SOUL II SOUL: THE DAY OF THE FUNKI DRED
Once upon a time in London, there was a thriving soul scene of creative individuals making an assault on the mainstream. It was a time when you could write conscious soul songs without having to be ‘Urban’ and still have a hit. A time where you could throw a warehouse party with live art and good people enjoying themselves without fear of a gun bust up. A time when like-minded individuals got together and created an era where innovative black UK music thrived.
“I started off getting paid working as a DJ in 1977 - that was my first paid gig," Jazzie B informs us, "then in ‘81, I went to work as a tea boy for Tommy Steele (Britain’s first rock ‘n’ roller) where I learnt my craft as an engineer working on theatre production doing sound and lighting. Once I picked up enough experience of all of those things I decided to build up a bigger sound system."
Teaming up with Nellee Hooper and Phillip ‘Daddae’ Harvey, Jazzie and co, created one of the most talked about raves in the history of black British music. An event that would not only create a whole scene within itself, but served as a forum for artists, designers, musicians and party goers to share ideas and push forth the boundaries of a then fledgling club scene. "Actually just before the Africa Centre, I think it was more exciting with all the warehouse parties we used to run. During the heyday of the mid-80s the whole Hacienda Acid House scene was going mad. We were in a transitional period, coming out of the somewhat dangerous warehouse scenes and we wanted to take the whole thing uptown, where everyone was moving out, so it left us all these venues to choose from! We decided on the Africa Centre in Covent Garden which at the time was actually part of a refugee place...
“We had everyone from Bobby Byrd and Vicky Anderson performing to dj's Trevor 'Madhatter' Nelson, Norman Jay, Barry K Sharp, Judge Jules, CJ Mackintosh! It played host to a real generation of the UK club scene/culture at that given time and nationalities from all over the world. It was the type of venue where we could pull stunts like stop half way through the night, ask everyone to leave to let in everyone else who was waiting outside... It was an amazing place and I think the atmosphere and the whole vibe, made it what it was. It’s where you learnt your trade, and where you met your girl or boyfriend, where you learnt about fashion, art - we had a lot of art going on then, and it’s where we formed the saying: “A happy face, a thumping bass for a loving race”.
Soul II Soul had captured the imagination of a whole generation ready to embrace a way of life dedicated to the good times. A sub-culture unparalleled in terms of capturing the positive creativity of a people in Thatcherite Britain - a philosophy coined ‘Funki Dred’.
“The Funki Dred was a combination of lots of different religious and spiritual ideas and energies that were coming through during that period of time. Many of us went to church but there was a lot of rebelliousness going on in terms of people trying to find out about their identity... We’d just gone through the whole afro-centric thing in America where people were again wanting to find out about their roots, and naturally as soundmen we were heavily involved in Reggae and Dub music. All these different ideas were rubbing off and we just really wanted to bring a sense of our own identity, so instead of just having our own long dreadlocks we decided to come up with a style... We borrowed a little bit of this spirituality and that philosophy and so on and came up with what we called ‘The Funki Dred’ and, lo and behold, it took on a life of its own and took off. I think a lot of people were able to identify with it - black, white, yellow, pink and brown, bringing forth all these different ideas and marrying it with both music and fashion with our own style, flipping the script a little bit. Although Trevor Nelson never rocked the Funki Dred as such, he did have a couple of dire hairstyles! I remember one time back in the electro days, he had peroxide blonde hair, but he was more known for the hats he wore.”
Armed with the ‘Funki Dred Philosophy’, Jazzie B and the Soul II Soul began branching out with merchandise and released their own dub plates and later signed to Virgin Records. Towards the late 80’s the collective cross-over as a band fronted by Caron Wheeler, spawning huge world-wide hits such as “Back To Life” and “Keep On Movin’”. They would pave the way for 90’s dance music. But behind the popular band exterior, who were/are the real Soul 2 Soul? “The Funki Dreds...myself, Daddae Harvey, Jazzie Q and Aitch B. Then a whole bunch of disciples."
Almost 7 million albums, 20 million singles and 2 grammies later, what are Jazzie B’s fondest memories of 20 years of Soul II Soul?
“It’s the mentire journey... There are so many memories from DJing in those early days to progressing to where we are today... Even today we’re going to places now that we never had the opportunity to visit before. And it seems to me that too many people today, including young DJs have got blinkers on in terms of what they’re doing now, as opposed to where and what we were doing back in the day. It’s not just playing one set and one style of music to one set of people - it has always been an amalgamation of nuff different types of styles and people, and I think that helped to give us the edge and the longevity to get to where we are now.”
By 1995, with the release of Soul II Soul’s last official full length album “Vol. V: Believe” much of the original line-up had splintered off, but Jazzie B insists the collective are as tight as ever. With a full tour coming up, and a yearly residence in Antigua hosting the Back To Life event, the calendar looks as full as ever for the Funki Dreds.
"The Back To Life event in Antigua started off about 4/5years ago. It’s a festival which pays homage to all the things that happened to us, a whole host of friends and it’s cool just to bring a bunch of people to your yard and have a party... it just evolved from there, lots of people wanted to come along so now we take up to 250 revellers out there every year for a week’s worth of sun, sea, sand and sound."
After all the years of innovative music and happy vibes, it seems that nothing much has changed in terms of where Soul II Soul stands, which gives hope that there are still Funki Dred affiliates out there willing to embrace everything that created such a thriving scene in the first place. And with Jazzie B still very much out there spreading the message, the dream is still alive.
“A happy face a thumping bass for a loving race!”
Words John Pitts