The summer of 2008 is starting to sound a lot like … 2007? Recent singles, including Solange Knowles’ sock-hoppin’ “I Decided” and Little Jackie’s tart “The World Should Revolve Around Me,” ostensibly nod back to the swing and shine of Motown’s 1960s sound, but the inspiration isn’t Tammi Terrell as much as Amy Winehouse. Her platinum sales from last year’s Back to Black have inspired a wave of R&B hopefuls to dabble in a Detroit/Philly/Memphis mishmash of handclap backbeats, loping bass lines and barrages of brass, all riffing on Back to Black’s retro-soul sound.
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Jones: Those heels will squish you dead.
Listening both bemusedly and warily are the key craftsmen behind that sound: Brooklyn’s Dap-Kings, integral players in both Winehouse’s studio and tour bands. Dap-Kings’ leader, Gabriel Roth, jokes that the current retro-soul fad “makes pop music more bearable,” but he knows that “it can always bite you in the ass. Everybody wants stuff to sound like what we’re doing right now, and then maybe next year, everybody will be tired of it.”
The Dap-Kings are used to unpredictability. Best known for backing the thunder-throated Sharon Jones, their 2005 album, Naturally, sold a modest 15,000. In contrast, their third album, 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights, moved a brisk 90,000 units — extraordinary for an independent label — while band members recently appeared as MTV’s VMA house band and backed soul legend Al Green on his new album, Lay It Down.
Jones — their extraordinary, 50-something vocalist — has earned the most shine, but like the session bands that inspired them (think Stax’s Mar-Keys or Motown’s Funk Brothers), the Dap-Kings are accomplished, ambitious talents in their own right. Through their home label, Daptone Records, they’re a major reason for the growing popularity in throwback soul; it just took a decade for everyone else to catch on.
Much of the group’s retinue dates back to the Soul Providers, house band for Desco Records, founded by Roth and Phillip Lehman, circa 1995. Desco’s raison d’être lay in resurrecting the sound of small-label, gut-bucket funk from soul’s golden era; less Sly Stone and George Clinton, more Dyke and the Blazers or the Meters. What began as a bit of lark — recording new music packaged to pass as “lost” vintage records — quickly drew a New York cadre of young, like-minded musicians.
“Desco was really exciting, even, in a way, more than now because it was so underground, and there was no one else doing it,” says saxophonist and Daptone co-founder Neal Sugarman. He and Roth first met in the mid-1990s, after Sugarman had formed his Sugarman 3, modeled off the funky, Hammond-organ-powered bands of the late Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff. Desco eventually released its debut, Sugar’s Boogaloo, in 1998, and Sugarman became an essential sessioner for the label.
Likewise, Tom “TNT” Brenneck, a self-described “little, Jimi Hendrix guitar-playing freak-show” teen from Staten Island listened to Roth and Lehman’s weekly Across 110th Street soul/funk show on Columbia’s WKCR. Brenneck and his friends (now in the Daptone-signed Budos Band) were so inspired by Desco’s sound, they began stalking nightclubs just to hand Roth and Sugarman their demos. “I was only 19. I couldn’t even get into these clubs, so I would sneak in through the kitchen,” Brenneck says with a laugh.
Like most of the Dap-Kings, he is a consummate multitasker: guitarist in the Dap-Kings and Budos Band and founder of both the Menahan Street Band and Daptone imprint, Dunham Records.
Desco’s ability to draw talent was enough that, even when the label collapsed amid creative differences between Lehman and Roth in 2001, it left behind a sprawling extended family. That included the Afro-beat-inspired Antibalas Band and soul-jazz outfit the El Michels Affair, as well as ties to an international network of similar bands, including L.A.’s own Breakestra, Germany’s Poets of Rhythm, Finland’s Soul Investigators and Australia’s Bamboos. Collectively, “a lot of the credit for the renaissance in soul music is due to their enthusiasm and those deep, underground movements,” Roth insists.
Roth and Sugarman formed the Dap-Kings and Daptone out of Desco’s ashses, initially sustaining its predecessor’s particular aesthetic. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ early 7-inch singles hewed close enough to the sound of, say, James Brown or Eddie Bo, that unknowing listeners assumed they were vintage. Those confusions were a mark of pride. “That was the music we wanted to compare it to anyway. We wanted them to put it up against an old record and still say it’s a good record,” Roth explains.
However, the Dap-Kings began to move past mimicry toward a more sophisticated range of songwriting and musicianship. The group’s first album, 2002’s Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings had a tightly wound, frenetic feel, unabashedly in the vein of Lyn Collins or Marva Whitney. By 100 Days, 100 Nights, Sugarman says, the group learned to unwind into a more “open” sound: “There’s so much not happening, there’s so much space in those records, and you hear, on the production and playing end, not only air between the microphone and the musicians but the way the rhythm breathes,” he explains.
The result is an album that deftly blends soul, blues, funk and gospel influences without falling into a “time-machine” syndrome.
The mastery of these styles have propelled the Dap-Kings into pop music’s go-to sessioners for artists seeking a “classic” soul sound. The Daptone Horns recently backed Anthony Hamilton on the American Gangster soundtrack and recorded with Al Green, a remarkable full-circle of a soul pioneer collaborating with his artistic progeny. “Getting the call was unbelievable,” Sugarman says. “I think all of us are fanatics [for his] records.”
Even more unexpected was Jay-Z’s recent anthem “Roc Boys,” which liberally samples from the Menahan Street Band’s “Make the Road by Walking,” a song literally recorded in Brenneck’s bedroom. He, Roth and Sugarman had to meet with Jay-Z and his team to approve the sample. Brenneck recalls trying to keep a poker face during the negotiations but admits, “It was amazing just to sit there with him. [Jay-Z] was obviously feeling it … head-banging to the track [while] we were acting extracool on purpose.” Sugarman adds that in the Bushwick, Brooklyn, neighborhood where Daptone Studios unobtrusively resides, they hear “Roc Boys” played on their block and “people have no idea [the song was] basically mixed in the house across the street from where they are.”
Despite crossover success, group and label prioritize their family of artists first. As Roth puts it, “The pop stuff is cool and it opens a lot of doors for us,” but he’s quick to note, “that’s not really our meat and potatoes.”
Instead, Daptone is readying the release of Como Now, an anthology of gospel a cappella songs recorded in Como, Mississippi, a small town 45 minutes south of Memphis. Roth admits, “It’s definitely not a party record,” but it’s not “a Library of Congress field recording. … It’s so deep, it’s just the rawest, most soulful thing we’ve ever put out,” Roth notes.
Another gospel project, by Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, plus a Sharon Jones 7-inch collection, are due to follow, not to mention a busy summer festival circuit for Jones and the Dap-Kings.
The grind between recording, touring and running a label has only gotten worse with time and fame, but it’s a burden the Dap-Kings have sought since they formed. “We’ve grown slowly and stayed true to our vision of what we think a record label should be,” Sugarman says. That includes “sticking to a conservative release schedule and only putting out records that we really loved.”
Even with the high-profile collaborations and chart-topping singles, the ultimate goal is more subtle but no less lofty. “Hopefully, people see ‘Daptone,’ and [feel] the same excitement [as] when you saw a Motown label, or a Gordy label, or the Stax label, you know?” Sugarman asks.
The Budos Band perform at the Getty Center on Sat., July 19. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings play with Feist and Pacifika at the Hollywood Bowl on Sun., July 20.