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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: 'It Ain't Retro: Daptone Records & the 21st-Century Soul Revolution'

Jessica Lipsky's 'It Ain't Retro: Daptone Records & the 21st-Century Soul Revolution.'
Jessica Lipsky's 'It Ain't Retro: Daptone Records & the 21st-Century Soul Revolution.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

August 19, 2021

By the time most people heard of Daptone Records, its success might have seemed like a simple formula: take some talented young players who are well-schooled in classic soul sounds, add a veteran artist who somehow remained unsung, and spin up one platter after another of sincere, sweaty original music in vintage style.

As Jessica Lipsky details in her new book, It Ain't Retro: Daptone Records & the 21st-Century Soul Revolution, in fact there was never a formula...and it was never easy. She refers to the label as "punk soul," a phrase that encapsulates Daptone's fiercely independent, unapologetically weird style.

Weird? Well, yeah. It took a certain embrace of oddity for a bunch of young white guys in '90s New York to decide they were going to start making soul records in '60s style — records so true to that era's aesthetic that the first releases from Daptone predecessor label Desco Records were commonly thought to be new discoveries of thirty-year-old recordings. Desco played into that perception: 1996's The Rise of Mister Mopoji was billed as the soundtrack to a 1974 kung fu movie. "My cousin's got the movie on Betamax," confused fans would say as they bought the album.

Eventually Gabe Roth and his cofounder Phillip Lehman dropped the pretense as they found an audience for records embodying Roth's "s--tty is pretty" aesthetic: if you used the latest studio technology to make the records gleam, they wouldn't match the feel of their inspirations. A breakthrough came when Lehman cold-called Lee Fields, a formerly successful soul star whose prospects had dimmed. The 1998 Fields album Let's Get a Groove On proved that latter-day audiences were ready for new songs in a classic style, and also brought Sharon Jones into the Desco fold.

The fateful moment came when saxophonist Joe Hrbek promised to recruit three women to sing background vocals, then showed up with only one: his then-girlfriend, Jones. "Why pay three when you could pay me?" asked Jones, who well-earned her $150 (three times the originally promised $50) when the former prison guard, truck driver, and wedding singer blew the room away with her skill and charisma.

By the turn of the millennium, Desco had earned a cult reputation among soul fans from the West Coast to Europe — but Roth and Lehman were butting heads, and split up to pursue their own projects. Lehman founded Soul Fire Records, while Roth parlayed his record industry connections and a frighteningly small pile of cash (Lehman's deep pockets had funded Desco) into Daptone Records, where the newly christened Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings recorded their debut album in a basement studio.

While the Daptone family ultimately grew to include a roster of artists such as Afrobeat revivalists Antibalas, Jones had a special place in the label's history. Much of It Ain't Retro captures the sheer delight and wonder of Jones's young bandmates, who understood they'd found an unparalleled opportunity in accompanying the hard-working, hard-partying, irresistibly magnetic Jones. The book's title speaks to Jones's philosophy: her act wasn't a throwback, it was the continuation of a living tradition of American soul music.

What Jones and the Dap-Kings did could never have worked, Lipsky argues, if it wasn't based on respect for the music. Jones was as suspicious as anyone about Roth's provenance, but came to appreciate the bassist's ear as a producer and musician. "I remember thinking, 'What does this little white boy know about funk?'" she remembered in 2008. "But Gabe knew what he was doing...he was a fifty-five-year-old Black man in a little Jewish boy's body."

The other figure who looms large in the Daptone story, of course, is Charles Bradley — who, tragically, died of cancer within a year of Jones, just when the two labelmates were scaling new heights. If Jones's story was unusual, Bradley's was even more so: an American odyssey that included decades spent as a James Brown impersonator, the identification so strong that his Daptone producers had to keep him from inserting Brown's lines into the original songs he developed by improvising lyrics over new musical beds. After petitioning Roth to give him a chance, Bradley finally got his shot when another artist got drunk and left the producer with a day of studio time to fill.

It would take years before the eccentric artist hit his stride, though, developing a trusting relationship with young producer Tom Brenneck. Bradley's 2011 debut No Time for Dreaming was a singular album, and a 2012 documentary film (although Brenneck was privately less than thrilled with it) helped parlay the artist's story into worldwide festival bookings.

The second half of Lipsky's subtitle indicates her broader story: the soul revival that Daptone, if anything, doesn't get enough credit for. Mark Ronson tapped the Dap-Kings to record the searing instrumental tracks for Amy Winehouse's epochal 2006 album Back to Black, the album that decisively launched the soul revival into the Top 40. The understandable media fascination with Winehouse herself, Lipsky notes, took focus from the work Daptone artists had done to lay the groundwork for the album's sound and success.

Ronson continued to tap Daptone musicians for projects including his Versions LP (with Winehouse's beloved cover of the Zutons' "Valerie") and the monster hit Bruno Mars collaboration "Uptown Funk." From Christina Aguilera ("Ain't No Other Man") to Beyoncé ("Crazy in Love") to Gnarls Barkley ("Crazy") to Sean Kingston ("Beautiful Girls") to Adele, organic soul sounds exploded across the musical landscape in the 21st century; Lipsky draws threads from all corners back to Daptone Records.

The success of Daptone Records helped lay the groundwork not just for the specific sounds of hit singles, but for entire careers by artists like Andra Day and Leon Bridges — though Daptones cognoscenti find some of those successor sounds to be a little lightweight. It also helped prime an audience for comeback albums by classic soul artists like Bettye LaVette, Solomon Burke, and Mavis Staples.

Would the 21st century soul revolution have happened without Daptone's punkish spirit? Undoubtedly, but it might not have flared as brightly or sounded as sweet...and, of course, without Daptone we'd likely never have heard the names Sharon Jones or Charles Bradley. It's a great music story, now told in the pages of a readable and informative book.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

August 26: Nothing Compares 2 U: An Oral History of Prince by Touré; and Prince and the Parade and Sign O' the Times Era Studio Sessions: 1985 and 1986 by Duane Tudahl

September 2: White Line Fever: The Autobiography (new edition) by Lemmy Kilmister

September 9: Skaboom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History by Marc Wasserman

September 16: Roadrunner by Joshua Clover