together, but before that there’s a Kid Acne and Andy Votel EP that’s going to come out on the label. I’ve already got some of the beats that were recorded last year, and it’s got Andy Votel rapping, which you don’t hear every day.
DiS: You seem dedicated to putting out great music before concerning yourself with any specific facet of hip-hop - for example if you take ‘Hymie’s Basement’ and ‘Hope’, they’re musically worlds apart, but they’re both coming out on Lex - do you think that’s a fair statement?
Tom: Yeah, it’s a deliberate thing that isn’t always very easy to convey. What seems to happen is that one record brings a whole load of fans into contact with the label; they’ve heard of the artist before and they fall in love with the record and then they hear something else and it turns them all off and they all get quite insulting about the Lex, like I’ve just let them down. That’s going to happen for everyone and people are going to come to realise that all the projects are going to be different; both to keep things interesting for me and to avoid getting put into one scene, and so what I’m trying to do is have really interesting one-off projects, which don’t all have to be connected with hip-hop. I love hip-hop and I’ve been involved in it at some level for a long time, but I also love things like American hardcore; I’m a big fan of Fugazi, and I love Warp and so on. But there’s things that people are already doing, and I’m trying to do things that not many other people are doing.
For instance, anticon didn’t have a very big profile three years ago when Lex was getting started out but now people already know about the anticon people who are working with the label - which is great - but on the whole the idea is to have new artists who haven’t had worldwide releases for their stuff. When I signed Boom Bip the Circle album had only just been released in the States, and no-one really knew who he was, and when I signed Sage he hadn’t yet hooked up with the anticon guys, though he’d definitely met them. Tes was the same – he’d never had a proper release and Danger Mouse only had one self-released CD. The idea was to build up a roster of people I can work with who are all very different, very individual, and at the beginning of their careers.
Obviously Jemini and Prince Po are a departure from that; Danger Mouse really wanted to work with Jemini, and when the opportunity came up to work with Prince Po and we heard the stuff he was doing it seemed like the right move to make.
DiS: And with the guests you’ve got appearing on the Prince Po album you’ve got people who are relatively new in the – if you’ll excuse the term – hip-hop “scene”, so you’ve got that bringing together of the old and the new - and it’s the same with Boom Bip, when he hooked up with Dose that helped bring him to the attention of a lot of anticon fans, and I guess what Lex is doing by having that combination of artists on the roster is introducing people to music they wouldn’t otherwise hear, that may or may not be that far away from what they’re listening to at the moment.
Tom: Yeah, I think that people often say to me especially about the States that nobody who listens to Outkast will listen to a Sage Francis record, but I think there must be people; I’ve always listened to different genres – I wouldn’t presume that I’m educating people so much as trying to get the best out of these new talents around, but if it does…
DiS: Open people’s minds up a little bit?
Tom: Yeah; I think I’ve still got a long way to go; we still only get one or two stars in Hip Hop connection if there’s anything weird on a record [he laughs], but it doesn’t bother me too much.
DiS: If we look at “Hope” for a second; “Hope” I thought was a great record augmented by the nods to the genre’s past – it wasn’t alienating; if you didn’t get a reference then that just served as an encouragement for the listener to check out the classic artists to whom Sage and Joe Beats were nodding to. I think that’s an important thing for an artist to be able to do; to release a record which can reference its influences and stand on its own two feet.
Tom: I think hip-hop is constantly referencing its past glories; if you listen to the new Jay-Z album, he’s constantly referring to zillions of things. On ‘hip hop site’, an American website, they were saying [Hope] was like ‘Ego Trip’s book of Rap Lists’; which is just a list of stuff that’s happened but is really good fun to read, and I think it’s the same with the Non-Prophets record; it really works on that level where it makes you feel happy for a second about being a geek.
DiS: How did you feel about the reactions to your releases last year; certainly ‘Hope’ received almost unanimously good press, and the same could be said for most of your releases. Is that affirmation important to you: from the press, and more importantly, from the fans?
Tom: Yes, I think so; on a personal level I’ve always worked best when people have said nice stuff about me and encouraged me to do better, and I think it’s good for the artists as well, because they’re really sensitive to press. Also if you look at a major label like XL, and good on them – but they have a lot more money and they can release a 12” several times and try different things with it, where because of the scale of the budgets I’ve got at the moment, I can only have a good stab at anything once. So press is something that has definitely been good for the label so far. I’ve got brilliant press officers in the UK and the States and France, and it definitely helps because it provides great exposure, and I can’t rely on having a play listed record. You know, I’ve had some good radio play, and support, but where a much bigger label might be able to exert more pressure or get more coverage in other places, I can’t really do that. So having the press on your side is fantastic.
DiS: And in the same vein, it’s generally recognised that the internet, for instance, gave anticon a massive leg-up and allowed them to get themselves out there on a global scale just with the budget they were operating with; what do you think of the internet as a platform to expose yourself to a new audience?
Tom: I think it’s great; it sometimes crosses my mind how crazy it would be working in an office without an internet connection and computers. I think a really important thing for Lex is that people have preconceptions about what it is because they already have reference points; so they might have heard of Dose or Boom Bip or Sage, and be expecting one thing when actually it might be another. So the internet is like the radio in that it serves as a place for people to actually hear the music; [allows me] to post audio on the internet so people can check out the music that they’re reading about.
Because you want people to hear the music and hopefully buy it, and the internet’s definitely geared for that. Before I ran Lex I was working for Warp running their online shop, and in that time it went from selling two or three CDs a day to Warp fans to turning over tens of thousands of pounds a month. So I know the internet is a really important chunk of my business; I love the internet and I’d love to expand the website and do more with it - it’s just a matter of having the time to manage it.
DiS: I’ll finish up with a general question for you: if you could work with any one artist or group of people, who would it be?
Ah, crikey. When I heard a rumour on the internet that Organized Konfusion were getting back together – the rumour was that organised Konfusion were getting back together as Organized and it was going to be Pharoahe Monche, OC and Prince Po, I thought that would be a pretty all-star line-up, and I’ve been a massive fan of Outkast for ages… But I don’t think I’d win any prizes for saying I’d like to work with the biggest rap group in the world! But apart from that I really like a lot of Steve Albini stuff; I know he’s doing a lot of stuff at the moment and he seems to produce every other album I listen to, but I really like the last Nina Nastasia album, which came out on the Touch & Go imprint.
To be honest, though, the most exciting people to work with for me are artists at the start of their career, like Boom Bip, who I’ve been working with the longest, and Danger Mouse - who is producing the next Alkaholiks album and producing a record for Cee-Lo, who’s a platinum selling artist - he’s moving on and doing these things and still making records for me, and that’s the stuff that really gives me a kick, like finally getting an album out with Sage Francis and doing all the stuff you dream of doing; if you have an idea - “shit wouldn’t it sound great if Doom remixed Sage Francis” - and he’s got a Doom remix on the new 12”…
He’s also doing a collaboration with Bonnie “Prince” Billy for another 12”, who I guess would be on the list of people I would want to work with…
DiS: So just finding people who have talent, who have ideas, and watching that talent and those ideas come to fruition; is that what you enjoy?
Tom: Yeah, and you know, it’s fantastic. It’s a dream job in a lot of ways, although you always want to do so much you end up being very busy all the time… You’ve got to make sure it doesn’t end up ruining relationships...