Pharrell Williams pays homage to British soul trailblazer Junior Giscombe

Junior is launching The British Collective to promote under-appreciated black British artists

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The Independent Culture

Junior Giscombe owes Pharrell Williams a drink. The man in the Buffalo hat, who cheered up the world this year with "Happy", has put a smile on Giscombe’s face by including the London singer in his curated playlist for one of the most popular games on the planet, NBA 2K15.

The inclusion of the 1982 hit "Mama Used To Say" in the soundtrack to the phenomenally-successful basketball game has prompted a surge in interest in the British soul trailblazer and driven younger listeners to YouTube to witness the song’s ground-breaking video.

But then the dapper Pharrell has previously made admiring references to the dress style of the first British R&B artist to make it in America. Junior was rocking a Derby hat 30 years ago.

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Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams

The publicity comes at a fine time for Junior, just as he is launching The British Collective with a cohort of some of the finest male soul voices these islands have produced. The line-up includes Omar Lye-Fook, who took Neo Soul around the world, Don-E, the flag-bearer of British Nineties R&B, Leee John, from disco favourites Imagination, and soul scene stalwart Noel McKoy.

For Junior, the project is an opportunity to “document” the impact of earlier waves of black British artists whose contribution is often under-appreciated. He remembers Madonna walking into a studio clutching a copy of Imagination’s 1982 album In the Heat of the Night and saying she wanted to capture that sound. Omar and other British artists played a pivotal role in the musical movement that produced US stars such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.

“I don’t think we’ve been given the credit we deserve,” says Junior. “I wanted to document that we were the first generation in the UK to be able to make a statement. A lot of people still think Junior is American.”

He has wanted to do such a collaboration for many years, partly inspired by his part in the political movement Red Wedge where he performed alongside other Labour-supporting artists including the Style Council, Billy Bragg and Tom Robinson.

For Omar, the British Collective brings together disparate talents who “are all admirers of each other’s work”. Although America is already his biggest market, the talented multi-instrumentalist – who has recently been touring in Croatia, South Africa and Ibiza – believes the group will have appeal in the US.

“There’s a real fascination and love for the way we do the soul music over here,” he says. “Our background is different because we have the West Indian heritage and reggae roots as opposed to their gospel.”

McKoy, a former singer with the James Taylor Quartet who also toured with Gladys Knight, says the “definitive” years of British R&B embodied by the collective, from Seventies Lovers’ Rock to Nineties Street Soul, were the building blocks for later singers such as Amy Winehouse and Adele. “It doesn’t get mentioned but that music had to come from somewhere.”

Romantic by The British Collective is released on 30 November