For this next instalment of Digging Deeper we are delighted to speak with Heels & Souls Recordings. They've just put out their first release and trust us, it's a big one - Special Touch 'Garden Of Life'. A street soul holy grail no less. When anyone hits this hard from the off, it's time to take notice!
Label co-founders Ben Croft and Patrick Forrester have been making waves in the underground dance scene for some time now. As respected DJs and promoters it makes perfect sense that they have decided to now also channel their passion and knowledge into running a label.
Not only did Ben and Patrick give us their time for a few questions about themselves and their label, they also compiled a sublime street soul mix exclusively for our Mr Bongo Record Club Series. A perfect accompaniment for reading this interview and digging into a genre that is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance right now.
Who are the team behind Heels & Souls Recordings?
The team is just the two of us, Ben Croft and Patrick Forrester. But although Heels & Souls Recordings is a new venture, it’s been born out of five and a half years of throwing not-for-profit parties across London and DJing under the Heels & Souls banner.
Please tell us about your musical backgrounds?
Pat - I’ve never played an instrument or produced music, just always listened to a lot of music, enjoyed a dance and got into DJing through that.
Ben - Does being in a high school indie band called ‘The Audits’ count (we had no idea what this meant, nor bothered to check)? Started as an indie kid with a penchant for guitars, found clubs, found dance music, found out how to piece together records without people leaving immediately.
What’s the musical direction for the label?
Plenty of the output will be on a sub 100 BPM tip, but we’re trying not to pigeonhole ourselves to any one sound, reflecting our broad tastes with the label. There’s more street soul on the way but over the next few releases we’ve also got some 80s cut and paste electro, house, kwaito and tribal cuts lined up.
Let’s talk Street Soul; how would you best describe the genre to the uninitiated?
Loosely categorised it was black, soul-inspired music, with a raw, DIY, bass-driven aesthetic from the late ‘80s to early-mid ‘90s and thriving in cities like Manchester, London, Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham.
Initially emerging out of small independent studios who were often cutting alternative 'soft soul' versions of reggae tunes and also as a response to the success of groups like Soul II Soul, many wanted to lay down their own take on things without the need for big labels or big budgets.
The rawness of street soul with its heavy influence from hip hop and reggae also gave an alternative to the commercial, polished R&B and soul sound coming out of the US, giving rise to this bubbling underground scene.
What drew you into street soul?
There's simply something so appealing about street soul! No nonsense, just straight from the heart business, raw and off-kilter in all the right places and drawing influence from so many genres too, lovers rock, hip hop, R&B and US soul to name only a few. Plus, although some of it is highly prized and super hard to get your hands on, there’s a lot of really great cuts out there for pounds and pennies.
Also, we have to give shouts to Ruf Dug, Il Bosco and the whole Full Beam! FM crew for a street soul initiation via their NTS shows.
If someone is interested in digging into the genre who are the key artists and labels they should be checking?
First off, as an admittedly biased selection, have a gander through TSR’s back catalogue, ran and produced almost exclusively by Robert Charles Roper. It includes Special Touch - Garden of Life and Gold In the Shade - Over You / Shining Through, two key records in the street soul game.
Toyin Agbetu is a serious don too. A man of many different guises, who had a hand in so many amazing records, groups and artists alongside his own personal output, from Rosaline Joyce and Mary Pearce, to Deluxe and Thomas Esterine to name only a few. Our good friend Theo from 404 eros did an amazing deep dive into Toyin’s backstory HERE.
Artists / Groups:
Gold In The Shade
End To End
FIfth of Heaven
How, where and when was the mix recorded?
The mix was recorded over at Patrick’s one evening a few week’s back on two 1210’s, a Condesa Carmen V and a Boss RE20 space echo.
Any tracks in the mix that are particular favourites of yours?
These are some of our most loved street soul bits, so picking out a couple is really tough, but...
Harlem Gem - Missing You (Missing Me)
Stirling McLean - It’s Not Alright (Mix 2)
If you had to choose just one street soul 12 / LP, which one would you rate as a pure masterpiece?
As far as we’re concerned Special Touch - Garden of Life is one of the true masterpieces of this genre. Bassline - You’ve Gone is another choice cut that never fails to blow us away. Big ups to Isle of Jura for getting this one back out on wax in the coming months.
