Jazzie B. and Caron Wheeler of Soul II Soul discuss 1989’s Club Classics Vol. One (Keep On Movin’ )
"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. "
By the end of the 1980s, Soul II Soul had built a monstrous following as a sound system collective in the U.K. 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 known as dub plates in 1988, Club Classics Vol. One (Keep On Movin’ in the U.S.) 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 album would highlight the production talents of Jazzie B., Simon Law, 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. For the album’s twenty-fifth anniversary, I spoke with Jazzie B. and Caron Wheeler about crafting such a memorable album.
What is story behind the creation of Soul II Soul?
Jazzie B.: My whole concept for Soul II Soul started back in 1977. 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. Well, specifically, 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. 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 MCs or DJs. All of these things combined to form Soul II Soul.
How did you become involved with Soul II Soul?
Caron Wheeler: A girlfriend of mine was working with Pink Floyd as a session singer. She called me and told me that she couldn’t make the session for that evening. She told me she was going to be gone for two months, and asked me if I could take her place. I was working on vocal arrangements and writing to songs. Jamie Morgan recorded me on a song, and I can’t even remember what I was arranging or what song I was working on, because we were working on a bunch of different songs. Jazzie heard some of the vocals I laid down, and he decided that he wanted to meet me. He really liked the way my voice sounded and the way I was arranging the songs for Jamie. So I met him. When I heard the first bits of the album he had, I wasn’t impressed, to be honest. But I thought his ideas were really good, and the whole sound system thing was something I grew up with. For me, it was a part of my culture as an English Black woman. It turned into a working relationship. He asked me, “Could you sing on this, and could you sing on that?” I told him, “I might be able to, but I need to get paid.” I was supposed to be a featured artist and just come in, and then, go out. Jazzie chose everyone in the group by hand. He singled out everyone he liked. There were a bunch of other people and me that were apart of Soul II Soul, when we first came out.
During this time, New Jack Swing was dominating the airwaves. Soul II Soul was just starting its journey into the music industry. What direction were you trying to go in with the overall sound of the album?
Jazzie B.: The whole concept of the music we were creating was really about our sound system. 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 a cappella 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 they 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. 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 with Simon [Law], Caron [Wheeler], Nellee [Hooper], among others.
What were some of the instruments and musical devices that you used during the production of this album?
Jazzie B.: This first album was pre-MIDI. 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 and 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 two-inch quarter tape to record, and during the editing process, we were splicing up the tape as well.
How long did it take to finish the album in its entirety?
Jazzie B.: It took about two or three months to record the 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. [laughs]
Where did most of the recording for this album take place?
Jazzie B.: We recorded this album at Addis Ababa Studios in Harold Road in London, which doesn’t exist anymore. 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 U.K. Most people would’ve been aware of what was going on.
Take me through the creative process in making each song from the album.
Jazzie B.: “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. 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 is 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.
“Fairplay” was a club record. 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.
“Feel Free” was the first single. 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 the backing vocals. Rhythmically, it was a throwback to our influences at that time, which were more about hip hop rather than rap.
“African Dance” had African roots, African sounds, and, with us living in Europe, we were trying to show our African heritage. 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. It’s that unmistakable, eclectic mix of music. It was really a song that showed the full effect of the album.
“Back to Life” on the album, in America, was just an a cappella version of the song. 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.” Caron did her thing on this one, too.
Can you delve into the studio atmosphere that existed during the production of this album?
Jazzie B.: We lived in the studios anyway because we were always making records. We would call ourselves bedroom DJs, but we weren’t necessarily in a bedroom. We were always in a boogie basement as it were. We had contact 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.
For the songs you were involved with during the making of the album, were they created inside the studio or outside of it?
Caron Wheeler: For the Soul II Soul records, I would sit down and work alongside Simon Law and work out the chord structure for a song. The first song that Jazzie brought to me was a disco club version of “Keep On Movin’.” On “Keep On Movin’,” some of the words were there, but none of the vocals were there, and the sound seemed like it was flying past you. I told them that the music needed to slow down. I told Jazzie, “What you’re saying in the song is good, but the way you’re saying it isn’t.” To me, it was moving so quickly that you couldn’t really hear what the message was. This is the reason why we made the chords mellow and got the beat in there to give it something to anchor it with. It came out it good, but I wasn’t really happy with it in the end. [laughs] But the people liked it and that was important. When I came into the picture, they had a musical order, but not the phrasing, melodies, or the ways to set up the tunes so people could feel it and understand what they were saying without straining their ears. Back then, it was Teddy Riley time, when we came out. He had his New Jack Swing thing going on. We were surprised by our success because that sound was everywhere.
When you were creating the songs you were influential on, what was the creative dynamic between Jazzie, you, and the rest of the collective?
Caron Wheeler: The writing dynamic between Simon and I was always good. We had and still have a good rapport with each other in the band. I mostly worked with Simon. He was the keyboard guy and he would write around what I wrote and recorded on my cassette tape recorder. We would sit down and build the song’s chords. I usually had the lyrics and melody made up before I got there. We didn’t want to waste any studio time, even though Jazzie, at the time, had his own studio, we still didn’t want to waste time. So the process basically was me writing the song at home, bringing it into Simon and we would figure out how the chords should be structured and the way the melody would flow over the chords, and Nellee would come in and structure the drum tracks around what we started. We would knock out the songs within two hours or sometimes three at the most, and go out for tea and comeback and carry on, if we needed to.
How much of a role did you play in shaping the sound for the songs on the album?
Caron Wheeler: On this album, I was only involved with “Keep On Movin’,” “Back to Life,” and contributing some background vocals on other songs. They had the album mostly finished before I was brought on. When he heard me sing at that studio session, it was toward the end of making this album. The fact we did an R&B tune on the album freaked people out. You just don’t know what people are going to like. You just do what you feel is right at the time. I was surprised by how we were embraced in the U.K. and the U.S. by Black audiences.
As you look back twenty-five years later, how do you feel about the impact this album has made on popular culture?
Jazzie B.: Twenty-five years later, I definitely consider our sound system to be trendsetters. 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. 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. 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 U.K.
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 fit 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.
Caron Wheeler: For me, the fact that we created music that made people stand up and move is a real blessing. Jazzie is now an OBE and hangs out with the Queen. It’s still great that we’re able to perform and be good at it. We have people in our audiences from across the world that range from sixteen to sixty-five, and they love what we do. I thank Jazzie for allow me to be a part of this wonderful experience and taking a risk on the songs I sung on. We won a couple Grammy’s for this album. I think we’ve done alright for a little British group that nobody heard of. I didn’t think our songs would be getting played on the radio everyday twenty-five years later.
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