Jazzie B on 35 years of Soul II Soul
He says a “combination” of factors led him back to the Caribbean island where his parents were born, including work and holidays, “and then, I guess,” he says with a laugh, “gracefully maturing, as they say”.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the recording debut of his music collective Soul II Soul, which he documented in his recent autobiography Reflections of My Journey. Later this week his band arrives in Sheffield on short UK tour.
The 60-year-old north Londoner – born Trevor Beresford Romeo – says he was “flooded” with offers from publishers for a book following the success of memoirs by some of his peers but ultimately decided to take a DIY route.
“One of the disturbing things when I was having these meetings with publishers,” he says, “was I’d have these flashbacks to 1987 when I was on the rounds trying to find the right record label for Club Classics Volume I. What that presented itself was there are some avenues that have moved on and changed and some that hadn’t, so within the time frame, approximately eight to 10 years, in and around meetings and being inspired by these old-school publishers, I ended up doing it myself, which was a lovely labour of love.
“Give or take a few months, it took about 10 years. It’s all my own archives because it’s a very visual presentation, and it’s in chronological order from 1977 all the way through to the present day.”
He found the process of compiling material for the book informative. “It’s always weird when you pick up something like an old photograph or a little note and read the back of it,” he says. “There were loads of occasions where (I thought) ‘Ooh, I forgot about this’ or ‘I don’t remember doing that’. Unfortunately a lot of photographs I was looking at from the time a lot of people have gone to glory, passed away.
“There were some nice memories as well, when you’re looking back and reflecting on your journey, which I’ve only ever done once. It was an interesting exercise and it just comes with different memories from days gone by, and some of the happy accidents as well.”
Jazzie was just 14 years old when he followed in the footsteps of five of his brothers and did his first soundsystem gig. “It was in 1977, I got the opportunity to go out there and show my wares, and everything I remember about it was all nice and happy memories,” he recalls. “It was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee so at that time the community would’ve been heavily involved. I was playing everything from Augustus Pablo, Studio One, Dennis Brown, Trinity and people like that, all the way through to Benny and the Jets, Bay City Rollers, Engelbert Humperdinck. It was a varied collection of my community that I grew up in at the time.”
He says he’d been hooked on DJing from “way before” his mid-teens. “It was at the age of 14 (that) I actually took the bold step to try out all these mad things that were in my head, but I was ready to go at 14,” he says. “We were living in a different time as well. Where we’d think today 14’s a bit young, I was doing my paper round since I was 12. I guess things were a little bit different then socially.”
His soundsystem gigs regularly brought him up to Leeds. “Chapeltown was my old stomping ground, the West Indian Centre. Also, I have a lot of family from Chapeltown, Leeds and from Manchester, Leicester, all the way down to Bristol.
“One of the other main lifeline connections with that was the church. We’d do church outings and that often brought our communities together. But in terms of the tree of the soundsystems, you could almost imagine a train journey from Camden or Finsbury Park, north London and every other stop on the way was part and parcel of either being involved with the church or just a general case of visiting the family and our communications, particularly during the six weeks (school) holiday, I remember making loads of trips during that time.”
Having worked as an engineer at a recording studio from the age of 18, by the time it came to making records, Jazzie had a clear idea of the sound he wanted to make. “In the world of the soundsystems in the Caribbean or West Indian community you made your own dubplates and specials anyway. The fact that I decided to utilise my skills as an engineer to produce such products, I think that was probably the whole inspiration in regards to making our record,” he says.
“The difference between what I did as a soundsystem, against the backdrop of a band, would be how the collective operated outside of guitarist, drummer and so forth. There were similar links but just slightly different roles. Having the experiences of working in the studio, that’s where I was able to hone in on those skills.”
Alongside the music, Jazzie developed the Funki Dred ‘lifestyle’. He explains: “I think the Funki Dred really came about because of religion, as a young kid growing up, trying to find your way. Punk played a little role here as well – the punk attitude more so than anything else.
“During our school period, probably the same time 14, 15, you’re looking for your tribe. I used to love things like Cheech & Chong, these little antidote things, so we created this thing called the Funk Dred which is a little bit of Rasta, a little bit of Christianity and all that lot, mixed up in a melting pot where I grew up. It gave me faith and something to hold onto, the fact that when we turned the soundsystem around and became inclusive, I guess all of our lives changed.
