Trevor Beresford Romeo OBE, better known as Jazzie B, was born in April 1975 in Hornsey, North London. He grew up around the sound system culture in the ’60s and ’70s, and started his own sound system, playing mainly reggae, at the age of just 13 and formed the musical collective Soul II Soul three years later.
Soul II Soul became a massive draw on the London music scene between 1985-’89, when they put on regular nights at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. They released their debut album, Club Classics Vol One in April 1989 and it became an international success, hitting No 1 in the UK and reaching the Top 20 in the US while selling over three million copies, spurred on by classic singles Keep On Movin’ and Back To Life.
A string of hit albums and singles followed over the next decade while Jazzie established himself as a much-loved radio DJ, on then-pirate station Kiss FM and BBC London 94.9. He has produced artists including James Brown, Nas and Destiny’s Child. In recent years, He founded the Featured Artists’ Coalition, a UK-based non-profit organisation to protect the rights of artists who feature on tracks.
Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, Jazzie B remembers a childhood obsessed with music, early sound system days and working with James Brown.
At 16 my main passions were music, girls, football, fashion and the family – in that order. By then, I’d played my sound system outside my house on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. So that was already on my radar. At that time, I was having 20,000 ideas a day. My imagination was just running wild, I can’t emphasise this enough. I’m really impressed with my younger self’s imagination.
I was taking inspiration from all around me. My heroes were Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown was a massive idol, Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, King Jammy, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry… and my sociology teacher Mr Gordon. Even the guys in the local scrapyard, I used to think their lives looked amazing. Maybe they inspired my hoarding career. But I came up at the time when you fixed or repaired or recalibrated things. So I didn’t just have a Raleigh Chopper bike, I fixed it up to look like a Yamaha 125 motorbike. I’ve always been like that.
We didn’t wallow in not having any money. As kids, we enjoyed it. That cardboard box was space, it was the Caribbean, it was sex, drugs and rock and roll! Everything your imagination could conjure up. When you’re small, you don’t know the word hardship until somebody shows you something different. We went to school in two feet of snow, in the fog, with holes in our shoes – but once you got there, you drank the milk, you had school dinners, and you had the opportunity to learn something. I picked up patience and perseverance in school.
It’s easy to be misunderstood when you are a bit animated – that was really important to learn as a young Black kid. Most of my white friends or peers took it as aggression every time I raised my voice, not understanding that it is a form of expression. And it was misdiagnosed at school. But working-class communities – Greek, Turkish, Indian, Caribbean, African – we are quite animated. That is how we reason. So I learned very quickly there was a place for this and a place for that. These were important lessons in life.
By the age of 16, I had already been stopped by the police more than 10 times. That’s a very conservative estimate. I went to Holloway Boys’ School, and even the short distance between the school and where I lived was a minefield coming through the dirty Old Bill. There were a few rogue policeman. I remember leaving the Holloway Odeon late on a Friday night and getting stopped by police who said the plugboard I had in a Safeway bag was an offensive weapon. It was what I was going to plug my sound system into the next day. I could have gone super rebellious because of the level of nonsense we had to go through. But for some reason a bit of maturity kicked in. I didn’t argue or kick and scream and freak out, which probably pissed them off. I didn’t realise that until a lot later. But I learned how to deal with scenarios after that and it was the start of me understanding the difference between throwing stones and living in a glass house.
Maggie Thatcher was elected in the year I turned 16. That was a definitive time. We had the riots in Ladbroke Grove, and everything was going on in North London. But I had great people around me like the late, great Bernie Grant, who was a heavy point of inspiration. And back then we had community centres, The Black House [a youth project for Black teenagers on Holloway Road], and as negative as they were painted at the time, they were very positive for young people like myself. I was shaped by all those things in our community.
My whole thing was about being in control of my situation. Now they call it destiny.I remember clocking this idea as a young man on a Sunday afternoon at Alexandra Palace, rollerskating – one of the local Sound Systems, Phatman, was having technical difficulties. Looking at that scenario, Fela Kuti would have said it was a moment of clarity. I pictured myself in that situation and it helped shape me – I saw what I wanted to be in terms of ‘being in control’ but never breaking down and never not being able to finish. I never start anything and don’t finish.
