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Jazzie B: Soul II Soul Club Classics Vol 1

The man himself on an era-defining album

PRODUCTION EXPO 2013: Club Classics Volume 1 is a 'what it says on the tin' album. Over the course of ten tracks, it provided timeless snapshots of the bubbling London nightlife its creators were enjoying seven days a week.

It also achieved the rare feat of scooping up 16 Grammy's, conquering both sides of the Atlantic, opening the door for every other Urban British collective, all the while retaining a crucial credibility that still makes it a vital listen almost two decades later.

The lynchpin of the Soul II Soul collective has always been its front man, producer and funki-dreaded vibes controller Jazzie B. Pre-Club Classics Jazzie was a known bootlegger, soundsystem DJ, studio whiz, fashion designer, and all-round London scenester.

While making Club Classics, Jazzie and his vast community of musicians, engineers, co-producers such as the legendary Nellee Hooper, singers and fashion designers, were based in what they called The Shed.

"It was our headquarters in Camden High Road," says Jazzie B. "There wasn't beds, but it was 24-7. The sound system was kept there. We had a makeshift studio, a printing press. We were making clothes on the fashion side. Our shop was in the front, where there is now a McDonald's instead.

"At the back was the factory with the sound systems being built and shipped in and out and the screen- printing was still going on. Endless people came in and out all the time. People would be building amps and audio stuff in there too. It was mad. Metal work and soldering was in the air pretty much all the time."

The taste of airborne alchemy made for a pungent aroma, complimenting the mix of musical styles that was Soul II Soul's trademark. "We were always fusing rhythms and beats," says Jazzie. "We took the whole disco thing and electro thing, which became hip hop, as well as operating like a reggae sound system, and we mixed in a lot of singers because we were soul as well."

Recording the album between numerous commitments to DJing, performing, and selling the Funki Dread-style of clothing they were famous for, Jazzie pieced together the crew's first smash single Fairplay.

"That was the first one that was big in clubs, and started the bidding war between record labels for us," says Jazzie. "For me it was the most important move of my career. It was at a pivotal point in our career, as we were coming out of the idea of DJing to producing records."

Jazzie jokes today that he thinks "the album did alright" in terms of commercial and critical success, and when pushed to acknowledge the albums justified classic status, he adds that he'd "be a mug not to say that... 20 years later the record's still flying out. It can't be all that bad," he laughs.

Keep on Moving

"We got chucked out of the Africa Centre, where we played all the time, by the police, and they made up loads of nonsense about us having a crowd or whatever. We'd found out later from bouncers that it was other clubs that had grassed us up. We'd had huge queues going all the way down to Kingly Street on a Sunday night [laughs] when nothing else was going on. The whole of the West End, you could have heard a pin drop at that particular time.

"The Old Bill had threatened the owners of the club. The idea of the tune came at about five in the morning as the sun began to rise and the sun light's rays beamed through the windows. That's where the lyrics 'yellow is the colour of sun rays' came from. The 'keep on moving' idea came because we just wanted to keep on moving and partying."

Fairplay

"This was like our dubplate [a one-off trademark record that called out your crew]. We wanted to be the biggest soundsystem, not just in the UK but the world. The only way we thought that would happen is if we had every soundsystem playing our track, which is kind of the complete opposite of a normal dubplate or 'special'.

"It was based around the Boogie vibe we liked, and Rose [Windross, the singer] was just singing about the Africa Centre. It wasn't something that we thought would blow up, but blimey it did. That's when we found out how important the groove was. That's when we realised we could put out 'our' sound.

"At the time most English groups were driven by their A&R man to be sounding American. We took our cue from our great home-grown Funk and Reggae acts and mixed them together with our Electro influences."

Holding On

"It's a message. I've always been a big fan of [Funky poet] Gil Scott- Heron, and the message has always been in the music. That's what that is all about. One time I remember doing a gig in King's Cross, in the arches, which is now the famous St. Pancras Station. We must have had 5,000 people turn up to this hand-built rave, as it were. A couple of these militant black guys stepped up to me as I was working the crowd outside. Believe me it was orderly.

"Every time I said something the crowd would just adhere to it. And these guys came up behind me and pulled me to one side and started saying how I had all this respect and a position of power, and how I should use it to do this, that and the other.

"I remember thinking about it a few days later, how they were saying that as a community we should be strong and believe in what we were doing. So I put that down on record."

