“What the f*** is this council and government doing?” asks an incredulous, angry and very impassioned JAZZIE B, who’s working himself up into a righteous, tell-it-like it is, groove. The charismatic Soul II Soul main man and Grammy-winning record producer and DJ – who was awarded an OBE in 2008 and has had a statue erected in his honour – is in a combative mood and bemoaning the seemingly imminent death of club culture in the UK, especially in London, where it’s estimated that over half of the capital’s nightspots have shut their doors during the last eight years. It’s an alarming state of affairs given that Soul II Soul emerged from the very scene that is now in terminal decline.
“This country is built on being innovative and creative,” explains Jazzie, who is extremely disconcerted by the prospect that the musical world that nurtured him and gave birth to one of the UK’s finest R&B collectives is close to dying. “How can they be closing down the clubs, the very scene that is helping to bring in revenue? When I was a young man there was somewhere to go where I was able to express myself. Clubs were an important platform that people like me had. If those clubs didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be here.”
Furthermore, 53-year-old Jazzie believes that the current situation if it continues will have a profound impact on the music industry in the UK. “We’re talking about a crisis,” he says. “If there’s nowhere for people to perform, how can we see and hear new music and new bands? Where am I going to see a new Soul II Soul?“
Indeed. Soul II Soul was a unique musical collective that began as a travelling sound system in the early ’80s that eventually evolved by the end of that decade into a proper band. Nurtured in the fertile hot house of the London club scene, they went on to conquer the world with their infectious and distinctly UK take on R&B.
The band’s influence has been wide and far reaching and after a long hiatus they’re now back in action. With singer Caron Wheeler back on board, the aggregation return with a new double album box set in early December called ‘Origins: The Roots Of Soul II Soul.’ It contains performances of some of the band’s most iconic songs and was recorded live at Metropolis studios in London, where it was cut straight to vinyl. It’s a subject that brings a broad smile back on Jazzie’s face. “I’ve got to say I’m really happy with the outcome,” he laughs. “It’s the first time that I’ve ever recorded live and been on the other side of the glass. Usually I’m the king of the control room but on that occasion I wasn’t, so that was a bit weird. But it’s pretty good.“
In an exclusive interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, Soul II Soul’s charismatic leader talks in detail about making the new album and also reflects on his long and illustrious career….
What’s the story behind the new album?
We got approached by the people at Metropolis about doing a live recording. When you’re used to being in so much control it was a difficult one recording it live. But anyway, I decided to embark on the whole thing and to be honest it’s sort of like you’re digging up history in a way and redefining who we are, what we are, and what it is you’re about. In a funny way it would have been easier to do new songs and make a whole new album but it was nothing about proving a point. It was more a case of almost redefining time. The situation was that I was really inspired by going on the road with the band. I’m so proud that it’s a British band and the fact that we did everything here in England. I think really the biggest thing for me was that was the first time I went back in the studio with Caron (Wheeler) for at least 15 years. So when you start looking at it like that you are like whoa, okay, but I’m really, really happy with the outcome of it all. It’s brilliant.
You include classic songs like ‘Keep On Moving,’ ‘Back To Life,’ and ‘Fairplay’ – how did it feel revisiting those songs with Caron on board?
Well, we hadn’t been in the studio recording for years but we’d done tours together. We’re not all in a bus together or anything like that. So it was different, and I’ve got to say, it’s made such a difference to all of us in regards to even how we are with each other. I think it’s brought us all closer doing the album because you listen back to that and now every time we play live, there’s an adjustment in terms of how we approach it and even utilize technology, and, that’s been wonderfully different. It’s all been quite amazing.
Who else is in Soul II Soul now besides you and Caron?
Well, on this record it was important that I had some young kids playing with us so everybody in the band is a lot younger than myself and Caron. I think that what’s so fresh and new about it is that it’s played by people who we probably helped to inspire. And now their influences are right in there. Chris Brown is the bass player, and the drummer is Julian Brown. We’ve got some pretty hectic things going on musically there from our point of view.
And you played in front of a small audience in the studio, is that right?
Yeah, one of the things that the guys at Metropolis wanted us to do was to have a small audience. They said we’ll have people in there for inspiration and and we were like, mm, okay, right, let’s see how this works but it was weird playing in front of a tiny audience. Not a big one, where you can hide behind it, but one that was literally in there with you playing percussion and being part of the whole recording as well, which was, I’ve got to say, really cool. It was a new experience for me as well on that level but it’s one that I will remember for a long time, actually.
Did it feel like you were taking a risk?
Yeah, it’s not something that I’d normally do. I need to be in control but I’ve got to say, it was a pretty good therapy because we let go a little bit. And in letting go other people came in and helped to inspire the project to a degree and just made it feel a little bit better as well.
Do you think making the album in that way and with that approach might affect you when you record in the future?
I think it’s opened a whole new can of worms because it’s like, what do you want to do now? It’s made it all a little bit weird because it makes me think, now I’d like to go into the studio with the band to create but I’ve got to learn how you divi that up.
