Excerpt: ‘It Ain’t Retro’ traces the history and influence of Daptone Records

Excerpt: ‘It Ain’t Retro’ traces the history and influence of Daptone Records

In the upcoming release “It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & the 21st-Century Soul Revolution,” Brooklyn-based journalist, DJ and ALL ARTS contributor Jessica Lipsky charts the two-decades-long history and continued influence of the independent label Daptone Records — responsible for launching artists such as Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Charles Bradley.

“It Ain’t Retro,” published by Jawbone Press, arrives on shelves Aug. 10. The excerpt below touches on the label’s 20-year milestone, marked recently with the announcement of the Oct. 1 release of a three-LP vinyl and digital album capturing the 2014 Daptone Super Soul Revue at the Apollo.

 

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Daptone Records—the punk soul label that never thought it could be, the auspicious but never presumptive torchbearers of funky soul—celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2021. In less strange times, where a massive gathering to celebrate two decades of soul wouldn’t also be considered a “superspreader” event, the anniversary would certainly befit revelry. Instead, Daptone’s twentieth mostly consisted of reminiscing and admiration from fans and colleagues—who in the wake of COVID-19, civil rights uprisings, and more than a year without live music deeply appreciated what Daptone brought to the stage and turntable.

“The musicianship is really amazing; everybody who plays on those records is a great musician and that’s been true since the Desco days,” says DJ Mr. Fine Wine, over coffee near his house in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. He adds that he once had a standing offer to record and produce his own records at Daptone, but regrettably never took the label up on it. “I used to think about this: I like this stuff, but is it as good as the true masters of soul music who were recording in the 60s? And my initial answer was probably not. But now my answer would be, it’s every bit as good if not better, and in the musicianship, yes.”

Attitudes on the milestone varied within the label, falling along expected personality lines. “We’re at a place now that we can do whatever we want to do,” Sugarman says. “I feel like we’re in a very creative period and aside from COVID, we’re making moves.” [Daptone co-founder Gabe] Roth, typically lackadaisical about his label’s influence, admits that Daptone are kings of the underground—though the label never “really broke out” in his eyes. “We’re untouchable in that scene; call it immodest if you want. I think that there’s a lot of cool labels that do cool shit—you’ve got Timmion, you’ve got Colemine, Truth & Soul, Big Crown—but I think we’re still kind of the king of that particular mountain. Still, it’s not the same as any of these bands that have one pop hit, or one song on the radio, and all of a sudden everybody in the world knows them.”

In the eyes of Dan Auerbach, who in early 2020 produced Aaron Frazer’s debut solo album using Nick Movshon and [Tom] Brenneck as session players, “That natural camaraderie, and also a little bit of competitive spirit, is what’s so healthy about this scene. I think that’s when things get good, historically speaking.” Today’s soul scene is rich, [Colemine Records head] Terry Cole notes. “That’s the only word that always comes to mind when I think about where the whole scene is. It’s a super-rich scene and it touches on lots of parts of the industry now. It’s super fun to make music that is relevant.”

The camaraderie, competition, and forward momentum that comes with seeing (or hearing) a tight and nasty band has enabled the soul revolution to continue far longer than anyone anticipated it would. “Daptone will never not be the most legendary modern thing, Gabe’s never gonna stop putting out really great records,” [trumpeter] Billy Austik posited, his own Hive Mind studios buzzing. “But the little pause in their domination has led to other people being inspired and a lot of other branches sprouting out—whether it be our little studio, or Kelly’s studio in California, or Sergio Rios’s studio, Colemine, or Adam Scone’s Mango Hill in Miami. We’re all at the age or point in our lives where we’re all ready to start doing our own things.” Bands like The Dip from Seattle, Australia’s Dojo Cuts, singer Desi Valentine, and Russian quartet The Soul Surfers continue to iterate on revival sounds; others, like Khruangbin, Kamauu, The Ephemerals, Skinshape, and Seratones, defy categorization but create their most haunting tracks by applying heaping helpings of 60s and 70s funk and soul stylings.

In fall 2020, Colemine introduced The Resonaires—a New York five-piece whose single “Standing With You” evoked prime Stylistics with dreamy lead vocals from former Dapette Saundra Williams. Adam Scone’s Flamingo Time put the final touches on a remaster of his own Scone Cash Players’ The Mind Blower—a previously CD-only release recorded in Tom Brenneck’s Menahan Street apartment. Mango Hill released a slew of 45s from artists including “Little Did You Know,” a sweet Latin-influenced song with Freddy DeBoe’s tenor sax floating over summery soul-jazz. New labels such as the Canadian Kimberlite Records; Lugnut Brand out of Pittsburg, California; Black Bird Records; and Rios’s new 3 Palms Records exist among decade-old outfits, all of which are helmed by independent musicians who collaborate across the continent and in a variety of subgenre.

