Since its conception in 2003, Freestyle Records has spearheaded a resurgence in funk, jazz, soul, Latin and Afro-beat music, winning consistent DJ support from worldwide tastemaking selectors such as Kenny Dope, Gilles Peterson, Norman Jay, Mr Scruff, Danny Krivit, Jazzanova and DJ Spinna. As part of the Kudos Records family, and with Greg Boraman from The Fantastics! at the helm, Freestyle continues to pave the way in independent roots music. Gavin Kendrick met up with Greg in October 2011 near the Kudos office in Kentish Town to find out more about The Fantastics! and his vision for the label in 2012.
How was your summer? I saw you were playing at the Limetree Festival with The Fantastics!.
It was damp! That was a mud festival but it was good! We’ve been doing sporadic gigs to promote the release of the new album and it’s gone down really well. The press we got was really favourable, especially as it was a bit of a step change from our previous album. It was much more varied in the genres we covered. There’s the very pop-soul single, ‘Somewhere Finally’, which is kind of Jazz FM and Radio 2 friendly right through to the last thing on the album – this weird thing in 7/8 time.
‘All The People Pt 2’?
Yeah. That’s the band. That’s the breadth of music that we like. The previous record had hinted at it, but it was still very much one of those deep funk soul jazz albums. And working where I do, there’s just too much of this same old thing. We just weren’t content to try and pretend it was 1968 and do one style. We don’t really think like that.
Sulene Fleming really gives the album an edge, she’s outstanding throughout.
Sulene Fleming is an absolute godsend. She can sing anything. Everything she recorded on that album was laid down in one take. She did takes that gave you goosebumps, literally. She’d say, ‘Roll it back, I’ll do another harmony over the one I’ve just done.’ We’d be sitting there thinking she’s done it again. She’s done it again! She’s versatile.
The first gig we did with her was at The Wardrobe in Leeds. DJ Lubi wanted to book the band but we didn’t have a vocalist at the time. We’d tried a few that hadn’t worked out and he suggested Selina. I’d never met her but I’d heard the track on the first The New Mastersounds album. At the time I thought that whoever that vocalist is, she’s knocking it out the ball park. Lubi gave me her number and we sent her some tracks to learn, the ones that Noel McKoy did on our first album, a couple of covers, and some things we wanted to record on the new album. She came down to the studio and nailed it first time on everything. After we finished, I got up from behind the keyboard and hugged her. ‘Thank you! At last!’
A really, capabale, confident singer who got the style just right. She knows the history of black music singing from the 1930s onwards. If you want it to sound like Big Mama Thornton, she can sprinkle a bit of that in. If you want it to sound like Sarah Vaughan, she can sprinkle a bit of that in too. If you want Betty Davis or Erykah Badu… It will still sound like her but she can tweak her voice and add those elements.
There’s a video from a gig we did at The 100 Club in March. We were doing ‘Somewhere Finally’ and she improvised this bit as it comes out of the second verse. We usually go into a middle eight before the sax solo starts. We had the format down. I’m playing Rhodes piano and Hammond at the same time so I’ve got my head down concentrating, when halfway through the song she sang this adlib and people just stood there and cheered as though it was the end of the track. It was as if Charlie Parker had just finished an amazing solo. I looked up and thought that the crowd seem to like this bit. It was only later when I watched the video back, I saw it from the crowd’s perspective. People roared! I showed it to her and asked her to do that every show. Sure enough she does, and at the same point in the song, the same crowd reaction happens. That is rare! It touched people. People at Limetree were splattered in mud, but at that moment it was like the sun came out!
And the C3 Hammond, do you gig that?
Yeah for our UK gigs. I’ve had that thing for twenty years. A few new digital keyboards that have come out in the last five years do a pretty good job of sounding like a Hammond, but people still appreciate it. At some gigs, people take more photos of the Hammond than they do of the band! It’s unusual to see one, and it’s in such mint condition. I’ve had it modified too so it does little things that original Hammonds didn’t do. I can control the speed of the Leslie speaker. Usually they just go fast or slow. I had all the wiring replaced and tweaked the pre-amp so it’s got a really clear sound. There is real spring reverb in it too. I can stop it dead. I can put effects loops on the organ.
