“A lot of people didn’t know we were from the U.K., and we used that to our advantage,” laughs Jazzie B, lord creator of the legendary Soul II Soul, a London-based sound system who segued into one of the most successful acts from the R&B British Invasion of the late ’80s.
Originally released on April 10, 1989, the album properly known as Club Classics Vol. One sounded more indicative of the hip-hop clubs of Lower Manhattan than the rapidly growing acid house movement of the group’s native England. It was that fascination with the bleeding edge rap production from New York which propelled the otherworldly swagger of the album’s two flagship hits, “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” — with its neck-snapping drum break nicked from Graham Central Station’s “The Jam” — and “Keep On Movin’,” which was also the name of the LP in the United States.
“We were all influenced by the American hip-hop scene, going back to guys like Marley Marl and Easy Mo Bee but also new acts like EPMD as well,” explains the man born Trevor Beresford Romeo. “I remember from the time I spent listening to Kool DJ Red Alert on Kiss-FM, Gary Byrd from WBLS, who also had a song out in 1973 called ‘Soul Travelin’.’ But hearing what was on the radio, it was really inspiring us to really crunch out the SP12 and over-velocitize the 808. It all sounded so experimental back then, because we were also using tape and different types of compression to do the different drums. I always reminisce about trying to have Herb Powers cut the first record, and for whatever reason it didn’t happen. But we definitely wanted to do something along the lines of that early innovation in engineering and creativity in the studio coming out of those hip-hop records.”
And New York radio fell in love with Soul II Soul as well, especially the way by which this album — which included Bristol trip-hop pioneer Nellee Hooper, master bassist Graham Silbiger, members the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra and vocalists Do’reen and the inimitable Caron Wheeler — would hit that sonic meridian between the voluminous thump of their beat science and the uplifting comfort of their approach to the melodies of the R&B scene at the time.
“New York and the surrounding area played such a huge role in our success in the States,” Jazzie reveals. “People like Frankie Crocker, Red Alert and Bobby Konders played a pivotal role in terms of getting our music out into the streets and the car stereos. Frankie Crocker took ‘Keep On Movin” and made it his drive time anthem. The guy who really summed it up for us about that time was Fab 5 Freddy. I remember him saying that he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but there was something about the sound that he said resonated real hip-hop for him. That was a pretty major point for Soul II Soul in terms of America embracing what we were doing.”
Even Soul II Soul’s message of multi-cultural harmony ran parallel to what was happening in the hip-hop scenes of Queens and Long Island in early 1989, something Jazzie B attributes to further strengthening the construct of Soul II Soul’s bridge across America that helped earn them a No. 14 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart and reach No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
“We were really into The Jungle Brothers and Tribe and De La Soul, the whole Native Tongue Family,” the producer admits. “Those were acts with whom we were all really familiar and pretty up to date with. And also through association of the vibe, you had people like Monie Love, who just moved to America at the time from England. Their whole message of unity and Afrocentricity that was happening in New York hip-hop at the time, there was an inseparable link to what we were dealing with in London, which if you take a snapshot of the entire United Kingdom is really not a good representation of Great Britain. With London being so innovative and creative, the energy and the vibe I would hear from KRS-One and Rakim would erupt over when I was creating something like ‘Jazzie’s Groove.'”
While the influence of East Coast rap on the spirit of Soul II Soul is evident, it’s also worth mentioning the group was also keenly aware of the bustling house scene emanating from NYC clubs.
“I remember spending countless hours at the Paradise Garage, which had an enormous sound system, hanging out and listening to the maestros of that early club scene in New York like Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles,” Jazzie recalls. “I remember crossing the bridge to Newark and going to Club Zanzibar as well. I was totally engrossed in that scene, because what was different was obviously the tempo of the music, but it was always about the attitude and the forcefulness that was on display.”
The aforementioned closing track from Club Classics Vol. One, “Jazzie’s Groove,” contains a horn sample from that Gary Byrd song Jazzie mentioned earlier, the full name of which is “Soul Travelin’ Pt. 1 (The G.B.E.).” That same sample would be utilized by the Large Professor three years later on the very first Nas single “Halftime.” Meanwhile, Mary J. Blige would take the concept of bringing together soulful R&B and roughneck jeep beats to a new level when she released her indelible 1992 debut What’s the 411?. And when you look across the landscape of the marriage between R&B and hip-hop over the last 30 years, from Mariah’s “Fantasy” remix with ODB to Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “Crazy In Love” and “Apeshit” to Kendrick and SZA’s “All The Stars,” the envelope Soul II Soul started to crack open on April 10, 1989 is still being pushed to limitless new possibilities as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.
“We were at a particular age when we were all finding ourselves and the beauty of that time was all of the different influences and that melting pot,” Jazzie proclaims. “It was something which substantiated our motto that we use here in England: A happy face, a thumping bass, for a loving race. And for us to sit back now, 30 years later, and see the effect that the music has had, it’s so incredible. Music really does dictate a particular time and seems to bring a beautiful smile on most people’s faces when they hear these songs.”