Late 1980s-mid-1990s global club culture – a fusion of hip-hop, House, and techno, complete with assorted hybrids and spinoffs of all three – was a heady affair, with cultural exchanges and conversations taking place across oceans and over national boundaries. When Soul II Soul dropped their debut album Soul Classics Vol. 1 in 1989 (a title whose bold introductory statement proved true,) they vaulted into the vanguard through their mixture of hip-hop beats, reggae influenced grooves, and lyrics that touted positivity without being corny. With the sublime Caron Wheeler as featured vocalist and Jazzie B. as the front-man/founder/man-behind-it-all, the collective unleashed a sound that inspired countless copycats and re-calibrated the ears of music fans everywhere.
In Jazzie B’s 1980s: From Dole to Soul, Jazzie B. gives the complete history of the group while also using his personal narrative to paint a picture of a working class, multi-ethnic/racial/cultural Britain that shaped his music. He grew up in a neighborhood that was a mishmash of cultures and peoples whose everyday fusions would be reflected in his music – an experiment in Black pride that embraced and was embraced by everyone.
The historicizing in the documentary is impressively thorough – everything from the effects of Margaret Thatcher’s brutal economic policies and the racism faced by West Indian immigrants (which Jazzie B.’s parents were,) to the creation of sound system culture and the massive influence of Reggae on British music. Sheryl Garratt, editor at The Face, sketches in how esoteric and wildly diverse the British popular music scene was in the ‘80s, with multiple genres and their offshoots sharing the charts and the stage of the popular music program “Top of the Pops.” Music and fashion merged in ways they hadn’t before, with music genres (and subgenres) having distinct fashion styles attached to them, only to have the most visionary of the era’s artists toss all of it into a Cuisinart for something of their own. And, of course, there is Jazzie B.’s own detailed evolution as a music mastermind.
It’s a very layered backdrop that is sketched in, made accessible through informed talking heads who speak passionately and are backed by a steady stream of fantastic performance clips, newsreel footage, and home movies and photos. The underrated Caron Wheeler, still working but with nowhere near the visibility her talent warrants, is a welcome presence in the film, especially after the tensions that led her to be estranged from Jazzie B. shortly after Soul II Soul blew up around the world. This is one of those documentaries that pulls in even the viewer with no real interest in the core subject matter, so much does it pull back and reveal.