So, some new problems but intriguing ones?
Yeah, well, it depends on how you take it but I’ve got to find a way of how to make that work for us.
Do you think you’re going cut a new album of fresh material?
I wouldn’t say no. It would be more a case of how and when that would happen. I’ve been inspired so I think I’ve just got to be cool with it and more than anything else, it’s got to be about timing because the thing is we don’t live in England together any more. Everybody’s been living all over the place and at the moment we’re actually drawn together because of the shows. So we’re sort of locked down for a period of time. That makes it a little complicated in terms of saying well, how are you going to make another record? Definitely. Who would you make that record with? I don’t know. And how? So those are the questions that I would have to think about. But I’ve definitely been inspired and in a funny way now, I’m less conscious about everything else around, like I don’t have an A & R man…
Breathing over your shoulder….
Yeah, but in terms of being inspired to make a record, you have to live it, right? So it’s going to have to be a reflection of what my life is about now and in terms of writing from that perspective, it’s actually just been like a punter just listening to everyone else.
When you were playing some of those classic songs did it bring back memories of the good old days when you were conquering America?
No, because I can hardly remember that time because it was so long ago. But what really made a difference was just playing with other people in a more communal way and, it sounds strange, but everyone was looking to me but some of us older guys were actually looking to the younger ones for inspiration. So it almost seems like everyone’s drawing guns at dawn sometimes (laughs) because the shows now are pretty much set in stone he regards to the repertoire.
And you’ve got a bigger repertoire than many people realize…
Yeah, I didn’t realise how big the repertoire was. We’ll do a show sometimes and it’ll be an hour, and hour-and-a-half show, and then when you meet people afterwards, they’ll come at you and say ‘why didn’t you do this song?’ ‘Why did you do that song?’ ‘Oh, this is my favourite song.’ And you’re like, mmm, okay. Which is weird. I’m used to just delivering a tune like a DJ and then you’re out of it but now the difference is people actually go, ‘I wanted you to do this song and why didn’t you do “Dream Of Dreams”?’ And then you’re like, oh, fuck! That’s another cool thing, Charles, because it makes me think I’m not just thinking in one dimension anymore. I have a broader scope now and I’m thinking about other things that could help the magic of what’s happened here.
Given that you’ve got five albums-worth of material to draw upon, was it difficult to leave some of your songs out?
Yeah, majorly, because I have new takes on old things and that feeds into new ideas that I made with this band; not stuff I recorded myself but stuff that I made being with this band. So that was odd and because we were cutting to four sides of vinyl, there were a lot of songs that didn’t make it. In some ways my hands were tied, and that’s what’s so exciting and special about the record because those are the elements of what it’s all about.
Are you going to do any more live shows to promote it?
Apparently, we’re booked until May next year. I hope it doesn’t overshadow my DJ-ing but they’re all good problems to have.
You’ve won an OBE, scored two Grammys, been given the keys to seven US cities and had a statue erected in your honour in Finsbury Park …given this, is it hard deciding on the best and biggest highlight of your career?
Me being sensible and having children and raising them is the biggest highlight to be fair (laughs) but of all the accolades, I think it’s probably that statue, because it’s in my own end. I think the statue is pretty awesome. It’s right by where I used to buy my records and nobody that I personally know had anything to do with it so it was something that the community put together. It is my biggest honour. I’ve got a badge from the establishment and a gong and all that lot, which was quite cool but, I think the statue is probably the biggest one because that is going to be about for a long time.
What impact you think Soul II Soul had on R&B music?
Well, now I can see it because I’ve been travelling the world and going to places like Africa and seeing the whole club culture evolve. I can see that Soul II Soul had quite a big influence in people’s lives musically and I feel very proud to have played a part in that because so many of my peers and people I came up with have passed away. So I feel blessed that I’m still physically about and am still able to do what I’m doing, more or less on my terms still, which is quite unusual and without trying to force the envelope or anything,
Do you have any unfulfilled musical ambitions?
I guess that there are some but I’m put on the spot here and I’ve got to be honest with you, I just give thanks to everything that’s gone on and even having conversations like this with you and someone who’s still interested in your shit. So that’s cool and it’s nice to see just seeing things happen in our country where things have evolved to the point where there’s Dizzy Rascal and Skepta, who’ve just won an award. I have to say it ain’t unusual to see black people now in good situations now. We’re not just villains anymore. When I was coming up in the seventies most of the black images were very bad versions of what the Americans were about or they were just really negative. But now, when I listen to music, it’s not just categorized anymore as much to say oh that’s reggae, or that’s soul, or whatever. People now can be free. So I feel part of that evolution.
You still DJ actively. Are there any artists or new records that have caught your ear recently?
Children of Zeus is one. Love that. Anderson Paak I’m playing at a bit. I also like Solange’s new record – the Raphael Saadiq productions anyway. There’s tons of music out there, Charles…
‘ORIGINS – THE ROOTS OF SOUL II SOUL’ is released via Metropolis on December 9th.