Jazzie B

The first sound man to be honoured by Her Majesty the Queen, Jazzie B is a true soul legend. He and friend Daddae started a sound called Jah Rico when they were just 13, playing mainly reggae music; after three years Soul II Soul was created. They were launched into success by landing a gig at the now-legendary Africa Centre in London's Covent Garden, and it wasn't long before the record labels were beating down the proverbial door. Soul II Soul enjoyed early chart success with ”Keep On Moving“ and ”Back To Life,” and picked up a couple of Grammys in 1990. Jazzie was subsequently given the keys to seven cities in the US, and there is even a Soul II Soul day celebrated by die-hard fans on that side of the pond. Accepting his success with Soul II Soul, Jazzie is quite the entrepreneur. He has his own label (Soul II Soul Recordings); has produced a string of remixes for the likes of The Fine Young Cannibals and James Brown (one of his childhood heroes); he's a radio DJ, and he runs his own annual music festival in the Caribbean.

A man with more enthusiasm and banter than an east-end market trader, Jazzie B discusses his influences, dubplates, Soul II Soul, and more in his 2010 Red Bull Music Academy lecture.

Hosted by Jeff “Chairman” Mao Audio Only Version Transcript:

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

We’re very excited to have with us the founder, architect and face of one of the most important groups to emerge from these shores, Soul II Soul. We’re very excited to have him here, so please welcome, Jazzie B.


Now, your reputation precedes you. However, I’d like to give everybody a chance to check out something of your choice that you want to share with us before we get into all sorts of discussions about all sorts of crazy stuff and interesting things. Do you have something you want to share with the people?

Jazzie B

First of all, I want to thank the Red Bull Music Academy for having me here. I think what they’ve embarked on here is fantastic and the guys who put it together are pretty amazing. I was always anti the big corporations. Growing up in a time when we weren’t so familiar with the idea of brands, for Soul II Soul, everything we did was just about a way of life. I was blessed growing up in the ’70s, being able to hear so many different kinds of music, from the teddy boy era onwards and being around to see the youth culture actually change and evolve in this country.

Because my parents came from the colonies, Great Britain was always the mother country, so everything we were interested in was naturally geared towards Britain — streets paved with gold and all that. My parents are from Antigua in the Caribbean, often described as the jewel of the Caribbean. It’s one of the five islands, incredible place, geographically — 365 beaches just to start with. You can almost jog round the whole island. Mad dogs and Englishmen tend to do that with scarves on their heads. I’ve seen it, it’s true, people do try it.

But really, what happened to Soul II Soul could only have happened in the UK. Some of my family migrated to Canada, America, some of my family are Portuguese in heritage. We were really lucky to end up in England. I come from a large family and my whole gateway to the industry was through my brothers. There’s about 10 or 11 of us, born and raised by both my parents, so we all grew up in the same house. I’m the last of the boys and I have one sister younger than me. I inherited so much my upbringing was so rich in terms of culture.

Growing up as I did, every room had a soundsystem and some of my brothers had a huge reputation as soundmen. Everyone from Morpheus Downbeat to Count Barry, Tippatone, El Rico and sounds like that, which were all round about the ’70s. I remember the early ages, one of the things I was allowed to do was carry the valves for one of my brother’s soundsystems. That was my first idea of the music industry. I must have been about eight or nine at the time.

In a West Indian household like ours, religion was very important. For whatever reason, they chose christianity. Everyone had to go to church on Sunday. At school you had to knuckle down as best you could, but church was very important. Strangely enough, those pockets of the community helped to develop all sorts of things; whether it was the idea of family planning, or being a real rogue, we all had to go to church. And always on a Sunday your sins were cast away in church, as anyone in any form of religion would be able to appreciate. So Sunday School was interesting, because coming from a large family as we did, the church hall was used for everything: Stamp collections, fetes, Christenings, parties, any religious ceremony.

In our culture, music was always the next thing. Any kind of gathering was an excuse to have a good time. In having a good time, growing up with my brothers and their soundsystems, I had this job carrying the valves, large tubes that looked like light bulbs. You was the don if you had trays that could take KT88’s because those were very powerful valves in that period. I had the job of carrying that and for the first 20 minutes, they’d stand you on a crate of Babycham or something and they had a TD-160 turntable, which was the equivalent to the 1200 these days. I was the one who was able to put the needle on the groove.

That got me into it, those were great times for me. Going back to the church gave me the opportunity to practise our craft, going into the church halls, stringing up your soundsystem and trying to blow up the Tannoys or the speakers you stole from school. People used to nick all the Tannoy's from school and think they were the ones. They weren’t like Genelecs, but they sounded pretty decent to us. That was the gateway into the whole music industry for me.

Jumping a little bit ahead in time; making music was always important for soundsystems. And the soundsystems always cut dubplates. We’d look at the soundsystems in the old days like a mobile disco, but for us in the Caribbean, that was our television, our radio, where you heard what was going on in your community. You’d have stories back home from all the DJs. I was a big fan of people like Tappa Zukie, Big Youth, I-Roy, all these great MCs and you’d hear great stories on these records.

There was always a big divide between a reggae soundsystem playing records from Jamaica and what you’d hear from England. For us, as Jah Rico, we were a reggae soundsystem, but we played what was called the one drop — a more groovy, melodic reggae sound. The transition from reggae into soul as we knew it, was because we liked the soulful side of reggae, the melodies, the singers, the songs. People like Barrington Levy, who were more like sing-DJs than just chatters on the mic. That style appealed to us.

In the mid ’70s there was a shift in England to what we know as lovers rock. That was really important in the evolution of music in this country, because it was probably the first throwback. Back in the day, from Tom the Great Sebastian, who was probably the first major soundsystem from Jamaica, all the way to Duke Reid and Coxsone, a lot of the music they listened to or played at their dances was American R&B.

A lot of the guys didn’t have the money to travel to America to get the records, and that’s why people Duke Reid became so popular, because he was a feisty geezer. In fact, he was a policeman, so he was always connected with the badmen, he ran the law as it were. So the fact he could go to America and get these records made him popular. Then you had Prince Buster, who championed Coxsone, because Coxsone was the people’s sound. The whole concept was making your own style of music, not mimicking the Americans.

That was Soul II Soul too, we visualised things, where we didn’t want to mimic the Americans, so that’s the connection. The initial idea of making this style of music came from lovers rock music, because that was a hybrid of what the Americans were doing, it had the weight of reggae, but in Jamaica is was rejected as a joke ting. But that was our style of music and these were the things that helped to encouraged Soul II Soul to develop and create our own style, because we didn’t want to sound like anyone else.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Let’s go back up for a quick second with the soundsystem. Can you explain how many people were involved, what sort of hierarchy there was in the organizational aspect?

Jazzie B

The organizational aspect started, obviously, with the guy with the money who could buy the equipment. In the old days, you probably had the owner, who’d sit on the corner and make sure it was working properly and the crowd were buying the drinks. Because the real traditional concept started in the old days with the rum shops. My father owned a rum shop and the biggest glory, other than selling the rum, was having a jukebox, which would encourage people to come to the rum shop, buy drinks, listen to the music, and sink more drinks beacuse they were listening to music they enjoyed.

As we moved to Britain, it was the same as in Jamaica. The soundsystem would consist of the owner; someone with technical skills, who could string up the amplifiers, make sure everything was working correctly; the selector, who was as important as the sound owner, he was the guy who would select the records. You’d have the controller; now his job was different from the selector. In the old days, they’d play with their back towards you (stands up and turns around). Hence my logo. You’d have the selector, who’d select the records and the operator, or controller, would actually play them. He controlled the pre-amp. So his job was like an engineer. The selector’s job was like a producer. The manager’s job was like the record company owner. The MCs and singers, featuring whoever. So that was the hierarchy. You had to have your henchmen, who looked after the soundsystem.

It was a way of life for us, it was so important. We mimic the industry so much, that’s why you had to have your henchmen — they could maybe be the lawyers or the managers now. But you had to have the guys protecting the sound, the guy controlling the door, and the box boys, box people. I never really met any box girls. There was a lot of testosterone in the old soundsystems, there weren’t many females involved on that level. But a lot of them picked up the cute thing about directing their energies at the women, because if there are women at the dance, the men come and buy out the bar.

