By the latter half of the 1980s, Soul II Soul had built a monstrous following as a sound system collective in the UK. Starting in 1982, Trevor “Jazzie B” Beresford Romeo, the sound system’s maestro began to develop and implement a plan of success for his musical outfit. After a series of single releases called dub plates in 1988, Club Classics Vol. One/Keep On Movin was released on April 10, 1989 by Virgin Records. Upon its release, the fervor surrounding the album increased exponentially due to the popularity of the lead single, “Fairplay.”
The years spent in formulating an eclectic sound finally paid dividends for the sound system. As a result, music audiences began to gravitate to their groundbreaking sounds en masse. Soul II Soul encompassed a vast array of sounds and voices. Their formula for unparallel success was due to the fact of their constant change within the sound system. During this juncture, there were a plethora of outstanding musical groups dominating the musical landscape, but Soul II Soul was that rare brand of artists that comes along once every generation.
Arriving on the scene in stellar fashion, Soul II Soul left an indelible mark on not only their contemporaries, but the music industry itself. Their indiscriminate mixture of music genres within an African theme dominated the ears of pop and urban culture in several countries. Soul II Soul became an in-demand act after the release of this album in the spring of 1989.
This album would provide the world with an impervious view of the club culture dynamic and how infectious it could be once given the opportunity to shine on a larger scale. Each of the ten songs on the album showcased the evolution in Soul II Soul’s intergenerational sound. It would also become the first in a string of fecund recordings between the years of 1988-1992.
The album would highlight the production talents of Trevor “Jazzie B” Beresford Romeo and Nellee Hooper with incomparable vocal contributions from then sound system members Caron Wheeler, Doreen Waddell and Rose Windross. All of these elements put the world on notice that Soul II Soul was staking its claim as one of the biggest acts on the planet.
Soul II Soul began as a sound system playing records at house and street parties in London, UK during the early 1980s. They recorded various records called dub plates, which became highly popular in their hometown. Due to their impact, they established their style and clothing line by dubbing it Funki Dreds.
As the story goes, after various personnel changes in the corresponding years, they achieved their first smash record in 1988 entitled “Fairplay,” which led to the signing of their initial record deal with Virgin Records. They would release their debut album with the label a year later.
Between the months of January and March 1988, Club Classics Vol. One/Keep On Movin was recorded in Addis Ababa Studios, Lillie Yard Studios and Britannia Row Studios in London, UK.
SoulCulture recently sat down with Trevor “Jazzie B” Beresford Romeo to delve into the process of creating an epic album.
Romeo recalls how he came up with the initial idea for the sound system.
“My whole concept for Soul II Soul started back in 1977,” says Romeo. “Everyone was around because of the club singles thing I was doing. In terms of assembling the people for the sound system, in the early days I don’t think people knew what they were getting themselves into honestly. Some of the people who came on board thought what we were doing would be a passing fad.
“There were many people who were involved with the record initially that didn’t really take it as seriously as the rest of us. We were never really a group. It was a bit of a production set up. It was reminiscent of Clivillés and Cole. We were sort of a derivative off that. Soul II Soul was a collective and formerly a sound system. This is how we started. Making music together came about during our days as a sound system. Most traditional sound systems make their own music, which is what led to the genesis of the whole Soul II Soul forming.
“You can really relate back to songs like ‘Jazzie’s Groove’ and ‘Fairplay” to get a full understanding of what we were trying to do musically. What I tried to do on the first album was to explain what Soul II Soul was all about beginning with our first record. Technically, Soul II Soul is a sound system rather than a band per se, which is why we have a rotating lineup of different singers. This goes back to the origins of the old sound systems as well because in a sound system you would also have many different emcees or deejays.
“All of these things combined to form Soul II Soul. I often describe Soul II Soul as being an airplane with a pilot and co-pilot. The initial idea of Soul II Soul was obviously my own, but in terms of songs and the variations of production, singers, and arrangements that was determined on what each specific song would entail. It was definitely a collaborative effort on various songs.”
Romeo spoke on how important the studios were in contributing to the making of the record.
“We recorded this album at Addis Ababa Studios in Harold Road in London, which doesn’t exist anymore,” says Romeo. “But I have to give credit to Tony Addis here. He allowed us to use his studio for free initially. Once things picked up, we were able to pay him. From there, we recorded in Lillie Yard Studios in Fulham, this was Hans Zimmer studio. All of our production work was done at Britannia Row Studios in London. I don’t think any of these studios exist anymore.
“By trade, I’m a sound engineer. A lot of these studios I would’ve been working at or I’ve worked there before. And in respect to the relationships I had with these various studio owners at that time, I was able to record there. Soul II Soul was making music for my sound system back then and we were very popular in the UK. Most people would’ve been aware of what was going on.”
Romeo recounts the instruments that were used and the studio atmosphere that existed during the recording process.
