The Philadelphia Story A New Generation Revives Philly's Soul
Published Sep 01, 2002Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love is currently a focal centre for new and innovative soul and hip-hop music, and new artists have continued to emerge from the city in the past few years. In truth the city's recent sonic renaissance is a reflection of what has been going on for the past few years. Jam sessions, open mic showcases, poetry nights and a vibrant club scene have all contributed to Philadelphia's rising prominence on the music map, attracting popular and underground artists. But what is it exactly about the city that makes it such a creative hub? Ahmir Thompson, aka ?uestlove, drummer for Philadelphia hip-hop group the Roots feels a more relaxed creative environment is key. "I think other spots in so-called music capitals, they're a bit more egocentric," he says. Ivana Santilli, a Toronto artist currently working extensively with artists in the city such as King Britt, expresses a similar sentiment. "It's got a neighbourhood family feel about it, but it's a big city," she says, "And it's very close to New York, so geographically it's got everything going for it, cause it's just outside of New York and it doesn't have the tension of it, but it still has the fire."
?uestlove, King Britt and Jazzy Jeff are just some of the more highly visible producers and musicians plying their trade in Philadelphia. Despite the attention being paid to the city musically, their musical excursions are striving to creatively move forward while remaining cognisant of the city's musical history. After all, the recent rash of reissues that highlights the city's soul music past confirms isn't the first time Philadelphia has been in the musical spotlight.
Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff emerged when Philadelphia already had an established tradition and reputation for black music. Yet by naming their label Philadelphia International, the duo ascribed a distinctive sound to the city that is often referred to as "The Sound of Philadelphia" or "Philly Soul." With a cast of talent that included string arranger Thom Bell and house band MFSB, working out of Sigma Sound Studios, songwriters and producers Gamble & Huff embraced a formula of elaborate string arrangements, catchy melodies and universal themes about relationships. These songs were performed by artists on the Philadelphia International label that included Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, the O'Jays and Teddy Pendergrass. Significant productions also occurred with artists who weren't on the label such as Jerry "Ice Man" Butler. Gamble & Huff's songs also often had especially poignant social significance and particularly in the music of the O'Jays, provided hope and inspiration for African-Americans in the era of the post-civil rights movement. The globally successful label also acted locally, with its involvement with the Philadelphia community. It was this social consciousness that grew conspicuously more absent when Gamble & Huff's sound became the sonic foundation for the disco of the mid- to late 70s. Still their influence has proved to be enduring.
"It was my favourite era, my mum was into a lot of that stuff. I grew up listening to Teddy Pendergrass and the O' Jays and all that stuff," says Peter Adarkwah of London-based label Barely Breaking Even (BBE), who will be releasing several records from Philadelphia artists as part of the Beat Generation series in the near future. "I actually had the pleasure of meeting Kenneth Gamble and going into Sigma Studios before they finally refurbished it. But when I walked in there a couple of years ago, it was exactly as it had been since the 70s and it was quite incredible to be able to nose around."
"They were one of the key factors in making soul music," says DJ Jazzy Jeff. "You get these guys who are making incredible from your city, played on our radio stations; part of our community. We're so used to it, we're not even realising that they're playing this all over the world all we know is it comes from Philly. You start to have a sense of pride, and you're kinda linked to this music and somehow the influences come out."
Gamble and Huff's distinctive sound helped instil the belief that aspiring artists could come up with their own idiosyncratic brand of music. "It's just coming up with a distinctive sound that's from your environment," says Jazzy Jeff. "When the blueprint was laid, it might not have been the blueprint for the exact same type of music. We don't shove it down everybody's throat but Philadelphia has a rich music tradition. A bunch of new guys that are now trying to carry on that tradition."