But the most important thing was it empowered us in our community, it let us keep control of the economics. The soundsystem fed us, it fed the people in the community, whether you’re a carpenter or a vendor. Because the vendors made money when the dance was full and they’d sell everything from sky juice to chewing gum to mangos to sugar cane. And this still goes on today.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

So your brothers were all in various soundsystems with different jobs?

Jazzie B


Jeff “Chairman” Mao

So this is a pretty big operation. This is more or less a function within the community, even though it’s there to generate revenue for the whole area. Did you make money off the dances? What would you do? Invest it in the sound? How would that work?

Jazzie B

Different soundsystems operated in different ways. Soul II Soul took on the idea of a collective and we reinvested our money in the soundsystem, because we didn’t really have an owner per se, although myself and Daddae started off the soundsystem, we had a lot of other people come in and as we evolved we became victims of our circumstances. As it evolved, so we had to follow. It said on the record, one makes a decision and the rest follow, but it was a collective move rather than a dictatorial move.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Now, you mentioned lovers rock. Do you want to elaborate any more on that, or do you want to explain the importance of other genres to Soul II Soul?

Jazzie B

The idea of lovers rock is important because, in Britain, that was our first thing to be proud of. Pre-that, you had a lot of soulboys who were A&R guys who were making bands. This is post- Cymande, Eddy Grant & The Equals, but a lot of that was still mimicking the Americans, but in their own way. I don’t know, if you listen to Mandrill, Cymande, Equals, they had a soul thing going in their group. Then you had groups like Imagination, who to us were kind of weird, because they were so commercial. You wouldn’t walk down the street or go to one of our community centers and hear their music.

This is why the idea of lovers rock is so important because you’ve got to keep the idea of reggae in the forefront because a lot of West Indian kids would’ve come from a background where they were sharing in that music. Not to say we didn’t listen to... Country and western was a staple diet because our parents listened to it, and because that was the music that told the stories. There’s a link there with reggae music, all the other stuff we listened to. I was as into The Carpenters as much as I was into T-Rex. At school I was into Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, because of the alter ego he had. The idea of that different style encouraged me to make the music I ended up making. But going back to the soundsystem, a lot of people who were being signed, they were all trying to be American.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

You’re talking here about the early ’80s. Do you want to play something?

Jazzie B

What I’ve got here, to move on a little bit. We’re talking about the ’80s when Soul II Soul became popular. My earliest idea of making records came from working as a tea boy, I worked for Tommy Steele for two years, I became Richard Dodd’s assistant. There were two black people involved in commercial multitrack studios from 1978-'82, and it was a very closed shop.

The other person was Prince Charles, who ended up being the engineer for Prince in Minnesota. He worked at Pye Studios, and I worked at Nova and I was the only other black guy in the studios on that level. The reason I highlight that is, you probably can’t imagine — actually some of you guys don’t look so young — but the sort of prejudice that was out there. The reason for me why that’s so significant to why I ended up becoming who I am is that when we were coming up it was a closed door. We couldn’t get through into the mainstream.

I got this job as a tea boy and I was blessed because I worked with some incredible artists and some of the best sound engineers in the business. I had the opportunity to go to the cutting room because a lot of reggae guys somehow had the money to cut acetates. The chiefs, the guys in the white coats — ’cause they all wore white coats in those days — they couldn’t understand what the black guys were saying, even though they all spoke English. So they’d send me over there to fucking translate. This is in England, not that long ago.

But we always try to take a positive from the negative. From there I learned about how the cutting rooms worked, and the idea of cutting your own dubplates. These were big guys, Marlon Bassett, coming all the way from Birmingham, and there was a massive sound from South London — God, he had a lot of money. He was huge, he would cut eight acetates in about four hours.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

How much would they cost?

Jazzie B

I’m telling you, they would rinse you out in those days, they were the only ones with the Neumann cutting machines in those days. We’re probably talking about £50-80 a session, which would’ve been the equivalent to a few hundred pounds nowadays. And we’re talking about a sound — it was £2 to get in the dance.

So anyway, I ended up doing a lot of translation and that was when I first saw someone bring in a quarter-inch tape and the engineer would set it up on the machines, play the thing, and it would go from there to a record. And I thought, “Fuck, that’s a dubplate.” And if anyone’s smelt acetates, from when it’s first cut, it’s got an interesting smell, a little bit like oxide. It’s a smell that stays with you. My engineers used to describe the smell as death, but to us it was life, that was the birth of what we were doing.

Moving along, as a soundman you cut your dubplate. As Soul II Soul, we were a young sound and we used to make mix cassettes. Everyone remembers cassettes? Does anyone remember eight-track cartridges? Look at that (laughs). We used to make our cuts on these things. But one day... Everyone’s familiar with Trevor Nelson? He used to have a sound called Trevor Madhatters in East London. We were from North London, but we ended up befriending each other. He worked for a company called M&D, distributing records.

That’s how I got into bootlegging, all the time Soul II Soul played out, we’d bootleg records. We’d make these mixtapes, which became so popular, I cut a dubplate. In cutting the dubplate, because we used to do bootlegging, we pressed the dubplate — and I met someone on Saturday at the ICA, the talk I was doing there, who owned some of the records, he went out and bought them. It still lives on today.

Now we have things like mash-ups. I’m gonna take you back to 1983, ’84, we made our own mixtapes, and this is an example of what we used to do. This is what ended up being called rare groove, we didn’t pay any royalties, nothing. We did it with three turntables, and if anyone remembers the Bozak Mixer, that was my pride and joy, it cost us a lot of money. Someone nicked it as well.

But this is what we used to make back in the ’80s. London, black and white, cobble mews, everyone wearing these funny jackets, Doctor Martens, all the white guys had a lot of grease in their hair, like the teddy boys. All the chicks used to dress like boys and we all used to wear tear-up clothes. It was interesting, it was London. We called this “London Beats” ‘cause it was all the songs that were big on our club scene in the early ’80s.

Soul II Soul – “London Beats”

(music: Soul II Soul – “London Beats”)

So you get the picture of what we were doing, pre-Africa Centre, coming out of the warehouse parties. Obviously, heavily influenced by American R&B. But as corny as it gets, that was all of that and a bag of chips in those days. We could literally go out and the guys would play it on the soundsystem and people would go mad. You could never buy it and one day we had this mad idea, “Let’s make more money!” So we pressed the record and people bought the record.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

It’s funny, because the bootleg of that press wound up going ’round beyond what you guys pressed, so it did live on quite a bit. I’m curious to know, outside of the soundsystem culture, in London how did you get exposed to other records, rare groove, jazz and funk and things like that? Because these things all became a part of what you played.

Jazzie B

A lot of us in England hold certain things close to us. Digging, looking for the perfect break, all the rarities, it’s something that we all did as DJs in London from the early days of pirate radio stations, the whole idea of The JB’s sound became synonymous with London. We would’ve looked in any nook and cranny in the world... I remember going to a warehouse in Dallas, Texas, in the early days, just asking a taxi driver aimlessly if he’d heard about it, all the way to places in Flatbush where they had secondhand shops, Southend, and right down to Brighton.

What’s interesting is someone’s always doing something somewhere. All round the world, people are just into music. I’m not even quite sure why we picked up on this style. Maybe it was a throwback to a style our brothers and elders were listening to, maybe it’s the era of the ’70s as well, where there was a change in the music too. Plus the stuff just sounded good on the systems.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

But before you got the chance to travel the world, and were here in the city... I remember reading about you going to Friday lunchtime dances and there were other DJs around, exposing you to stuff at a young age. Can you elaborate on that?

Jazzie B

In the early days at school, we used to go to Crackers, a club that was run by a gentleman called George Power. Probably the first iconic DJ growing up was Paul Anderson, who was the DJ for George Power. That would’ve been in the mid-’70s. Soul music would’ve been everyone from Robbie Vincent to Chris Hill — we were all big followers of Chris Hill — and there was this whole soul fraternity and they would be the guys responsible for a lot of English artists mimicking the Americans.

