The Brand New Heavies is one of the few recent hybrids able to break down once-daunting genre boundaries and still outlive the glare of media fascination. Boasting a genuine cultural mixture (Britons and Americans, whites and blacks, men and women) in its ranks, the London-based group plays a groovy meld of ’70s funk, rare groove and jazz flavor. While this combination isn’t always practical — the band is a jack-of-all-genres more than a master of one, not hip enough for the hipsters and not soulful enough for the R&B audience — when it does take, the band’s crossbred funk is splendid.
A stylish mix of smoky jazz club ambience and Average White Band/Wild Cherry funk, the best tracks on The Brand New Heavies feature N’Dea Davenport, an Atlanta expatriate whose sultry soul vocals make up in emotion and depth what they lack in range. (She wasn’t on the original UK issue, which featured Jaye Ella Ruth. Tracks were recut and added for the Stateside release.) In addition to the band’s five-man core, a horn section ups the ’70s feel. On “Never Stop” and “Dream Come True,” these copycats are cooking with gas, and the band members seem to be having a great time playing music they clearly love.
Pared to a trio on Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1, guitarist Simon Bartholomew, bassist Andrew Levy and drummer Jan Kincaid get a procession of rap notables (including the Pharcyde, Main Source, Kool G. Rap, Ed O.G., Jamalski and Masta Ace) in to help them explore the soul/jazz/hip-hop connection. Gang Starr’s Guru adds his husky, confident rhymes to the live, jamming band laying down a solid groove in “It’s Gettin Hectic.” Grand Puba, who raps smoothly on “Who Makes the Loot?,” describes the music being created as “some real live funky funky get down on the getdown…the bass player’s real and the drummer’s real.” Throughout the album, that combination of band and rappers makes it an innovative standout in the progressive mixture of hip-hop with other styles of rhythmic music.
Davenport sat out the second album, working instead with Guru on his first Jazzmatazz project; the songs on which she appears are some of the best moments on that stellar record. She returned to the Heavies for Brother Sister, however, an album that finds the band back making soul music, easing up on the funk to go with a glossier, moderately discofied sound. “Dream on Dreamer” is a frothy, catchy pop tune that shows little of the band’s characteristic innovation. “Fake,” on the other hand, is a total funk throwdown, a strong woman’s putdown of a disrespectful lover. Back to fusing funk, jazz and soul, “Back to Love,” “Spend Some Time” and the stomping workout, “Snake Hips,” are almost as cool.
Original Flava collects rarities and previously unreleased tracks from the band’s past efforts. Although it contains some outtakes and rare cuts, Excursions is mainly an album of remixes, assembled to coincide with the prior albums’ reissues.