In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the UK was in thrall to the searing sounds of Acid House. But at the same time, another, more DIY sound was rising out of the Black inner city neighborhoods. That sound was street soul—and as the history of club culture has been written over the years, it still remains unjustly overlooked.
Defined by its raw, minimal, hip-hop inspired drum-machine rhythms, reggae-influenced bass, and ‘80s synth riffs topped with sweet, soaring vocals, UK street soul was born from the clubs, blues parties, and pirate radio. Well away from the media spotlight, the homegrown scene gestated on a number of small regional labels, amassing a devoted underground following.
Though original LPs fetch upwards of $100, the last several years have seen an increase in the number of labels re-pressing and re-issuing street soul classics for a new audience. Joy Orbison featured “Heartbreaker” by Toyin Agbetu on his edition of the Dekmantel Selectors series, and Toronto’s Invisible City Editions recently released the collection Street Soul, featuring tracks from the two LPs Agbetu and Earl Myers released under the name Soul Connection in 1988 and 1990.
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Run an internet search for Agbetu—or Master Tee, one of his many production monikers—and you will be led to a trove of UK street soul classics. A former computer programmer, Agbetu got the producer bug after seeing the same two names pop up on the U.S. soul records he was buying. “[All of them] had the words ‘Produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ printed on them,” he recalls. While UK street soul owes a debt to Jam & Lewis, it was Brit Funk bands like Freeez, Atmosfear, and 52nd Street that proved to him that the UK could make their own brand of homegrown dance music. “As a musical movement, our history was linked to our U.S. counterparts, but we also had our own distinct identity,” Agbetu says.
For Agbetu, this first wave of UK dance music in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was the foundation of the UK street soul movement. “Many of the UK’s first underground soul records came from groups produced on small dance labels, like Elite Records who started with Atmosfear,” he says. “The UK street soul that followed was distinctly British—its sound emerged from bedroom studios in the mid-to-late ‘80s, not from expensive productions on major record labels, but tracks recorded with minuscule budgets by independent, often artist-owned labels.”
The roots of the UK street soul sound can be traced back to one group in particular. “Loose Ends was a highly visible, immaculately presented, slickly produced, all-African-heritage group that did not compromise on their musical roots,” says Agbetu. “This was significant: They were not a funk band, they were Britain’s first major soul-jazz band.” With its sparse TR808 beats influenced by Jam & Lewis, heavy bassline and sublime vocals, the group’s “Hanging on a String” sketched a uniquely UK blueprint for many producer-artists to build on.”
Under his Master Tee alias, Agbetu produced Rosaline Joyce’s LP Lovers Soul, before forming one of UK street soul’s most lauded groups: Deluxe, with singer Delores Springer. Springer had a background in Lover’s Rock, the UK’s soulful reggae variant that had a close connection to UK street soul through the sweetness of its sound and the small labels that supported the music. The group’s LP Just A Little More was released on Intrigue Records, which Agbetu established as a subsidiary of Unyque. The label became one of the main homes for UK street soul alongside tiny self-run labels Soultown, Jam Today, and TSR (Top Secret Recordings) home to Special Touch’s rarity Garden of Life.
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“None of us independent labels could compete with the muscle of a major label in our territory, especially when they had such brilliant artists,” says Agbetu. “Back in the day, the only way we could survive long term was by ensuring our production costs were low. We had to own our own studios, produce our own records, deliver stock to key record shops, and radio stations by hand from the back of our cars.”
These independent labels gave the artists great creative freedom. “Being on a small label with a minuscule budget forced us to innovate,” says Agbetu. “Ultimately, working guerrilla style meant mastering what you could afford to purchase because that was what you had. How could we do something different with this gear that would be musical but still recognizable as soul, only UK street soul style?”
Agebtu intended Unyque to be something of a UK version of Clarence Avant’s Tabu Records, which was home to The S.O.S Band, Cherrelle, and early productions by Jam and Lewis. “However, because I couldn’t yet afford the pricier instruments and state of the art studios, I used much cheaper alternatives,” says Agebtu. “My basslines were handled by either a Roland SH-101 or Juno 106, the Rhodes was simulated with a Yamaha TX7 module with a simple electric piano preset or Akai S950 sampler.”
This DIY approach gave UK street soul its own raw, soulful sound with distinctive drum patterns and thumping basslines. “This swing factor was a crucial element to the music. The most authentic street soul tracks all had that swing,” says Agbetu. “Our tracks were protests against excess, our independence a cry for self-determination.”
