Roots of Retro Soul
by Mosi Reeves | July 3, 2013
Most people learned that retro-soul was a thing when Amy Winehouse's Back to Black became an international smash. But its roots date back to the dawn of the 1990s and the acid-jazz explosion led by Brand New Heavies, Galliano and others. Their records were pure club fodder mixing house tempos, funk licks inspired by The JB's, and blissful neo-soul. But they arguably planted the inspiration for a deep funk underground on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Germany, there were The Poets of Rhythm. A collective of musicians led by brothers Jan and Max Weissenfeldt (aka the Whitefield Brothers) and Boris Geiger (aka Bo Baral), the group employed numerous aliases like the Soul-Saints, the Mighty Continentals, and the Bus People Express. Soulciety Records, the label that released their 1993 debut, Practice What You Preach, notably contracted new albums from funk legends Bobby Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith and Eddie Bo.
Then there was Desco Records, formed by Philippe Lehman -- who had recently launched Pure Records in his native France -- and NYU student Gabriel Roth. The two doubled down on authenticity by employing chitlin' circuit star Lee Fields, Joseph Henry and, most importantly, Sharon Jones, who was working a series of odd jobs before she sang backing vocals on a Fields recording session. The sound of these recordings was scratchy, ruddy and raw, just like the rare funk grooves Lehman, Roth and their growing circle of musician friends liked to collect.
By 2001, when Roth and Lehman dismantled Desco over creative differences, they helped birth a dizzying variety of homage, from the Sugarman 3's organ-flavored soul jazz to the crusty Afrobeat of the Daktaris (which evolved into the much better-known Antibalas). The deep funk revival began to spread to other locales: In the Bay Area, Lyrics Born collaborated with The Poets of Rhythm for the popular underground single "I Changed My Mind." In Los Angeles, Miles Tackett, whose session credits included Macy Gray and Blind Melon, formed Breakestra with a few friends from the indie rap scene. But this playlist ends with the release of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings' Dap-Dippin' with the Dap-Kings, the first full-length from Roth's Daptone Records, which became the cornerstone for the retro-soul movement.