“A happy face, a thumpin’ bass, for a lovin’ race.” Such was the credo of Jazzie B (Beresford Romeo), radio/club-DJ-turned-record-producer-cum-cultural entrepreneur (Soul II Soul’s first decisive step, in 1982, was opening a clothing/records shop in Camden; the group also produced a fashion line). Never actually a group, Soul II Soul — whose roots were in the same Bristol scene that spawned Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky — entered the music scene as a floating dance happening in East London, where DJ Jazzie B played an eclectic mix of the music he loved best — hip-hop, Philly soul, dub, house and more. In the studio with collaborator/programmer Nellee Hooper and a host of players and singers, he created a sound and a shuffling beat that mixed elements of all these styles; the resultant singles, including the undeniable “Keep on Movin’,” caused enough of a stir in England that it was not too much of a stretch to entitle the album that compiled them Club Classics Vol. One. (Lacking that buzz in the States, the album was released here as Keep on Movin’, but reissued under its original title in a “10th anniversary edition” a decade later.) The song signaled a quiet revolution in soul music: lovely harmonies and a charming chorus laid over a slow, silky, electronically propelled dance groove imaginatively laced with delicate instrumental accents.
Given the hype that accompanied its trans-Atlantic arrival, the first album is shockingly spotty: one cut is repeated twice in a row, the second time featuring an execrable Jazzie B rap. (“Conscious people tend to dance” he portentously intones in a James Earl Jones-goes-dread voice.) The wonderful “Back to Life” is included only in an a cappella version. Still, the overall sound of Soul II Soul, while hardly original, is quite refreshing, a soulful and equally au courant alternative to hip-hop.
Singer Caron Wheeler, the featured vocalist on “Keep on Movin'” and “Back to Life,” quickly left for a solo career. While she is missed, Vol. II – 1990 – A New Decade is actually a more consistent and cohesive album than the first. Claiming no instant classics (but yielding the successful singles “Get a Life” and “A Dream’s a Dream”), it’s enjoyable from drop to stop, and Jazzie B keeps his little happy raps bearably brief, couching them inside songs rather than making entire cuts of them.
Although Wheeler returned to guest (“Take Me Higher”) on Volume III, Hooper was already off to a successful career as an independent producer (scoring hits with Björk and Madonna, among others), leaving Jazzie B in charge of what had devolved from a groundbreaking, if creatively unreliable, soul collective to a not particularly exciting R&B act. Volume IV The Classic Singles 88-93 is a UK-only compilation; Volume V Believe, containing some lovely vocal performances (including three by Wheeler) backed by very soulful music, continues Soul II Soul’s transformation into a traditional British R&B combo.
Wheeler’s solo debut, UK Blak, has nine co-producers and a groove that hardly ever lets up — but very few songs make a strong impression. The title cut is great, tackling the ambitious topic of cultural assimilation, and Wheeler’s songwriter paints her as intelligent and goodhearted. But talk about mixed messages — one minute she’s staking feminist ground for her autonomous existence, and the next she’s telling a lover that “I am honored to be your lady.” Please, nobody introduce her to Stephen Stills.
Wheeler’s second album is chock full of political and social ideology — there’s even a suggested reading list, including A Healthy Foods and Spiritual Nutrition Handbook, Marcus Garvey and African Holistic Health. The songs, however, are much less memorable. Her voice is fine and the album’s sound is more cohesive, but she has yet to advance her solo career beyond a footnote to Soul II Soul.