“This first album was pre-MIDI,” says Romeo. “We were toying with some real old stuff. At one stage on ‘Feel Free’ and ‘Fairplay,’ we used an old synthesizer from Hans Zimmer. We also used an SP-1200, lots of outboard equipment in the studio such as the AMX Echo delay machine and we used this as our sampler. These were the kind of things we used to create the record. We used the Moog synthesizer to create our bass sounds. There was obviously a lot of tracking going on there in the evolution of the album. We used 2 inch quarter tape to record and during the editing process we were splicing up the tape as well.
“It took about two or three months to record to whole album because initially the songs were done as singles. The singles were being played way before the conception of an album. The type of deal we had were single deals and the whole idea of the actual album wasn’t something we were interested in doing at that time. All of the artists on the singles were featured artists.
“Many of the artists who were initially involved were session artists. It wasn’t actually put together as a group. Obviously, in a group situation you have different members doing different things. That wasn’t the case at all. It was like fuck it and we’ll see what happens type of thing,” he laughs.
He continues, “We lived in the studios anyway because we were always making records. We would call ourselves bedroom deejays, but we weren’t necessarily in a bedroom. We were always in a boogie basement as it were. We had constant access to recording studios and as a result we were going for this different dimension sonically. In those years, we were using variations of compressors and the first G series SSL board as well. We were going for a harder, colder sound, which we tried to make warmer. It’s incredible what the compression of oxide can do in a recording. These are all elements that made up the end product.
“All of these songs were more or less created in our basement from playing records while using different machinery to sample elements of that. We spent a lot of time in the studio, but we were moving from studio to studio so I think it also helped us to solidify the record. We have to give it up to studios such as Addis Ababa Studios, Lillie Yard Studios, and Britannia Row Studios where we invested a lot of time and money in finishing up the record.”
Romeo talks about the concept behind Soul II Soul’s music and the difference between UK and US markets once the record was released.
“The whole concept of the music we were creating was really about our sound system,” says Romeo. “It’s one of the reasons why we had such a big following because people would often come to hear what’s called dub plates or specials. Strangely enough in America, they changed the title of the album because they couldn’t get with that particular format. At that time, club culture wasn’t as big as it is today, but the first album’s original title in Britain was called Club Classics Vol. One and in America they changed the title to Keep On Movin. The original album only contained the acapella version of ‘Keep On Movin.’
“When success hit in America, the record company had to rearrange things so Americans got a slightly different impression of what it was all about. It had to be done in a way that the Americans could understand, which meant formulizing things in a way that you could digest. Whereas being from Europe where creativity and innovation are paramount over record sales, this was the real difference. Making these songs were more about what was going on with us at that given time. In terms of the popularity of the record, it was more about the people embracing what they heard as opposed to us formulating a sound that was popular for radio.”
Romeo remembers how the lead single “Feel Free” had many layers within it.
“‘Feel Free’ was the first single,” says Romeo. “It covered the full circumference of why Nick Clark decided to make it our first single. You had the hip-hop dryness of the song, not necessarily a soulful vocal, but there was so much attention being paid to the backing vocal arrangement, which meant the lead line had to be a little bit different. Not taking anything away from the vocalist, there wasn’t much of a lead vocal line in it because if you listen to the arrangement it’s quite complicated in regards to what’s happening with backing vocals.
“Rhythmically, it was a throwback to our influences at that time, which were more about hip-hop rather than rap.”
“Feel Free” went on to peak at #64 on the UK Singles Chart.
The second single to be released from the album would be the iconic, “Keep On Movin’.” “Keep On Movin’” went on to peak at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #5 on the UK Singles Chart. It helped to generate steam for the sales of Club Classics Vol. One/Keep On Movin after its international release.
Romeo tells a fascinating story behind the lyrics for the song.
“Keep On Movin'” actually came about lyrically because we were at the Africa Center in Covent Gardens and we were being put under a lot of pressure by the police,” says Romeo. “It was due to the fact that other clubs in the area were empty and ours kept being full. Every so often, we would get the squeeze put on us. At one particular moment, they threatened to close us down. The whole concept of this song came from there. The vocal arrangements were done by Caron, the strings were done by the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra and those guys are still around me now.
“The production was shared by Nellee Hooper and myself. Again, that backing track would’ve been something I was playing on my sound system as just the rhythm section, but I would use it as the undertone for mixes. One of the great things about this song, it became known sonically throughout the industry because it ticked the boxes for turbo sound and guys like Tony Andrews who were developing sound systems.”
The final single to be released from the album would be the equally epic “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me).” Romeo elaborates on how this single became the sedge way for the follow up album.
“‘Back to Life’ on the album in America was just an acapella version of the song,” says Romeo. “It was extension of the song “Jazzie’s Groove.” It was actually the intro to “Jazzie’s Groove.” If you listen to the lyrics, ‘However do you want me,’ it goes into “Jazzie’s Groove” and it’s where I give you the whole explanation of Soul II Soul and what we’re about.
