"It's music – whether we deem it to be guitar music, classical music, country & western music, rhythm & blues music… It doesn't really have a title saying 'Black British music.' That's one that we give it. So I think it's our duty to sort of dismantle that."
The UK collective Soul II Soul – led by DJ, producer and occasional MC Jazzie B (aka Trevor Beresford Romeo) – are so cherished that not even the pandemic could prevent them from celebrating the 30th anniversary of their feted debut, Club Classics Vol. One, four years on.
This month Soul II Soul are finally returning to Australia – a tour initially announced for mid-2020 successively rescheduled due to COVID-19. Auspiciously, the fold have since picked up extra festival dates, including Golden Plains. Soul II Soul have prepared a two-hour retrospective – Romeo accompanied by original star singer Caron Wheeler and later recruits Charlotte Kelly and Nadine Caesar. "We're looking forward to it after this lock-up, definitely," he enthuses.
Romeo is Zooming late at night from his basement – the walls covered in treasured record plaques. "This is where I keep my vinyl – it's my vinyl room, really," he reveals. Romeo proclaims himself "a DJ at heart" – and his wax is meticulously arranged. "Ah, get out of it – it looks that way!," he jokes. The 60-year-old has a distinguished air, "being an old school gentleman." He's a genial interviewee. Romeo casually namechecks other icons, alluding to entertaining industry tales but he remains discreet. However, Romeo values debate and will query, and even correct, what he considers assumptions. Discussing Soul II Soul's legacy is topical given that February was Black History Month. Yet Romeo doesn't necessarily categorise them as "Black British music".
Born in London to Antiguan parents, Romeo founded Soul II Soul as a sound system in the early '80s. He'd soon start a cult night at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. Soul II Soul crystallised as a group with Wheeler, Rose Windross and Doreen Waddell (Do'Reen) as vocalists. They premiered with 1988's single Fairplay, featuring Windross. But it was Wheeler's Keep On Movin' that blew up – Club Classics Vol. One subsequently topped the UK album charts in 1989. Back To Life (However Do You Want Me), again spotlighting Wheeler, would be an even bigger hit.
Soul II Soul's arrival coincided with the acid house explosion across Britain – which had intrigued Prince. At the same time, the collective were connected to the Bristol Sound (or trip-hop) – former Wild Bunch DJ Nellee Hooper a producer on Club Classics… But Romeo stresses an older lineage, citing such bands as Imagination, Loose Ends and the acid jazz Incognito.
With Club Classics..., Soul II Soul not only transitioned from an underground sound system to a recording act but were also discovered by "the pop world," as Romeo puts it. At least artistically, it wasn't that sudden. "Well, 'cause we made so many dubplates for the sound system, all the ideas were already kind of there," Romeo explains. "I keep using the words 'kind of' because we refined it as we released it, as it were. So a lot of the ideas would have been in a rawer form with the sound system and stuff like that. And then, releasing them, obviously we were of that much on a high where we called it Club Classics..., you know?
"I guess the public kind of came to us, rather than us coming to the public. That's what it felt like in terms of that, as the journey continued. Particularly that chapter of the journey was really encapsulated in the fact that it was embraced. So I think that was a little bit more authentically a surprise."
Crucially, Soul II Soul achieved major success in the US – then a rarity for a Black British act. Indeed, Club Classics... demonstrated the dynamism of British Black culture – its impact still reverberating. Soul II Soul were nominated at the Grammy Awards for 'Best New Artist' alongside Neneh Cherry, losing to Milli Vanilli, but scooped two other gongs in the R&B field. In 1998, they contributed to the How Stella Got Her Groove Back soundtrack, curated by Jam & Lewis.
Today Romeo, a broadcaster, attributes Soul II Soul's US breakthrough to radio – "a very powerful conduit." "I'm not saying that's down to luck, but that's definitely a part of it – particularly in those days, when we were at the end of the days when record companies looked after artists and so on and so forth, as the digital era was just about to kick in."
Media commentary on British Black music – especially soul, R&B and hip-hop – has often examined artists' competition with their American peers and a desire for recognition or validation. (In 2000 Craig David charted Stateside with Born To Do It, opening US ears to UK garage and, potentially, grime.) But Romeo rejects that narrative. He maintains that Soul II Soul's breaking out wasn't so different to The Beatles advancing the British Invasion of the US in the '60s.
"As a DJ, I can actually say this – you posed the question living in a bubble. Because obviously to each and every artist, they're not competing with anyone other than themselves. The idea of recognition is bestowed by the audience who embrace or subscribe to it. Now how does it get to the audience? That's a whole other political – not political, but it's a different scenario. I don't believe in any territory anybody believes they're inferior to anybody else.
"I think what you have with the British artists is a lot more innovation and creation and the fact that we're a lot bolder when it comes to that level of creativity… [But] it's not as segregated as what you're suggesting – and even less so today.
"So the only thing I wanna suggest is, 'Let's not compartmentalise us any more than we need to,' right? Because that does set a tone of kind of segregation. It's music – whether we deem it to be guitar music, classical music, country & western music, rhythm & blues music… It doesn't really have a title saying 'Black British music.' That's one that we give it. So I think it's our duty to sort of dismantle that."
