The DJ Sessions


Soul II Soul’s pioneering debut celebrates its 35th birthday

Ticketweb UK Blog | May 27, 2024

1989 was a pivotal year for music.

George Michael’s Faith won Album of the Year at the 31st Annual GRAMMY Awards, and Pepsi dropped Madonna as its spokesperson off the back of her controversial ‘Like A Prayer’ video. 

While pop and radio-friendly rock bands like Bon Jovi infiltrated mainstream airwaves across the globe, back on home soil, some really special things were happening in the dance industry. Clubs like Cream in Liverpool and Manchester’s The Haçienda had already helped usher in the Second Summer of Love eighteen months earlier – which saw the exponential rise of acid house and rave culture amongst Britain’s party-loving youth – which opened the floodgates for other artists to flex some creative muscle in this now booming beat-obsessed subculture.

It was then, in April of 1989, after years spent as a sound system before hosting a weekly residency at Brixton nightclub The Fridge, that musical collective Soul II Soul – at that time the official line-up was Jazzie B, Caron Wheeler, Nellie Hooper, Simon Law, Doreen Waddell, Rose Windross, Daddae, Aitch B, and Jazzie Q – released their debut album Club Classics Vol. One, and the face of British dance music found an exciting new expression.

In what could be seen as a stroke of logistical genius, the band released lead track ‘Keep On Movin’’ as a single a month before the album’s official release. Featuring Caron Wheeler on lead vocals, and boasting an infectious hip hop beat, this fresh take on R&B-influenced dance music brought the US market to its knees, selling over one million copies and soundtracking hundreds of college parties and hookups. While ‘Keep on Movin’’ was distinctly British, there was something of a sun-soaked LA feel to its aesthetic – the breezy “yellow is the colour of sun rays” still feels warm on your skin 30 years on, the twinkly 70s disco influence and soulful piano acting like the dreamiest of melodic backbones.

Then came the album’s second release, and the band’s biggest selling single to date – the epic and so influential ‘Back To Life’. Where to even begin with this song? While the original album version was recorded a cappella, two new versions were produced ahead of its single release – the first added instrumentation to the original, the second reworked the track with the addition of a new chorus. “(However Do You Want Me)” was also added to the title. It was this second version that would go on to become one of the most important dance tracks of the millenia. 

Unable to commit to either version, DJs started looping the two versions together to showcase the depth of Wheeler’s extraordinary vocals, blissing out pre-90s dance floors and groups of tanned revellers absorbing a post-Amnesia Ibiza sunrise. It was clear the group had created something very special, which producer Jazzie B later commented on during a 2012 interview with The Guardian:

“Everything about this single was magic. We weren’t trying to follow any trend or fit into any category – we were just doing our own thing,” he explained. 

“We often look to America for our influences, but this was a moment that put British music back on the map. It also came out at a special time in the industry’s history – just before digital took over and everything seemed to fall apart.”

Caron Wheeler added in the same interview:

“There was nothing manufactured about us; we were a bit tribal. The video was shot in Epping Forest and I think we came across as these creatures in the wilds.”

Listening back, ‘Back To Life’ has a depth to it which feels timeless. The addition of the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra (which was to become a key part of Soul II Soul’s sound) and Wheeler’s soaring vocal elevates the track beyond any other dance (and arguably R&B) track released at that time. It populated mixtapes, bent genres and defied all forms of classification. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The track peaked at No.1 on both the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart in the United States and went to No.4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In the UK, it reached No.1 in the UK Singles Chart and stayed there for four weeks in the summer of 1989. In 1990, the song won a GRAMMY Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Fun fact: the track even featured in the opening scene of the first episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Yes, really.

And while Club Classics Vol. One spawned the group’s two biggest ever singles, the rest of the album doesn’t fall in any way flat. Fusing multiple styles from the collective’s plethora of influences including thumping reggae (an ode to their sound system beginnings), Motown arrangements and of course, Jazzie B’s spoken-word interludes peppered like buoyant psalms throughout, each track is given its own sense of identity. The playful vocal stylings of ‘Fairplay’ pay homage to the band’s live energy, encouraging people to “find their expression”, while ‘Jazzie’s Groove’ (moving on silkily from ‘Back To Life’) with its jazz breaks and beats is perfect house party fodder. The entire album is simply magical, capturing a moment in time that refuses to sound in any way dated.

In the words of Jazzie B:

“The future? Ha-ha, the future for Soul II Soul. A happy face, a thumping bass for a loving race. Peace.”

God knows, we could all do with a little more of that philosophy in 2024…

Soul II Soul play The Cambridge Club from 7 June, before returning for a string of UK shows and festivals. Find tickets here

Soul II Soul’s pioneering debut celebrates its 35th birthday is from Ticketmaster UK. Read more by Amie-Jo Locke on Ticketmaster UK – Discover – Ticketmaster UK

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