“The song “Back to Life” is a different single altogether because that was made to be just a single. From a self indulgent point of view, it was showing off our production skills and the ideas we were coming up with in respect to where the next album was going with songs such as “Get A Life,” “Missing You,” and “A Dream’s a Dream.”
“Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” went on to peak at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #1 on the UK Singles Chart. It helped to solidify the sound system as a force to be reckoned with in the music industry.
Romeo provides insight on how the remaining songs of the album came together from an artistic standpoint.
“‘Fairplay’ was a club record,” says Romeo. “It was purely for the club. It was our first record that we made together. For the popularity of that record, it was the only one that didn’t chart. It is probably our most known record in the underground scene. It ended up being a B side of the song that did chart entitled “Feel Free.” “Feel Free” was the first technical release from this album. At that time, it was a little too abstract and deep for the market in 1988. It’s slightly understandable because it wasn’t a radio friendly tune.”
“Holdin’ On” was an extract from the song “Bambelela,” which was a South African choir that I brought in to sing that song. The only real significance of that song was the fact it was self indulgent. It was something I really wanted to do. It was something different. Again, we were trying to push the envelope as far as we could with our musical ideas.
“It is probably one of the more musical songs on the album. It is heavily rooted in West African rhythms and it was more a throwback to me culturally because of the music I was into, which was a cross section between Fela and Highlife. The song ended up turning into something epic. We had to keep refining it. What was nice about this song is we recorded it all in the studio with the band playing live instruments.”
“African Dance” had African roots, African sounds, and with us living in Europe we were trying to show our African heritage,” says Romeo. “I think it was a great song for most dancers at that time in terms of the styles of dance going on in London. Tempo wise it sat in that whole house music sound just like the song we cut called “Happiness,” which is on this album. It was our throwback to an African musical dimension that could be easily mixed into the house music sound we were into back then.”
“‘Happiness’ was our interpretation of house music,” says Romeo. “It’s that unmistakable, eclectic mix of music. It was really a song that showed the full effect of the album.”
Club Classics Vol. One/Keep On Movin peaked at #1 on the UK Albums Chart for four consecutive weeks in 1989 and went on to go triple platinum in the UK. Meanwhile in the US, the album peaked at #14 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart and #1 on the Billboard R&B Albums Chart in the late winter of 1989 and sold more than two million units. It also peaked at #38 on the Australian Albums Chart within the same year.
Almost twenty five years later the album has managed to remain among the 50 highest selling albums in UK history. The album has achieved multi-platinum status in three countries and its lasting effect on popular culture is undeniable.
To this day, it’s regarded as the one of the greatest albums from the 1980s and remains the highest selling album of their career. This album earned a plethora of Soul Train Award and Grammy nominations and wins for Soul II Soul. Club Classics Vol. One/Keep On Movin set the standard for other sound system records for not only the remainder of the 1980s, but to present day. It contains all of the essential ingredients for a classic album and it shall be remembered as being one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
Romeo discusses Soul II Soul’s influence and their experiences as being a Black British group in the UK and US.
“25 years later I definitely consider our sound system to be trendsetters,” he laughs. “At that given time, we were getting on with what we were doing. It was our way of life. We lived and slept making and playing music on that level. It was the only thing we ever did. It was a full time occupation. It wasn’t a joke to most of us. It was our whole life. We didn’t know any different at that time.
“In terms of us being trendsetters, we were never sheep following a trend. We set out to always be innovative and creative with our style as the Funki Dreds. It was all a part of our niche because we always saw ourselves as aliens with passports. The fact we were Black and British, Britain really didn’t have much time for us.
“Strangely enough, everywhere we went the emphasis was put on us that we were British. In America, it was interesting in how they embraced us because when we came out during 1988 and 1989 their record charts and radio programming was what I like to call an almost apartheid situation going on there.
“As a Black act, it didn’t matter if you were Soul II Soul or Billy Ocean; you had to go through the Black stage first before you could cross over. It meant you had to do that Chitlin sort of circuit, which for us as foreigners going into America we had no idea this existed. But when we arrived there, we saw the situation and it was a culture shock for us to see the divide and rule dynamic.
He adds. “Blacks had their thing going on and in order for you to hit the national charts you had to cross over to mainstream radio stations. When we started out it was all about Frankie Crocker, Red Alert, and a lot of those types of radio stations. It wasn’t until we were embraced by Casey Kasem that we were able to cross over, which equals to a lot of the awards and accolades that I have here in my house in the UK.
“Most of the awards say Black as opposed to Urban or R&B. My later accolades say either Urban or R&B on them so that’s quite interesting. In Britain, we only had one chart to adhere to which was the national chart.
“Looking back in hindsight, it was almost better back in the day for us than it is now where everything is so fragmented. If it doesn’t fix that box, you have to go into another box. Back in the day, Britain only had one chart, the BBC chart and everyone clamored for their place there. Demographically, the audience was much bigger than it is now.”