Chico DeBarge makes the kind of songs you don't hear anymore, says Phil Johnson
Like any good musician, soul singer Chico DeBarge - who plays a sold-out gig at London's Jazz Cafe tonight - knows all about time. In truth, Chico knows more about time than most: he served nearly six years of it in various American prisons after being convicted on a charge of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, beginning his sentence when he was only 18. While he was inside his older brother Bobby - who also went to prison on the same charge - died there of Aids. When Chico got out three years ago, to serve a further two years on parole, both he and the world he had left behind had changed irrevocably: old girlfriends were married or strung out on drugs; old friends were dead or serving time themselves. The changes are documented on Chico's album, the mordantly titled Long Time No See, which is one of the best vocal albums you will hear this year. In a poem on its sleeve he writes that: "I laboured in the factories of prison - slept in your cells - grew up in your ghettos - lost a loved one to your war on drugs - been your menace to society - still I pursue that which is good. I am not bitter."

It's an extraordinary album by any standards and any sense of myth-making is undercut not just by the fact that Chico has walked it as well as talked it, but because it is, first and foremost, a soul album, of exactly the kind we don't get any more. When Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his preacher father on 1 April, 1984, sweet soul music just about died with him and in the rap, hip-hop and swing-beat years that have followed, the tender eroticism and intricate vocal filigree that is the badge of the soul man or woman in full cry has struggled to be heard. Despite a few honourable exceptions, soul is almost a lost art, a fact addressed in the new Quentin Tarantino film Jackie Brown, whose heroine likes to play her old records by the likes of the Delfonics and whose title-music is a track by one of the greatest soul singers ever, Bobby Womack. Chico DeBarge can claim a direct line of descent back to the great soul years: his older brothers served their own time in two classic Seventies soul-funk groups, DeBarge and Switch, and Long Time No See is something of a homage to the divine Marvin himself, whose song "Trouble Man" Chico covers.

When we meet, it's evident that Chico DeBarge is still marked by his time in prison, literally as well as figuratively. A small knife scar is embedded just above his left eye, and although his face is young, smooth and handsome, his hands are old before their time, gristled with manual labour and crisscrossed with cuts. He speaks very quietly as we talk in his record company boss's apartment in a condominium in New Jersey. "You can die in there every day and never know what you died for," he says of prison. "From anything, from a person just having a bad day. There's no one particular thing that triggers that emotion." I ask if he ever felt that aggression, too. "Yeah, always", he says. "You're aware of it from the moment you're there to the moment you leave. Even to this day, being out here." He occasionally slaps a fist into his palm for added emphasis.

"I was incarcerated for five years and eight months and the album is a flashing on that experience", he says. "It's about what I am as a man, what I was and what I've been through. It's not glamourising any of the experience, it's dealing with it and at the same time shedding some light on love, love affairs, etcetera. This album to me is a sort of love letter from prison, like going away to war and writing letters home, that's what it is. Addressed to whoever should be my future wife, like if I had this type of girl, this is how I would love her, this is how I would want to be with her." I ask him if any of his old flames kept in touch. He laughs and looks down, as he does for much of the time. "I might have got one letter," he says. "But it was a long journey and they couldn't take the ride. I'm sorry about the loss but they won't be the last."

Indeed, the album positively aches with eroticism, and as he's now something of a love-God on the loose, Chico shouldn't want for further adventures. But contrary to the verses on the sleeve-notes, Chico still feels bitterness about the system that put him away. For his crime - the conspiracy involved putting one dealer in touch with another, so he says - he served more time than the dealers themselves.

"I felt in court that I was a victim of racism, and I still do," he says. "I definitely feel that had I not been the creed I am I would not have received the sentence I got. I was a first-time offender and a lot of things were put on me that weren't necessarily true. My word meant nothing. A lot of police lie on the stand in court and automatically the judge and the jury are prejudiced; not because of colour but because that policeman is an officer of their government and to them he cannot lie. They don't know that conspiracies go on every day, that police officers lie just to save their badge, that they create and manufacture cases. They'll lie, they'll say you said things you never said, and it just stands and it stands, and it stinks, because they are like the gods of America."

I ask naively if he suffered from any Aryan Brotherhood-style racism in prison, and Chico laughs. "I didn't run into a lot of that. It exists but it's not that prevalent, at least where I've been. The majority of prisons I've seen were 75-80 per cent black and Hispanic-populated so I don't really think it would make much sense for the Aryan Brotherhood to try anything there."

He survived in prison partly, he says, by sublimating his sense of injustice. "Comes a time, at a certain point, when the newness of that experience is no longer new and you know you can't stay stagnant and wallow in that mud any more. So you just have to deal with it. Stop saying `Poor me, what did I do to deserve this?', and just say `OK, I'm here. I know what's before me, I know what I have to do that is necessary to survive'." Chico pauses, slaps a fist into his palm and smiles. "That reality set in real quick." In a less than fond adieu to prison, Chico's album opens with the sound of his cell door slamming shut and a warder's voice telling him he'll be back in three months. Hopefully, not least for the new ascendancy of sweet soul music and the memory of the blessed Marvin, Chico's out for good.

`Long Time No See' by Chico DeBarge is out now on Universal Records/Kedar Entertainment.

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