Brooklyn imprint Daptone Records is testament to the way unadulterated passion for music can re-shape the world.
Launched by a group of crate-diggers, musicians, songwriters, and producers, Daptone went on to re-define soul for a 21st century audience.
Bringing the world such inimitable, instantly recognisable voices as Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, Daptone would also play a crucial role in era-defining releases by everyone from Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson through to Bruno Mars, and beyond.
For all their undeniable success, however, the imprint has always been driven by one thing: a complete commitment to soul music, one that honours its heritage in an engaging, unpretentious, and extremely raw way.
Noted journalist - and a respected DJ herself - Jessica Lipsky took up the mantle of detailing the Daptone Records story in her new book, the aptly titled It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st-Century Soul Revolution.
It's a terrific read, a tome that will have reaching for those incredible records once more, exposing fresh stories and plentiful insight on virtually every page.
One of the book's many key themes is the way that Daptone Records would continually reach out to pockets around the world, building a global audience before returning to find success in the United States.
Clash picks up on this with a short extract, focussing on the interaction between Desco - the label that preceded Daptone - and European audiences.
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Crammed into a van, The Soul Providers would do small tours of the East Coast and Southern California with Sharon Jones and sometimes Lee Fields, hustling to feed a musical need people didn’t know they had. Audience appreciation for Desco’s dedication to hard funk and performance grew with each gig, and records disappeared from merch tables, though love for the label remained seriously underground in the States.
As with other independent labels dealing in similar sounds— including Los Angeles’s Ubiquity Records and the influential hip-hop label Stones Throw—Desco’s reach was limited to deep funk fiends who were initially fooled into purchasing the label’s “reissues” and came to favor Desco’s “vintage” aesthetic, or were simply stunned by a modern band’s commitment to rawness.
In any case, Desco had been slowly amassing a cadre of collectors, DJs, journalists, and fellow musicians who would further the label’s cause. They shared an aesthetic and the sensibility that the acid jazz and neo-soul scenes were too smooth and inauthentic; that the best shit was done with sincerity and an ear finely tuned to the imperfections of 60s and 70s records.
Chief among these early champions was the UK’s Keb Darge, an influential DJ and producer who is credited with originating the term 'deep funk', and who operated a massively popular Friday night residency called Legendary Deep Funk at the London strip club turned music venue Madame JoJo’s. Darge—along with colleagues Snowboy, Pete Issac of Jelly Jazz, and a handful of other early adopters—spent years building successful funk DJ nights with dedicated soundtracks, hammering tunes like 'Hook And Sling' by New Orleans’ Eddie Bo, obscurities from Cross Bronx Expressway, and a way funkier take on 'Blueberry Hill' from Joe Washington to eager dancers.
Although there was a sonic and subcultural precedent for Desco’s funk in New York City and other parts of the US, Britain proved to be much more fertile and receptive ground because of the country’s unique club culture and soul history. As with many of his contemporaries, Darge came up in the northern soul scene—a musical subculture that’s more descriptive of a regional taste than a particular sound. A foundational piece of youth culture among mods, soulies, and suedeheads (former anti-racist skinheads who had “moved on” from the culture), northern soul song lyrics cum slogans like Keep The Faith and It’ll Never Be Over For Me became tribal banners. Supporters were dedicated to clubs and specific venues—chief among them the Wigan Casino, a club located between Liverpool and Manchester, where Keb Darge danced—and kids would make pilgrimages to dance to and dig for their favorite tunes from Tamla Motown, Ric Tic, and countless other smaller American labels, as well as singles from UK labels slinging reissues.
Twenty-something years later, the culture of northern soul had been enveloped into UK musical history and deeply influenced the acid jazz and funk scene of the 90s. “It was really the deep funk scene that Desco was birthed into; that’s why Desco kind of worked,” Desco and Daptone Records co-founder Gabe Roth muses, adding that deep funk scenes had popped up in France and elsewhere in Europe. “There was context for the love for funk and stuff like James Brown. There’s much more respect for that, culturally, once you get out of United States. People here always kind of looked at it as this retro thing, whereas other places people look at it a little deeper. I guess we take it for granted.”
Darge and company were the first to lend their support when Desco started pressing 45s—the preferred medium of northern soul, deep funk, and other vintage sound collectors—in 1997. “The stuff recorded today on these marvelous digital studios, to me, is piss,” Darge told a London TV program in 2002. “But you listen to this nice warm analog sound which existed in ’67 to ’72, ’74, is just pure from-the-guts music.”
Of course, Desco’s sound existed in the pocket of that specific era. “Yo, your 45s are crazy,” Roth remembers British DJs saying. “Keb would play Joseph Henry’s ‘Who’s The King’ two or three times at night. The Sharon Jones ‘Damn It’s Hot’ too.”