Maverick producer, remixer and DJ King Britt is one artist who knows that tradition extends beyond Gamble and Huff and includes the gospel-derived soul of Solomon Burke and a slew of jazz innovators. "Philly has such a tradition going back to the 40s and 50s,from jazz with Coltrane through the 60s and of course in the 70s with Gamble & Huff, to even [80s rock band] the Hooters in the 80s," he enthuses. Having explicitly fused the city's musical past with its new sounds on his 1997 album When The Funk Hits The Fan under his Sylk 130 moniker, King Britt's reverence for the past comes as no surprise. While that record was set in 1977 Philadelphia and drew on soul, funk and jazz, the second Sylk 130 project in a planned trilogy, Re-Members Only, focused specifically on music from the 80s. These projects gave King Britt a chance to pay tribute to music that inspired him, and has given him the basis and impetus to move forward. "I'm done with the retro stuff now," he says. "I'm more interested in newer sounds and pushing the envelope."
Britt's recent projects have pushed more futuristic sounds, an ingredient no doubt been influenced by his past affiliation with electronic music producer and DJ Josh Wink. He confirms he's currently in "hip-hop mode" as he's working on a project for BBE's Beat Generation series that features Philadelphia hip-hop artists such as the hush-voiced Bahamadia, Philly pioneer of "P.S.K." fame Schoolly D, and Roots affiliate Dice Raw as well as Ishmael Butler, aka Butterfly of Digable Planets, the hip-hop group with whom King Britt got his start as a DJ. As well as the "left-field" bent of that project, Britt has been steadily working on house remixes under the name Scuba. The recently released Hidden Treasures brings together these hard-to-find reworkings exploring smooth, ethereal soundscapes that King Britt has branded "aqua house."
"I'm the electronic guy," he says, "but I want to make electronic music that's warm and that has an emotional feel and soulful feel to it." Riding shotgun in this journey is Britt's Scuba cohort Vikter Duplaix, who was mentored by Kenneth Gamble. Duplaix was a hip-hop DJ before he met King Britt at school and has produced music by Erykah Badu and Philadelphia artists such as Musiq and Jaguar Wright. More of his musical scope is demonstrated on his DJ Kicks mixed CD compilation released earlier this year, which articulated his approach as "universal sound." After many collaborations, much attention is now being paid to Duplaix as a vocalist. Despite having a solo deal, Duplaix will also be working on a record for BBE and will continue to work with his business partner, producer/keyboardist James Poyser, who was also was an original member of Jazzy Jeff's A Touch of Jazz crew.
DJ Jazzy Jeff's A Touch of Jazz studios has been one of the creative hives that has generated excitement around new sounds coming out of Philadelphia. His latest solo release The Magnificent, the latest in the BBE Beat Generation series, is no different.
He started the studio after gaining mainstream success as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince with Will Smith. Their success in the late 80s was just part of Philadelphia's hip-hop story. By the late 70s and the early 80s, the "Philly soul" era Gamble and Huff had engineered was beginning to wane. Conversely, hip-hop music originating from New York was thriving. Philadelphia's hip-hop scene developed in the early 80s and well-respected artists such as Schoolly D and Steady B and Three Times Dope emerged in the latter half of the decade. Philadelphia DJ Cash Money began to win DJ competitions, and while Will Smith's charisma guaranteed the group commercial success, Jazzy Jeff proved himself a nimble wax manipulator and gained attention through his refinement of the transformer scratch, originally developed by another local, DJ Spinbad. Philadelphia's thriving hip-hop scene soon made it the largest market outside of New York. However the closing of hip-hop clubs after complaints from the city's business community, and the removal of hip-hop from local radio play lists near the end of the 80s, were serious blows to the continuing development of the city's hip-hop scene. DJ Jazzy Jeff continued to finance A Touch of Jazz through his mainstream success and appearances on Will Smith's television show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He had a vision that would fuse his musical influences.
"You can't turn the clock back and do 70s soul music, cause it's not the 70s anymore," says Jazzy Jeff. "What we try to do is the rhythm and the street appeal of hip-hop and the nuances of 70s soul mixed together." Located in a basement of a high-rise building, A Touch of Jazz has been bringing the city's creative talent together in a musical collective "I tried to design A Touch of Jazz after everything that I didn't have in the music industry, which was creative freedom, not really being on the clock when it comes to making records," says Jazzy Jeff. "It's about creativity, it's not a 9 to 5. I enjoy the freedom for people to go in and work when they feel and just get the best, most heartfelt work, and we really didn't have that when we were signed to a record company. There are times in the studio when we do nothing but talk and those conversations go from women to socialism to economics, and you get into a lot of deep conversations and debates and they turn into songs."
