If you've listened to the Steppin' Into Tomorrow radio shows, you should know that we're gassed about everything that happens around Gilles Peterson and Brownswood Recordings. When we heard he was involved with the then mysterious project STR4TA, together with Brit-Funk pioneer Jean-Paul 'Bluey' Maunick, we were overflowing with excitement. A star-studded cast, whose individuals are all part of the Brit-Funk legacy in their own way, return to provide a modern take on one of the genres that lie at the foundation of the abundant Jazz scene from London we see today. STR4TA seems like the quintessential get-together in an endeavour to show one of the origins of the sound of the contemporary UK scene. The result: the lush-sounding album Aspects, reminiscent of joyous past times and early days of club culture.
Before we dive into Aspects, a little historical annotation on the cultural relevance of Brit-Funk is in place as it sets the tone for the album. It illustrates how influential the movement was, not only for music but for subcultures and minorities in the UK in general.
British Jazz-Funk, or Brit-Funk for short, emerged as a musical subculture in the UK around the early 80s. The subculture boasted a DIY-culture of a widely socially and racially diverse base of musicians, DJs, dancers and music fanatics who all stood at the foot of the flourishing British club scene. It was an underground movement that was not particularly represented in the mainstream as much as other subcultures in the UK at the time, such as Punk and New Wave. This is partly due to the impact and relation (or rather opposition) the latter two had with the dominant culture in Britain. But in the shadows behind these influential subcultures resided a soulful, raw and lush sound of the cultural melting pot of London.
Freeez – Mariposa (Live)
Drawing inspiration from 70s US Jazz-Funk and the early club culture around The Loft, Brit-Funk pioneers such as Hi-Tension, The Warriors, Atmosfear, Light of the World, Freeez, Linx, and other bands not only brought together the rich musicality from migrant minorities but connected live music with DJ and club culture. It truly was a crucial time for this scene to rise during the 80s. With social tensions soaring in the UK, the genre showed how music can connect social classes (particularly important in Britain) and ethnicities on the dancefloor.
Linx – You're Lying (Remix)
The often fast-paced and groove-oriented Brit-Funk can be seen as the precursor to Street-Soul, which was the spiritual birthplace of groups like Soul II Soul or Loose Ends, which were predecessors of or peers with the Acid Jazz movement in the 90s, which was growing adjacent to the London Broken-Beat scene and the Jungle scene, which... you see where this is going: the culmination of these styles can be heard in some form or way in the sound we hear coming from London today. I'll just let Gilles narrate this himself, as he can do it a million times better than I can.
Okay, so Gilles and this Bluey guy, why them and how did they get together after all these years since the 80s to give us this amazing album? Well, before the former became one of the central DJs and radio hosts in UK's underground music scene, his zealous passion for music brought him to events where bands like The Warriors, Light of the World, and Freeez would play. It just so happens that Bluey was a member of these bands. After Gilles sent a letter to one of the band's fan clubs (just imagine that for a second), the two have became close friends, collaborating in countless ways (with releases by Bluey's band Incognito on Gilles Talkin' Loud Records as a personal highlight). Always expanding on the musical background they both grew up with, they saw 2020 as a great moment to reinvigorate the loose, protean energy of the early-80s Brit-Funk scene and mined new musical possibilities out of their shared formative years.
The Warriors – Destination (a true dancefloor smasher, still)
Capturing it raw
“The idea of the project was to capture that raw, moment-to-moment sound,” the ever-so ecstatic Bluey says, drawing a contrast to the touches of refinement he and his peers have acquired in the years since. In its early days, the Brit-funk sound – and the London jazz-funk milieu it grew out of – was rooted in raucous live shows, rival to those of the punk bands in that same period. Recalling his role in the process, Gilles says he was the one making sure things didn’t get too polished. Taking on the A&R role, he explains: “I was there at the back, telling them, no, leave it like that, cut it there, or just use that first take.”
Blending the old (gear) with the modern, STR4TA returns to those spiritual club experiences at Dingwalls. During an interview with Bandcamp, Bluey explains that the sophistication of life polishes your music style, hinting at an often recurring transition from unrefined Jazz-Funk to Smooth-Jazz seen in established artists. The early years of the subculture, its DIY-aesthetic– meaning there was keen musicianship, but not in a traditionally acquired way– combined with the club experience provided that rough edge the Brit-Funk sound is notoriously known for. These were extrapolated and formed the key reference for Aspects, made clear in the title track– but is found on the entire project, really.
Some signature sounds from the Brit-Funk era, I'd argue, actually come from the hat of Bluey. It's his formative years with The Warriors, Light of The World, and Freeez inventively combined fast rhythms, husky vocal harmonies, elaborate drum breaks, and free-flowing synth or brass melodies But it's with Incognito that this style was more popularised with a wider audience, solidifying the sound as signature to the genre. "It just makes you smile and feel good," Bluey proclaims, referring to the euphoric feeling the album presents. "The album was very fun to make and done relatively quickly," he continues in the Bandcamp interview with Andrew Jarvis.
The B-Funk association
It's not just Bluey and Gilles, of course. As many success stories go, along the way you make friends who are equally important to the narrative. In the never-ending Brit-Funk epoch, Bluey connected with various people and bands, illustrating the unifying energy of music overarching genres, ethnicities, races, and generations. This results in the almost royal roster of musicians: Galliano, Richard Bull, Keyboardist Matt Cooper (from the band Outside, give their amazing album Suspicious a listen, please), Francis Hylton, Peter Hinds, Randy Hope-Taylor, Francesco Mendolia, Paul Booth, Level 42's drummer Pete Ray Biggin, Mo Hausler as an engineer, the list goes on.
Beyond the high-quality musicality of these artists, you'll find that the album is very much groove-oriented. You can find hints of Latin percussion rhythms on Steppers Crusade and even some Broken-Beat-inspired drum patterns reworked into the Brit-Funk style on Dance Desire, which is supplemented by a beautiful piano part underpinning the Jazz.
The feedback loop of emulating your heroes
Tyler the Creator is no stranger to showcasing where he draws inspiration from. Whether it's through his music, collaborating with Erykah Badu, Roy Ayers and Charlie Wilson, through his idiosyncratic tweets, or during interviews and acceptance speeches, T-Boogie always pays respect to the shoulders of the giants his music stands on. So, too, he exclaimed his love for Brit-Funk and pointed to its influence on him in an interview with Zane Lowe and at the 2020 Brit Awards. “Like everybody else who plays music, we tried to emulate our heroes,” Bluey says. Tyler now, does so in a similar fashion, which encouraged the development of the STR4TA album even further, introducing the younger generation (who, by now you should know, have a keen interest in Jazz) to the defining genre.
STR4TA showcases how honed musicianship fits and fiddles around groove-centered tracks. The album unravels an under-appreciated flashpoint in a vital musical lineage by building steady-climbing energy that lifts to euphoric highs. Listen to and grab Aspects through STR4TA's Bandcamp and support the artists.
Word on the street is that the second STR4TA album is already half-way done. We're more than excited to have more material that sequences the Aspects album.
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