Happy 30th Anniversary to Soul II Soul’s debut album Club Classics Vol. One, originally released April 10, 1989.
We're a sound system / An amalgamation of good dance music / There is, um, three of us from the north side / And two from the east / And through our style, you know / People just came to recognize us / As the funki dreds
Seldom has a band’s musical manifesto been so accurately articulated as it was back in the spring of 1989 by the one and only Trevor Beresford Romeo OBE, more affectionately known as Jazzie B. Indeed, Jazzie’s declaration of Soul II Soul’s identity as “an amalgamation of good dance music” couldn’t have been more spot-on and the group’s debut long player Club Classics Vol. One was the grand embodiment of his cross-cultural, genre-fluid vision.
Curiously sequenced as the album’s final track, as opposed to its intro, “Jazzie’s Groove” found the Soul II Soul founder conveying his fellow funki dreds’ sense of creative purpose as a bridge connecting the collective’s past, present and promising future, priming listeners for their next chapter. Beyond its lyrical proclamations, the track also left a lasting impression upon eager ears through its inventive sampling of the horns heard on Stevie Wonder associate Gary Byrd’s relatively obscure 1973 track “Soul Travelin' Pt. I (The G.B.E.),” which Nas and producer Large Professor would lift a few years later for the then-aspiring emcee’s 1992 debut single “Halftime.”
Though Club Classics surfaced in 1989, the seeds of Soul II Soul predate the album’s arrival by a handful of years. Born to Antiguan parents in London in 1963, Jazzie B, at a young age, was inspired by his brothers who had fervently embraced the dynamic of the sound system, appropriating and adapting the DJ and street-party collectives that originated in Jamaica in the 1940s and 1950s for their native UK audience. By the early 1980s, Jazzie formed his own London-bred sound system whose tentacles expanded beyond music-based events alone into fashion and retail, with the “Funki Dred” moniker and logo becoming the collective’s recognizable brand and core aesthetic, from which all of their artistic adventures emanated.
By 1988, Soul II Soul had adopted a more formal group lineup with Jazzie B at the center, along with Caron Wheeler, Doreen Waddell (a.k.a. Do’reen), Rose Windross, Daddae, Aitch B, and Jazzie Q. However, harking back to the sound system ethos, the band’s structure was always intended to be flexible and adaptable, and its roster would ultimately morph and evolve through the years following their initial breakthrough. “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,” Jazzie explained to Wax Poetics in 2014. “This goes back to the origins of the old sound systems as well, because in a sound system, you would also have many different MCs or DJs. All of these things combined to form Soul II Soul.”
While new jack swing and hip-hop were beginning to flourish as the dominant urban musical forms across the Atlantic in the US as the 1980s approached their conclusion, British dance music was concurrently coming of age in various forms and locales throughout the UK. Manchester emerged as a dominant reservoir of talent in the form of genre-bending acts such as New Order, the Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, while Bristol witnessed the emergence of another dominant sound system, The Wild Bunch, which would morph into Massive Attack. Meanwhile, UK-bred songstresses Mica Paris, Neneh Cherry and Lisa Stansfield blurred the lines between pop, soul and dance to glorious effect.
Collectively, these pioneering artists—including Soul II Soul as the premier London contingent—would developed and refined the sonic blueprint that would enable British dance music to thrive for years to come, well into the 1990s. And while their specific musical dispositions and output were nuanced, the unifying thread between all of these acts—and indeed an essential quality that would truly define and distinguish UK dance music during this period—was their openness to incorporating a multitude of influences in shaping their respective sounds.
In the case of Soul II Soul, this involved merging hip-hop beats and sampled drum breaks, reggae/dub soundscapes, and soulful vocals, along with African and West Indian rhythms—all of which worked in concert to form a universal sound unbeholden to any one cultural or musical mooring.