This informal creative approach led to the recording of Philadelphia spoken-word poet and vocalist Jill Scott's album Who Is Jill Scott?, which built a following based on word of mouth; that success helped raised the profile of A Touch of Jazz and music from Philadelphia. "Before the spotlight hit Philly, we were having these jam sessions, we were having the Black Lilys and events at the Five Spot and at Silk City," says Jazzy Jeff. "This isn't new to us we've been practising for years, and that's why I think we started to get so much good music coming out of Philly. I don't think it's necessarily being in the right place at the right time. It's just being prepared when your opportunity comes. It's like we're a basketball team that has been practising for ten years and nobody saw us and now everybody's like wow those guys are really good.' The vibe in Philly was just for us, and we were doing it just for us until the world caught a hold of it."
Due to a high level of collaboration between the city's musicians, there's a vaguely common sound that has been branded with the convenient, yet much maligned term "neo-soul." The term isn't specific to Philly, but the spirit of creativity around the music itself is in danger of becoming appropriated and tailored solely for commercial success. The artists have noticed and their response has been to progress musically in spite of it.
"That's why you started to get a little bit of different stuff on The Magnificent," says Jazzy Jeff, referring to his collaboration with house veterans Masters At Work. "Vikter Duplaix's album is a little bit different. We like music and we're happy that people kinda latched on to what we were doing with that soulful element. But it's really funny how it started and you can see it start to become a commercial aspect. We didn't do it for that; we did it because this is what we grew up on. This is what we feel. It's a shame that once people take a liking to something, they can saturate it and make you tired of it. We love music, especially me, I don't wanna be defined as the neo-soul guy. This is just the tip of the iceberg."
Roots drummer ?uestlove is well aware of genre tags being handed out. When the Roots first emerged in the mid-90s, they were pegged as a "hip-hop jazz" group, an assumption the group summarily nixed on their 1996 release Illadelph Halflife. With their upcoming release Phrenology reportedly based on a list of things the group had not done before, it's apparent that ?uestlove isn't interested in being filed under convenient labels. Instead, he's been busy expanding his parameters beyond hip-hop, collaborating with Philadelphia musicians such as Bilal and Jaguar Wright as well as a host of others. He has also formed the Soulquarians, a musical collective that counts Philadelphia-based keyboardist James Poyser, former Slum Village producer Jay Dee and D'Angelo as members. Together they have collaborated on adventurous production for artists such as Erykah Badu, Common and D'Angelo himself.
?uestlove, whose own love of 70s soul is documented on BBE's recently released Babies Making Babies compilation, often works out of The Studio owned by string arranger Larry Gold, who has worked with everyone from Gamble & Huff (as a cellist in their house band MFSB) to the Roots themselves. ?uestlove's increasingly packed and diverse schedule recently resulted in simultaneous rehearsals with Talib Kweli and a collaborative recording with classical pianist Uri Caine and bassist Christian McBride, called The Philadelphia Experiment. Much of that album was recorded in compressed sessions like this, and its exploration of music from Elton John to Sun Ra is indicative of the experimentation taking place. ?uestlove admits it represents him drumming at his most free. And the collaborative work has recently taken another step. King Britt recently oversaw the reworking of the record into The Philadelphia Experiment Remixed. "It's a totally different record," he says. "Totally different." He's not lying. It's a radical deconstruction of the original record. "Grover," a tribute to the late saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. who spent much of his creative life in Philadelphia is remixed into a seductive broken-beat workout by Vikter Duplaix and a 15-minute Latin rhythm-influenced opus by the Randy Watson Experience (aka ?uestlove and James Poyser). Philadelphia's musical continuum remains intact.
Yet the record doesn't just feature contributors from Philadelphia, but from around the globe. Charlie Dark is from the UK outfit Attica Blues, while DJ Ghe is affiliated with Berlin's Jazzanova. It's evident that geography is becoming less relevant and the main connection is music that is aware of its past while creating something innovative. "There's this really huge connection between London and Germany and Philly," confirms Toronto's Ivana Santilli. "Those people all together, that's a whole other side of Philly."