We started at the very root, understanding Ohm’s law, stuff like that. It was a real learning process, like being an apprentice. After getting a job in a studio, in my early days as a producer under Richard Dodd, I met people like Hans Zimmer and Louis Jardim. Observing was the thing. And I put everything I learnt ten-fold into my sound system. Soul II Soul became the people’s sound system and I was able to be active everyday as opposed to it being a part-time hobby.
Maybe I come from a school of winners, but I learnt so much from when I lost. I guess it is the realisation of coping when you are broke. I don’t use the term broke now, because I realise how rich my life was. But it didn’t feel like that when I couldn’t get my sovereigns out of the pawn shop. A lot of what I remember from that time are the things that didn’t quite happen. The early Jazzie B was all about learning how you put your adversity to work and wearing that proudly – so even if I didn’t have all the right gear, my stuff was always left of centre. I would tell my younger self to embrace that difference more. Harness it. Because around that time the original Funki Dred idea came, which took things to the next stage.
Let the world know – I was a mummy’s boy! I had the best of all worlds being around my mum, hanging on her every word, holding on to her skirt. Everywhere she went, I went. I picked up invaluable knowledge there. I grew up in a big family so could always look at things from my older brother or sister’s perspectives and see situations they were getting in and figure out how not to get into them myself. And although I didn’t get along with the people at our church, it still helped to shape me. I’m sure it fed into the idea of Soul II Soul as a collective.
Soul II Soul is a big level of responsibility. But I learned how to handle that from an early age in community centres and more importantly, what I did in my street. Starting a street football team maybe indicated that I wanted to lead. So being the custodian for Soul II Soul was built over many years of being able to delegate and get yourself out of the shit. I always surround myself with great people. Working with people like Nellee Hooper I was able to hone my skills and we made things that would last. There are no shortcuts. And that’s why the stuff we made at the time sounds as fresh as a daisy today.
Our legacy is pretty significant. There has never been anything else like Soul II Soul. And we could only have happened in the UK because of the innovation and creativity here. We had the balls to call our debut album Club Classics Vol. One. It oozed confidence. But I only realised we had gone fully overground with the success of our clothes. People were emulating my stuff, and that’s the biggest flattery you can have. When we started getting Brit Award nominations and winning Grammys, I realised we were really onto something. And when people tried to steal my ideas? Well, go on then, I’ve got another 10 of them.
I’d like to talk to my younger self about making decisions about people around you. I lived a life trying to empower myself and be better. Realising the sacrifices everyone else made to put me in this position, I would have highlighted that more. But everything else was a bloody good adventure.
Life is a moment. Enjoy it. But in enjoying life, don’t be too hasty. Take time to take a look around at all the great things around you and be observant. In terms of being easier on the mental health side, maybe I would have tried to deal with that better – with the imagination running wild, you also see how dangerous the mind can be. In terms of matters of the heart? You are 16, there’s lots going on out there. Live life, keep your eyes open.
When people like James Brown asked me to produce stuff, they know what they were going to get. Because with Soul II Soul there is a level of expectation. And that is one of the things I’m proudest of, knowing I’ve managed to create a sound that people feel is so important that they want to get Jazzie in. I can’t quantify that. If you’d told young Jazzie listening to It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World that you would write with James Brown, hang out, be a part of his life? Shut up! Never! In some cases it is awful to meet your heroes. But in most of my situations I’m grateful I did. Myself and Mr Brown, in the latter part of his life, had a great relationship and he shared some wisdom to pass on to the next generation.
As a kid, I was always in Finsbury Park. And now I’ve got a statue there. Mental, isn’t it? That’s my manor. I’m a Gooner for life. As a little kid, I went to football coaching sessions in Finsbury Park, went fishing in Finsbury Park, played my sound system in Finsbury Park, played football with the Boys Brigade on the cinder pitches in Finsbury Park. Who would have imagined that I was going to end up with a statue in Finsbury Park opposite Rowans bowling alley? What a great landmark. How about that!
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