The music in the clubs was soul mixed with fusion, people like Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, Azymuth, mixed with the soul things that were more about dancing and expressing yourself. That was seen as a little bit lightweight, so when people like myself got involved we made it, sonically, a little bit beefier, more manly as it were. We were really exposed those early DJs like Greg Edwards, we were firm followers of him as well. And they would’ve influenced the sound with the soul stuff, then we picked it up and adapted our own style.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Was it controversial to move into soul as a soundsystem, as opposed to Jamaican music?

Jazzie B

Without a doubt. Some of those early big Jamaican DJs were playing the American sound, but naturally it was controversial to move from a reggae soundsystem to a soul soundsystem, just ethically wrong. But we were born in Britain, we had a different slant, slightly avant-garde, a bit leftfield. I remember playing at dances and the other sounds cursing us, like we’d done something really odd, that if we played any more soul music they’d kill us and the sound. That was just all banter, they didn’t mean it.

There's a funny story about that: When I came up with the Funki Dred, a lot of rastas hated it, because they didn’t understand what that was about. Living in a Christian household, you couldn’t have locks. But we were smart as youths, we used to wear hats and we’d shave the sides, so your mum couldn’t see it. Believe it or not, that’s how the Funki Dreds started. Then on more than one occasion I had a situation with rasta guys saying if I couldn’t make up my mind whether I was a dread or a dalek, they’d do it for me. I had a few rucks like that, but they say the cream always rises (laughs). No, not really.

But the idea of the Funki Dred was to take rasta and the idea of the culture uptown. We grew up in Britain. I’ve been to a few rasta camps, with the Twelve Tribes and stuff, and I couldn’t hack it, whether it’s a mosquito or eating food with no salt, it was fucking hard. So the idea of being a Funki Dred was a mishmash of living in the West, trying to take all the cultural things we were used to, with the roots of the Marcus Garveys, Paul Bogle, all of our traditions, and making our own mash-up and we came out with our motto of “A happy face, a thumping bass for a loving race.” Some of the rastas love it now, but back in the day, trust me, nah (laughs).

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

So at what point did Soul II Soul really start to make noise as a soundsystem?

Jazzie B

We were selling clothes, because the fashion side of it was so important. Punk was huge in the ‘70s, probably the first movement of the youth since the teddy boys came around. There were a few black guys involved in punk and I was exposed to an incredible guy called John Moore and Ray Petri. I was brought in to bring in the props, the soundsystems, because a lot of the gay guys in the punk scene were into strapping black guys with locks. I didn’t realize this until later, don’t get me wrong.

They used to have us set up our soundsystems and I remember one gig in Curtain Road or Redcliffe Street and we brought the soundsystem into a warehouse where they were having a party, or so we were led to believe. So I invited all my guys in, my little entourage, the guys who followed Soul II Soul. So I went to turn it on. And they said, “No, no, no, we don’t want you to play anything, we just want to look at the equipment.” Weird.

They paid me to bring the shit in so I thought nothing of it; brought all my mates down and we were just milling around and we had all these guys looking at us in a funny way. I took some shit that night, but I also took some cash, so I divvied it up and everyone was happy.

We got invited to do it again with John, a shoe designer. I was taking leaves out of the fashion world because Soul II Soul was different. One day I got up the courage to play a record at one of these functions. It added to the mood because some of the dreads started to dance.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Who would’ve thought, music on a soundsystem?

Jazzie B

(laughs) I think by that time they’d got it, because this was about the third party I’d done. Or function. The guys seemed to enjoy that and we got paid a little extra. I notched up the sound a little more and the guys got a bit animated. It was cool, we blossomed from there, hooked up with a lot of guys in the art world. We just became one. The idea of developing the clothes with the music went hand in hand. I wasn’t trying to be a designer, I was just trying to make functional wear.

And the idea of the Funki Dred on our shirts was just because there was so many people at our dances, people could identify with the people running it. People wanted to buy the shirts, I went to the manufacturers to ask them how to make them and we drew up our own sketches and started making our own t-shirts. It was more lucrative than the music business because the t-shirts cost us nothing.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Some things never change.

Jazzie B

Exactly. Thank god for Maggie Thatcher (laughs). We were able to make a little thriving scene and we were able to take it a step further and develop the whole idea of our philosophy. Other people wanted to look like us, hair shaved on the inside and locks on top.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

At what point did you set up your stall in Camden, selling gear and tapes?

Jazzie B

This was the same time as us doing these parties, because after I left the industry, knowing I wanted to run the sound full-time, we had to have revenue coming in. We were at the market stalls at Dalston, at the Angel in Islington, and the biggest thing was being in Camden because it was way more avant-garde, much cooler people. It was the best place for us to be, we were leftfield, all different people were coming ’round.

Plus, there was a lot of music there. We started with a market stall, then we had another across the road in the stables, then we were offered a shop. We must have run everyone out of there because we were the only ones in and the guys gave us the lease. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Let’s talk about how you got into the recording, though I guess it was an extension of the parties being so huge.

Jazzie B


Jeff “Chairman” Mao

I read somewhere they were so packed you had to do something a little more creative. Can you talk about that?

Jazzie B

The dances we had were really popular and one of the spots was the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. It wasn’t a very big venue, there were so many people, particularly on bank holiday weekend, and on more than one occasion it was so rammed and the vibes were so nice, that I asked the people in there who’d already paid their money if they’d mind leaving early so the other people could come in. And they fucking did it! Half of the club left and the other people came in. I feel bad about it because we charged them, but it was that weird. Can you imagine now saying to people, “You’ve already paid your money, you’ve only been here two hours, but can you leave and let someone else come in?” You’d want a refund, right? They didn’t want a refund.

That became the norm on a bank holiday at the AC. Soul II Soul were inclusive and that's why ideas like this could work, we we're the people's soundsytem — we were looking at the crowd and meeting their needs. If there were a lot of guys dancing that particular week, we would play what we’d call flingfoot, more music for people to dance to. If it was really packed, really tight, we’d play champion sound, the big tunes. If it was a mix of the two, that’s when we’d break tracks, play tunes we had too many pressings of, so maybe play that four times in the night, and then people would come and buy it.

Those stories are really real of people coming to the dance, losing stuff, and I’d announce it on the mic and ten minutes later your laptop was back. We used to have these Walkmans, which were popular like MP3s are now, and people would put it down and lose it. Then it would be, “Someone’s stolen our tape machine.” Announce it on the mic, ten minutes later it would be there. That’s the whole idea of the inclusiveness, the vibes, that’s how new it was to us. It was very much a community, looking out for each other. It was a bit hippie, but we were also being very enterprising too.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

So was that the apex of that sense of community, at the Africa Centre? Explain a bit about what the Africa Centre is.

Jazzie B

We often described the Africa Centre as the center of the world, because it was a backlash to all the warehouse parties as well. The type of music that we were playing, the type of people that were coming, it was a scene, and from a scene is where the music thrives. Now you have it with dubstep, it’s a scene; you used to have it with jungle, a scene.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

But the Africa Centre was a cultural centre, it wasn’t really even a club.

Jazzie B

It was actually a refugee place. Strangely enough, it was supported by the church. If you look it up, you’ll see it was a place done for refugees to come and mingle, there was a calabash centre selling food, and a lot of artwork. It was in the middle of town, too, a really interesting place, so it was ideal for us. We got away with murder in there.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

How did they come to allow you guys to do your thing? It seems quite an unusual step for a place like that. Did they have other music on?

Jazzie B

They used to hire the place out, and like most places like that, they’d run out of money from the Arts Council or whatever, so they needed to generate other income. We were enterprising, too, we’d knock on a lot of doors. We probably had somebody who had a key to a lock-up, put two and two together. I think our rent was like £10 and we had the bar. It was like a shebeen.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

At one point did you get into the recordings?

Jazzie B

We were cutting the dubplates because we were a soundsystem, so we cut our own specials. The first one we cut was the backing track to “Fairplay.” We used to mix Martin Luther King’s speech in there, so the tune was called “I Have A Dream.” I don't know why it was really recorded, but looking for my shit to bring here today I couldn’t find it. We used to record some of our sessions at the Africa Centre, but ou’ll have to take my word until someone else comes up with the goods. Basically, it was similar to this mix I just played you and we’d mix the speech over it.

