Experimental hip-hop outfit UNKLE was one of the original artists releasing material through noted U.K. label Mo' Wax, which helped launch the mid-'90s instrumental downtempo breakbeat revival eventually termed trip-hop. Though hardly the label's highest-profile group (at least until the long-delayed release of their debut LP in 1998), UNKLE's members included label head James Lavelle, who formed Mo' Wax while still in his teens as an antidote to the increasingly stale acid jazz/Northern soul scene. Stripping the music down to its barest of essentials — bass, percussion, minimal samples, and heavy effects — the Mo' Wax sound was best exemplified by its second label compilation, Headz, as well as the two-part sequel Headz II. During the mid-'90s, Mo' Wax quickly gained respectability and a large audience among beat-heads worldwide. Although not as prolific as other Mo' Wax artists such as DJs Shadow and Krush, UNKLE nonetheless played a crucial role in cementing Mo' Wax's early sound through their Time Has Come double-EP, which featured remixes of the title track by Plaid, Portishead, and Howie B.
The UNKLE trio was initially Lavelle, Tim Goldsworthy (a friend of Lavelle's since childhood), and producer Kudo (from seminal Japanese label Major Force, plus a member of the psychedelic beat crew Skylab). Prior to his entry into production, Lavelle, along with Goldsworthy, was deep into New York hip-hop and electro, the emerging late-'80s Sheffield bleep scene, the English acid jazz scene (which he covered as a columnist for Straight No Chaser magazine), and of course the acid house and techno explosions that were redefining English counterculture at the time. The pair hooked up with third member Kudo through the growing rep of the latter's Love T.K.O. project, whose outbound interpretations of breakbeat and acid jazz drew Lavelle's ear. Goldsworthy and Kudo remained more heavily involved in nuts-and-bolts production, especially given the success of Mo' Wax, with the penning of an expansive partial ownership deal with A&M Records in 1996. Meanwhile, Lavelle engaged in the conceptual and organizational end, crafting beats and laying out vague sketches his partners then expanded into full-blown tracks.
Despite the scarcity of released material, UNKLE grew to wide acclaim during 1996 through remix projects for Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Tortoise. After Goldsworthy and Kudo were effectively replaced by Mo' Wax bill-payer DJ Shadow, the all-star LP Psyence Fiction finally appeared in 1998. Lavelle, amid much work as a DJ, then recruited singer/songwriter Richard File for the second UNKLE full-length, 2003's Never, Never, Land. Four years later, Lavelle and File returned with War Stories, including collaborators from the past (Josh Homme) and new associates (Ian Astbury, Chris Goss) to contribute to the heaviest-sounding UNKLE release to date. File departed and was replaced with writer, producer, and longtime Mo' Wax associate Pablo Clements (of Psychonauts). A pair of odds 'n' ends collections, More Stories and End Titles...Stories for Film (both released in 2008), featured old and new material, including music from UNKLE's soundtrack to the documentary Odyssey in Rome. In 2009, the "Heavy Drug" single announced the coming of an organic, band-oriented 2010 album, Where Did the Night Fall (Another Night Out). The duo's release schedule picked up once more with the 2013 release of an EP titled Trance Film. UNKLE returned in 2017 with their sixth studio effort, The Road, Vol. 1. The record once again featured a host of collaborators: Mark Lanegan, ESKA, Keaton Henson, and Andrew Innes of Primal Scream. The second volume of the Road trilogy arrived in 2019, sub-titled Lost Highway, this time featuring more guest artists — Henson returned alongside some new additions, including former Clash guitarist Mick Jones, Elliot Power, Miink, and Editors frontman Tom Smith. ~ Sean Cooper & John Bush