Prior to Club Classics’ release in April 1989, the group unveiled two singles that met with lukewarm reception, at least commercially speaking. Co-produced by Jazzie B’s fellow Brit soundsmith Nellee Hooper (who would later collaborate with the likes of Björk, Madonna, No Doubt and U2) and featuring the Brand New Heavies’ Andrew Levy on bass, the percussive funk of their debut single “Fairplay” served as an invocation of the Soul II Soul ethos and invitation to join their community, as manifest through Rose Windross’ lines, “Soul II Soul is the place where you should be / On Sunday night we’ll expect you and Jazzie B / Cause it’s all about expression”.
Bolstered by Graham Silbiger’s steady bassline, the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra’s symphonic pulsings and Do’reen’s distinctive vocal style, the group’s second single “Feel Free” found Soul II Soul embracing its more ruminative dispositions and contemplating visions of the future.
Undeterred by the modest chart showings for the initial pair of singles (neither managed to crack the UK Top 50), Soul II Soul’s breakthrough moment arrived soon enough, in March 1989. Invigorated by Caron Wheeler’s soaring vocals atop a stirring confection of deep bass and piano flourishes, the simple messages of patience and perseverance encapsulated by “Keep on Movin’” exemplified the group’s recording career up to that point, whilst offering a more broadly applicable clarion call to those in need of a little motivation in their lives.
As the story goes, Wheeler originally offered her vocals for the single as a one-off collaboration, but on the strength of the recording, she was invited to join the Soul II Soul fold as an official member. It’s also worth noting that the US version of Club Classics was actually titled Keep on Movin’—a testament both to the track’s undeniable appeal and the fact that club culture did not figure as profoundly in America as it did abroad.
While “Keep on Movin’” lit the fuse for the group’s ascendance across radio and the sales charts, another Wheeler blessed composition kept the flame burning bright. Originally—and in retrospect, somewhat incredulously—included on the album in stripped-down, acapella form, “Back to Life” further illuminated Wheeler’s vocal prowess as she sang about seeking romantic clarity, with the drums borrowed from Graham Central Station's "The Jam" kicking in at the 2:40 mark. In short order following the album’s release, the song was reworked into a more robust midtempo groove, its instant earworm appeal and unforgettable hook (“How ever do you want me, how / How ever do you need me”) all but ensuring its ubiquity throughout the summer of 1989. “We often look to America for our influences, but [“Back to Life”] was a moment that put British music back on the map,” Jazzie B reflected to The Guardian in 2012. “It also came out at a special time in the industry's history—just before digital took over and everything seemed to fall apart.”
Though the rest of Club Classics was arguably overshadowed by the set’s two massive singles, a handful of standouts abound nevertheless. Most notable among these are Jazzie B’s sermon on the house-imbued “Holdin’ On,” the hypnotic “Happiness” (Dub), and the uplifting “Feeling Free” (Live Rap) that put KC and The Sunshine Band and Headhunters samples to brilliant use.
In later years, Jazzie B would concede the pomposity of the album’s title, in its presumptuous christening of the songs contained therein as eternal, classic fare before they even had time to marinate with audiences. In a 2015 interview with The Quietus, he admitted, “We were so up our own arses that we called our album Club Classics Vol.1.” But instead of committing a foolish act of hubris against the musical deities, his prophetic vision for the group ultimately proved accurate. Their debut LP did indeed go far in establishing the foundation for the proliferation of British dance music and culture in the 1990s, inspiring a multitude of trailblazing acts such as the Brand New Heavies, Saint Etienne, Omar, Jamiroquai, M People, Portishead, Tricky, and the aforementioned Massive Attack, among many others.
Although Jazzie B, Caron Wheeler and other members of the collective have reunited for multiple tours over the past twelve years, more than two decades have passed since they released their last proper album, their fifth LP Time For Change (1997). Despite the extended recording hiatus, however, their simple yet very much salient credo of “A happy face, a thumpin’ bass, for a lovin’ race” still resonates loud, clear and timeless today.
SEE Soul II Soul on tour | Dates