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Black History Month - Album Restrospective: Late 80s and Early 90s

This October, we're joining the conversation surrounding #blackhistorymonth by delving into iconic and timeless albums each week, created by just some of the amazing British Black musicians from our shores. To kick things off, we're heading back to the late 80's and early 90's to explore a couple of genre-defining R&B, drum & bass and trip-hop albums.

Soul II Soul ‘Club Classics Vol. 1’ - 1989

The iconic urban outfit released their now legendary ‘Club Classics Vol.1’ just over 30 years ago, featuring underground club hits like ‘Fairplay’ and of course the chart topping smashes ‘Back To Life’ and ‘Keep On Movin’’ – but founding member ‘Jazzie B’ began his journey in the late 70s. Starting life out as ‘Jah Rico’, a sound system with nothing more than a pair of decks, mic and speakers, the collective cut their teeth performing in clubs around London before taking on the Soul II Soul Moniker in ‘82. The name change was in part to reflect changing musical tastes within the group, whilst also creating an air of authenticity and identity.

As their nights performing at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden became legendary, Soul II Soul soaked up the aura of the MCs and musicians they shared the stage with, helping to influence their sound of fused reggae, hop-hip, R&B and, of course, soul. This musical blend helped create the Soul II Soul sound that’s found on their debut album. First track and eventual single ‘Keep On Movin’’ is the perfect introduction to this sound, with the steady piano riff opening matching perfectly with the smooth sound of Caron Wheeler’s vocals, this groove flawlessly sets the tone for the iconic album. On the slight flipside, the track ‘Fairplay’ was written with the dancefloor in mind, as the track became a staple in the club scene. Paying homage to the Africa Centre where the band built their name, this R&B laden tune came straight from the heart of their influences and brought it to the forefront. The single that really solidified the band as a gamechanger is ‘Back To Life’, surprisingly a late addition to Club Classics Vol 1. Once again with Caron Wheeler at the vocal helm, the track’s hip hop heavy beat carries along the sublime piano and strings through its 3:48 run time. The original version of the track heavily featured acapella, a stark difference to the dance hit that rocketed to the top of the charts. Soul II Soul truly went from strength to strength, as not only did the single top the UK chart in 1989, but also top 5 in the USA, truly defining British R&B and taking it confidently across the pond.

Previously unmarked territory for a Black British act, their popularity was evident in the states as the band picked up two Grammy Awards in 1990, along with a handful of American Music Award nominations. Their transatlantic success only further pushed their ideals of inclusivity and diversity, whilst showing that Black British artists had an invaluable voice in the world of soul and R&B.

Massive Attack ‘Blue Lines’ - 1991

Another influential and important debut followed in 1991, taking some of these previous hip hop learnings underarm and traversing into a world of electronic and dance music with them. Massive Attack brought the electric and bass beats previously tucked away in dank and dreary corners of urban Bristol and promptly dropped them in front of our noses, where there was no way to ignore them any longer. Not only did ‘Blue Lines’ come with these explorations of multiple genres, but also brought second-generation British immigrants to the forefront, representing a section of the population that had little voice beforehand – racially and sonically.

The core members of Massive Attack, Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall and Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles, were previously part of a collective known as Wild Bunch, where their DJ and production skills reigned supreme. This formula continued as they turned to a handful of vocalists to carry the hip-hop and dance tunes throughout the album, with occasional rap segments from the trio. The soulful vocals from Shara Nelson on ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ are lifted skyward by the stringed orchestra, rhythmic beat and selection of samples underneath. The use of samples is an integral part of ‘Blue Lines’, as the band’s main access point for music was their own record and sample collections. You’ll hear the likes of Isaac Hayes on ‘Looking Back At You’ and Billy Cobham on ‘Safe From Harm’ – just two examples of the band’s ethos, that actually, you don’t need to have access to a wealth of instruments to create truly great music. Because of this, there’s a true feeling of multiple genres blending with trip hop style. This use of samples is still very much prevalent in the industry today.

Although debates rage on about which album is heralded as their true masterpiece, there’s no denying that the landmark album ‘Blue Lines’ kick started an incredibly successful career for Massive Attack. Drawing on multiple cultures and influences from soul to reggae to the Bristol scene on their doorstop, ‘Blue Lines’ tore up the rule book and created their own to play by.