Published Feb 19, 2013Jazzie B — producer, remixer, entrepreneur, fashion designer and DJ, impossibly influential to a generation of club DJ's and partiers as well as being the founding father of genre-bending DJ sets and productions that are now the norm on dancefloors and radio waves the world over. Getting his start in the UK's influential soundsystem scene of the '70s, based around West London's annual Notting Hill Carnival, Jazzie (then operating under the name of Jah Rico) created a template for how club nights should be run with his now-legendary Soul II Soul parties that created the soundtrack of urban London in the '90s. It was a heady mixture of vintage soul, house, hip-hop, funk and R&B that spawned a music career that would see number one albums on both sides of the Atlantic, Grammy awards and led to remix work for luminaries like James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Nas, Public Enemy and Destiny's Child. With Soul II Soul's trademark Afro-centric electro-soul sound now firmly back in vogue, it is high time to sit down for a one on one with the creator, the originator, the Funki Dred Jazzie B.
Could you tell us about your first parties?
Soul II Soul was involved in all the early warehouse parties in London as a soundsystem, technically we were in the suburbs, locked up. Moving to the Fridge Club in Brixton [South London] that came a year or so after doing the Africa Centre, so we'd left the warehouse parties. All the warehouse parties started to become a little bit more synthetic, drug-orientated, dingy places. They were always dingy places, but not necessarily so druggy. So we decided to move uptown, and uptown was the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. And then we finished at the Africa Centre, I think we had just signed a record deal by then, and a lot of the other venues believe it or not in those days were too small, so we ended up at the Fridge in Brixton. Probably more so because it was a really quite renowned venue in the old days, I think it used to be called the Rialto, it was a cinema back in the day. And some of the even older people that were with me at the time, because I'm not that old…they were older and they suggested it because it had a wooden floor and a great soundsystem, and that's the reason we went there. We didn't intend to stay there as long as we did, I think we stayed there for three or four years. I ended up on tour in 1990 to the end of '91, I came back and we were still at the Fridge so that was the right time to shut that off.
So then you were becoming a band?
No, no, we were a soundsystem in the Fridge. There are two separate entities, the soundsystem is one thing, and the band or collective as we called it was another. The whole concept of the band was really derived from the press, because they didn't have another way of compartmentalising us, so they called us a band but we were actually a soundsystem and it was too long-winded to explain to all those hippie journalists. All the press people in those days weren't as cool as writers these days, they were really full-on guitar Melody Maker heads, and if they weren't like that they were the complete extreme, which was the "I'm 16, I've got spots, what shall I do with my boyfriend?" type magazine, which we would never get in. Tell a lie — we did do [teen mag] Smash Hits. God, I'm a sell-out, but anyway.
Why haven't Soul II Soul had a club hit lately? How do you fit in now? You're doing a radio show as well, DJing, remixes?
I just figured, fuck it, how many hits can you have? You gotta give someone else a chance! I made an album called Club Classics Vol. 1, which was before half of the kids making record nowadays were even thought about, so the concept back in 1988 was to have such big balls to call an album Club Classics Vol. 1 and today it's still the club classics, of all classics in the club world.
So what are your club classics when you're DJing? What tunes get you on the floor?
Next time I'm playing out it's about 15 pound, come and check it out.
So, onto your soundsystem. What's your favourite? Talk to us about carnival.
We did [Notting Hill] carnival, from when I was in school all the way up to the mid-'80s, I've actually still got my certificate that says we're the 12th soundsystem when they first started to license it. But prior to that my brothers' soundsystem was playing from '76, from the first carnivals. But his soundsystem was a huge reggae soundsystem. Sorry, what was the question?
What's your favourite soundsystem?
Soul II Soul, but not my Soul II Soul, but the original Soul II Soul which is a Jamaican reggae sound from way back in the '60s.
And if you could give us some tips on who you're listening to now that we won't have heard of?
The Chancellor, English guy, an amazing musician. He's releasing a track that comes out next year called "Make-believe world." Other than that let's see, there's loads of shit you don't know about. TBH, these days I infiltrate my kids' computers and iPads to see what they're listening to and unfortunately I cannot decipher the music, whether it's grime music... My niece has a new album coming out soon, they all make this grime, manic music that unfortunately doesn't have a melody. I'm melody-led and even the music I play when I DJ is always melodic, so that would be the strangest thing about the music I play and collect.
You were in charge of Soul II Soul but, did you feel you were mismanaged along the way? Were there things you would have done differently? Were you steered toward somewhere you didn't want to go? Were you steering your own ship? Where were you coming from?
That's a cool question actually. No we were completely doing our own thing. No one understood what we were about in those days. In the latter part of my career I ended up with a gentleman called Don Taylor, who used to manage Prince and Bob Marley. When he was chucked out by that family I managed to get my claws into him, quote unquote. I learned literally 60 percent of the business from this gentleman Don Taylor. He was around before the days when black people could go through the front door. He used to be Little Anthony and the Imperial's valet before he became a manager. This was in the days of United Artists, which used to be an airline, but they also had a record label back in the early days and he worked there in the late '60s when the contractual obligations were more geared towards the artists rather than the agents, he was actually involved during that period of time. So I learned most of my skills from him, and the rest I learned in the rock'n'roll business as a sound engineer. I used to be Tommy Steele's engineer.
The little Cockney guy? [Tommy Steele is widely recognised as the UK's first rock'n'roll star.]
Yeah that's right, the Tommy Steele.
So we've mentioned the DJing, the soundsystems, the band. Is it a loose project? Are you guys still going?
It's a collective, an amalgamation of music and fashion. Strangely enough we're still together, kinda never separated.