It’s one of the stars of our show. It’s got a legacy to it. When you put that next to a digital Hammond-Suzuki or a Nord keyboard… they sound good until you play this thing next to it. It’s a pain though – it weighs about twenty-five stone! I described it to someone who didn’t know what a Hammond was as like going on the road and one of your band members is a lame baby elephant who has to be carried everywhere. This huge thing that can’t do anything for itself except make a noise! But when people hear it they freak! People respond to the sound. The rest of the band hates me, of course!
Alongside your career as a musician, you run scene-leading label, Freestyle Records. I interviewed Claudio Passavanti from Sunlightsquare last month and he was speaking about how he felt part of a scene with labels like Wah Wah 45s and Freestyle. What’s your take on that scene?
It’s an ongoing thing. Over the decades, Britain has had a super soft spot for Black American soul, jazz, funk, and reggae. It’s one of the countries where our equivalent music is pretty close in quality and is appreciated almost as much as the American stuff. It gets called different things. Fifteen years ago it was called acid jazz. Ten years ago it was called deep funk. You can label it however you want but it never goes away. It goes back to the jazz revival in the 80s. I was a punter on the scene then. I used to go to Gilles’ sessions at Dingwalls and Norman Jay’s Shake & Finger Pop.
It’s one of the things the British music scene has done well. If you think about European countries and labels, they caught up with us but the UK set the trend in terms of being the first step on from the original American and Jamaican black music. It was the British – and by British I mean the white people and the black people – we’ve had those communities in London for over fifty years.
The only thing that’s impacted on me in the last few years is that there’s been so much retro-styled straight ahead funk that’s desperately trying to sound like the original stuff. The comparison I make is that it’s like the British R&B and blues boom of the mid-sixties giving birth to rock music. Because try as you might, us as mainly Caucasian musicians who didn’t grow up in Chicago, who didn’t grow up in Detroit, are never going to replicate that sound or that authenticity.
My only criticism of the scene is that there are masses of albums that are nice, but unremarkable. To nick a quote from James Brown, it’s been done to death. But there are some bands that do it well. The New Mastersounds for example, and the whole Daptone thing.
I love Wah Wah 45s. And I just can’t wait to get the new Jazzman album every time they release one! I’ve known Gerald [label owner] for years – The Soul Destroyers were on one of his sub-labels and we used to rehearse in his old office in Camden. I was meant to be rehearsing but instead I’d be flicking through these super rare Sun Ra records!
I’ve heard so much about his collection.
You’d give all of your limbs to own that collection. Well, I would anyway!
With such a varied remit for the label, is there a structure to your releases?
The approach I’ve taken in A&R at Freestyle is the same as for The Fantastics!. Yes these are all of our influences, but I’m not trying to convince anybody that I’m Richard “Groove” Holmes or that our bass player is whoever it may be. Our releases all have personality. A lot of people are so concerned with recreating the sounds of the late 60s and early 70s in soul and funk that they don’t put enough of themselves in.
The stuff I choose to release has to have its own attitude, even if the playing isn’t groundbreaking. It’s got to have that something that sets it apart from everything else. The Black Feeling album we put out this summer is just a whole load of cover versions. It’s Lance Ferguson from The Bamboos. He deconstructed the tunes, he took a fusion track and made it a Latin track, he took a soul track and made it a soul jazz thing. He extended the drum and percussion breaks specifically to make it appeal to the b-boys and funk heads. And when I’ve been DJing out with that album, it works like an absolute charm. Most of the DJs and reviewers have said that it’s not very often that nearly every track on a covers album equals or sometimes actually beats the original version!
Do you get full creative control about what you sign?
Yes pretty much. Because Freestyle is situated within Kudos [a leading independent distributor], I ask the opinion of the label managers and sales guys who will be selling the stuff. Usually I just put it on in the office. If they don’t ask what it is then I already know that it might not be such a strong concept! My A&R approach is pure gut feeling. I wouldn’t be a good businessman. I get a funny little glow inside when I hear something!
It’s a great job for me, because I’m opinionated! So if it all goes horribly wrong in the next year, then it’s my fault! But the releases we’ve put out this year have shipped all physical units really quickly we’re repressing them much sooner than before. Of course digital downloads account for more sales these days, but they are looking good too.
