It’s four a.m. in the Alternative Room at the Southport Weekender, that bi-annual event by which British “black” music and Dance obsessives measure their lives. The atmosphere is happy, hot and sweaty after a fine set from the Acid Jazz originator, Gilles Peterson. House Heads, Old Soul Boys, Nu Jazz Groovers and sundry veteran clubbers are now seemingly entering the throes of religious ecstasy. After a day-and-a-half of serious partying, they are a disheveled, determined and suddenly deranged bunch. Songs about prayer, Jesus and the saving of souls, all with a bass-line that batters the rib-cage, are received by this not obviously religious audience with a different brand of ecstasy to the one usually associated with the club world. Chillifunk boss and respected soul-jazz DJ, Dr. Bob Jones is on the decks and is the man responsible for the spiritual uplift. Well, the music he is playing is. For Dr.Bob is a convert to the singularly strange phenomenon that is Gospel House.
Gospel has been part of dance music for a long time of course, though never so explicitly as in this current manifestation. Soul music’s dependency on church-trained vocalists and the rhythms of Sunday morning services is well documented. First generation disco and house types referred to the Loft and the Paradise Garage as their churches. At the Zanzibar and Shelter clubs, Tony Humphries and Blaze were key figures in mixing the sacred into the secular—and continue to be so. A significant section of what in England became known as Soulful Garage is now made up of standard Gospel lyrics of the most uplifting sort set to the pounding beats of DJ/producers such as Kerri Chandler or the Basement Boys.
Actually, even the early house anthem, Mass Order’s “Lift Every Voice”, was pure gospel—even if it was about Sylvester. And when the Sound of Blackness’ “The Pressure” got the Frankie Knuckles treatment, it became one of the key club cuts of the ‘90s. Since then a steady stream of tunes has out flowed out from places like New Jersey and Baltimore and artists like Ann Nesby, Michael Procter, Joi Cardwell, Kenny and Su Su Bobien and Jasper Street Company have all become associated with the sub-genre. Their names may not mean much to the mainstream but each release by them is eagerly sought after by the soul-starved in the club world. As Dance got more technoid, and later on trance-trodden, so those reacting to the loss of the human touch became increasingly enamoured of a sound first fashioned in the black churches of the northern U.S. cities in the wake of the great migration of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The roots of that music in turn lie in the southern African-American experience in the centuries before that. So much for the much-vaunted ephemeral, now-oriented nature of the dance floor.
Until recently Gospel House has appeared only sporadically on CD compilations, this still largely being a vinyl market. Someone was bound to take the plunge and go for a full-length set of inspirational dance anthems. No surprise that it is Slip’n'Slide, whose early championing of Jazz House was so prescient. Whether they’ll get the same mileage from this raw, powerful but perhaps more limited recipe is to be questioned but my guess is that they’ve picked another winner. Not quite a greatest hits collection but containing plenty of familiar stompers, Hallelujah will be snapped up by anyone who has already developed a taste for this most uncynical and heartfelt form. It works even more successfully as an introduction to the genre.
The big guns are mostly here. Big voices too, all of them. This music needs lung power. Mijan, Michael Procter, Kenny Bobien, Shelia, Viola, Sabrina Johnston, Melonie Daniels, Joi Cardwell and Dawn Tallman all give of their full-throated best. If the nasal twang of post-Teddy Riley R&B irritates you, the sheer exuberance and old time stylings of these singers will be justification enough for purchase. Production and re-mixes come from the likes Kings of Tomorrow, 95 North, Tommy Musto, Deepswing and DJ Pope—the cream of upbeat dance dons. Church based Hammonds and percussive piano chords, four-to-the-floor beats, hand-claps and a rich orchestral feel mark each track. None of it is subtle, but there is more variation than a first hearing suggests and the level of commitment is total.
Not every tune is a classic, although Mijan’s “Alright” and Innervisions feat. Melonie Daniels’ “Don’t You Ever Give Up” have long since achieved that status. Some, like Kenny Bobien’s “Father” (Rance Allen in overdrive), are full onslaught items whereas Joi Cardwell’s jazzier “You Got to Pray” and Dawn Tallman’s tuneful “He Did It” are more nuanced, though hardly introverted. The message is uncomplicated—joy through love of the Lord, but heathens—with any love of black music—will have a field day nonetheless. It is a simple form—old-school gospel meets old-school Garage (New York/New Jersey style). In the right setting it is an unbeatable combination.
If it all sounds a little simplistic—well, it is. Either you like the vibe or you don’t. One CD is mixed for the continuous experience. CD two allows you to pick and choose. There are some different selections and version choices between the two so that won’t entirely work, but you know what I mean. The mix is by Bristol’s Deli G and gives a better sense of the potential power of the form than the unmixed side. Anyway, there isn’t much I’d want to skip over—although the title track, sung by Sabrina Johnston is a contrived, shallow affair. On the other hand Viola’s “He Is Lord” and Shelia’s “Oh My God” are as good as any of the more famous songs and the Mijan sounds better, surrounded by kindred spirits, than ever. The closing number, H.A.N.D.‘s “Pray the Bible”, is closer to pure disco than most and boasts some tasty brass arrangements. Little touches like that are sprinkled throughout—particularly some excellent keyboard work on several pieces—and stop proceedings becoming worryingly one-dimensional.
There are those who will find the full-on Christianity a problem but that is what provides much of the structure and the vocal authority, so we are stuck with it. It’s certainly no more intrusive than the Gangsta boastings or the many other inanities of contemporary culture that surround black music at the present—and anyway, who cares about lyrics when they are dancing? That is what Deli G, Bob Jones and many other DJs have found. Here is an uptempo African-American based sound that puts everyone in a good mood and makes you want to dance. Soulful and Inspirational Garage could be, for the English club tradition, the 21st century’s equivalent of Tamla Motown records in the sixties. If they become rare enough, expect these tunes to form the basis for a new Northern Soul movement. The signs are already there.
How it fares in the States, I have no idea. New York’s Body and Soul crowd will know most of the tunes but it would be good if this music was heard more widely, drawing as it does on two of Black America’s great traditions. The hedonism of disco and the transcendent power of gospel music is a heady combination. Ask those dancers at Southport. Better still check out Hallelujah yourself.