Keep On Moving: Jazzie B Of Soul II Soul Interviewed

Yousif Nur meets the Soul II Soul DJ/frontman and talks London, production and sound systems

Jazzie B is not what you would call timid. He cuts a figure that’s quite authoritative, maybe even a little intimidating as he strides into the meeting room. He is dressed head to toe in black, from his sleng teng, right down to his pristine boots. Despite his unnerving persona, he greets me with a firm handshake and a "What’s this ‘Northern’ nonsense all about?" – referring to the Northern Soul t-shirt I’m wearing. I reply back almost whimpering, "I’m just keeping the faith, man!"

Joking aside, tQ is sitting down with the Soul II Soul frontman in Earl’s Court to chat about the impact his band have had on British music over the 26 years since their 1989 Grammy Award winning hit ‘Back To Life’. We’re also talking to him about growing up around soundsystems, his relationship with London town and the Sounds In The Neighbourhood initiative kicked off by Hotel Indigo. The new project is teaming Jazzie B up with other celebrities who are championing their respective hometowns by representing the kind of local influences that inspire them including design, music, food and drink. Jazzie – aka Trevor Beresford Romeo OBE – is as generous with his answers as he is with his time, stating from the outset that he “doesn’t do quick”.

Such is his importance in the music world, that in 2008 he was awarded the first Inspiration award at the Ivor Novello Awards for being "a pioneer" and "the man who gave black British music a soul of its own". Not bad for a guy from Hornsey.

Listen to Jazzie B’s Sounds Of The Neighbourhood playlist here

Let’s begin by talking about why we’re here today. Why did you get involved with this Sounds In The Neighbourhood project?

Jazzie B: One of the reasons I got involved is because I thought this project would be quite cool. I initially got asked to put a playlist together and when I was also asked to represent London, I jumped at the chance. And for me personally, it was a good idea to represent a hotel project, even if my housekeeping is atrocious! But with regards to this area of London, the old record shop we used to frequent in Notting Hill is the first place I used to get all my import records from. I also had a record shop around here in the early eighties; my first engineering job wasn’t too far away from here either. In fact, this whole area is quite significant because of the carnival alone. That, and the fact that it’s in the Borough of Kensington, as I knew everyone (here) from Billy Ocean, all the way through to Aswad. Bob Marley and I had the same manager and he’d spend much of his time in Kensington too. This also included everyone else that would have been involved with in the music industry as well. In fact, people like Isaac Hayes hung out in Kensington a lot. One of the clubs that was very important in the area was Cromwell Road. Derek Bolan who ran it also had a station called WBLS, which was in direct competition to Kiss FM.

What else inspires you about London?

JB: Oh, everything. While we (Soul II Soul) travel as much as we do; this city is still really unique to us in terms of how eclectic it is. There’s the variation of pockets when you’re travelling around London that you don’t necessarily find in the centre, but I’m talking about the city as a whole. For us, the inseparable links to the arts, being innovative and creative in an area like this is very transient as well. That’s right through from Ziggy Stardust to The Clash.

Now let’s go back. Way back. Can you talk about how you got involved with soundsystems in your family?

JB: Well I grew up in a family of ten, with five brothers and four of them had sound systems. I used to carry the valves for one of my brother’s systems. Another great job I had in the early years was to put the needle on the record at parties. My first independent gig with my own sound system was in 1977, which was of course the Queen’s silver jubilee year. I remember it being a street party, where I was born or christened as it were. I followed everyone’s sound systems from Soprano B, Camp Barry, Suckle, Exodus and the People’s Club in Parade Street, which were also really significant to the area. Talking about this all harks back to my era, when I first came into the game. Growing up with my brothers, I was like an accompanying mascot to them. The whole heritage and culture of soundsystems is all in my blood y’know? Then obviously from DJing, I just went onto building my own sound and producing my own music.

I was in a household that was listening to everything from Lou Rawls to Lord Kitchener to the Beatles. I was a big Ziggy Stardust fan as well when I was growing up. I also got involved in fusion and the whole idea of how the variations of jazz in its embryonic stages, could change in differing elements to what I would almost call Balearic in a way. Then in my late teens, I just flew the coop and did my own version of all the things I’d been listening to.