Feeling Free (Live Rap)

"That was very English electro. That was to the bone of who we were as we stylised what was happening in hip hop and rap in America, and our rendition of it over here. We thought the American's would get this one the most, as it was a hip hop, electro thing. But the one track that really blew us up over there was Jazzie's Groove, which was truly our own unique style and not along the lines of what they were doing. So you never can tell what'll work."

African Dance

"Early into recording the album I got a DJ residency in New York, at a club called Mars. I was exposed to people like Timmy Regisford, Tony Humphries, all these guys. Off the back of that I ended up spending what felt like 48 hours in New Jersey in [early House club] Zanzibar, just completely blow away.

"It was how I'd imagined Heaven in my eyes. It was one of those scenes and clubs where the moment you walked in the door you just got butterflies. You could just taste the atmosphere. It was the first club I went to where no one did anything, but just danced.

"It was a cross between Detroit and Chicago House music mixed in with Disco and Soul. It never felt like it was this quantised four to the floor beat. It was a very spiritual feeling. Musically we were very influenced by that, so we made African Dance on that vibe. It was one of the tunes at the time that we won a Grammy for."

Jazzie b. in 1991

Jazzie B in November 1991.© Denis O'Regan/CORBIS

Dance

"African Dance was like a dub version of Dance. I added the spoken word poetry to it. It was a hectic tune to perform live [laughs]. It was probably the one tune I shat myself over when we had to play it 'cos it was so raw.

"The people that I met in the dance scene in New York like Hedge and Blaze and all those guys, they were so musical and influenced by a kind of Afrocentricity at the time, and that was a tune that they used to punish [laughs] at this place called Palladium in New York."

"That was awesome. I remember going down there and hearing this tune remixed and playing for like twenty minutes. I went into the DJ booth and they had two reel to reels and four turntables, and they were doing this awesome live mix, with conga players and Fela Kuti records mixed over the top."

Feeling Free

"The truth of the matter is that this was our first single. That was the one the label chose to go out. The B-Side of the second release was Fairplay. And the record sales soared because of that. This single didn't even chart.

"I can see from an A&R point of view that they would think Feeling Free would be our best way into the market place. It kind of had a bit more of a pop edge, or a rock edge.

"It was made more for commercial use, rather than what we were playing in the clubs. It was still a fairly hard record though.

"Do I think having a strong female presence on the album gave it a new edge? Nah, I was just into birds [laughs]. I don't know really how we came to feature a lot of female vocalists. At the time most of our MCs and singers were male.

"I think it started when Rose Windross stepped up and got on the groove of Fairplay, it just seemed to command more attention. Maybe that's how it came about. Do'Reen, God bless her soul, was heavily involved in the club scene as well, and she had a different swagger to everyone else."

Happiness (dub)

"That's our rendition again of the whole New York House vibe at the time. It still is a bit of a cult tune. It's one of the ones that everyone still goes on about. The UK house DJs who emerged from that early scene still like it.

"It was really simple to unite all the club crowds back then, from Soul to House heads. That's why we called the album Club Classics, because these were tunes you'd hear in a club.

"It's probably testament to what was going on in our clubs in the UK, because it was eclectic. You'd have all the different genres playing at a party. In America they had their separate scenes, which I think worked as they have more people living there.

"Over here, post '85, most people that got into House probably came from Punk. So it was kind of interesting to see the transitions and see where all the threads came from. The first warehouse parties I did for a lot of the fashion designers, most of them looked like Punk rockers, but they would listen to all sorts. Very interesting times."

Back To Life (acapella)

"The first copies of Club Classics this tune was just an acapella. The record company was going nuts. We were only signed for three singles, with an album offer after the second single. We knocked up the album. At those times the release schedules were quite rigid, as there were a lot of albums coming out, so we had to slot into the window.

"To meet that deadline we were at a point, 48 hours before we had to deliver the master where all we had was the acapella of the song [laughs], so that's all we had to give them. We turned it into a full tune after that, and they re-mastered the album and put it on there.

"That's why we sold so many imports of the album, as a lot of the hardcore North American's wanted the acapella version as well. It's called However Do You Want Me on some releases and Tell Me in the sleeve notes."

Jazzie's Groove

"I'm talking about who we are on this. We thought it was necessary to explain ourselves as it was such a conceptual record. It was important to do that, as after the success of the first record and doing all the gigs, we wanted to end our album with a record that was a bit more homegrown. I just lay on my back in the vocal booth and just started rabbiting on!"

This feature was originally published in Future Music magazine issue 202. Discover more about Future Music back issues here.

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