Andrew Cowen delves into the unique sounds of Jazzie B and the Soul II Soul collective
There's a book to be written about Jazzie B and his Soul II Soul collective. It's a great story, an untold one about how a man with a vision, charisma and canny sense of timing changed the face of English soul music and, in doing so, raised the aspirations of a generation of black youth.
Like Afrika Bambataa's Zulu Nation in the Bronx, Jazzie made the link between music, fashion, commerce and community and gave the package back to a hungry and disenfranchised audience.
Best remembered for the stone classic singles Back To Life and Feel Free, and the album Club Classics Volume 1, the collective had a simple message: A happy face, a thumping bass for a lovin' race.
Life for Soul II Soul began as a sound system in the early 1980s.
Through playing at various house blues parties, street parties and local youth clubs, they began to gain a steady following, and more members began to join Jazzie B and Daddae Harvey, namely "Q" and Aitch B.
As time went on, the musicians began to adopt a style which became known as Funki Dred, referring to the Dreadlocks they wore with pride and style.
The T-shirts with the Funki Dred logo also caught on and soon the demand for the T-shirts meant that they had to go into production.
A clothing range soon followed - and the business side of SIIS took off with a small shop in Camden, selling a wide range of Funki Dred clothing and a record section.
While the group were expanding on a commercial clothing level, musically things were happening too.
By the late 80s, looking for other areas to expand into, Jazzie and the collective had been busy creating their own sounds, with singer Rose Windross a regular at the legendary Soul II Soul nights at Covent Garden's African Centre.
Dub plates began attracting the attention of the record companies and soon Soul II Soul signed to Virgin10 records which led to the release of their debut track Fairplay, featuring Rose Windross.
Although it did not become a massive chart hit, the track did become a massive under-ground club hit - and still is today.
A second single Feel Free with singer Do'Reen was later released - again this did not make a strong dent on the national charts, but it did go to number one on the dance charts.
The third single Keep On Movin' featured Caron Wheeler and zoomed straight into the national charts at number 5.
Success had arrived for Jazzie B and the Funki Dreds and there was no turning back.
Back To Life, the follow-up single, exceeded all expectations and shot to number one in every chart, making SIIS an instant worldwide name. The success of the singles meant that SIIS began appearing on a variety of shows in the UK and worldwide.
Along with this they were still keeping up their DJ'ing dates at the Fridge in Brixton, south London, every Friday. The SIIS tour went to places as far apart as America, Milan, Japan, Australia, South America, and throughout Europe.
The group have won Grammys, and various dance awards, plus numerous gold and platinum records worldwide in recognition of massive sales.
SIIS have settled down into their own base in a converted warehouse in Camden. Jazzie B converted the warehouse into an all-purpose building containing three studios and office space.
Jazzie B is also in demand for his production skills working as a producer and remixer.
This year sees the 20th anniversary of the release of that classic debut and the band are in as demand as ever.
Jazzie B was handed an OBE by the Queen in the New Year's Honours List and, best news of all for Birmingham's Funki Dreds, he's playing one of his legendary DJ sets at the Hare and Hounds in King's Heath on February 29.
It's disconcerting talking to Jazzie B. That voice is instantly recognisable, a deep, smooth thing, familiar from the albums. He's got a busy year ahead.
"I'm putting together a special edition of Club Classics Volume 1," he tells me. "It's still bare bones but I've got the concept in principle."
Asked about the OBE, he's uncharacteristically coy.
"I'm chuffed with it but it came as a bit of a surprise," he says. "They told me it was for services to the music industry. It's come a bit late in the game as I haven't done anything mainstream for ten years. To be honest, it weirded me out for a bit."
In April, Jazzie and his posse head off to Antigua where he's hosting the fifth annual Back To Life festival, a seven-day event of music and sunshine. It's the perfect setting for his brand of optimism.
"Norman Jay, Sharon Nelson and David Rodigan will be coming with me, plus the extended Soul II Soul family. I can't wait."
It was a very different cultural landscape that carried the collective to fame. Jazzie B's business acumen was at home in the Thatcherite years, although he was never a Tory. However, the chances were there for go-getters and ambition wasn't a dirty word.
I wondered how he felt about today's scene. "That's a tough question," he tells me. "I suppose I just do what I do and don't worry so much about how it's interpreted. They were really positive times.
"It's a completely different kettle of fish now. There are slim pickings these days. We're more of a cottage industry.
"For the youth, everything changed on 9/11. We're all casualties of that. There's just so much distrust now between the various communities. There's still positivity but it's harder to find. 9/11 put a real spank on everything."
The clubbing scene which supported Soul II Soul has also gone.
"It's all mainstream now. The underground was a casualty of that. There weren't the pressures then which made my job much easier."
Jazzie still gets his kicks from DJ-ing, his first love. He can't wait to be back in Birmingham and he'll be playing for about three hours. He won't say what he'll be playing, but promises one thing: "There won't be any techno."