soulhead Presents: Essential British Soul (Part 1)

Soul II Soul


Unofficially one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed upon any single is to become the hot song of the summer. In America, the song of the summer is the blazing one you’ll hear blaring everywhere  from the playground to the projects to a picnic with the family, that jam will be playing. In the summer of 1989, it was all about the self-proclaimed “Funki Dreads” calling themselves Soul II Soul. Having started as a reggae soundsystem that also doubled as a collective of fashion designers, Soul II Soul were sleek, stylish and had more swag than you. Fusing breakbeat samples with serious disco strings, be-boppish piano and a lovers rock groove that was steady, “Keep On Movin’” and “Back to Life” were both hypnotic. Dance friendly in every way, the sound was crazy. The cherry on top was former back-up singer Caron Wheeler, who had once been down with Elvis Costello and Phil Collins, stepping to the mic while dragging us into the future. Co-produced by Jazzie B. and Bristol boy Nellee Hooper, their debut disc Club Classics Vol. One laid the foundation for acid jazz, trip-hop and a few other musical subcultures. Fab Five Freddy, who flew to London on the Concorde to interview Jazzie B for the May 1990 issue of Spin, dubbed the collective “the utopian planet orchestra.” The following year, with Wheeler leaving the group and jetting to New York to record her solo album with the Jungle Brothers, Soul II Soul released Vol. II: 1990 – A New Decade. It was cool, but after you’ve already changed the world, everything else is just anti-climatic.

Diane Charlemagne


When Brit soul vocalist Diane Charlemagne died from cancer late last month at the age of 51, she left behind a legacy of enduring music that included the much-celebrated jungle groove of Goldie’s “Inner City Life” and his classic Timeless album in 1995. Charlemagne was also a member of the underrated Manchester soul band 52nd Street, an ‘80s group reminiscent of Chic and Change , as well as  Urban Cookie Collective. Posting on Twitter, Goldie wrote, “What a gifted voice.” Moby, who Charlemagne also worked with, said, “She was one of the most remarkable singers on the planet.” According to Billboard, a statement issued by Blue Soap Music confirms that the release of her last record “It’s In Your Eyes” featuring Andy Rourke of The Smiths and remixed by Youth, will go ahead on November 20th as planned, with the proceeds going to Charlemagne’s family.



Arty without being pretentious, former child prodigy Omar bust onto the Brit soul scene in 1990 with the Gilles Peterson- founded label/collective Talkin’ Loud (Incognito, Young Disciples) on the mind-blowing single “There’s Nothing Like This.” Omar has had a long, rich career that has included duets with his soul guru Stevie Wonder (“Feeling You”), a cover of William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got” with Erykah Badu and a cameo appearance on Common’s brilliant Electric Circus album. Yet, from the beginning, Omar was determined to be more than a soul boy matinee idol. “All it seems to be now is record companies telling new acts to rip off the same beat that somebody’s just had a hit with. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I want to re-introduce the big arrangement – brass, strings, everything. Having the budget to try it is the best thing about having this success.”



Imagination began as the brainchild of former backup singer Leee John. A fan of drama and glam who badly wanted to be a star, he’d put in work wailing with touring American soul groups The Delfonics and Chairmen of the Board, and was inspired to start his own groove thang trio along with fellow singer Ashley Graham (who also played bass) and drummer Errol Kennedy. Forming Imagination in 1981, the group was named in honor of John Lennon, who had been slain the previous year. That same year, Imagination released their debut album Body Talk, whose first single was the silky title track. However, it was piano-heavy third track “Burnin’ Up” that would later be all the rage on the dancefloors of the Chicago house scene. The following year Imagination, who for some reason dressed like Disney movie Egyptians, released their sophomore project In the Heat of the Night. “Just an Illusion,” a soulfully synthed-out dance track that became a club banger in night spots the Garage and Zanzibar, became their biggest hit in the states. Unafraid of fusing electro-funk, falsetto-voiced balladry and post-disco grooves into their sound, in 1982, John told The Face magazine, “Many black youngsters today think you should be ethnic and only into reggae, but Imagination are trying to make music with no cultural barriers.” Although Kennedy quit the band in 1987, Imagination didn’t officially disband until 1995, when John decided to go solo.