“Just before ’82 would have been an exclusive soundsystem, post-’82 we became an inclusive soundsystem, and what that allowed people to do was to look into why we looked a typical way and why we had this attitude, and a lot of people joined us. Eventually we came to be recognised as the Funki Dreds.”Through the ’80s Jazzie B would go on to take his soundsystem all over the world – “from New York to places like Japan; from the early Ibiza days I remember we were calling that style Balearic” – while in London they had their own club nights at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden and then The Fridge nightclub in Brixton.
Soul II Soul solidified as a band in 1988. Jazzie says he felt “absolutely” ready for the global success of Keep On Movin’ and Back To Life. “In terms of my direction and how cocksure I was at the time, we ended up calling the (album) Club Classics, so that gives you some indication toward where my head was at, what my dreams and aspirations are,” he chuckles. “I guess we were blessed because it turned out all right.”
For millions of Americans to go on to embrace what was intentionally a very British sound felt like a vindication for Jazzie. “I think what happened when the album came out and the way the first lot of records were embraced, I’d like to believe that I knew I was on my way to something then,” he says.
“Regarding the Americas, I don’t necessarily regard New York and those major cities as America because the main part of America is actually the Mid-West which is very conservative, I like to call it cornflake country, no sidewalks or anything, but that’s where the general population of America is, in these rural states. Once the record was embraced in those parts of America it was literally a done deal.”
The album’s positive mood was in stark contrast to the troubled political and economic picture at the time. “I think that’s what you find with a happy face and a thumpin’ bass for a lovin’ race, it’s all about encouragement, it’s all about happiness,” Jazzie says, quoting his mantra from the time.
“The point with the Funki Dreds is that we’d been sent down from the Planet Ard to Earth to fight against Rappattachus-Bacchus and to bring this entertainment and explaining to the Earthlings this is what is natural, and listening to these rhythms and these beats will allow you to express yourself – hence Club Classics.”
Soul II Soul’s fifth and final album came out in 1997. For the last 25 years, Jazzie says he’s been “enjoying the live aspect” of the band.
“That’s a whole different discipline compared to what I do in the studio, where it’s very controlled and I’m-in-charge type of environment. When you get out and you let go and you’re working with other fantastic musicians who help to encourage you and push you to another level, it’s like getting another lease of life. I didn’t know that existed because I was such a studio boffin.
“So going out in the last few years it’s been really exciting and every time I get that opportunity to play live, particularly with this band that I’ve put together here in the UK, I just feel really lucky that I’m able to be amongst those people and be able to do every day what I enjoy doing.”
Earlier this year, the singer Caron Wheeler became the second member of the Soul II Soul collective to receive an OBE. Of his own, which was awarded in 2008, Jazzie credits his daughter Jessye for persuading him to accept it. “In turn it’s really about your family and history and stuff like that, so that’s nice to have on the mantlepiece,” he says. “It’s a shame my mum and dad weren’t around to see it because that would’ve been one of the most interesting situations ever – children of the Commonwealth doing good, as it were, in terms of their peers and their oppressors. It was an interesting scenario and it’s worked out all right, to be fair.”
Although he never set out to achieve honours or awards for what he’s done, he says: “When you’re told it’s supported by your peers, you do want to blink twice because you can’t Adam and Eve it. But it is something that’s happened and it is something that’s happening more and more, and in regards to being recognised not just by your peers but now your country, as a working-class kid it’s got to feel all right.”
Besides writing and touring, Jazzie continues to keep himself busy with a weekly radio show. “Without those radio shows, I don’t think my feet would be in the ground,” he says. “It helps to keep me grounded as a DJ and even as a human being. It’s amost part of your five-a-day, as it were. It keeps me connected with what’s happening in the music world, it’s another outlet in regards to me expressing myself, and it’s something I’ve been doing since my early pirate (radio) days. It’s to be doing something that feels natural and something that really does encourage me to wake up every day.”
He also has his own record label, Funki Dred Records – “That’s something I keep going for my productions, remixes and stuff,” Jazzie says – and next year there’s the promise of new songs.
“The next one is a version of Nothing Compares 2 U and there’s two others which we’re performing as part of the (live) show, which will be released in 2024 when we do the UB40 support tour.”
Soul II Soul play at Sheffield City Hall on Friday November 24. https://soul2soul.co.uk/