SOUL II SOUL
“We’re from the days when a number 14 bus and a supermarket trolley got us around.” Jazzie will tell you when talking about his early sound system days. And it is this determination, desire, resourcefulness, passion, enthusiasm, drive, ambition and a simple love for music that has got Soul II Soul where it is today.
Jazzie took his first steps into the bass heavy world of the sound system when he was just 13. Following in their big brothers’ footsteps, Jazzie and a school friend known as Daddae started a sound called Jah Rico, which played mainly reggae music. After a three year apprenticeship as Jah Rico, Jazzie and Daddae changed the vibe of the sound and began playing more soulful music. Soul II Soul was created.
“We came up with the name Soul II Soul not just because of the music we played, but it also stood for Daddae and myself - two souls moving together. We’ve always had that kind of relationship ever since we were little. He’s a very integral part of what I do. There are not many words exchanged between us but everything that has happened has happened very much in tandem.” And a whole heap has happened since playing music at birthday parties and at school lunchtime parties.
On leaving school a careers advisor told Jazzie he couldn’t get him a job in the music industry, he ‘politely’ suggested he became a milkman or a BT engineer. So Jazzie opted for his second passion – sport. He went to college to train as a PE teacher. After six months Jazzie decided it wasn’t for him and left to go back to the energy that is Soul II Soul.
Soul II Soul had by now achieved a name on a community level, but they still needed funding. They were not in a position to give up the day jobs yet. Jazzie worked for the RNIB as an engineer making talking books for the blind. Then, when he was 18, he worked for Tommy Steele as a tape operator. He was there for the next two years. As one of the few black people in the business at that time, Jazzie endured a sometimes hostile environment. “It made me vexed in one way, but it made me see that there are parts of the industry that we’re not taking care of because we always want to be so upfront. It also hardened me.”
Perhaps it was this encounter that helped Jazzie to create an environment, which was to appeal across the board. With its Balearic beats and a new sound called Acid House, the warehouse scene was in full swing by the mid 1980s. Expressing a flare for creativity Soul II Soul naturally slotted into that scene. “We were very arty as an early sound. We never had conventional speakers, we used pyrotechnics in a dance, we had banners and strobes in a house party!” This appealed to the white middle classed punters of the warehouse functions.
Soul II Soul then landed a gig at the now legendary Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden. There they created the Soul II Soul experience. Unlike other sound systems on the same circuit, Soul II Soul wasn’t just about the big name DJs, it was about a vibe. And that vibe not only gained more street credibility, but it had spilt over into another scene. “You had people from all walks of life at the Africa Centre. A very eclectic crowd. It was like Benetton down there.”
The Africa Centre caught the attention of record industry executives and it wasn’t long before Soul II Soul were being persued by record labels. In 1986 Soul II Soul signed to Virgin as an artist/band. This partnership catapulted Soul II Soul into a tornado of success.
The Soul II Soul sound was original, new, fresh, and infectious, but above all it was a UK thing. It was homegrown. It represented without alienating itself. And the masses couldn’t get enough of it. Jazzie enjoyed chart success with ‘Keep On Moving’ and ‘Back To Life’. And he and Soul II Soul quickly became household names.
There were three shops in London selling Soul II Soul clothing emblazoned with the distinctive ‘Funki Dred’ logo, records, record mats, jewellery and accessories. They even had a slogan – “A happy face, a thumpin’ bass, for a lovin’ race.” There were the resident club nights throughout the UK and abroad, concerts, radio, television appearances, and Jazzie’s show on London’s Kiss FM.
America embraced Jazzie B and Soul II Soul. In 1990 they picked up 2 Grammy’s. Jazzie was given the keys to seven cities in the US, including LA and New York, and the NAACP has honoured him. There’s even a Soul II Soul day in America.
On the tails of the US success came more record company deals. Soul II Soul signed with Motown as a label, and a production deal with Epic came shortly afterwards. This was alongside the Virgin deal in the UK. Then after 8 years with Richard Branson’s Virgin, which saw the label grow from independent to major, Jazzie signed an artist deal with Island in 1996.
From the beginning of those heady, high profile days of the late 80s, right up to today Jazzie B has not only produced a string of successful cuts for Soul II Soul, but he’s also managed to produce and re-mix tracks for the likes of The Fine Young Cannibals, Incognito, Maxi Priest, Charlene Smith, James Brown, Kym Mazelle, Rose Windross, Family Stand, Cheryl Lynn, Public Enemy, J.T. Taylor, Johnny Gill, Charlotte, Caron Wheeler, Isaac Hayes, Sinead O’Connor, Alison Williams, Teena Marie, Ziggy Marley, The Jones Girls, Nas, and Destiny's Child. Somewhere along the line there’s been the handshake with Prince Charles, and he even once shared a dressing room with the legendary Sammy Davis Jnr.
To date Soul II Soul have sold over 6.8 million albums in over 35 territories worldwide. Jazzie has accreditation on over 35 million albums in over 100 territories, Soul II Soul have product on over 200 compilation CDs. They have performed in over 20 countries, and appeared at some of the most famous venues in the world including Wembley and New York’s Universal Ample Theatre.
With all this experience and an association with the likes of the late Don Taylor (Bob Marley’s ex-manager managed Soul II Soul), Chris Blackwell and Richard Branson, amongst others, Jazzie has acquired the skills to become one of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs.
Jazzie now runs a successful independent label called Soul II Soul Recordings, he has a state-of-the-art studio in London and on his three and a half acres of land in Antigua. He regularly utilises his wealth of experience and no nonsense teaching style to educate the next generation; recent projects include lectures at Cambridge University, The Red Bull Music Academy and Jamie's Dream School for Channel 4. Jazzie does voice-overs for radio and television, and ‘Keep On Movin’’ was used for the high profile Renault Clio television ads. Mary J. Blige and Sean Kingston have both released a cover version of ‘Back To Life’ while Beverly Knight released her version of "FairPlay" in 2011. Having recently completed a four year stint on BBC London 94.9, he continues on air every Sunday from 2-4pm on Solar Radio.
For the man who considers himself as a “pleasure giver”, it’s paramount to Jazzie to remain a part of the club scene. “Being a sound system is very important to me, I still DJ in clubs. And the label is run like a sound system. It’s all exactly the same as before, except that the times have changed. Technically we are still a sound system. The singers and artists are our MCs, and instead of making mix tapes we now make records and CDs.” This was cemented when Soul II Soul were a part of Channel 4's 1st House Party in 2012 - An unprecedented live television event where six of the world's top-class DJs took over to put on an unforgettable House Party.
So while Jazzie B no longer borrows supermarket trolleys and probably hasn’t seen the inside of a number 14 bus for a while, the sound system mentality is still very much at the root of Soul II Soul which is what keeps him in touch with his continually evolving audience, and is a forward-looking, far-reaching way of doing things that has now become officially recognised.
In 2008, Jazzie won the Ivor Novello Award for inspiration, and as he stepped up to accept the trophy he was announced as “the man who gave British black music a soul of its own”. And in the same month there was royal recognition for the Funki Dreds when, after thirty years of dedication, Jazzie was awarded an OBE for services to music. The first sound man to be honoured by Her Majesty the Queen, and probably the most deserved investiture ever.
2012 saw Soul II Soul awarded with the PRS for Music Heritage Award where a special plaque was erected on The Electric (formerly The Fridge) in Brixton, where the group played their first full live gig in 1991. British pride and achievement continued when "Back to Life" was featured in the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.