The Heart of The City ; Street Soul 1988-93
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
In the late 80’s and early 90's Manchester was alive with the sounds of the Acid infused indies bands. The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses blended Breakbeats with wandering trippy guitar jams and sleazed out vocal stylings to create a sound completely unique to the time and the city. The pop music epicentre of the world for a few short years shifted to North-West England. The comparatively dour, cerebral tones of Morrissey and The Smiths had been overtaken by music more in tune with the growing dance music and drug culture. Oasis, Blur et al were just around the corner ready to take Brit-Pop and Britain to global dominance. The Hacienda club on Whitworth Street West in latter years has taken on mythic status, bringing a misty eye to every 40 year old Bez wannabe reflecting on that time they dropped acid on it’s hallowed floors. Manchester was the place, MADchester was the sound. You had to be there to see it.
But this isn’t exactly true. Although I’m inclined to fear the backlash of said Bez wannabe for insinuating a sort of collective amnesia around the time, being a 25 year old Londoner who’s never really taken to the sound, but the cult on MADchester seems largely a mirage, perpetuated by record companies to sell a movement, an ideal and several million albums. Far be it from me to say there weren’t thousands of mini-Shaun Ryders running around the Deansgate area, but the sound of the city, to the people who knew, was altogether different. Slow moving jams, underlaid with house style basslines, cheap drum machines and synth stabs, grooves that had every b-boy moving, intimate vocal melodies hastily recorded, unedited. Raw, un-commercialised soul music, printed on tiny London record labels, beamed from tiny London radio stations and embraced by a vibrant, forward thinking community in Manchester. UK Street Soul.
"As far as I'm concerned, inner city Manchester had nothing to do with what was happening at the Hacienda. The MADchester stuff was a story being sold to the outside world. In Moss Side, Cheetham Hill, Whalley Range, and the rest of the inner city, it was all black music. All the heads that had the record stores in Manchester were selling jazz, funk, soul and hip-hop." This is Mark Rae, DJ, Remixer and Manchester resident talking to Journalist Oscar Rickett. As the scene was beginning to take on significance the sound was varied, taking cuts from beat records, hip-hop jams and funk classics. As time passed these influences bore a sound that was uniquely British and dance floor orientated.
Street Soul, as a sub-genre in it’s own right was only coined posthumously. The term evokes a do-it yourself attitude and a sense of idealism. It describes the output of labels like TRS, artists like Gold in Shade, Lallah Hathaway and most elusively Bo’vel. A sugar sweet, downtempo take on the burgeoning US Hip Hop scene, aimed at the romantic hip shaker in all of us.
The closest comparison to Street Soul could be late-era post-disco boogie, when tempo’s were dropped and the schmaltz intensified . Both invoke romance, sometimes to a tooth aching extent, both rely on shimmering synth lines and dropped their tempos from their previous incarnations. Only Boogie music tends to evoke lavish beach-bound fever-dreams, cocktails by the pool, sportscars, the UK sound prized intimacy, originality and purity of sound. Whereas much of the R&B music that would follow in the 90’s and early 2000’s once again tried to encapsulate opulence in sound, Street Soul, much more in keeping with traditional soul music focuses on chemistry, emotion and heart.
There were successful commercial acts, or rather off-shoots from the street soul scene, Loose Ends, 52nd Street, who later became Cool Down Zone and lalah Hathaway all found some measure of fame at the time but inevitably with more money and a bigger label comes higher production values. The sound of Street Soul, as rough and ready, sweetness and light dancefloor music made in ones bedroom, never really took off.
As Hip Hop took over the world and dance music tempos became faster and faster Street Soul began to be left behind, a relic of the era, too idealistic and quitch for the coming millennium, one that would prize commercial output and celebrity over ingenuity and culture. It’s true to say not all of the music created in and around this scene hit the mark. Some veered towards monotony, or relied on tired out narratives and predictable structure, which divided opinion over it’s artistic merit. But at it’s luminescent best, the sound is angelic. It has the to power to crystalize a place, time and mood while drawing sensual extasy out of any dancefloor, which probably explains the astronomical prices paid for the original pressings of some true gems of the genre. It’s music that makes you smile from ear to ear. relatable, recognisable, romanticised R&B to get one through a long lonely summer. And that’s the essence of this column.
I’m hoping to shine a light into those genre’s, oft scoffed, misrepresented, that can go some way to lifting your mood, wherever you’re locked in. I’m conscious that us millennials have a propensity to romanticise that sweet spot just before we became functioning members of society and this column is put together with this fully in mind. We the floppy haired snowflakes, can never truly understand what a sound meant to a place and time. But humour me, just for the sake of this column and our own sanity in these most retrograde times, let’s all indulge in a healthy scoop of rose-tinted, bogus nostalgia.