At the time of the Africa Centre we had a lot of singers and MCs. Rose Windross was a dancer, she’d come down and flingfoot, a crazy dancer, and somehow she got the mic and started to voice something — it's as simple as that. We took her into the studio, recorded her vocals, relit the show track. Everyone was involved.

Andrew Levy from Brand New Heavies, Marco from Young Disciples, Crispin Spry played on it. We did it at a studio in Harrow called Addis Abeba, Tony Addis and all those guys — “No Smoke,” he had that record out. It was a real sense of community, myself and Nellee Hooper, he had a sound in Bristol, The Wild Bunch, we had our sound, we were all together, it was a whole collective.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Do you want to show the video?

Jazzie B

Yeah, I brought the video of “Fairplay” just to give you a snapshot of what London was like at that time. This is Rose Windross and there’s even a snap of how we used to dress in the Africa Centre as well (pause). We did cue this up before. Here you go.

(video plays without sound)

Soul II Soul – “Fairplay”

(music: Soul II Soul – “Fairplay”)

It’s funny looking at a snapshot of that, everyone looks so camp. The best snapshot you’re gonna get, other than someone filming something in a dance, which we couldn’t afford in those days.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

So you cut this as a 12", but at what point did you start talking to labels?

Jazzie B

Fortunately, the sound was so popular in those days, you had A&R guys who really were interested in the artists’ repertoire, they developed artists, they went out and did the whole thing, standing in a cold room, being abused. It was real artistic days. Both Island — which was 4th & Broadway, Julian Palmer came down — and Virgin — which was Ten Records, Mick Clarke — came down and was following us around in the clubs to see what we were doing. We weren’t a band, which was unusual, we were a collective and we were all into sound and being a DJ. This is what the difference between a Soul II Soul and a group like Imagination. But they came down and made us various offers.

I ended up with Virgin because they had a collection of albums called the Front Line series, which were 99p, and I thought we’re on the same wavelength. The way they did business at the time was quite enterprising. Island had Steel Pulse and Aswad, who I was into, and Virgin had Loose Ends and another group called I Level.

There was something drawing us more towards Virgin, there was something weird about why we went with them. But I can just narrow it down to them having Front Line albums, which cost 99p and all my friends had these albums. Later on, believe it or not, I ended up signing a deal with Island, so we had the best of both worlds, which was cool.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

So you did this single, you signed with Virgin. How long did it take you to record the album?

Jazzie B

We had the singles ready, we had recorded them. That’s another thing they liked, we handed them everything on a silver plate. The next thing was the idea of marketing and getting us out there. We had a big following, so the record company as a subsidiary label didn’t have a problem. We had a few shows on big radio stations, so we were always filling that gap. The next stage was marketing, and because we had the clothes, the philosophy, the hairstyle, we had what we thought was a very marketable set-up. Strangely enough, when we got to the label we were offered a single deal — two singles and an album. When we signed the first single deal, they gave us an album straight away.

But what was weird was that no one knew how to market Soul II Soul. It was shocking to us because we felt we’d done a great job on the street, but — and this is a point for anybody making music because it’s even more difficult now — when Soul II Soul came along, you couldn’t get a black person on the front of a magazine. You couldn’t even get us TV, maybe Channel 4 was just born and we might get on there. We just about got radio, we got no magazines, no real press interest.

I can’t answer the question why, but I do know on our second record, which was “Keep On Moving”, we had the chance to do a TV appearance. When we turned up at the studio, I know in my heart, the floor manager got frightened because we were all black. Weird as it sounds in 2010, it’s a serious ting. Maybe they didn’t have enough blue gels or something was wrong with the lens on the camera, but it was a drama. We ended up leaving that TV slot, I don’t know how it came about but we didn’t get filmed.

But the next record, which was “Back To Life”, was huge. The record had broken before it was knew it was broken, because it had the fever on the street. You know you’d, like, get a bullet when you went on the chart in those days, you’d sell a lot of records but wouldn’t chart. We went on Top Of The Pops and they said we had to mime. Caron didn’t want to and we had an argument and they said, “You either mime or don’t do the show.” We didn’t do the show. Two weeks later, the song was number one, it was the fucking best ever.

I spoke a couple of weeks ago about how as an artist it’s the mistakes that count. Don’t be afraid to do what you believe in. The beauty of this industry is there are no rules, you make them up as you go along. Anybody, as a budding artist, however weird you think you are, there’s someone weirder. However wrong you think you are, it’s just about having the balls. We believed in ourselves so much, we walked away from Top Of The Pops. Can you imagine what the record company was thinking? It was a drama, we bowled out there, we didn’t care about anything. We didn’t want to be a band, Soul II Soul was a collective thing, it was our way of life, our idea, what we wanted to portray. It was very early, they didn’t understand.

I remember when we had our press day, there were no photographers. The A&R lady, Jane — she ended up leaving the industry to go and make jam — couldn’t get them to take photos of Soul II Soul. We later found out from one of the interns, who’s still in the business, they thought we were too intimidating and if they put our pictures on the cover of Smash Hits, they wouldn’t sell. Melody Maker thought we sucked.

The only thing we had was this fantastic guy who runs DMC called Tony Prince. I guess, 'cause he was coming from a club scenario, he championed what we were doing. We were very club-oriented, but when it came to the mainstream, no love whatsoever.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

That’s shocking to think about, in addition to just the basic level, because your music is positive and kind of life-affirming. You wouldn’t think it would be very threatening at all.

Jazzie B

We weren’t even punk rockers, but they so weren’t having us at all. My mum used to say, ”What doesn’t kill will fatten.” It made us more hardened and it was better for us when we ended up in America, because there you have a clear cut of black and white. In America, we were black, not R&B or urban or whatever. You were black. When we went to the black side of our record label they dismissed us as punks. It’s a true story.

Sharon Haywood, she’s a good friend of mine now. When we first went there, the only reason we came up on their list... you can’t count New York as America, so you take that out of the equation. We were mashing up New York, selling records, and there was a guy called Bobby Konders, who was an intern at WBLS on the Frankie Crocker Show. In those days there was a lot of payola, brown envelopes, a few pounds of cocaine, it was all good. Heady days. It turned out Bobby had copied a version of a record that I’d sent in knowing I’d be able get on the Frankie Crocker Show because of my connections with Timmy Regisford and Bill Underwood and those guys. Bobby was working as an intern on the Frankie Crocker show and it was the biggest show in America, on WBLS, the drive-time show. Massive, the guy was huge.

In America there are all different stations, almost like per stream. But basically, you had the black music stations, the college radio stations, and somewhere in between, the crossover. Then we got picked up by Casey Kasem, who owned every station in America. If you get picked up on the Casey Kasem Show, it was a syndicated show throughout the Midwest, real America. When you sell records, you sell them in the Midwest.

We were so massive on the scene and we appealed to the b-boys as well as guys into soul music. A lot of Americans thought it was American music, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on it, there was no sound like that then that you could line us up with. We were like polyfilla, we filled the cracks. We were flexible too, so it was an incredible thing. When we went there, you had these little curtains. You had the white side there, something else in the middle and the black side over there, where the chair was, with a little curtain around it. When we came into the thing we were waiting in the foyer and all the black people were walking past us, and all the white people were trying to talk to us.

The black Americans took us for punks. We had these weird clothes, weird hair, weird accents. What the fuck? Are they joking? Back in those days, I don’t even think most Americans even knew black people existed in Britain. Which is weird, going back to when you were asking about how the rest of the world is into different types of music. We took a snapshot from everywhere, we had a multicultural thing going on anyway. When we went to America my album was called Club Classics Vol 1, but the only record they knew on the crossover circuit was “Keep On Moving.”

The record was such a phenomenon because Bobby Konders had taken an 8-track cartridge of my record and given it to DJ Red Alert, who was big on a station called Kiss. He was like the gospel and bible of electro at that time. Red played the tune 20 minutes after Frankie Crocker and America would say, ”Forget about it.” It was done. From one day we has conquered America on a Friday night on the Frankie Crocker show at about 8:00, then the cartridge went up to Kiss, Red played it, boom. It was done.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Bobby could’ve got in trouble for that.

