Back in 1997, hip-hop DJ and producer Miles Tackett invited fellow DJs, musicians and MCs to jam at a weekly Los Feliz party, “The Breaks.” “That’s all the DJs were playing … rare groove, funk breaks, sample source stuff,” Tackett says. Inspired by that theme, the house band — now dubbed Breakestra — learned the funk and jazz songs often sampled in hip-hop, including James Brown’s “Soul Power,” Billy Brooks’ “Forty Days” and the Meters’ “Little Old Money Maker.” Without intending to, Tackett had created one of California’s first retro-soul bands.
The term retro soul has become convenient (if contentious) shorthand for contemporary soul and funk music reviving classic ’60s and ’70s styles. British chanteuse Amy Winehouse and American soul belter Sharon Jones, both backed by New York’s Dap-Kings, mainstreamed retro soul in 2007, but similar bands date back to at least the early 1990s, when Germany’s Poets of Rhythm bucked CD technology and recorded funk songs for 7-inch vinyl instead.
Breakestra helped to lead the early wave of American retro-soul groups and, 12 years later, they’re still going strong. Next Tuesday marks the release of their third album, Dusk Till Dawn, and it arrives between two other major retro-soul releases by Californian artists: Mayer Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement and the early-2010 debut by the Bay Area’s Myron and E. The three are linked by mutual affiliations but also share serendipitous routes into the pantheon of Golden State soul.
One striking similarity is how all three began their musical careers in hip-hop before the leap back into ’60s soul/funk. Hawthorne, for example, is the crooner alter ego of Andrew Cohen, who, until last year, was best known as hip-hop DJ Haircut, an L.A. transplant from Ann Arbor. On a whim, the avid soul-record collector cut a few songs inspired by Chicago’s and Detroit’s sweet soul groups and created “Mayer Hawthorne” by pairing his middle name with that of his childhood street. It wasn’t meant as a serious endeavor, but when the songs crossed paths with Stones Throw Records’ Chris Manak (a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf), Manak released Hawthorne’s “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” on red, heart-shaped vinyl in fall 2008. It sold out quickly enough to make clear that Hawthorne wasn’t going to be a one-off project. “When I did those first demos, it was really just for fun,” Hawthorne says, but since then, “I definitely am trying to embrace this character, push myself to step out of my shell and really kind of own it.”
Hawthorne’s journey mirrors that of Breakestra’s 10 years earlier. Peanut Butter Wolf had seen the band play live and approached Tackett about a possible single, resulting in their 1999 7-inch release, “Getcho Soul Togetha.” Its heavy break beats nodded to hip-hop’s sonic preferences, but the screaming rhythms and soul shouts by vocalist Mixmaster Wolf invoked memories of late-’60s, JB-era funk. “Considering I did not expect any real attention for a 7-inch funk single, I was surprised that folks like [the Roots’] ?uestlove and DJ Kenny Dope took notice and spread word,” says Tackett.
Just as with Tackett and Hawthorne, the route to soulsville by the Bay Area’s Eric “E Da Boss” Cooke and Myron Glasper also ran through hip-hop first — but detoured to Finland. The two met when both hit the road with the Oakland rap group Blackalicious; Cooke was the tour DJ, Glasper sang backup. (Coincidentally, Blackalicious’ Chief Xcel was instrumental in releasing the Poets of Rhythm’s first U.S. album, Discern/Define, in 2000.)
In 2005, Cooke ended up on a separate tour to Helsinki, when a chance encounter led to an impromptu jam session with members of the Soul Investigators (who, with singer Nicole Willis, are one of Europe’s foremost retro-soul bands). “I got tired of just fiddling around on the piano, so I grabbed the microphone and started singing. Unbeknownst to me, they were actually recording this,” Cooke recalls.
Producer Didier Selin was impressed enough to send Cooke several Soul Investigators tracks for a possible collaboration. Cooke recruited Glasper as a songwriting/vocal partner and both were struck by one track, labeled “Cold Game” — filled with spritely strings, driving organ solos and a snappy backbeat, which recall the bright swing of mid-’60s Northern Soul. “We literally wrote it and recorded it all in the same session. We sent it back over and they were, like, ‘Okay, we want to do a 7-inch,’ ” Cooke notes. The “Cold Game” single came out on the Soul Investigators’ Timmion imprint in late 2008. (Their U.S. distributor? None other than Stones Throw.)
There is a striking diversity in sound, not just between these artists, but within their own catalogs. “Soul music” has always been shorthand for countless offshoots in different style; today’s retro-soul artists have the benefit of cherry-picking through the myriad variations they find most compelling. In the case of Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement, he shows a knack for penning achy-heart ballads that recall Brill Building girl-group laments, sweet-soul serenades à la Chi-Lites or Dramatics, and forays into the up-tempo grooves and social activism of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Tackett pulls off the same deft juggle; though Mixmaster Wolf writes the song lyrics, Tackett handles all the other songwriting and composition duties for “the band.” Despite appearances, Breakestra is really just Wolf and Tackett, but, as the latter admits, “It looks better to market [us] as a band.”
Breakestra’s Dusk Till Dawn (the title is a dedication to close friend and musical partner DJ Dusk, killed by a drunk driver in 2006) is Tackett’s most sophisticated work yet. The album is thick with the kinds of vigorous and frenetic funk tracks the group’s been known for, but there are also heavy injections of fuzzed-out psychedelia and dramatic string arrangements, reflecting Tackett’s expanding experimentations.
Myron and E. are still a work in progress; their debut album won’t come out until early 2010, though Timmion has promised at least one single this fall. Theirs will be an intriguing, transnational collaboration, with the Soul Investigators supplying a variety of tracks for consideration, while Myron and E. handle the rest of the songwriting, pulling everything together via both broadband Internet swaps and plane tickets to Helsinki.
While all three artists have found success in their respective careers, retro soul is not exactly the most lucrative niche; there must be more that is drawing so many people this deep in. Myron and E.’s theory is that soul music of the ’60s and ’70s attained a perfection that continues to inspire people. Says Cooke, “I think there’s a certain truth in the music that’s just undeniable; you can’t escape it.”
Glasper adds, “I’m willing to step out on a limb and say that was the greatest music that ever existed. … There are hundreds of groups that were out back then that were never discovered, but they were phenomenal.”
One main challenge these groups have faced, almost from inception, is the accusation that they’re simply recycling the past. Such critiques tend to overlook how much pop music has always absorbed and played off its own history; “Pop Will Eat Itself” is a truism, not just a new-wave band. Regardless, for an artist like Mayer Hawthorne, it’s not about trying to remake the past; it’s about finding a path to attain the same kind of perfection. “You can’t replicate the sound of Motown without going back to 1965 and recording in the snake pit with a bunch of the best jazz musicians in Detroit, you know? But that’s part of the fun … trying to analyze the sound, and I’m still figuring it out.”
Breakestra | Dusk Till Dawn | Strut Records U.K.
Mayer Hawthorne | A Strange Arrangement | Stones Throw Records
Myron and E. | “Cold Game” 7-inch | Differ-ant Records