This sound was at its most raw and minimal on Rough & Ready and Raw Street Soul the two LPs Agbetu produced from his East London bedroom studio with Earl Myers and singer Thomas Esterine. “They certainly weren’t the best street soul tracks ever released, but they were some of the most honest,” says Agbetu. “In fact the album titles say it all… Rough and ready, raw, and with a message and style directly from the streets.”
Although legal stations like Solar Radio and Choice were supportive, it was really through the pirate stations that UK street soul found its home. “Stations like LWR, Supreme, Lightning, Station FM, WNK, Invicta and so many others all came to our rescue,” says Agbetu.
This movement had branches across the UK, whose tastemakers Agebtu would meet while playing clubs across the country. While everywhere from Birmingham to Bristol reverberated with the sweet vibrations of UK street soul, it was in Manchester where the scene was strongest.
Grand Central Records founder Mark Rae moved there from the North East of England in 1987. “I had fallen in love with an album by Loose Ends called Zagora,” he recalls. “This 808 drum machine soul, led in part by Nick Martinelli, was very fresh sonically. More importantly, they weren’t American-sounding songs. The writing style had its own British feel, which was a continuation of the ground won in the jazz funk and Brit Funk scene that came before it.”
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Rae immersed himself in the scene, becoming a regular at some of Manchester’s prominent Black music clubs. “The biggest club at the time for this was run by Soul Control at a place called The Gallery,” says Rae. “They would take their own sound system into a club, and it would be like a reggae sound: Huge bass, and MCs and DJs at the control. This is essentially what UK street soul is: The mixing of Jamaican dynamics with the American soul hits, and then the UK interpretation of this via our own productions. In essence, it’s an emotional expression of the UK inner city experience.”
Rae would soon begin spinning this music alongside the hip-hop tracks that were played at the Man Alive club and at Precinct 13, where UK street soul became the dominant music. “It was a place that had attracted a crowd that expected the street soul that was being pushed on pirate radio at that time,” says Rae. “It was the best atmosphere I have ever DJ’d in, because it was electric—these songs really belonged to the people.”
The connection was solidified when Manchester started to produce its own street soul. “I remember the chill running down my spine when half the club in Precinct 13 stood on the tables and banged their bottles on the ceiling when we used to drop “Just a Little More” by [Manchester group] Fifth of Heaven,” says Rae.
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With the beautiful vocals of Manchester singer Denise Johnson—who also sang with Primal Scream and A Certain Ratio and who, sadly, passed away in July of this year—Fifth of Heaven’s “Just a Little More” was the perfect UK street soul record. “The track is 88 bpm in a minor key—which is a super sweet melancholy—and you have a club going crazy to it,” says Rae. “It’s the opposite of rave, it’s music as an emotional drug, based on the need for human closeness. Denise is the heart of this story, in spirit and soul.” Another female Manchester singer whose sweet voice was tailor-made for the ‘80s production of UK street soul was Diane Charlemagne, who also passed away recently. Best known for her vocals for Factory Records’ 52nd Street, her street soul records with Cool Down Zone are classics of the genre.
Over time, Stu Allan’s show Bud Diss on Piccadilly Radio and Leaky Fresh on Sunset FM became important platforms for UK street soul; but spiritually, the music always remained closely linked to the pirate radio stations that were transmitted from tower blocks across the city. “The pirates were incredibly dominant and important for UK street soul,” says Rae. “You had [shows like] Soul Nation, Front Line, Unity, and Sting—this all fit with the DIY style of the music, where you’d put your own 12″ together and get distributed with no interference from record label A&R.” And even while street-soul-inspired acts like Soul II Soul and Omar made waves in the mainstream, pioneering UK street soul artists never quite caught the same above-ground success. “Soul music mixed with hip-hop that ranged between 80 bpm two-step and 105 bpm bounce—it didn’t fit in with a predominantly white crowd on ecstasy,” says Rae. “This is why these stories are sometimes forgotten, or ignored. Street soul is a message of love from the often forgotten inner cities of Britain.”
For Toyin Agbetu these forgotten artists created a template that would reach worldwide. “It’s the musical DNA of what many DJ’s and music journalists today label neo-soul,” he says, “and it created the musical template for artists like Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. The sparse beats, electric piano, mid-tempo grooves, two-step rhythm and rejection of R&B fads all originated in the street soul movement. It’s a uniquely British phenomenon that has spawned so many imitators they’ve forgotten its roots.”