Jazzie B

I think Bobby did get in trouble for it. I mention it all the time, because even when I met him as a youth, he was like a rude boy, he was different. So we’d picked up the drive time, the ladies in the bath, the people supporting the music as well as all the b-boys listening to Red Alert.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Can you just throw it on so people can hear, just to illustrate it?

Jazzie B

So this is the big record at the time, the thing that broke it for Soul II Soul. It was actually ’88 I was rocking this.

Soul II Soul – “Keep On Movin’”

(music: Soul II Soul – “Keep On Movin’”)

I’ll tell you what’s really interesting, having played “London Beats” early on, you can get the connection, right? With the groove, the crustiness, how far we were forcing the oxide to reproduce without distorting. Then all that other shit you put on top of it. It sounded alright.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

I was in New York when these records broke and you can’t overstate the impact. You had a sort of hip-hop drum break, which some people might recognize from Graham Central Station or Biz Markie, “Pickin’ Boogers”. So you had this grimy foundation and this very celestial vocal with this eerie dub quality to how it drops. And then this beautiful melodic thing happening and these strings, which I think made this production unique. So you had this very grimy bottom married with something more sophisticated, because at the time, US R&B at the time was really just Teddy Riley’s gang, new jack swing.

Compare that to this around ‘88/89, new jack swing is very aggressive, (imitates new jack swing beat), very nervous sounding. But that was the dominant sound. I think that’s why this crossed over and had such an impact, that's why you could play it on daytime radio, but you could also play it on a mix show because they had this hip-hop foundation. I’d say this record, but also a better example is “Back To Life,” which was a bigger record for you anyway...

I was playing something from Marley Marl’s In Control radio show, which was a night-time hip-hop mix on WBLS. That’s when Pete Rock got his break on that show, and he would murder “Back To Life”, play it for 11 minutes straight cutting back and forth, because it was like a hip-hop record. But it was this other thing as well, which we’d never heard before.

I’m curious to know, “Back To Life,” on the album was almost an interlude. Then it became this huge thing. So who was in the studio working with you, where did these strings come from? All this sort of stuff, before we leave this chapter of your first huge success.

Jazzie B

The first things is that all the guys involved, Nellee Hooper, Howie Bernstein, Dolby, Mark, Toby, all the engineers, Arabella Rodriguez, Hans Zimmer, using all of his shit...

With myself and Nellee coming from a DJ background — he was into punk, I was into the soul side, hip-hop and electro — and they were like this punk electro, it’s hip-hop now, but the stuff they were playing was dirty, slow beats. But we were like everything from Barry White, Gene Page... I suppose, there was the grime and the sophistication and the marriage between the two. Everybody had ideas of what to produce from the studio, we all had ideas.

Soul II Soul’s soundsystem was so specific, sonically. Everybody else used scoop bins and we reversed it, we had hexagonal bins where we had the speakers out front and used the ports as the main thrust of it all. Now they use folded bins and are very sophisticated. We used our bins to sound like a reggae downbeat soundsystem and then we used the strings to embellish.

Howie and those guys liked guitars, but I fucking hated guitars, because I had been engineering with rock groups, it did my head in. So we changed from using the guitars to using the strings. We spent a lot of time in Hans Zimmer’s place in Lilly Yard. He’d have these walls of different effects, keyboards and Moog's and modules. So we were making mistakes because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were whacking the Moog envelopes, playing about with sounds, and the speakers were going mad one minute, then pushing out a different sound. So it was a mishmash of all this different energy.

The most important thing about this sound, it was a groove-led thing. We always wanted to make the song breathe, give it space. When you listened to the American sound, it was very aggressive, all these synthetic sounds. But we were into Tannoys, all these warm, downbeat sounds.

That’s why I said it could only happen in Britain, because of the way we were taking electronics and the way we were going with the sound to another level. Not so sophisticated, as it were, but when the next record was made after “Keep On Moving”’s success, we’d already made “However Do You Want Me,” which was our interlude. In the old days, as a DJ, you brought a record, you played it all the way through from the top. There was a point on that record that made you want to listen to it again. That was the idea of the acapella of “However Do You Want Me.”

The Americans were so fucking up their arse, they didn’t get it, they weren’t interested in getting it. They sold 250,000 records through this big chain, they had 200-and-something returns because they couldn’t hear “Back To Life” on the record, because people were cutting up the acapella going into “Jazzie’s Groove.” There was an eight-bar section going into “Jazzie's Groove”. “However Do You Want Me” and “Jazzie’s Groove” summed up the life of Soul II Soul, because when you listen to the record from “Feel Free” all the way through “Happiness” and “African Dance,” it’s telling a story.

When you come to “However Do You Want Me,” that’s the bit that’ll make you listen, like you would with country and western, with a story, going into “Jazzie’s Groove.” The Americans even released “Jazzie’s Groove” — we didn’t release it in Britain — because of the whole thing of the b-boys loving that track. But radio didn’t get it, so they edited out “However Do You Want Me” and put in “Back To Life” and we had to approve the edit of the record. When the record went back, it ended up selling twice the amount because it had “Back To Life” on it, when our idea was to keep selling the record as a whole; and the single was something that would’ve made a lot of sense because of the club world, when you put the whole package together. But they just didn’t get it that way.

But to be honest, by that time I was knackered. I was a little bit up my arse by that time because of the success in America. And America, for some weird reason, embraced us. And when we went back home they’d forgotten about us, and it was really weird, because when that record went gold, I don’t think England believed it, because gold was gold in America. If you sold a million records, you sold a million records. If you sold a hundred thousand you sold... Here it was half, we got these plaques but they weren’t really gold or platinum.

Soul II Soul went three times platinum in the first year when we went back on tour in America and they called that album Soul II Soul - Keep On Moving. They so didn’t get it. The pantone colour on the record wasn’t even gold anymore, it was like brass or brown or something. But the record went so mad, they made a CD copy of it in the first place it sold, in this shop called Sam Goody, in this packet that big, thick long packet so it could go into the shelves. I just kept going over to America and I felt like I had a green card because I was walking in and out of the city. It was just incredible.

We toured America and we ended up being nominated. I think me, Nellee, Howie and Dolby were doing remixes at the time when we won the Grammys, because we didn’t even know what they were. We were doing “Ghetto Heaven” [by] Family Stand when we heard about it. We didn’t really know what was going on, we were so busy doing our additional productions. But the way it was embraced in America, really had a lasting effect, as you can see because I’m here talking to you about it 20 years later. It was kind of cool.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

So to clarify, the album version and single version of “Back To Life” were entirely different things in your mind? Because in the States it was marketed as a remix of “Back To Life” and that’s the song everyone ended up hearing.

Jazzie B

There you go, mistakes. Shit happens.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

You had all this success and the accolades. What ended up happening at that point with you and the collective?

Jazzie B

Soul II Soul was always about a collective. We always looked at ourselves as an aeroplane, going from one place to another with all the passengers — the producers, artists, singers, even the writers. When Soul II Soul came along, none of us were known for “famous.” But in our own right, on the streets, we were the dons. Then we had this great opportunity and became a victim of circumstance. It was a great trip for everyone from people like myself to Howie Bernstein, Nellee Hooper, a lot of the engineers — many of whom, like Eugene and Arabella have come out of the music industry for whatever reason — to the photographers. You might think, “What’s that got to do with it?” but it was a major part of the marketing and having that third eye, capturing various ideas. Our videos were always deemed to be groundbreaking, because we were so avant-garde with our styles.

Some of our stylists, like Pat McGrath, went onto incredible things. Monty and those guys, Big TV, went on to shoot movies. Taking it down a peg or two, in the club world, Judge Jules was a DJ who used to play on the sound, they were guys from St Martin’s Fashion School and they were playing some wrong music at the time. Trevor Nelson, so many guys who are now household names. The concept of what we were doing was a great platform for all of us. Soul II Soul as an organization have a lot to answer for, but it was a great window for all the great things that happened in the arts at that level. A lot of the A&Rs did well out of it too.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

What kind of pressure did you feel to follow up that first album? There were somepersonnel shifts as well. Can you speak about that a bit.

