How do you define soul music? Does such a question even make sense anymore? Considering that most mainstream R&B has evolved into hyper-sexual lasciviousness to the almost complete exclusion of anything else, the concept of soul music as it used to be seems ill-defined and just a little anachronistic—notable performers like Jill Scott notwithstanding. Of course there’s sex in soul, but there’s a lot more than that as well.
Soul is an attitude—you know it if you see it. George Clinton has soul even if he rarely performs what most people would consider soul music. Al Green has a surplus of soul. Likewise Prince, even through the long weird years. Mick Jagger even had it for roughly a decade before losing it in the mid-‘70s. Soul music is hungry music, music defined by a deep longing, a spiritual hearkening that exposes deep vulnerabilities while celebrating enduring strength. Soul music can be a lot of things—R&B, hip-hop, house, even rock & roll. All it really needs, when you get down to it, is to sound authentic—only the Beatles could get away with having a rubber soul.
Despite the fact that he appears to be about as big of a honkey as they come (I realize I’m hardly one to talk), DJ Language has the soul. In the liner notes for Real Music For Real People, he answers the recurring question of what exactly he plays by saying, simply, “anything soulful”. Considering the peripatetic nature of his tastes, this makes about as much sense as anything, and is actually more accurate than such a terse statement might imply. The music on this disc runs the gamut from straight-up R&B and hip-hop to house and futuristic funk. The one common denominator running through the entire endeavor is—you guessed it—the singular and all-encompassing notion of soul as a unifying force.
Take Nas for instance. When he’s not posturing like a thug, he’s one of the most soulful MCs on wax. Language’s inclusion of “War”, a fairly obscure track off last year’s Street’s Disciple gives the gruff rapper a chance to reflect on the responsibilities of family in an uncharacteristically vulnerable fashion. It segues beautifully into Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s ebullient “Appreciate”.
The hip-hop mood morphs into something more ethereal on Koushik’s “Bewith”, a track off Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stone’s Throw label that sounds like ‘70s AM radio produced with a drum machine—somewhat similar to some of His Name Is Alive’s pseudo-soul experiments. From there is drops down into the Morgan Geist mix of Abraham’s sublime “Magpie” and Natalie Gardiner’s “Can’t Quit You Now”, two female vocalists with the kind of febrile soul inflection that seems almost painfully genuine.
Tracks by future-soul pioneers Spacek and DJ Spinna give way (via what sounds like an unannounced Mos Def cameo on the Foreign Exchange’s “Sincere”) to two songs from current neo-soul golden boys the Platinum Pied Pipers—their remix of Greyboy’s “To Know You Is to Love You” and their cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”. The PPPs have a unique approach to soul, incorporating elements of house and acid jazz into a more recognizable hip-hop influenced neo-soul template. They’ve received high marks from almost every media outlet with the foresight to review them, and based solely on these two specimens it’s hard not to see why.
Things get a bit weird after that, with Great Weekend providing a Latin influenced bit of space-funk in the form of “How Do You Feel?” and Black Spade coming on like a Funkstorung remix of early ‘80s Prince. I am extremely impressed by Roy Ayers’ “Tarzan”, a rare gem that recalls the brief moment in time before disco had yet fully transformed into house. But then we slide into a full-on disco shuffle, with Patrice Rushen’s 1979 nugget “Haven’t You Heard?”—a gorgeous slice of disco soul that readily encapsulates that genre’s unquestionable but oft-overlooked virtues.
The disc ends with a trio of jazzy house numbers, culminating with Language’s own remix of Franky Boissy featuring Roland Clark’s “Black Music”—a perfect capstone to a wonderful mix. I hope that uncritical listeners don’t see the final tribute to black music as an ironic statement coming on the heels of a resolutely multicultural soul mix. Not all the artists featured on Real Music For Real People are black, but they are all respectfully working within black music idioms or using black music as an essential point of departure.
DJ Language has provided a wonderful example of the very best in modern soul. There are a lot of diverse styles on display here, but somehow it all manages to fit together in a pleasingly cohesive fashion. Hard-bitten MCs and disco divas and Swedish chanteuses may seem unlikely candidates for membership in the modern soul revival, but Language makes them all fit. It’s a gorgeous tapestry.