Strangely enough, Soul II Soul began in 1977 on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, which was our first gig.
We were 14 years old and were having a street party in N19. We were given twelve quid to be the entertainment. I set up a sound system outside my front door, everyone had ice cream and jelly and I played my heart out from nine o’clock in the morning until about midnight. It’s quite ironic that here we are again; it’s the Queen’s jubilee and we’re getting a Music Heritage Award from PRS for Music. You couldn’t have written this any better.
This picture, taken in our lock-up around 1985, captures the nucleus of Soul II Soul a few years before our record deal with Virgin. From the left you’ve got DJ Crime, Aitch B, myself, Jazzi-Q, Sparky D and kneeling down in front is Daddae Harvey. It was a kind of press shot: you have to remember we were pretty large up and down the country just as a sound system and we had the shops at that time too.
A lot of middle class journalists labeled us capitalists. They failed to understand that we couldn’t get a job. Maggie Thatcher came in and suggested everyone got off their arses and we took full advantage. So, instead of being these illegal rogues, we were legitimised by the Manpower Services Commission, which gave us £1,000 to set up a business. We ended up having accountants and solicitors and paying taxes.
The fact that we were able to transfer our ideas into a legitimate business through to getting a record deal blew people out of the water. They were saying, ‘they must have done this,’ or, ‘they had connections’. We were children of immigrants, born and raised in Britain, and went through all that old fiasco when it came to jobs. Capitalism wasn’t even in our vocabulary at that time – it was a means of survival.
Our business was structured like a sound system. You’ve got the owner, operator, mic man, selecter, van driver, electrician and so on. That’s exactly how it worked for us then and still does today. The difference is that we hit the jackpot.
As for our deal with Virgin, every sound system puts its own music on to dub plates, so the only decision was when we should commercially release our music. We wanted to be the biggest sound system in the world. When we released a track that was so huge, every other sound system was forced to play it, so it was a way to crush the opposition. All the record deal meant was that, instead of selling our own records in our shops, we had proper nationwide distribution that could react to demand.
Soul II Soul had nothing to do with corporations and branding, it grew out of a way of life.
On 21 June 2012, Soul II Soul were awarded a PRS for Music Heritage Award, recognising the iconic British soul band’s first live gig at Brixton’s The Fridge (now Electric Brixton) in 1991. Read our feature to find out more.