Jazzie B

Yeah, there were personnel shifts. Again, you’re a victim of your circumstance. We didn’t go out there with an agenda, no one was chained to one another. It was a great opportunity, trust me, even some of the bad boys around us got to be major bouncers at the time.

Caron Wheeler was a singer in her own right, from the lovers rock era. She was a reggae artist, Black Harmony, 15, 16, 17, the whole lovers rock scene. When she hooked up with me, the first song she sang was “Feel Free,” which was Soul II Soul's first single and she sang 90% of the song. But she was so anti the business at that time — let the record show she was a librarian when she did that session for Soul II Soul. When she started with us, we picked up her from a fucking library because she was so sick of the business and how she was treated.

Soul II Soul’s biggest tune, “Keep On Moving,” rather than “Back To Life,” Caron hated the vocals, hated it, and we argued about that, we had near fisticuffs over it. Some eleven years later, my idols Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis told me that out of all the vocals that Caron’s ever done, that’s her best. Mistakes. In the business, there are no rules so we make it up as we go along. But it was confirmed later, from Jam and Lewis, whatever you done to get that, that was all of that.

There were loads of other things that happened. Caron went off, quite rightly so, to pursue her own solo career. Everyone does their thing a little bit different. Nellee was always into fashion and other things and hated the media and all the attention that would bring. Sometimes when you get successful with one thing you’re tarred with that brush. Everyone wanted another “Keep On Moving” or “Back To Life,” which became a thorn in our side. That’s from Nellee, who ended up working with Madonna and people like that, very commercial. If Nell’s had the chance to rewrite it, maybe he’d do it different because there’s no coming back when you do that. Even Simon Law, who we named “The Funky Ginger,” who was a drummer, he went on to do interesting things, but wore this chain because he’d got the accolade.

It’s weird and I know it sounds strange, but sometimes the guys didn’t even want this shit out there because they’d look back and see that you could be over in a matter of days after you’d come out with something like we did. But we ended up making a production company, remixing stuff, recreating stuff. We worked with everyone from Sinead O’Connor, Ziggy Marley, Fine Young Cannibals, James Brown, Teena Marie — I was her biggest fan — to all other people who weren’t known at the time. The first international gig we did was for Russell Simmons, Alyson Williams, her first gold record was a remix we’d done. That was the trend we’d done, because “Keep On Moving” had broken so many barriers.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Do you think in some respects it was a hard thing to match that success in the States? Primarily because, in the States, we’re all about the person who sings the song. It’s kind of an abstract concept for us to say you’re a soundsystem. Even though you say it on the first record, I don’t think that would ever sink into regular people who are buying the record and just know the songs. It’s a very abstract concept. We just know: This is the song, this is the singer, these are the people in the group. Do you think that was an obstacle, to translate it to certain audiences?

Jazzie B

It’s funny, there are so many things I can think of in retrospect. But to be honest with you, when we first came out, we just wanted to be the biggest soundsystem in the world. It had fuck all to do with any shows, performances, nothing like that. As far as we were concerned, we were famous in Camden, and that was it. When we got to play the Mars club in New York, they booked us as DJs. When we went to Japan on the cultural exchange, it was Soul II Soul and the London Posse, Nellee was out making films, he was Spielberg (laughs).

We were all chancers, just trying a ting. We just wanted to be the biggest soundsystem in the world. It wasn’t about the stage show, but we ended up being victim of our circumstances and some of the mistakes that were made ended up being profitable mistakes.

We were so sure America knew what it was doing, but that was the most conservative turf we walked into. Even Japan was more freestyling, more open. In America you had to walk down that line, do what was said. It was nothing like we anticipated. It had its pluses, but for us as a collective, it was a pure negative.

Even when we sent for everybody to come on tour... When I first went on tour in 1990, I took one hundred people on the road. Serious. One hundred people. Every piece of revenue. You talk about Soul II Soul putting back, every piece of revenue that came from the tour barring the merchandise, was put right back in.

Can you imagine in 1990, one hundred people on the road buckwild? Every promoter thought I was nuts. William Morris argued with me every day, when we were out in the Midwest, every day he tried to cut down the bus, every day he was begging me, ”Take this person off, take this hairdresser off.”

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Just leave this person in the city here.

Jazzie B

Literally. I had five lead singers, the best band in the world, Patrice Rushen was my MD, then she ended up giving the gig to her husband Michael, who brought everybody on — Jerry Knight, Michael McDonald, Earth Wind & Fire’s horn section. I had two horn tunes on the whole album, but we made up lines for them. We had Alvino Bennett, the drummer, Terral Santiel, who was Rose Royce’s percussionist, Jerry Knight on bass. Crazy people.

Now with Ableton you can fire the trigger. I had two programmers, one looking at the MD, one looking behind the curtain to make sure it comes in on time. I had two engineers. We had the biggest Electro-Voice system ever. Every single musician who’s still alive today, who calls me at Christmas or my birthday, who says, “Man that was a fuck of a tour, man. You’re going on the road again?”

One of the artists, middle of last year, Lamya Al-Mugheira, a young singer, died. And we were all tight, so we all spoke and Alvino even asked me, “When are we going back on the road?” Because it was the wildest tour he’d ever been on. And this guy played with everybody. Wah Wah Watson came on and done the show. Why? I just liked the name (laughter). I didn’t even know what he did, but when we met we were like long-lost brothers. It was incredible.

That’s where we were, you have to appreciate the idea of the collective. I remember when Nellee, when we were in Japan, he brought the guys from Yello. Everybody wanted to come on stage. You can turn the computer on, put the CD in, we had fucking thousands of people out there. The energy was so good, because we had this crazy concept of the collective. And the little bits they added were so important to me at the time. Call me naïve.

My manager was the late, great Don Taylor, who was Bob Marley’s manager. He must have made all the money, to be honest. I can remember him trying to explain it to the guys at the radio or TV and them looking at him like the boy’s mad. When I got an honor from the NAACP, at the ceremony they said it, like, I was a prophet, bringing all these people together. It was weird, because I didn’t know about the NAACP, hadn’t a clue, but it wasn’t about the music, it was about the philosophy, the culture.

And Nelson George explained it as being like a throwback as a movement, and he came up with this idea of Soul II Soul’s ideology being based upon my motto, which was the “Happy face, thumping bass for a loving race.” And the fact that the movement was part of the transient thing, the Caribbean heritage, being in Britain, and now we’re sending that out to America. If I was in Flatbush, somewhere with a large Caribbean population, they got it, but as soon as you went out to Manhattan or the Midwest, they didn’t understand it. But we were still honored by these people.

The cool connection there, as you said America didn’t understand the idea of a soundsystem, but now when you look at how America does things, I feel proud. We did things like featuring artists, which made a difference in terms of the acts being signed. The whole cross-collateralization of friends and producers that would add to the theory of what’s going on. Look at those labels now, especially in black America, the whole thing about there being no rules and so many ideas come from mistakes, things like that. It’s all linked with what’s going on in the business.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Your lifestyle and attitude is so positive. In most lectures people have been honest about when times have been pretty bad. Obviously, you’re doing your compilations, you have all these accolades, but I was wondering whether there was ever a time when you felt pretty depressed about dealing with ups and downs in the industry.

Jazzie B

The most depressing time in the industry was when there was a change. This was nothing to do with the music, this was getting involved in the business. I rode a long wave. I ran Motown in this country, I had my own business, I did something that was really weird in this industry — I bought back my rights from EMI, saved all my Giros and bought back my shit.

I realized I wasn’t going to change the industry. I don’t know if I set out to change it, but the most depressing time was when I had done the right thing, which was make a set-up for us... I wanted us to be recognized, I wanted British music to be recognized. I didn’t set out to change things, but because we wanted to be the biggest soundsystem, and because we’d taken bits of everything, we were a hybrid of what the industry was. That was the most depressing time.