King Britt has termed his own take on this approach as "blacktronica," where soul and electronic music meet to produce something new, yet familiar. "There's a compilation that I put together that's coming out in Japan called Black to the Future," says King Britt. "What's on there really represents where I think this music is going." The album features many of the artists King Britt himself has ties with, such as London artists like 4Hero and the Bugz in The Attic crew. Vikter Duplaix has recorded several well-received vocal tracks, some with Berlin's Jazzanova and recently Jazzy Jeff, a fan of the German collective did a remix for the group. However, the music being produced moves beyond mere one-off collaborations and is spawning into a movement typified by a constant cultural exchange of ideas with a growing number of contributors. Poet Ursula Rucker, who was worked with both King Britt and the Roots has expanded beyond Philly laying down her powerful insights on tracks by 4Hero and Jazzanova. King Britt has also recently presented a new Nigerian-born media shy artist named Oba Funke who attended King Britt's Back 2 Basics parties in Philadelphia. His mix of African traditional music with fractured, kinetic percussion in collaborations with artists like Zap Mama on his full-length CosmoAfrique again simultaneously references the past and the future. ?uestlove is also looking to Africa to help fuel his creative progress, having also worked with Zap Mama and Fela Kuti's son Femi, anchoring a remake of Fela Kuti's "Water No Get Enemy" for the upcoming Red Hot + Riot project, continuing a musical relationship that began on Common's Like Water for Chocolate album.
While the music being produced is fuelled by the mindset to set a premium on high quality music that values musical history and progress, it is so diverse that it can't be called the new Philly sound, yet it brings new meaning to the term Philadelphia International. "We all started off at the same place," says Jazzy Jeff. "All of us were products of hip-hop and all of us were embedded with Philly soul. It's just our interpretation of where we decide to take it."
Natalie Stewart and Marsha Ambrosius hail from London, England and their sound is a blend of Ambrosius' singing and Stewart's poetry. Their album was produced at A Touch of Jazz studios with Vidal Davis and Andre Harris, the producers behind Toronto singer Glenn Lewis. Floetry co-wrote songs on his World Outside My Window album and wrote Michael Jackson's only recent noteworthy single "Butterflies." This debut album will be released in October.
The Tortoise And The Hare (Coolhunter/Rykodisc)
Mercedes Martinez and Tracey Moore are the only two original members of the Jazzyfatnastees who began life as a vocal quartet in California about ten years ago. When members of the Roots heard their shelved debut album with then-Pharcyde producer J-Swift, it began an association with the group that led to them move to Philadelphia. The duo co-founded the Black Lily event for independent female artists, which has now expanded to New York and London and has showcased the talents of artists like Kindred and Jaguar Wright, their former label-mate who issued Denials, Delusions and Decisions earlier this year on Motive/MCA. The duo's follow-up to 1999's The Once And The Future is released in September.
This hip-hop trio is set to release the follow-up to their well-received debut Self Vol I this fall on a label yet to be determined. It promises to build on the humorous everyday rhymes of main MCs Peril-L and Styles over the organic hip-hop production of producer/MC Chops. Chops usually loops his own playing on the guitar and Fender Rhodes and his organic beats have been featured on recent releases by Bahamadia, Mystic and Grand Agent. He's currently working on a solo producer album for the Vocab label that is set to feature Raekwon, Talib Kweli and Ras Kass among others.
360 Degrees of Billy Paul (Epic Legacy)
Recruiting Billy Paul to Philadelphia International was an example of Gamble & Huff's penchant for bringing talented yet criminally underrated artists to the forefront. Paul was primarily known as a jazz vocalist before joining the Philadelphia songwriters and producers. "Me & Mrs. Jones," the classic tale of infidelity is easily the standout track here, yet the forthright "Am I Black Enough For You?" shows the Philly sound's incorporation of social issues into its formula.
MFSB (Epic Legacy)
An early period album of mellow soul grooves by Gamble & Huff's accomplished house band, Mother Father Sister Brother. This self-titled debut features smoothed-out instrumental versions of the O'Jays "Backstabbers" and Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead" and the reissue includes a live version of "TSOP" a song that was for a time the theme song for the television show Soul Train.