LABEL PROFILE Freestyle Records Covers Lost UK Street Soul, Brit Funk, and Boogie By Andy Thomas · June 21, 2023

Founded in 2003 by live music promoter Adrian Gibson, Freestyle Records was at the forefront of the renaissance in UK funk, soul, and dancefloor jazz. When his successor Greg Boraman moved on to set up Soul Bank Music in 2019, partly as a platform for British Hammond organ legend Brian Auger, it looked like Freestyle Records had seen its last days.

But in 2021, Freestyle Records was revived by Luke Owen, who for the past nine years has also run the archive label Death is Not The End. Having dug deep to uncover everything from Japanese ryūkōka to DINTE’s best-selling record London Pirate Radio Adverts, there was no way Owen was going to steer Freestyle Records into anything but a new direction.

“There was just so much UK street soul, Brit funk, and boogie records in the ‘80s and ‘90s that had slipped under the radar, so that is really where I wanted to put the focus,” says Owen. “When I took Freestyle over, Omar [the UK soul singer] was the most well-known artist on the label, and I wanted to look deeper and focus on re-issues of similar unsung artists and rarities.”

The latest incarnation of Freestyle Records has coincided with a surge in interest in this forgotten corner of UK music. Like Brit funk from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the artists and producers of UK street soul and boogie took influences from America, but their sonic signature was rooted in British sound system culture. “This all came from a group of musicians and producers who were spreading their focus not just on soul music but also simultaneously working in the reggae scene on lovers rock records,” says Owen.

Towards the mid-’80s with the growing emphasis on drum machines and synths, electro-funk and boogie took hold in the UK. But what defined these records from those sought-after U.S. imports? “As with Brit funk, a lot of the UK stuff was taking influences from the U.S. sound but due to lower budgets and less studio gadgetry and an ear for a rougher production style, it came out the other end totally different,” says Owen. “And then by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, if there was a defining feature, it was those tinny highs with the drum machines up in the mix and really heavy bass. So sort of mimicking the sonic make up of reggae and dancehall. And I think that raw sound is what a lot of producers revisiting this stuff today are drawn to.”

While there were occasional chart successes on major labels, most notably Soul II Soul, the music on these Freestyle reissues was born from the underground clubs, on pirate radio, and through small regional labels. “There was certainly a huge subculture around this period of underground UK soul music,” says Owen. “However, it’s very easy to have this revisionist perspective on these artists, that they were intentionally underground existing in this scene with a self-sustaining economy. But with a lot of these records, there was a definite desire for chart success at the same time.”

The most successful of the indie labels to rise from this musical subculture was Elite Records, founded by the late Andy Sojka, member of the pioneering Brit Funk group Atmosfear. But much less well-known was a small sub-label of Elite by the name of Challenge Records. It was also founded by Sojka—with production partner and writer Rick de Jongh, an important figure in this story, whose cross-genre output was typical of the scene. “Challenge started out as a lovers rock label, and indeed Rick de Jongh was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s a lovers rock artist himself,” says Owen.

Unknown outside of the underground clubs, Sojka and de Jongh’s raw electro-funk project for the label Contact-U is the perfect jumping-in point to this new era of Freestyle Records.

Dancing Inner Space, 1982​-​1984

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The 2022 compilation of Contact-U’s 12-inches from the early to mid-’80s arrived like a missing piece in the history of UK dance music. “What I really like about those Contact-U records and a lot of others on Challenge was that you had boogie, electro-funk, and soul records, but they very much followed a reggae vocal and dub version tradition,” says Owen. “So it was really grounded in reggae and sound system culture in the UK and also, I think, really ahead of its time stylistically.” The run of three 12-inches from Sojka and de Jongh for Challenge Records was preceded by the unreleased “Inside You” in November 1982. This mutant slab of electro-funk was followed by “Break It Up/Breaking Point,” raw, minimal electro that when heard now sounds like a lost B-boy classic. The album takes its title from the final of the Contact-U 12-inches; a raw electro-funk stomper to tear up any dancefloor.