We had banked — Caron got signed for like the seventh time, Nells had this crazy deal, even Howie was doing some incredible things. So I approached Virgin with the idea that I wanted to build... I wanted to do kind of what you guys are doing here, to build a community. We’d had the number one single, the number one album, we’d done all these things, fuck me, I even got Grammys, we all got Grammys. People in America work their lives for that. We got them and it just held the door open. Up until recently, I used to use my grammy just to arch the door, I wasn’t taking the piss, I just didn’t put the value on it.

Our value was us evolving. I bought a VR Neve desk, a Trident desk, a Soundcraft desk, another studio. The Prince’s Trust came in one day and said, (impressed) “Whoo!” I can’t mention the name, but some one from EMI came and said, “What are you trying to do here?” We had fucking kids everywhere. Remember when Playstation came out? You could record stuff, like FruityLoops. We had that. Gerald Busby had given me the running of Motown, and we’d taken a percentage of the money to buy Studio 2, and in there were all guys developing. You’d know one, Wookie.

We set up a deal to go with an independent, we had an offer with Red Records, but we went with another one. We built the studios around the youth. We had Taxman, so many different singers and artists, I had a girl called Lady Levi. If any of you know London, we were opposite a company called Studio Spares. Barry used to help us with equipment. This lady came in to talk about our future and us re- signing the deal. As far as I’m concerned, we were the biggest threat.

That was my most disappointing time in the business, and if it weren’t for Play It Again Sam coming to the rescue, letting us build a production suite and give the guys we were signing money to do what they needed to do without giving up publishing... That was the worst time, that’s when I found out it’s a business, and it’s not got much to do with music. It’s true, I don’t come to dampen it, it’s just from the heart. We wanted to build a place where people could come in, nurture their stuff. We didn’t even have an infrastructure, but all these kids coming in, doing their stuff, to the point where they were taking kids out of prison to record.

There’s that guy on EastEnders — I’ve got my warehouse and all my little Ampex two- inch tapes and I’ve got everyone from Sid Owen, who’s in EastEnders, to Jimi Polo, Kym Mazelle, Penny Ford, who sang for Snap!. And the beauty is some of the artists burst; one of the greatest ones who came from here, who was English and made his own sound and had his own platform, was Wookie.

And then you talk about the drum & bass scene and Danny Bukem will tell you about the conversations we had. You know Goldie was one of the guys doing my artwork when he came from Miami? The link in London in the music business was inseparable, it was all about having a platform. For me, it was about putting something back, and I say that humbly because my journey, I was a victim of the circumstances. In America, a lot of the heavy musicians and business people... Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were at the height of their game at that point and I had all the guys. I had a great relationship with Fela Kuti, who allowed me to work on his masters with a man called Ricky Stern, who was his manager, and we took him to the Roundhouse. He gave me beats, he fucking gave me beats.

When the guys were coming to the studio, you wouldn’t need to look up anything, it was all in the backroom. Jason will tell you, they had everything. This was in the early times of making music so we opened up to everybody. Bob Marley used to say, ”It’s only man makes money,” so when I got involved in the business end and got beaten up, I took some serious blows from the big boys, it was all about me being naive. So I bless the day when it came along and it wasn’t about me being the superstar, because I had all my opportunities to do that. It was about my sound, and wanting my sound to live on, and the only way to do that is if people can come and learn and develop and cross-collatorize their ideas.

That's why it’s weird being at the Red Bull because thesentimental part of me is why I love what’s going on here. The business doesn’t have any rules. You can collectively take up on a good idea and that grows, because a tree that doesn’t have any roots can’t grow. The early things you sow, things will come good.

That’s what Soul II Soul was about. The most depressing point in the business was when it was about the business, and the business was really rigid. And that’s what’s forced me to put something back and I ended up buying the catalog because I didn’t want them to fuck with it. You know we say about Babylon, there are some serious wolves in sheep’s clothing out there, so big up to the Red Bull.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

I want to make sure people can ask questions. I know we spent a lot of time on the soundsystem thing early on, but that’s because we’re doing this thing on Wednesday. Does anyone have anything they want to ask Jazzie?

Audience Member

My friend and I were having this discussion yesterday, asking ourselves if bad experiences make our art better. What do you think?

Jazzie B

In Europe, I think we strive to be creative and innovative, it’s not so much about the drive for economics in the beginning and I think that’s the beauty of the art.

My mama used to say, “What don’t kill fatten.” You have to dig deep and everything we do today and tomorrow has been influenced by yesterday and somebody before. Perseverance always works, but you’ve got to believe in what you're doung and once you’ve got that belief as an artist, it’s about your art. The money would’ve come anyway, but it’s about the art. It doesn’t matter if it’s drum & bass, whatever...

I met Mala for the first time here, and in a way it sucked that I met him here, but it was a blessing that I met him here, because that was the whole connection, the whole philosophy of what we were trying to do as a collective. So don’t be afraid of your ideas and of making mistakes. You can get turned down so many times. I met this guy Clive Davis…

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

He got mentioned last week.

Jazzie B

It was in the days of running Motown — I know people were a bit weird about an English guy doing that — and he said, “If you can count as many failures as successes, picture yourself.” When you look in the mirror, you hope to see, I don't know, this great artist, or whatever. Some of the greats, it wasn’t reciprocated when they were alive, they were known as greats when they passed. That’s a serious thing. A lot of us are striving for this level of excellence or to be successful. Humble yourself and know the success within yourself. Once you can deal with that, the rest is nothing because it’s about the art. We’ve got all these great tools, computers and this and that, but it’s fuckery if you don’t know what to put into it. You must deal with your art first. That should be top of your agenda, everything else can work itself out.

Audience Member

I have a few questions.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Choose one (laughs).

Audience Member

You mentioned Hans Zimmer. What was it like working with him?

Jazzie B

We worked with Hans because of the studio, he had a studio in Lilly Yard. I worked with him as a young guy who everyone hated back in the day as Richard Dodds’ assistant. He came in as a wizard keyboard player as a young man, and I just remember everyone taking the piss all the time. He used to do the sessions so when I became popular, I had to call him.

He let us use his studio, and he gave us carte blanche in there. In fact, he was responsible for one of the first tunes we got into a soundtrack, Black Rain with Michael Douglas. He’d written the score and he put one of my tunes in there. So that’s cool.

Audience Member

Jeff is looking at me (laughs). A lot of people who have been here say you either have to be all about the art or all about the business, they don't mix What’s your take on that? Is it possible to balance?

Jazzie B

In my 30 years experience it's impossible, it’s one or the other. That’s why this Academy thing is sick, because you can do both here. You’ve got everything, man. This is fucking PhD shit. You should know how much resistance I had to this whole set-up, and this is with a lot of respect and a ton of manners. I was not going come here, not at all.

Danny Bukem came to my house one time and said something to me which touched a nerve, “Imagine having a place like this,” is what he said to me, over a big head, so there were lots of clouds in the way but I got a sense of clarity. When he said something about having a platform, where everyone can come and share — that’s a major word, to share something that’s so free, which is an idea. You can sit and share with all these different people.

I was at the ICA on Saturday and to me it was organized chaos, I left with Lloyd Bradley and he said, “They’re fucking mad, you know? Did you see all that stuff?” This kind of thing could only happen in Britain. There were little bits of things I didn’t join the dots with what were talking about, and it’s all relative, but you guys are going to walk away from here and in a few years you’ll know how lucky you are.

But those two things don’t go together, like lemon and milk. But in a situation like this where you can share with somebody who can articulate what’s going on and make you think about it; have guys on the couch who are musicians, as well as people in the business, and see some kind of equilibrium between the two…

My only advice, don’t try this at home (laughter). It can only work in an environment like this where there’s a sense of freedom and you can let down your inhibitions. Ask the question, because a lot of us believe it’s this and believe it’s that and a lot of people aren’t gonna tell you the gossamer, but when you're sitting there and it’s going to feedback that information...

It’s almost like when I did this thing. Thank God for my relationship with [Academy crew member] Lex, because I said I ain’t going in there on my own, you better spearhead this thing. He said, ”No, no, no, you’ll like it.” “Cool.” I finished the first session and ticked it off my box, like a good deed. I ticked it off, then coming back around because certain people were in the audience and had sent me texts. Then it was like “Damn, this is a good thing. You’ve got a wicked set-up like this and all these good vibes.”