The delight for me for this year was putting out The Shaolin Afronaughts’ album. I love the music – it’s not just Afro-beat, it goes in an Ethio-jazz direction too. There are only eight tracks on the album, and they are all long, instrumental jams. But that album’s been our most successful this year! It even got play listed on some national radio stations in France. I just thought it would be a credible release that the label should do because the music was quality. I thought it would be an okay seller and trickle out, but we can’t keep it on the shelves! It was a lovely surprise that that can still happen!
What have you got scheduled for 2012?
Our breaking news is that we’re going to be releasing a new album from Jessica Lauren and it’s amazing. It’s a drummer-less jazz quartet. The music covers gospel and rhythm and blues, all played live in one room and beautifully recorded. There is stuff on there that is so minimal it’s like something Floating Points would do. It features two tracks with Jocelyn Brown. It’s hard to describe, which for me is a good thing. It doesn’t sound like anything else I can think of. The single featuring Jocelyn hints at 50s R&B. You can hear where the influences come from but it’s not slavish to it. Outstanding.
I’ve known Jessica for over 15 years and have always really liked her stuff. When I used to do those all star jazz jam sessions at Jazz Café, she was always the musical MD. Brilliant keyboard player – puts me to shame by miles. But I like that! I’ve been wanting to work with Jessica in an A&R capacity for years, so I’m super chuffed about it. And you are the first person to hear about it! If anyone’s got an appreciation of black music from the last sixty years then they’ll love it. That’s all I can say.
I can’t wait to hear that.
I’m also launching a new compilation series called Sound of Soul Underground. It does what it says on the tin.
Is it contemporary?
Yes mostly. It’s going to be broader in its appeal than the funk compilations we did. It will cover soul, Afro-beat, disco, Latin and some of the cut-up funk edits that have been going on recently. There will be one old track on there, something that was previously released on Freestyle. I’m not going to say what it was, it slipped out as a vinyl b-side. A classic cover version by a fairly obscure artist. It’s a club banger!
One of the other albums I’m really excited about is a solo project with Angeline Morrison. She’s the vocalist who sang on the Frootful album and also sings two tracks on the new Lack of Afro album. She’s got a certain quality that sets her apart from what I call ‘session-itis’ in other vocalists! Her own band, the Ambassadors of Sorrow, do this kind of downtempo and quirky indie-folk.
This project is going to be a bossa nova, samba, 60s uptown soul thing. But she writes what you could almost call English whimsy. Folky with unusual melodies and melodic ideas, based on early 60s bosssa nova and samba. The demos she’s sent through are quite amazing. As a hint of what that’s going to sound like, there’s a new 12” that’s coming out very shortly by Frootful. It’s a reworking of ‘Slow Time’ from the album and it’s utterly beautiful. It very much points to the way that Angeline’s project is going to be next year.
There’s also going to be a Lack of Afro remix album of stuff he’s done for other labels, as well as artists on Freestyle, plus some of his unreleased things that nobody’s heard yet. There’ll be a follow up album from Candice Monique and The Optics. The first album came out a couple of years ago.
I missed that.
It didn’t get the attention it deserved and I’m going to make sure that this one does. I’ve heard some of the demos and it’s really promising. She’s a singer-songwriter and a spoken word poet from Australasia with a very contemporary R&B feel. There will also be a follow up to the ‘hit’ Shaolin Afrobeat album.
So overall it’s been a good year for Freestyle. It’s been a good year for me because as soon as you take over creative control of a record label, people suddenly think that you’re a DJ! So I’ve been getting DJ slots.
Perks! Where have you been playing?
From Brighton to Barcelona. Next month I’m off to New York for two weeks on a combined hanging out with friends having fun and a business thing. I’ve been booked to do some DJing out there. I’m going to be looking for artists, popping in to see the Wax Poetics guys, hanging out with my old friends, the Daptone guys. I’ll be hunting down artists and tracks and old stuff. I’d like to reissue some classic stuff that hasn’t been available for a while. So Freestyle isn’t abandoning the old funk and soul and jazz stuff, we’ll still be doing that. But we’ll be doing some different things, a little differently!
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