Just One More Kiss

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As well as Contact-U, between 1982 and 1984, Sojka and de Jongh had a string of co-production credits. This included Beverley Skeete’s “If The Feeling is Right” for Elite (penned by de Jongh, which was standard for Elite releases) and a number of Atmosfear 12-inches for the label. Their output for Challenge Records outside of Contact-U began with the killer Hi-NRG 12-inch Heartbreak under the name Word of Mouth in 1984. It was swiftly followed by their one and only 12-inch under the name Distance. Recorded at the home studio of Galaxy’s Phil Fearon, “One More Kiss” featured vocalists Janey Hallett and Julia Fordham, who went on to appear on many of the label’s Hi-NRG sides written by de Jongh. “It’s interesting because Rick wasn’t connected to any scene in terms of going to clubs, he was very much a musician and arranger focused on just making great records,” says Owen.

La Famille
“Dancer” (feat. Caron Wheeler)

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La Famille was a four-piece put together by reggae guitarist Alan Weekes (Jazz Jamaica) and featured 19-year-old Caron Wheeler (future singer with Soul II Soul) and Claudia Fontaine, Wheeler’s partner in the group Afrodiziak. “As far as I’m aware, this is the first soul-related record Caron Wheeler, who was part of Lovers Rock group Brown Sugar, appears on so it sounds very much like the genesis of what comes later with Soul II Soul,” says Owen. “This is another really good example of a solid boogie record coming out of a stable that was mainly geared towards reggae.” La Famille went on to release a lovers rock 12-inch entitled “All Night Long,” further proof of the close connection between reggae and soul in the UK underground at the time. Originally released on white label only in 1982, this hen’s teeth rarity is now fetching over $200 on Discogs.

Take Three
Tonight’s The Night” b/w “Breakers Night”

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Another tricky one to find, Take Three’s Tonight’s the Night was UK boogie at its absolute best. “This was the first record I went out to license for this series,” says Owen. “I think it was indicative of that dub version style towards the boogie end of things.” The group was put together by writer/producer trio “S.H.E.”, made up of Steve Sinclair, Kevin Ellis, and Peter Hinds, an original Brit funk hero as keyboardist for Atmosfear, Light of the World, and Beggar & Co. For this killer 12-inch on their own Fast Forward label with distribution by Sojka’s Blackmarketing, the sweet UK soul vocals came from South London lovers rock vocal harmony group Alpha (sisters Jackie & Jean Heron and Marlene Richardson). The “New York Dance Mix” is the standout. Sinclair, Hinds, and Ellis went on to form Sahara, who had the huge street soul hit “Love So Fine.”

Hard Times” b/w “If You Want My Love”

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“Invariably, when you look into reissuing these kinds of records, you find the stuff that is really in demand now was a flop at the time,” says Owen. The usual perusal of Discogs will reveal this as perhaps the holy grail of UK electro boogie.

Another UK soul group with their roots in reggae, Chequers was put together by John and Richard Matthias who released three reggae 7-inches in the mid-1970s before their debut soul album Check Us Out in 1976. “They were an interesting band and predated bands like The Specials in being a multi-racial group when it wasn’t the norm,” says Owen. Released on Chequers’s own Matthias label, “Hard Times” was right at the top of Owen’s wantlist, and you can hear why.

“Girls World”

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“Girls World” was the work of Bernadette (Berny) Cosgrove and Kevin Clark, a songwriting and production duo from Wolverhampton in the West Midlands of England. Previously touring the clubs as a covers band and writing jingles for adverts, they released this killer boogie funk track in 1983 under the name Chartz. It was the only release for Digital Records, one of the many local micro-labels that supported the scene. But unlike Digital Records, which sank without a trace, Berny and Kevin went on to become a successful songwriting duo working with labels like Motown. As with all these Freestyle releases, they are out both on digital and vinyl. “That was one of the first aims of this project, to give the original 12-inches a high-quality production, including the dub version B-sides,” says Owen. “Then the next aim is to dig even deeper. The long-term plan is to put together our own compilations that can tell the story and to try and draw the lines between the different styles and scenes.”


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