I met this kid Mala, like I said. Mala knows my cousin at the West Indian centre in Leeds where this dubstep thing first came about. I wouldn’t have known that unless we’d met and shared that information. Some people will be like, “So what’s that mean?” It means, Mala’s there with his sound, this dubstep thing, it’s new. What he’s drawing his influence from is my forefathers, and then the fact we’re so closely connected because of my cousin running the West Indian centre where his sound would play. Where did we meet? Red Bull Music Academy.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

So you did connect the dots.

Jazzie B


Jeff “Chairman” Mao

Who else has a question?

Jazzie B

One of the old-school guys has to have a question. Just make some shit up.

Audience Member

As a first-generation Canadian, there are a lot of first-generation Canadians whose parents come from somewhere else. From anyone just born to people well into their fifties, and living in black communities, there’s a lot of pressure to be as black as possible. You have to eat certain food, dress a certain way, talk a certain way, listen to certain types of music, otherwise you’re considered confused or washed.

Growing up, my brothers would collect a lot of records and I remember listening to Soul II Soul, and it was revolutionary for me, certainly with the British influences and the mixing and melding of different types of music, it just said it’s okay as a black person to do what you like. There’s not this box you have to fit into. There’s a lot of resistance at times, even still, and I’m just wondering how you dealt with that experience.

Jazzie B

What a fantastic question. There is a lot of prejudice. I had to step out of that box, I had to step out of the reggae world. I mentioned before about a rasta saying to me, “If you can’t make up your mind, we’ll make it up for you.” We’d get shit like that. If you don’t eat yam and dumpling and pepper pot, you eat fish and chips. You’re an outcast, inside of your own community. But there’s no difference in any other community, be it Russian or whatever.

I have some cousins in Canada and when I met them it was a rude awakening because I would’ve expected them to be as open-minded as I was, but I was deemed to be this Black Panther. I think what I did as a Funki Dred, I covered up my locks and had it shaved at the side, and that confusion you end up with, just play on that, make them confused.

The more you stand out on the outside, you get a bird’s eye view on all that nonsense, rather than being in the belly of the beast. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim, Christian or what. If you take a step back from your heritage on that level, and you’ve got a country like Great Britain, where you can exploit those avenues and explore different cultures, sometimes just go on a little holiday outside of your community.

I mentioned earlier about church, and I don’t know if everyone got me when I said everyone had to go to church. So when we had to go to church or Sunday school, that’s when we shared our experiences, that we were gonna go out that night or the next night. But we were a community. I think back to before the westerners introduced (gestures air quotes) civilization, I’m sure we used to sit under a tree and discuss elements, whether the sea falls off at the edge.

And that was the beauty of Soul II Soul, we forced the envelope and explored other avenues. I was into Ziggy Stardust. Can you imagine me saying that to my bredren? But if I hadn’t listened to David Bowie and other things, I wouldn’t have been able to throw those ideas into the production. If you saw how me and certain man met...

I met Howie on the market stall. We used to sell jeans on the market. Then we exchanged records, then we both went on a refresher course in engineering. I never would’ve met him if I’d stayed on the frontline trying to hustle a draw, or extending my horizons by going to a Cirque du Soleil-type event.

These are the extremes, but in our culture — and I don’t know that much about the Academy, but just the fact you’ve got all these things going on, you’re blessed because you’re in an environment you’ve chosen to be in. And all these people, you’re all singing the same hymn, slightly different keys or whatever, but they’ve got this thing called Auto-Tune now, so we’re all there. The message subliminally is the same, we have the opportunity to have that “Happy bass, thumping face for a loving race,” we can all overstand that?

Music is a thing that is soothing to the soul and we can all share in it, whether it’s punk, folk, rock, calypso, even Russian traditional music, I love a violin. So just step out the box a little bit and the rest will work itself out.

Audience Member

You said that your music and your way of life have a very strong connection. This is something the participants have also been talking about amongst ourselves. Can you tell us about how music is a part of your life and can it really be separated?

Jazzie B

That’s cool. Music can make you angry, it can soothe your soul. We can take it on in different ways, but it always leaves an impression. You live it, even as a child who may be a lyricist, but it’s always there. Some of us get involved in the music business and it fucks you off and you think I’ll go and do something else, be a postman or a milkman — well, maybe not that weird, but anyway — you go and do something else but it’s in your blood, and you can’t let it go so you find other ways of dealing with it.

We’re all into music in one way, shape or form, but we can express so much through our music, even if it’s just dance, or this lyric thing or just making music, when you can blend different ideas together. Even for me personally, music means so much to me. When I was asked to do this soundclash thing — which is a bit weird but we’ll talk to Elliott about that later — but the whole concept and diversity is really interesting.

Even me, as a bit of an old fuddy-duddy, it excited me so much. “Soundclash, man, wow!” Only something like this could’ve made it happen, because if it was in the traditional sense, maybe we wouldn't have had the circumference of people who would have got it. You need the infrastructure to do it. The soundclash thing inspired me so much, I went back into the booga basement and as a traditional soundman...

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

You’ve got some specials here?

Jazzie B

I’ve got some specials. Just to let you know how deep music is to me, how I love it so much, I’m so excited by it. I do a radio show every week and I have one day when not even my yout dem, not even my queen, can come in, because I’m preparing my show and it’s a serious ting.

My turntables get brushed off, I bring out my cleaning fluid, I’ve got my equipment, I’ve got my soft rag, I’ve got three different cartridges. And I’m there, in my room, bombaclaat. Finding this “London Beat” tune, you don’t even know the half, I wish I had the time to tell you. But I love the music so much, this is where I started, like this, and on Wednesday night this is where it ends.

(music: Soul II Soul – “London Beat”)

That’s how serious the sound is.


So you know you need to be there on Wednesday night. That tune is more than 20-years old, so when I was given the opportunity to do the soundclash, real soundman, that’s how we come. It’s gonna be really interesting just to be in the environment with four different genres, possibly four different generations of sound. The question you put about what it means, it’s that serious.

On that note, unless there are other pertinent questions, I’m gonna give you a little bit of a show of how traiditonal sounds used to clash. I’m not talking about Stone Love, or my good friend Rodigan with the Matterhorn.

We’re Soul II Soul, we’re a soul soundsystem. I love to see Mighty Crown play, because you were asking about culture. Imagine, two Chinese guys live in Japan and build a soundsystem that portrays reagge music? Music is a wonderful thing. So here are some real sounds, I brought some dubplate ideas from back in the day when we were playing big sounds. Here’s a little extract from each one.

(music: Soul II Soul – dubplate)

(music: Horace Andy – “Skylarking (Jazzie B Special)”)

(music: Omar – “Jazzie B Special” / applause)

(music: Wookie & Lain Gray – “Soul II Soul Special” / applause)

I want to point out with those dubplates, there’s an element of production on each one of those dubs. I’ve actually been begged by some people to release some of them. That was Wookie and Lain Gray, who released a tune called “Battle”. Again, a set of guys in the UK, with the help of Soul II Soul. And when I say Soul II Soul, it’s not about me-one, it’s a we ting, it’s about all of us and collectively what can happen.

Playing you “London Beats” and what was going on then, it was so significant, even the style of production, and we ended up taking the piss and pressing it to something like the last thing you heard. This is our style of ideas and how far we can see it going. This is our own cottage industry, in our own backyard. This is a dubplate not even meant for release, and we’re talking about horn sections, rhythm section, keys, some serious tracking and vocals, and a lot of attention to detail, and I haven’t even made that record to put it out. And I’m sure knocking it up at the time, with Jason and Lain, it was just, “Yeah, let’s do it.” But I know how these things affect people and inspire them.

I think the journey of the soundsystem is so important to us culturally, so big up Red Bull for putting it on on Wedenesday. And if anybody is into music and wants to see the growth, the evolution of it, you’re looking at a range of genres, everyone a decade apart. And the thing I’m looking forward to most is being able to rinse out some of my dubplates. I look forward to that night.

Jeff “Chairman” Mao

We’re wrapping up now so please a round of applause for Jazzie B.

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