Ephraim Lewis


As the most tragic of the Black Brit soul posse, singer Ephraim Lewis only released one album in his lifetime. Luckily for his legacy, that disc was Skin, perhaps one the most brilliant recordings of the ‘90s even if most people have never heard it. Released in 1992, Skin was melodically seductive as Lewis’ gorgeous voice merged beautifully with the songwriting and production of his musical partners Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby. Signed to Elektra Records, the 22 year-old powerhouse had an obvious love for heartbreaking vocalists Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway that could be heard in the textures of his tone, as he sang over futuristic soundscapes that were cutting edge trip-hop a few years before Tricky, Portishead, and Lamb emerged.

Opening with the Kafkaesque title track that draws you into a strange world based on yesteryear rhythms while charging boldly towards tomorrow, one gets the immediate sense that they’re about to embark upon a sonic adventure. The first single “It Can’t Be Forever” had the drama of a golden era Bond (John Barry) theme while Lewis sang the surreal lyrics in a spacey soul voice that was otherworldly. The Afro-Futuristic video served as further evidence that the brother was from another planet altogether.

Although Lewis’ second single “Drowning in Your Eyes” was more grounded in that jazzy quiet storm style the sista Sade made popular a decade before, Lewis’ haunting voice still retained a trippy beauty even when the cheesy sax chirped in and almost blew the high the music had already lifted you too. In 1994, while Lewis was in Los Angeles recording a follow-up album with producer Glen Ballard, he died while having a confrontation with police. Officers claimed that Lewis jumped off the roof of the hotel where he was staying while they were trying to restrain him.

Neneh Cherry


Although not British by birth, Neneh Cherry moved to London when she was 14 years-old to be a part of cool punk kids who roamed the streets, slept in squats and partied through the night while Margaret Thatcher plotted their demise. A decade later, many of those same punks had transformed into new wavers, sound clashers and young style rebels that were on a mission to change the world. While the second Brit invasion in the early ‘80s highlighted strange pop kids Culture Club, the Eurythmics and the Pet Shop Boys, the era was almost over when Cherry’s 1988 debut single “Buffalo Stance” blared onto the scene. The savvy singer/raptress was as much a style icon as she was a pop star, yet posing on cover of The Face magazine was only one part of her persona. No pop tart, she also took her music and lyrics seriously. Cherry’s clique included Wild Bunch and future Massive Attack members Mushroom (who was on the one and two’s in the video); on the album Raw Like Sushi, which came out the following year, the second single “Manchild” was co-produced by Robert Del Naja (3-D).

Combining her hip-hop vibe with her love of R&B and be-bop, Cherry was a pretty mama, but she also had substance and refused to be a seen as a novelty artist. With her husband Cameron McVey responsible for most of the production, Cherry’s follow-up Homebrew featured wonderful collaborations with Guru (“Sassy”), Michael Stipe (“Trout”) and future Portishead member Geoff Barrow, who co-produced the angst-ridden “Somedays.” Yet, it wasn’t until the curly-haired diva that one writer described as “part raggamuffin B-Girl, part designer Earth Mother,” released her 1994 Man that we got to hear Cherry at her most mature. Featuring the Grammy nominated “7 Seconds,” a duet with Youssou N’Dour as well as a dope cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” the frantic Tricky produced “Together Now,” which also appeared on his side-project Nearly God, and a moody title track that was used in the neo-noir classic Long Kiss Goodnight, Man proved to be her masterwork. However, for some reason, it was never officially released in America. These days, Cherry records and tours whenever she feels like it, having released her latest joint Blank Project in 2014.

Mark Morrison


Coming across as a Brit combo of a blaxploitation movie star, Cameo frontman Larry Blackmon and the baddest Brit soul man to ever grab a mic, Mark Morrison was a bad boy for true. If the brother could’ve stayed out of jail, he might’ve been larger, but just as his kick-ass single “Return of the Mack” began to rise on the U.S. charts in 1997, Morrison was sent to the slam for a three-month stint for trying to board an airplane with a gun. Although, of course, some music journalists compared Morrison with Seal, his mostly self-produced debut album Return of the Mack was more street. While Morrison might’ve been “misunderstood” as he later professed on the jailhouse ballad “Innocent Man” which features DMX, his music career suffered as a result. In 2014, the mack returned again and released the EP I Am What I Am.

Michael_Gonzales-dreamMichael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Check out some of his work for soulhead.

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