Here, Romeo reckons that the DJ is pivotal, exposing listeners to a spectrum of styles. "We should just all enjoy it as music and allow the DJ to play this music and not dictate." At any rate, he says, the music world has shrunk now with digitisation.
Increasingly, Soul II Soul served as a launch pad – its personnel fluid. In 1990 Wheeler embarked on a solo career, presenting the prescient UK Blak. Hooper became a super-producer. Romeo, too, collaborated with illustrious identities. "Strangely enough, some of the most interesting artists I've worked with have probably been outside of the [Soul II Soul] family or the collective – because they would have been acts that inspired me in the beginning. So being able to go ahead and work with people like James Brown, Teena Marie, Isaac Hayes, et cetera – those were people who were all my idols. And not all the idols that I worked with came out on top, either – 'cause there is a saying, 'It's not always good to meet your idols.' So a few of them were massive flops as well.
"But, as a general consensus, I probably enjoyed the challenge of working with artists that, again, were revered by myself and people that I loved dearly – and the reason being is there's a thin line there as well where I'm looking for their experiences to mix and blend with whatever crazy ideas I had, or have, at the time." Alas, Soul II Soul lost family to tragedy – Waddell's 2002 passing in an accident cruelly sensationalised by the press.
Soul II Soul have issued five albums – the last, Time For Change, in 1997. Ask Romeo if he'd like another LP to receive greater attention, perhaps the contemplative Vol. II: 1990 – A New Decade, and he demurs. "Nah – I've had happy days with everything – it's just about 'keep on moving.'" Romeo is chuffed that people are exploring their discography. "We've been blessed as one of the acts that are sampled a lot." (Kehlani's recent duet up at night with Justin Bieber borrows from Fairplay.) And Soul II Soul's live show has furthered that revival – the group emerging as festival faves in the 2000s.
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Nowadays, apart from touring, Romeo concentrates on managing his label Funki Dred Records – "the platform for a lot of my back catalogue and new acts that are coming through," he states. Talk of a millennial Soul II Soul album in 2012 has yet to come to fruition. But Romeo and Wheeler did team with Masters At Work's Louie Vega for the standalone single A New Day. In 2020 Romeo MCed on Faithless' All Blessed.
Romeo is active in the studio. He's fascinated by changing technology. "Most people know my work as being groove- and melodically-led, where I've been around another generation that just deals with sonics," Romeo points out. (He notably mentored the garage don Wookie.) The shift reminds him of when, as a young DJ, he investigated electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk. Romeo mentions that the German film composer Hans Zimmer once offered him a Fairlight synth/sampler "to play around with." The machine "never worked the same twice," he recalls, "which is where we got a lot of the happy accidents from." That taught him to be openminded. "I found over the years maybe not to take things so serious." He currently involved in developing the immersive audio system Dolby Atmos.
Lately, Romeo has additionally published a book, Reflections Of My Journey – formatted as part-memoir, part-magazine. "The unique thing about this book [is] the pictures describe what's going on as well as the text," he illuminates. "It's a natural throwback to my era of growing up in the '80s, when we had magazines – and how we revered those magazines as we revered our vinyl.
"I've tried to put a link in with that for generations who wouldn't have been privy to what it was like back in the days when you bought a magazine and the magazine could take you on this journey – a little bit like the Internet would. Every week, you'd wait for this wonderful magazine to come out that was fantastic photographs and images that you could actually relate to or wanna try to emulate."
In 2008 Romeo was awarded an OBE (Officer Of The Order Of The British Empire). As an Antiguan descendent, he admits to feeling conflicted about the royal honour but understands the symbolism of inclusion. "It was about the family, and for the family, particularly in the colonies; my parents coming over on that massive ship, being put into quarantine… You know, the labels of the day were like, 'No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs…'
"In one hand, you've got the slave master mentality, and then, in the other hand, you've got evolution and the destruction of man within himself. So, for me, it really was a difficult situation to be in. But, thank goodness, I've got kids – and it was more on the steam of my children, particularly my daughter, and my parents' families back in Antigua, in the Caribbean… I accepted The Order Of The British Empire on their behalf. And [it's] one in the eye for the old slave master, I guess!"
Soul II Soul visited Australia even in their heyday – and Romeo is keen to reconnect. "I look forward to sharing a fun time with members of our musical community and remembering about keeping music alive," he says. "They're the ones that we do it for. I'm just really truly looking forward to seeing everybody in Australia that's supported and appreciated us for all these years."
Romeo doesn't mind playing to a crowd seeking pure nostalgia, paraphrasing Soul II Soul's old Summer Of Love maxim, "There will definitely be a happy face, a thumpin' bass, for a lovin' race." He's heartened by reports that those local shows attracting thirtysomethings have been wildly energetic. "You're as young as you feel," Romeo laughs. "We know that the life is a moment and, through these troubling times, if you've been out there and you know what that high is, there's a lot to get out. And so, with the 30-pluses, they would have been reminiscing [about] a time when, yeah, they would have been 28."