Soul threatens another comeback

Hip-hop, rap and R&B rule the urban scene. But, says Matilda Egere-Cooper, don't write off the genre that gave birth to them
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The Independent Culture

Nobody talks about soul music any more. Documentaries, such as the BBC2 summer series Soul Deep, like to package it every now and again, while KFC has shamelessly adopted it as the anthem for takeaway. Otherwise, the music industry has swept it under the carpet in recent years. The annual Mobo Awards do not even have a soul music category, with pretentious monikers such as "urban" wiping the term "soul" out of existence.

Many see it as a genre of great historical importance, the cornerstone of the black American experience. The kids of today see it as their mum's music. But it's the movement that gave Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, among others, a day job, so that their legacies might influence later members of the movement.

Although its presence in the mainstream has been sporadic, it wasn't left behind in the 1970s. It survived alongside the birth of hip-hop and its equally slick, freewheeling cousin, R&B, throughout the 1980s. In the UK, artists like Incognito and The Brand New Heavies promoted the sound and, in the US, the scene experienced a renaissance.

In 1995 a young man from Richmond, Virginia became the father of a movement dubbed neo-soul, or nu-soul. Signed to EMI Records, D'Angelo released his debut album Brown Sugar to critical acclaim. His 2000 follow-up, Voodoo, went on to win two Grammys, and a bunch of other neo-soul artists achieved similar success. Erykah Badu, the eccentric Texan with a penchant for colossal head wraps, Egyptology and incense-burning was signed by D'Angelo's manager, Kedar Massenburg. She won a Grammy in 1997 for her debut album Baduizm. The New York crooner Maxwell was another Grammy contender. Then there were India Arie, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Bilal, Laurnea, and Angie Stone. As these artists grew in numbers, offering a sound with a rich pedigree and weighty in substance, soul never seemed more alive and mainstream.

At some point everything began to change. As the music market became increasingly crowded with pop acts, soul artists seemed to lose their cool. Patient fans are still waiting for D'Angelo's third album. He made the headlines a few months ago for being found guilty of possessing cocaine, then again for suffering serious injuries in a car crash a few weeks later. Maxwell was rumoured to be working on a project this year but has been otherwise AWOL since 2001. Angie Stone has just dropped a greatest hits album. Erykah Badu released her third album Worldwide Underground in 2003, but, compared with her glittering debut, it did only OK by industry standards.

Taste-makers suggest that hip-hop and its lucrative, multi-millionaire, rappers have killed off soul, leaving pop R&B to take its place in the public domain. "Hip-hop has gobbled everything up in a sense", says Trevor Nelson, the DJ and MTV presenter. "DJs used to refer to soul music all the time in 1996. In terms of commercial artists, the term 'soul' went out in the late 90s. At a marketing level, soul music is dead." The British singer Mica Paris agrees. "For me, the last great soul artist was D'Angelo. Soul is dead. The problem is, rap has sort of dominated all of black music now."

Trevor Nelson and Mica Paris have been championing soul music on BBC Radio 1 and 2 respectively. Nelson's weekly show Soul Nation has been one of the few outlets to serve up soul music to a wide audience. He believes that the genre's current low profile is down to money and appeal. "The American big companies find it much harder and more expensive to market and sell a soul act than they do a hip-hop act", he says. "A hip-hop act comes ready to market, such as 50 Cent. He had his story to tell. Eminem had a story to tell. When you're marketing soul acts, it's based on pure talent. Stories don't really help."

Soul music may not have the gritty edge to sell nearly the same amount as hip-hop does, but, on an underground level, it has managed to stay alive. Labels such as the UK-based Dome, which specialises in signing soul acts, and Hidden Beach Recordings in Los Angeles, have enabled the soul market to exist in some shape or form, says the editor of Echoes magazine, Chris Wells. "Eighty per cent of soul music is now indie-label or internet", he says. "If you're into soul music, you go looking for it. Soul fans are used to doing that."

The underground has its advantages, Wells claims, because an artist is able to create a body of work without any pressure to conform to label expectations. There are no A&R people around to tamper with the sound, and a devoted fan-base is often more than willing to support their cause. "So they make their own album, they put it out on their own label, they sell thousands of copies, and they make a lot of money out of that because they get $10 a time for the album," he adds. "They have a career, a good living."

This was the case with Dwele, a soul singer from Detroit. His demo tape "Rize" created a buzz in his home town in 1998 before making its way on to the internet and quickly spreading. He released his debut, Subject, six years later on Virgin Records. Although he believed that signing with a major label was his perfect opportunity to shine in the mainstream, he has experienced the pressure of competing with hip-hop giants. His second record, Some Kinda, is a well-produced offering, combining witty songwriting with jazz influences. It peaked at only number 54 in the US Billboard chart, but Dwele's not too worried. "As long as there's an audience for soul music, I'll be okay," he reasons. "Soul music is always gonna be around."

Like Dwele, Floetry is another act that has been considered a prospect for soul in the mass market. The British-born, US-based, duo have just released their second album, Flo'Ology, having written for the likes of Michael Jackson, and having won a Grammy for their 2003 debut. Despite a sparkling CV, they feel that their current record will only achieve a certain level of success. "I don't expect to sell the same as the rapper Chingy," admits Floetry's Natalie Stewart. "They're in a different mode of the machine. The balance needs to come back. I think that everywhere is just imbalance right now."

So can soul music ever reach a commercial audience again? Rappers from Jay-Z to Kanye West and Eminem have lifted the bar in hip-hop, but the current soul scene lacks equivalent heroes. "There isn't a major-label soul artist that can raise the status of soul music enough so that other labels start investing in soul artists and promoting their acts", says Steve Owen, the dance and urban manager at HMV. "Hip-hop is the biggest-selling music in the world at the moment. But everything goes in cycles."

Artists like John Legend and Alicia Keys have offered a glimmer of hope, while major labels are gradually getting their act together. Sony BMG kicked off their Soul Searching series in October and released five "word-of-mouth" soul albums, aiming to give them their overdue credit. But, according to Chris Wells, releasing batches of credible records in one go just isn't good enough. "The industry needs a really big album that will be big in soul circles and also cross over and be heralded by the mainstream media", he says. "There's a big market out there that doesn't like Usher, Beyoncé and pop R&B. They don't like mainstream hip-hop. There's a huge market in the States like that, and it's worth serving. It's a huge part of black American culture that is so undervalued."

But all is not lost. The hip-hop industry acknowledges soul music, using classic samples for songs, while soul musicians don't object to having a rapper on a record every now and again to give them a boost. It's not a terrible relationship, and if this is the way that soul music is managing to exist above street level, there is a chance it could strike back for good. "I think soul will be sexy again", says Nelson. "It only ever takes one successful artist to renew faith in the A&R departments. And when people come to realise why they like artists like Kanye West, they'll understand it's because they like soul music, deep down. The truth is, soul music will never go. It's got too much of a legacy and I think it's time for the term to be reborn and for us to scream about it. Soul is timeless and hip-hop isn't."