Pop: The gospel truth

K-Ci & JoJo, some time of Jodeci, are redefining modern black vocal music. By going back to its soul roots.
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On an old Atlantic album of the Stax Soul Revue which was recorded live at the Apollo Theatre in New York in the mid-Sixties, Otis Redding is getting ready to go into another number when a girl from the audience calls out: "Sing it pretty for me now, Otis!" As if responding to her plea, he begins the tender ballad "These Arms of Mine". The audience screams with delight as Redding's voice breaks up the syllables of the lyric in melismatic phrases that take the song back to the church and to Otis's Southern gospel roots.

On the new album by the contemporary soul duo K-Ci & JoJo, the elder of the two brothers, K-Ci, does something similar, his gruff voice testifying like a preacher. Just like with Otis, the hairs on the back of your neck start to prickle, although in this case the effect is partly due to surprise, for nobody is meant to sing like that any more.

Ever since Sam Cooke left the Soul Stirrers to go secular in 1956, soul music has become a temple to the persuasive powers of the human voice. These days, however, the temple is just about in ruins. Once the sound of black America, for two decades now soul has been in decline, and its vocal riches more or less subsumed within the catch-all genre of R&B. While there's still a smidgeon of the sanctified to be heard between the grooves of successive R&B styles from hip-hop to swing-beat, black music has ceased to be primarily a medium for the sung, as opposed to the spoken, word. Indeed, it sometimes appears as if singing is something of a lost art, with the excessive syllables of divas such as Mariah Carey no more than a bad parody of the traditional soul vocalist's melisma.

K-Ci & JoJo help to redress the balance. Coming from Monroe, North Carolina, the two Hailey brothers started out as children on the Southern gospel circuit. As Little Cedric and the Hailey Singers, they toured churches across the country in a minibus, travelling so far from their home that they often failed to make it back for school on Monday mornings. "I'm Cedric," K-Ci says when we meet at the headquarters of Universal Music in Los Angeles. "I was nine and JoJo was seven, and the group was us, our Mom and Dad, and a few friends. They say I sounded just the same then as I do now. At the age of 12 I sounded like I was 30. Now I am 30 I probably sound like I'm 50. My range might be a little lower, but coming from the church, we always sang it soulful."

While K-Ci specialises in the cathartic, almost out-of-control deep growls and sanctified swoons that put you in mind of Bobby Womack, his brother JoJo's smooth, honeyed tones provide the necessary complement for the time-honoured binary opposition of the genre: sanctified soul and earthly body; the beauty and the beast.

"We always had that sound, because we're brothers and we've been around each other all these years, singing at church and in the house," says JoJo. "We grew up listening mainly to gospel, and we'd listen to the radio every now and then, but it wasn't approved."

"We weren't allowed to listen to secular music," says K-Ci, "but occasionally we'd sneak an eight-track cartridge of Al Green into the car and listen to that."

At school, K-Ci continually failed the music class. "While they was all doing like, do, re, mi, I'd be testifying. My music teacher said I'd never amount to anything." The brothers' first commercial success came as part of the quartet Jodeci, which they formed with two other brothers from their church, De Vante and Dalvin DeGrate.

Without an appointment, they went to New York and blagged an impromptu audition with Andre Harrell of Uptown Records. Singing a capella, they came out with a deal. Three subsequent albums, beginning with Forever My Lady from 1991, made Jodeci one of the leaders of lubricious, crotch- grabbing R&B. Then, in 1996, the Haileys provided the lyrics for Tupac Shakur's "How Do You Want It?', before releasing their first album as K-Ci & JoJo. Love Always sold more than a million in the US and went platinum in such citadels of soul as Canada, New Zealand and the Philippines, with the single "Love Always" topping the charts across the world.

While the pop success of their excellent debut album has helped to up the commercial ante for the follow-up, which is correspondingly more mainstream and radio-friendly, K-Ci & JoJo remain the very stuff of soul. A record company executive tries to tell me how they've left all that Jodeci crotch-tugging behind in favour of romance. They wear suits now and they're really smooth, she says, talking them up until you'd think they were the black twin-brothers of Robert Palmer. Happily, of course, the Hailey brothers turn out to be nothing of the kind. They're North Carolina-country to the core, positively dripping with jewellery, and not too romantic to ensure that three of their Sumo-sized minders patrol the corridor outside for the duration of the interview.

They even talk in soul-speak. Regretting that their constant touring as children meant that they missed out on their education, K-Ci says stoically: "In order to get the sunshine, you've got to accept the rain," and his brother's melancholy face nods in assent. Asked about the relationship of soul to R&B, K-Ci doesn't hesitate. "You looking at it," he says. "We got the voices out front, and I just want to cry."

`It's Real' is out on MCA Records