I listen to music every day and that is a fact. My son pointed out the other day that there’s not a day that goes by without him listening to music in our house. I’m still an avid punter when it comes to either checking out bands or buying new music.

In terms of what would in later years become Soul II Soul – when you had your own soundsystem, at what point did you know that you’d taken a different turn and actually formed a live band?

JB: [LONG PAUSE] It probably would have been at my first recording session. I actually used to be an engineer at Tommy Steele’s studio near Marble Arch, which I did for two years. I got my first engineering credit there too and I thought, "Hmm, this is interesting, I got more than I’d bargained for." Then there were all these independent labels associated with club music run by A&R guys who were trying to be down with it. I personally got involved around 1985 or ’86. I also worked with Polydor on a song by Kandidate called ‘Can’t Say Bye’ in 1982, which was the first song that I fully engineered. Because I still had my sound system, I was learning about engineering on the job. I was literally just taking bits of that into dance nights I was playing at. Plus I was building and developing a new soundsystem anyway. So you could say that the two things came in together, which then brought me into production on a whole different level.

My sound system was already quite intense and really big – I could play a residency in Bristol, where The Wildbunch used to play. They would also come to London and use my system too. That’s how I got to know DJ Milo and Nellee Hooper for instance. I’d also play up north in Leeds at Chapeltown and at the West Indian Centre in Reading. Those things were happening every week and it was where I was meeting different people. That time coincided with the early days of the digital era. The SP-12 system came out and then ideas of bedroom production and bedroom DJs were being discussed before we’d even bought Akai equipment.

As for Nellee and myself working in the studio, our hearts were in DJing. We were being put somewhere interesting from being involved with analog, to working with digital. Those two worlds just collided and it felt great! That was probably the key inspiration in terms of me going on to not just making dub plates for my sound, but doing the unobvious and “selling out” to the masses. I subsequently got a record deal because of that.

At that point, British black music didn’t have a strong identity as such. Looking back, how important were Soul II Soul in terms of galvanizing a new movement?

JB: Black musicians were either trying to be American or trying to play down their Caribbean roots.

Why do you think that was the case?

JB: Because we were searching – as the first generation that was born and raised here – for our own identity. We already knew what the Caribbean thing was about. We grew up with the racial tension and unrest. They were either touching your head for good luck or kicking you down the stairs for being too dark. But that was part and parcel of how we grew up in London. But in terms of our identity, it was more about us claiming it y’know? Funnily enough, we used to side a lot with the skinheads, who were much more with us, especially at our sound systems as they were into ska music. The ones that caused us the most trouble were the teddy boys and the mods. The problem we had with the mods was that they were from the suburbs trying to be something else… I didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. I even remember the Northern Soul scene, even though I’m from a different generation. When we were coming up, we weren’t even allowed into the clubs because they used to have a quota of three or four black guys and that was it. So we went through 15-20 years without being able to go inside those clubs! I used to follow DJs like Robbie Vincent, Froggy and so on. I grew up not wanting to be like them, because it disgusted me in a way, so it was about us forging our own strength. When we came about it wasn’t about compromising, it was about us doing our own thing.

Was it about being fresh and new?

JB: It was a combination of everything. Society was changing, we were losing the rigidity of the class system we’d been brought up in. All the people around me were working as fucking toolmakers or in some shit apprentice job that they’d never get out of. It sounds really weird now, but the jobs people wanted were to become a bus conductor, or to get a job working for Plessey – a derivative of some communications firm. Those were the only sorts of long-term jobs that were out there even though a lot of the black guys I knew were gifted in carpentry or bricklaying. Then there were some that were interested in physics and that got them into the technology side of things. But when you came up in that system, you were only expected to get so far, being working class. What was interesting at the time was that the press tagged me as a Thatcherite! But all of that was Babylon to me. In a funny way, Thatcher allowed us to legitimise the clubs and the things we were doing as entrepreneurs without understanding any of these terminologies. But where we were coming from, that was more interesting. For me, it was either going to be sports or music anyway. Personally I was just sick of the mimicry of American culture that was going on because it wasn’t natural for us. We had grown up listening to reggae music in our communities. People were enjoying what we were doing with out music – we didn’t have to work to sell it to them.