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“I played with a lot of these soul singers and it’s definitely uplifted my life in so many ways,” DeBoe says. “And I think there’s a whole audience that is just now realizing, Wow, this happened, like, not that long ago. They missed out on it while it was happening but they’re realizing all these people onstage with someone like Charles have their own stories, and they’re continuing to tell their story. We’re all young and ambitious, and we’re all doing everything we can to stay working.”

 

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Although Tommy Brenneck continues to pay attention to a wide variety of modern music, the in-demand producer and musician rarely goes out to see bands. “I just don’t like the process. My ears are blown out—I’ve been touring since I was nineteen,” he says. “If I want to hear what’s going on in the scene, I listen to Binky’s radio show on Saturday nights.

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The Daptone-led soul revolution also connected with, and perhaps elevated, revivalist scenes like Latin soul and rocksteady, where a dedication to vinyl, showmanship and big band sound are king. On a pop stage, the driving, raw funk the label helped reinvigorate is heard across genre from London to Los Angeles, Melbourne to Memphis. Brenneck, much like Roth, doesn’t often consider the macro view of Daptone’s impact on the larger music scene. “I don’t really think about music in that broad sense. I just think about songs and in a selfish way, my relationship to the songs, not people’s relationship to the songs.”

Seated at his large dining room table, Roth asks incredulously, “You think there’s a lot of people into soul music now? More than ten years ago? I guess I don’t see it; I don’t think I’ve ever been a good judge of what people are doing. I just do the same shit either way.

“One of the things that made this whole path easy for me is I never wanted that. If I wanted fame, I think this would be frustrating. I don’t think that the music would have been as good and I think I probably would have spent a lot of money, lost a lot of money,” Roth says slowly, his sunglass-less eyes slightly heavy from whiskey and the late hour. “But I think because we never really tried to do that, we can stay in our own lane. We took some risks and we spent some money; we did some promotion, but it was always kind of like, more realistic things. In the end it’s an underground scene.”

Yet as underground as Roth conceives Daptone to be, manager Austen Holman asserts that everyone knows “there’s nothing like Daptone. There will never be anything like that; never, ever, ever. It’s like the thing that you love and you hate. Sometimes it’s the most frustrating thing because they’re so set in the way that they want to do things, that doesn’t really reflect what you think the climate is actually like,” the now independent manager says. “But I have to sit back and be like, if they didn’t do what they did when they did it, we wouldn’t know what we missed. We wouldn’t have this amazing moment to reflect back on. This, to me, is like New York gold music in the mid-2000s. People have moved, people have passed away, it’s changed. Daptone’s still alive, they’re still doing stuff, but they did something that was total magic.”

That magic required immense skill and dedication, but it’s deceptively simple. It’s the pure joy of screaming horns stepping in time, the ease of nodding along to a groovy baseline, the way innovative and syncopated percussion drives a song home, and the undeniable, smile-plastering propulsive energy of a true showman like Sharon Jones or Charles Bradley.

Speaking over the phone from his home in Zurich, [Daptone co-founder Neal] Sugarman reflects on the realities of being one of the kings of the soul revolution. “When I’m hanging out with my friends, especially here in Switzerland or playing music, and The Meters come up and it’s like, Oh yeah, I got to be pretty good friends with Zigaboo Modeliste because we did these gigs together. It’s like, What? It’s been incredible and I’m not keeping track, so when sometimes it comes up in conversation I even feel like a jerk. But the fact is it happened; The Dap-Kings were nasty and everyone knew it. So we got to be on the same bills and play with tons of people,” Sugarman continues. “But I’ll be honest, nothing was ever as good as when we were hitting together, just as The Dap-Kings and Sharon.” Roth concurs, adding, “The peaks are always those really, really good shows. They weren’t necessarily the biggest shows, just shows where the music was the best and the people were the most turned on. Everybody was just, like, sweating and having a good time. We had some good runs where there was a lot of it, and other times it felt more elusive.”

Audiences will chase that elusive feeling with a hunger that can only be soothed with the sweet soul music Arthur Conley first screamed about in 1967; Daptone feeds that need. Soul is simply here to stay, says Sugarman. “I think people will always check out Sharon and Charles; they’re in this legacy of the genre and I think their stories are still closer than those of Aretha Franklin or the guard who were more superstars. People knock on our door and say, We’re older, and wanna work with Daptone, and maybe it’ll work or maybe it won’t. But the fact that they have that faith and hope makes them live longer. And if they don’t do it with us, they do it with Colemine or another label opening up next door.”

To Terry Cole, the resonance of the soul revival is partially a response to an increasingly digital and distanced world in which everything is at our fingertips. “There’s a backlash to this. I do want to have a book; I do want to disengage from my phone, I do want to go out with my friends and not be on Instagram the whole time. I think the success of records ties into that,” says Cole who, perhaps more than other soul labels, has used social media most prolifically. “We have this craving for authenticity, whether it’s in a physical medium, in the story being told, or where the coffee beans came from. I think that sort of feeds into soul music—it’s your feeling and expression through music, and what’s more authentic than that? I’m glad to live in a time where there’s enough people who want that.”

Excerpt of “It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & the 21st-Century Soul Revolution” is copyright Jawbone Press.