Jazzie B interview

By James Tremain

Jazzie B looks every inch the modern musician. With dreadlocked hair tamed inside an over-sized hat, the founding father of British R&B grins widely when asked why he has not had a recent hit.

“I just figured f*** it, how many hits can you have? You gotta give someone else a chance.”

As the founding member of chart-topping sound system Soul II Soul, Jazzie was responsible for such hits as Back to Life (However Do You Want Me) and Keep On Movin’. Their album Club Classics Vol. 1 is certified triple platinum in the U.K.

Having started a teaching course at Loughborough University, Jazzie pursued a career in music, both with Soul II Soul then as a producer. Soul II Soul won two Grammy awards, and Jazzie was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to music in 2008.

Recently he has appeared on Jamie’s Dream School, teaching music to underprivileged teenagers, and closed the last ever Jools Holland show from BBC Television Centre in November.

Jazzie has been hugely influential on the current U.K urban scene. Encompassing R&B, soul and rap, urban music has changed in the last 20 years – and Jazzie has watched it happen.

“I made an album before half the kids making records nowadays were even a seedling. To date it’s the classic of all classics of the club world.”

Few would argue with him.

Trevor Romeo was born in Finsbury Park, London, in 1963. The second youngest of 10 children, his family provided a strong influence. “My Mum was the rock,” he recalls fondly. “She was one of the main people who encouraged me. She had a special thing for each and every one of us.”

Several of his elder brothers formed what they called ‘sound systems’ – groups of DJs working together to create music. These were to have a lasting influence on Jazzie, who was inspired to form his own.

They first played outside his parents’ house on the Queen’s silver jubilee, 1977. “That was the beginning of Soul II Soul,” says Jazzie. “We completely did our own thing, no-one really understood what we were about back in those days. I wouldn’t change what we did for the world.”

Jazzie and his cohorts took their newly formed sound system to London’s warehouses, playing at parties attended by thousands of people nightly.

But they quickly outgrew the community that had supported them. “Without that community we would never have existed,” says Jazzie. “But we decided to move uptown, other venues were too small.”

In 1989, debut Club Classics Vol. 1 was released, and Soul II Soul were transformed from local heroes to global stars.

While he speaks fondly of the community that gave Soul II Soul a platform, an excitement enters his speech when he mentions their first tastes of success.

Soul II Soul toured the world for the first half of the 90s, propelled by the phenomenal sales of …Vol. 1. and follow-up Vol. II: 1990 – A New Decade. Both albums were certified platinum in the U.K, Vol. 1 reaching platinum in the U.S, Vol. II achieving gold certification.

The group received two Grammy awards, for best R&B performance on Back to Life and best R&B instrumental for African Dance.

But the plan was always to return to England. “My concept at the time was for everybody to take flight and return to the same spot. The problem was when we came back the spot had moved!” he laughs. “The skyline changed so much in London so quickly. I felt alienated from it all. But the change was evolution, the change is good.”

Despite such accolades, it is not awards that make Jazzie misty-eyed. “Barry White was responsible for me returning to England. Barry epitomized the tone I wanted. I was going to work with Barry but unfortunately he got taken ill – but that time with Barry White was the highlight of my career.”

Recalling that time with his idol is the one moment that Jazzie appears solemn. While his involvement with White obviously meant a great deal, it is impossible not to also sense the regret at an opportunity that never quite came to fruition.

Jazzie took a break from Soul II Soul as their popularity began to decline after third album Vol. III: Just Right. Focussed on his production skills, he worked with artists such as James Brown and Destiny’s Child.

In 2008, Jazzie received the first Inspiration award at the Ivor Novello awards, recognising song-writing and composing.

That same year, Jazzie was included in the Queen’s New Year Honours, and was made an OBE.

Jazzie remains involved in the business, DJ-ing in a regular slot on BBC London and at various nights around the country, and, having been so successful, is better placed than most to comment on the current music scene.

“The main difference is now it’s called urban. Before we came out it was called dance, then it was R&B, now it’s urban. But there’s no lasting legacy anymore,” he says, barely masking the disappointment in his voice. “Sometimes my son will hear me playing something and say, “that’s really old you know,” and I’m like, “I just downloaded it! It had four stars!” I infiltrate my kids’ computers to see what they’re listening to, but unfortunately I cannot decipher the information. All this grime music doesn’t have any melody. I’m very melody led.”

Despite the changes, Jazzie still believes in the power of music. Last year he appeared on Jamie’s Dream School as a music teacher, passing his knowledge onto underprivileged young people.

“The sound system aided me to be able to speak to people, not at them, and if there is any trick in the book as a teacher, that’s it,” he says. “Finding that relatable connection is key to passing knowledge.”

Such knowledge has been passed onto Jazzie’s children. His son is pursuing a career as a footballer, daughter Jessye B an actress. “Back home we have a saying: ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, so I suppose I’ve influenced them to do difficult things.”

The man who played such a large part in shaping today’s British urban music still believes in its power. “We have something very special in the U.K. We believe in the essence of music, the realness of it. Guys like Maverick Sabre, this I’m-trying-to-be-black singing, represent what urban is now, this melting pot we live in,” says Jazzie, stirring the musical cauldron with his hands.

Reflecting on his successful career, Jazzie dwells on the most enduring quality of music – the ability to inspire reactions in people. Suddenly leaning forward in his chair, it is clear that it is still the music itself that ignites Jazzie’s passion. “I want somebody to have that lasting memory of what music’s about. It conjures up all these things that happen to you emotionally – but you always go away with music being happy. Or if your girlfriend’s f****d you off, the music releases those endorphins so you feel like ‘yeah!’”

“If I look at someone in the crowd and they’ve had a reaction to something I’ve done, that’s what I want. That’s all you can ask for as a soundman.”