I know it sounds weird if you weren’t there at the time during the late seventies, but the punk movement almost helped make the scene more of a melting pot. To be honest with you, people in the punk scene didn’t see you as a colour. It was a very weird set up. The gates were open for us, but the clubs were really shit! [LAUGHS] But, they had empowered themselves. Even from the idea of taking over saloon bars and community halls, which those punk dos would take place in. There was a void and fashion filled this void with a ‘way of life’ rather than a scene full of people trying to mimic other people.

Here’s a great snapshot of that era for me: Christopher Nemeth and John Moore – those guys were working class. With Christopher, the style we had taken eventually became that patronizing ‘London look’; we flipped the script on that. Then you also had cobblers and shoemakers like John Moore whom we’d basically recycled the look from. So you had a style that was unique to London as well. In those days, I was following Ray Petrie, for which I was almost shunned from my own community because my ideology was to be a funky dread which meant I would take bits of all these things..

Was it your fashion label?

JB: No, Funky Dread is a lifestyle. It brings us back to back Hotel Indigo and Sounds Of The Neighbourhood, where you’re in a place like this and you want to incorporate all these things. But in my day, we were doing that with our surroundings that we thought were good. Some of it was a way of empowering our own selves, but as a Funky Dread I was taking the piss out of the Rasta side of the West Indian community.

How did the Rastafarian community react?

JB: In Ladbroke Grove – the frontline – two guys had held me up – put a knife to my throat and said that if I couldn’t make up my mind whether I was a Rasta or a (Funky) Dread, that they would do it for me. By the same token, on a nearby estate when we were doing a blues party, the National Front had threw a petrol bomb into the area just in front of us – and the back area was sealed and locked up. So no matter where I went, there was someone rejecting my ideology. What was interesting was these reactions made me want to do it even more because we had smoothed over that void, smoothed over what was missing. After all, our motto was, “A happy face, a thumping bass, for a loving race.”

I want to talk about your two biggest hits, ‘Back To Life’ and ‘Keep On Moving’. Not to make you feel old, but I was six years old sitting in the back of the car on my way to school listening to it. But looking back at the impact these songs had made at the time, what do you make of it?

JB: To be honest, as I mentioned before, I didn’t make these songs for anybody. It was literally for our sound at the beginning. It was pretty popular, because in 1986, when The Face and i-D were out. I had a residency in New York at the Mars Club, all because of i-D who’d written a feature about Soul II Soul. Prior to that we’d gone on a cultural exchange to Japan, so were pretty set in our lifestyle and what we were doing from the early days. And in terms of everything else that came from that, it was more about us. We weren’t really interested in what anybody else was doing. The music that we made at the time was more built for my sound in terms of its dynamics. The idea that we would release a dub plate was blasphemy to many people. We were already a pretty weird bunch of youths anyhow [LAUGHS]. We were so up our own arses that we called our album Club Classics Vol.1.


In terms of your production and remix work with the likes of Nas, Destiny’s Child and Ziggy Marley, was it the next logical step to take given your background working in a studio in your formative years?

JB: I think the production thing was a stroke of luck really. But for me, I had to do it, as it was always part of the plan. But my biggest claim to fame was to recognize those who were at the time unrecognised. Soul II Soul was like a festival to all these artists who wanted to be a part of it. We travel to all these different destinations and everyone gets off where they need to.

With your work heading up the Featured Artists Coalition, how important is it for you, given your standing in urban music, to give something back?

JB: I just think giving back is in tandem with the way in which I was raised, with the, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ mentality. Sometimes with the knowledge you have, you just don’t know how powerful it is. I think I’m in a reasonably interesting position to recognise that. Plus we’re now living in a completely different time to the one in which I grew up in. Because of my peers as well, it’s the whole reason I’m doing what I’m doing. In terms of putting things back into the community, it’s almost like running my sound system again.

Do you find your radio show just as enjoyable as performing and producing?

JB: My radio show is actually the conclusion to my week. Which means there’ll be 20% of what’s happened to me during those five days, on my show. If I don’t do my radio show I actually feel lost! It’s like the bookends – the beginning and the end of the week and the whole thing comes together. So for me it is important.

To find out more about Hotel Indigo Kensington and Sounds Of The Neighbourhood click here

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