Desco expanded its network of likeminded, hip folks across the Atlantic, connecting with the likes of Adrian Gibson, who booked Camden’s legendary Jazz Café (an important venue for soul and jazz, and a haunt of budding chanteuse Amy Winehouse, who in 1998 was still a teenager). The label gigged across Europe, with all of Desco’s groups taking flight except The Daktaris. Lee Fields did one weeklong Euro tour in those early days but, as an established musician, had more extensive touring requirements and a larger fee. “He knew he could just afford to say no,” guitarist and Sharon Jones emcee Binky Griptite notes, “but Sharon was down to roll, so Gabe started doing more stuff with her.”
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With support from Darge and others, Sharon Jones and The Soul Providers had a built-in British audience that far exceeded the band’s hometown crowd. As The Soul Providers readied themselves to take the cabaret-sized stage at Madame JoJo’s, Keb Darge amped up the crowd, big-upping the band without a hint of insincerity. “Nobody’s doing this,” Darge bellowed in his pleasing Scottish accent. “This is the best band you’ll ever see, fucking pay attention! I play their records every night, you know.”
“We could only get twenty, thirty people down at the Pyramid or the Mercury Lounge, but when we went to England we were playing for like hundreds of people,” Roth recalls. “People knew the words to the songs.” In May 1999, when the band travelled across the country to Plymouth— the British disembarking point for the Mayflower, and the site of famed club Jelly Jazz—the band were suddenly performing to a thousand-seat ballroom. “People were dancing and singing along, and like wanting autographs—it was crazy.”
Interviewed with Desco co-founder Phillip Lehman the morning after their show and looking remarkably awake for someone who had stayed out until 6am, Roth said he mistook the screaming crowd for guitar feedback. Discussing the New York versus European scene from behind huge aviator glasses and characteristically clenched teeth, Lehman reflected on the party atmosphere of Jelly Jazz. “It’s just a whole bunch of people having fun, not giving a shit. In New York, it’s all about attitude and this and that.”
Although he was just sixteen at the time, multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels told seminal blog Flea Market Funk that the Plymouth gig was the most memorable he’s ever played. “There were five hundred people in the room and when we hit the stage they looked totally possessed... I just figured that we were wildly popular in England but later found out it was essentially a rave and the entire audience was on ecstasy.”
On that same tour—during which Roth and Jones would swear they saw the Queen at a ghetto motel above a gay bar and massage parlor in the Welsh seaside town of Swansea—The Soul Providers opened for J.B.’s sax man Maceo Parker at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town. “It was the most amazing thing when we got there,” Jones said in 2001 from a Williamsburg basement. “There were so many people there. I came on, right, and if I would’ve said, ‘Everyone take off your clothes and get naked,’ they would’ve gotten naked. When Maceo came on I was standing at the back of the stage and they’re like, ‘Maceo, call Sharon up.’ That was amazing. I was like, ‘Get out of here!’”
The Sugarman 3 also hopped around the UK, performing at Jazz Café, in Leeds at the Yardbird Suite, zipping to Manchester and then over to Jelly Jazz. While in Belgium during those early years, the quartet performed a last-minute show at an Antwerp jail after another gig was canceled. The money was good, but “no one wanted to hear boogaloo,” organist Adam Scone remembers, laughing. At the time, the Ohio native was fresh out of jazz school. “They all wanted to hear black metal!” With their parents’ blessing, Roth chaperoned The Mighty Imperials on a European tour where, drummer Homer Steinweiss recalls, “there’s this huge reception for these, like, fifteen year-olds playing organ funk, which wasn’t really happening in New York.”
If the New York scene for raw funk was limited to Desco and its affiliates—the city, by the late 90s, seemed more interested in hip-hop from the likes of Jay-Z and Nas, and was on the cusp of a reinvigorated indie-rock scene that would spawn LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, and others—a handful of bands around the world were picking up on a similar soulful vibe. Among them were The New Mastersounds (a British band associated with Keb Darge that a handful of Desco folks relegated to the acid-jazz scene and were generally unimpressed by) and Japanese funk orchestra Osaka Monaurail, who headlined a bimonthly funk and soul party called Shout! starting in ’98 and toured with J.B.’s disciple Marva Whitney.
In a desolate Finnish suburb, a funk group called Calypso King and The Soul Investigators formed in 1997 and released a couple of seven-inches on their homemade Jive label. In Melbourne, Australia, New Zealand–born producer/guitarist/songwriter Lance Ferguson formed an instrumental funk group called The Bamboos based on the same Meters/J.B.’s influences. The group grabbed the ear of Darge, Snowboy, and UK musician-producer-DJ Quantic, who himself would develop funk and soul projects around the world.
This is an edited excerpt from It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st-Century Soul Revolution by Jessica Lipsky, available now from Jawbone Press.
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Photo Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff