‘Back to life. . .back to reality. . ’ If you were to hear those lyrics you’d instantly recognise one of the biggest hits of 1989, from reggae, funk and RnB collective Soul II Soul. As well as creating club classics, Soul II Soul brought their own unique mix of style and fashion to the masses. ‘The Funki Dredd’ – a cartoon design by Derek Yates which became synonymous with Soul II Soul and club culture as a whole, is featured on a range of t-shirts and sweatshirts that form a limited edition Classics Collection, exclusive to Harvey Nichols. On Wednesday, Jazzie B – a cultural pioneer who helped define British black music and style, came to Manchester to launch the collection. He also entertained 200 customers with a live DJ set and Q&A session.
On behalf of STYLEetc, musician and songwriter Ben Williams sat down for a pre-event chat with Jazzie. Here’s what he had to say about fashion, musical influences and, err. . what he thinks of Simon Cowell!
What music did you grow up listening to?
I think I was very fortunate to grow up in the seventies. The best way I can describe what I listened to is – it had a melody, a beginning, a middle and an end. And it was all story led. Everything from country and western music which my parents played in the house, to reggae. I’m a groove man myself. I listened to Benny and the Jets, I’m a big fan of Ziggy Stardust, all the way through to Burt Bacharach production and lashings of RnB. Anything that came out of black America. I’m not talking about Motown. Motown was the staple diet – the pop music, but I’m talking about all the old stuff from Black Moses and anything that came out of Stax.
What was the initial concept behind Funki Dredd?
We’re from the planet Ard. We’ve been sent down from Earth to fight against ‘Rap Attackusbackus’. They’ve republished the comic book from when I was in school, so you can see the whole adventures of the Funki Dredd’s in there.
What kind of outfits did the Soul II Soul crew used to wear and was it a reflection of what was going on in London at the time?
All of these outfits, the original t-shirts are from 1982. That was before I was releasing music. I had a clothes store on the market back in those days. We basically used to revamp, I’d guess you’d call it mash-ups now, but they were collages of our identity. Growing up as a young black man in those days was a really different world. We were getting chased around the place by teddy-boys and mods. The skin-heads used to protect us, they were into our music and style. When punk came along, everyone changed. Punk just opened up everyone’s appetite because there was no regime, no formula. It was a very fantastic time for guys like myself. All I really wanted in my life was to be the biggest sound system in the world. Three of my brothers all had massive sound systems so I came up in all of that. Punk opened everyone’s eyes and it helped give us a voice and an opportunity because what we were doing was in our communities and in the suburbs, so it was kind of suppressed. The voice of the whole scene, not necessarily the music but the culture with regards to that whole era, that’s what made a massive difference.
The Classic Collection coincides with the 25th Anniversary of Funki Dredd. How does it feel to be a veteran of the industry? Any particular career highlights you could share with us?
I recorded James Brown’s 79th album, I did a duet with Isaac Hayes, I worked with Fela Kuti – most of my heroes. Tina Marie, I recorded for her. I’ve been very blessed in my little lifetime.
Are there any artists in the music industry out there at the moment that particularly impress you?
There are loads! I love the music nowadays. Club culture has become very mainstream, which is interesting because we were fighting to find places and to be recognised back in the day. I actually feel a little bit sorry for artists coming up because you’ve got to deal with that Britain’s Got Talent geezer – the little frank bloke with all the collagen in his mouth – Simon Cowell. The platforms are very difficult, but having said that, I still believe there is an underground out there, that swells from the computers and people being able to contact one another globally. So in effect the world just shrunk, and I think that’s a really positive thing. Nowadays we can correspond a lot more easily and you’re going out to a wider audience which makes it much more interesting. Although it dilutes it a lot, and I can only say that because I’m from analogue, I’m old-school. But looking at what’s happened in the modern day, it’s been a very positive thing.
Did you enjoy going through the archives picking out your favourite designs for the collection?
Funnily enough, it’s all in my wardrobe. I didn’t need to dig anything out because all of these designs have always existed. Some of the designs have been part of the production when we’ve been on tour. It’s a lifestyle for me, so my mates and the people around me have always had it. The difference is we’re now using new fabrics that are eco-friendly and hypo-allergenic which makes the range a little bit more interesting than your bog standard pop-star range. And the most important thing is, I was doing this before Soul II Soul were releasing music, so the fashion actually came first.
The Soul II Soul limited edition 9 piece ‘Classics Collection’ is available for purchase exclusively from Harvey Nichols Manchester, Leeds and London. As well as online at www.harveynichols.com
By Ben Williams