British soul: Back to reality

British soul is in search of a new independent voice and fanbase, says Matilda Egere-Cooper
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The Independent Culture

At the dawn of the Nineties, it wasn't uncommon for British soul and R&B acts to feature in the mainstream. Jazzy B's outfit Soul II Soul and quintessential soul man Omar established the crossover potential of the UK scene after stints of success in the US, and a subsequent crop of artists managed to lay claim to the music charts on home territory. Names like Damage, Shola Ama and Kele Le Roc were rewarded with substantial media exposure, keeping faithful to the sounds of their melody-driven predecessors. However, as the music industry increasingly prioritised the image-conscious, hip-hop orientated youth market, the demise of the modest soul scene has seen it struggle in the marketplace, despite the underground boasting a throng of soul artists who are attempting to keep the scene prolific.

According to Ralph Tee, co-owner of Expansion Records, the commercial sector has been a mighty blow to British soul music. "It's certainly harder to get people to buy the records even though there are as many records if not more being made," he says. "There's been a lot of new, very talented artists come through in the last few years, but I think they've had more challenges to face than artists that have gone before them because it's a lot more difficult for them now to get the exposure they could have got a few years ago."

Expansion has been around for a couple of decades, and is one of the countries biggest indie labels, dedicated to the genre's cause. Like Dome Records, another indie soul label that launched Beverley Knight, they've found it necessary to exist by licensing critically-acclaimed American soul and R&B acts that conveniently come with ready-made fanbases. "In other genres of music, there are more UK artists, whereas in the soul scene, the fanatics of the music don't give UK acts the same sort of credence as they do the American acts," explains Tee. "So, a lot of the music that does come into the UK is more American artist driven."

As a result, it's been challenging for these labels to significantly nurture the British newcomers. Pete Robinson, the co-founder of Dome Records who previously worked in A&R says, "We have nothing against releasing brand new artists and we do it from time to time, but we're finding it difficult, partly a consequence of the way the music industry has developed in terms of major label attitudes to soul and black music artists. And yet, an act that still has a pretty good name out there, let's say (US singers like) Rosie Gaines or Brenda Russell... artists of this type no longer interest major labels, and yet they have a following and a pretty sizeable one. They need an outlet and here we are."

It's a similar story at Soul Brother Records, the west London-based label and retailer which has resorted to peddling classic US soul and compilations, with relative success. Malcolm Prangell, label manager, admits the recognition of British soul artists has been kept to a minimal as a result, with a lack of videos being made and radio play on offer. "Soul artists are either releasing music on relatively small labels such as our own, Expansion, Dome, or they do it by themselves independently, selling it through the internet or through independent shops around the world, like ourselves. That obviously has an impact on sales, because the amount of promotion that these artists can afford to do is a lot less than the likes of Sony or Universal, one of the big companies. So the awareness of it is a lot lower than it used to be."

The artists aren't deterred, however. The rapid development of online sites such as MySpace.com has allowed these groups to promote their music on an international scale, and in London, a trendy subculture of young soul lovers is starting to take shape, mirroring similar communities in Philadelphia, New York and Atlanta. Amplified, a collective of DJs and artists, have put on successful events since 2001 in aid of championing British soul and the capital's infamous Jazz Café has become the crucial spot in breaking new talent. The music itself has become distinctively eclectic and European, incorporating electro-styles instead of relying on the techniques of their American soul brothers and sisters. "Now, you are starting to see a Bohemian style emerge," says Jahnell, a singer with Sheffield-based group Bare Knuckle Soul. "I feel there's a culture that's coming with soul music which will really make it bigger and carry it forth through the next few years as a major genre."

The group have been acclaimed by respected Radio 1 DJs such as Gilles Peterson and Trevor Nelson, and while they are yet to get a label deal, they remain determined that a revolution of UK-based soul music is imminent. "Just like the great soul music that was coming out of the UK in early Nineties - people like Omar, Mica Paris, Soul II Soul and so forth - I think you're gonna see a lot more acts like that come through," he says.

Natalie Williams is another singer/songwriter who rejects the notion that there isn't a future for British soul. She puts on a monthly music night in London, dubbed Soul Family, and is releasing her third album this month. "There's definitely an underground soul movement going on in the UK. There's quite a few artists that have been around for a while, and hopefully they'll be coming up to the surface," says Williams. "I think we're a really good scene, but for some reason, the people who should be putting money behind it don't really think there is a soul scene going on, when there is."

There are the occasional exceptions. EMI was perceptive enough to pick up on Corinne Bailey-Rae, the acclaimed soul singer from Leeds whose album debuted at number one in February. Yet, many underground artists are sceptical of the impact her success will have on her unsigned contemporaries. "I know that she used to be in the same boat as myself and a lot of other artists that I know that went to music college and hung around the scene, as well as doing her gigs for a while before she suddenly broke out," says Williams. "But I think, now that she's out there, all the record companies will think, now we've got to find another one like that, instead of just going out and looking for good talent. They always like to jump on the bandwagon."

Prior to that, Def Jam UK, the sister company to the US hip-hop power house, signed a West London singer named Terri Walker in 2002, and she's since been regarded as one of the leading ladies of soul in this country. Although she didn't attain the same level of success as Bailey-Rae and has parted ways with Def Jam, she's now with an indie label and is content with the casual development of the scene. "We can't expect it to happen straight away," she admits. "And I think there will be more (artists) if we kind of nurture it more."

For now, artists and label heads agree that the British soul movement has had its setbacks, and that it could be a while before its credibility is reinstated into the mainstream. In the meantime, the music continues to be sought by its niche fanbase and a new audience of music fans who are taken in by the vibrant genre. "I do get the feeling that there's a whole new generation of people coming along that are discovering this music," says Tee. "And I hope in the long term, that these will be the people that will mean the music. Artists and a label like ours will survive."

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