Jazzie B was part of the generation of change. Founding member of Soul II Soul - the London sound system turned lifestyle choice whose 1989 debut Club Classics Vol. One would go on to bag not one but two Grammy awards - his emergence on the music scene of the late 80s came at a time when governments were cracking, systems were falling and glass ceilings were being shattered everywhere. In Soul II Soul you had a group raised on foreign sounds but making music that was inherently British. A group putting on parties that were inclusive, not exclusive. A group that faced their audience, that were their audience (as anyone wearing one of the wildly popular "funki dred" T-shirts can attest to). The lights had gone out, walls had come tumbling down and with hits like Keep on Movin and Back to Life Jazzie B was leading the charge, spearheading a message of unity with a happy face and a thumpin' bass for a loving' race. With a new album exploring the group's origins, the legendary sound man explains why Soul II Soul was more than just a band: it was a lifestyle.
What was the original aim of Soul II Soul?
It was a case of trying to be the biggest sound system in the world. That was the challenge. And from that, all these other circumstances came along and I was able to rub shoulders with some of the greats. I've toured with the likes of James Brown, I've been touched by the horn section of Earth, Wind and Fire. All these great musicians that were my idols and helped to inspire me.
Can you remember where your first sound system gig was?
The Queen's Silver Jubilee, 1977. Street party. Paid 14 quid, played the arse out of Curtis Mayfield, alongside Benny and the Jets, Ziggy Stardust and some Showaddywaddy.. I had a couple of speakers that I built in me mum's house. A little 12watt, 15watt set up. My first set of turntables that I'd got on hire purchase. Paid about 70 pence a week for that. Yeah, killed it.
What was the state of black British music when you first started?
We came along at a time of change. Musically, socially, politically. We were out of the industrial revolution and trying to move with the rest of the world and be the trendsetters that Britain's known to be. I use the term "the shift" now. There was a shift and in that shift along came Soul II Soul.
At what point did you realise you were doing something really unique?
I guess when everybody had the same dream about the funki dreds. There was a lot of bullshit going on back in those days, fucked laws, people getting nicked and all that. We had this idea about being dropped from the Planet Ard, sent down to earth to fight against Rap Attackus Backus and bring supreme pleasure to people. And I guess I realised then that people were trying to emulate the style, how we looked, the attitude we had. There was a point, during the 80s, when if you were seen in a Soul II Soul T-shirt, you were automatically thought of as part of the clan. People started to emulate the hairstyles and by the time I ventured out to America, the embrace that we got there, both culturally and musically, took everything to another level.
Soul II Soul always was more of a lifestyle than a group wasn't it...
Absolutely. Soul II Soul were an amalgamation of music and fashion. It was very much as a statement of who and what we were and what we were going through. Timing was everything because, as we travel, we now know that 89/90 was a political point in the world where music was often associated with the change that happened… It was a real trip.
Who were you into fashion wise back then?
Of course, Ray Petri was the daddy. He was the godfather of all of it. But I was also a Christopher Nemeth fan. John Moore used to make all our big shoes. Joe Casely Hayford, we used to rock his stuff. We're talking about Trendy [Eddie Prendergast] and Barrie Sharpe, early Duffer [of St George], when they were making more couture stuff, you know? They looked the part and we sounded it. And then the influences of people who were around, like Michael Kopelman, Jamie Morgan. Of course, we were responsible for half of that move, when we got that exposure in i-D and The Face and all that lot.
Is it still happening, that amalgamation of music and fashion?
I think it's happening all the time, just in a different guise. FKA twigs and people like that. You look at what's going on in that area and progressively, even with the grime guys, how they're coming up. It's just consumed in a different way. We're still a country and society that's very in tune with being innovative and creative when it comes down to what's happening in music and the arts and fashion and so on. Travelling now, I still see Britain as being one of the leading places for when it comes to being influential. Like a shopping window for the rest of the world.
When you look back over your career, what do you make of the impact you've had?
It makes me feel old! But I don't actually sit down and study any of that. On the fly I would have to say, I guess, looking back now it's good to see a happy face, a thumpin' bass, for a lovin' race. Some of that shit did wear on.
Origins: The Roots of Soul II Soul 12 deluxe vinyl boxset is released 9 December on Metropolis Records.
Text Matthew Whitehouse