What do you think is reigniting the interest in street soul that we’ve seen in recent years?
It’s been quite forgotten about, rarely included when people document British dance music, but was an innovative scene and has had a largely unrecognised bearing on many genres of underground music that followed it. There’s also a finite number of these records, and with many of them being pressed as white labels in small numbers they’re getting more expensive (some ridiculously so), and that definitely feeds the hype.
Be With’s reissue of the incredibly sought after Bovel - Check 4 U back in 2018 was definitely a catalyst for increasing interest, but there’s still plenty of people deep into dance music who’ve never heard of street soul, so any increased interest isn’t ubiquitous.
Attention to genres and eras feels quite cyclical and street soul seems to be having a moment right now, hopefully gaining the recognition it deserved but never received.
Special Touch ‘Garden Of Life' is considered a holy grail street soul album by many in the know, how did it come to your attention?
We first heard it about three years ago, can’t quite remember where, whether it had been a mix or someone had posted it up somewhere. But that first synth melody on ‘Garden of Life’ never fails to give us goosebumps and sticks in your brain wherever you go. From there it took us a good while to find a reasonably priced copy of ‘Computer Incantations For World Peace’ the Sonar Kollektiv compilation that had ‘Garden of Life’ on it. But actually tracking down Robert and getting the back story on the release was the real buzz.
What can you tell us about the artists behind Special Touch?
Special Touch is the duo of Robert Charles Roper who headed up the production and his vocalist brother Duval. Robert was a keen collector and DJ from an early age and on the production side of things was fortunate to be mentored by a close friend and reggae producer Ras I, introducing him to Survival Studios in Acton. It gave him the blueprint to create his own home studio where he’d lay down ideas before using Survival studio to do the final recordings and, in the case of Special Touch, get his brother Duval to provide those captivating vocals. Although never formally trained, Duval was a serious soul head and collector alike so had absorbed an ability to sing with impeccable timing and melody.
‘That Special Touch’ was the first 12” they put out in 1989, then they followed up with one of the greatest street soul albums out there!
How come for Special Touch it was a one-album and done affair?
Robert produced and wrote almost everything on TSR across quite a short period of time from 1989 to 1992, including the Special Touch material. The reason it was only a one-album affair was because he started a family in the early ‘90s, changing the perspective of his life and meaning he needed to take a step back from the label and production. He did however pick back up the production, is still active to this day and is confident there’ll be some more Special Touch and Gold In The Shade material in the future as well.
How did they react to your interest in reissuing the album, had they had many requests over the years?
Robert was pretty amazed that we’d been able to track him down in the first place and was keen to know how we’d done it. We spoke for over an hour the first time we gave him a bell, chatting all things TSR as he filled us in on so many pieces of the puzzle we were yet to figure out. At the end of the day he was just really excited that we wanted to put his music out again and I think that enthusiasm from both sides has made this such a great partnership.
Did you feel added pressure getting the reissue right, knowing the weight it carried on the scene?
For sure there was a real pressure there. It’s a record that’s evaded so many people, commanding insane prices on the 2nd hand market, so once we got it all licensed we wanted to do everything we could to make it the best possible package. First off, we were lucky to be able to get the original DAT off Robert, digitize it and have it fully remastered by Justin Drake at The Bakehouse Studio. Then Russ Pollitt worked his magic on the sleeve even pulling letters from the original handwritten text on the back to create fresh credits for us. The inner, with it’s archive photos and liner notes, was expertly designed by Bene Pooley and Robyn MC, who designs our party flyers, did a killer job on the centre labels.
What challenges did you face seeing it through from concept to a final finished product out in the shops?
From COVID delays to spec upgrades, logistical nightmares and many many amendments on the artwork and liner notes (sorry Russ, Robyn and Bene), there’s been a fair few challenges to overcome, but it’s made it all the sweeter seeing the reaction from everyone who’s finally got their hands on a copy.
Profits from ‘Garden Of Life’ will be donated to The Black Curriculum and we know charitable donations are a big driver for Heels & Souls - can you tell us some more about that aspect of your endeavours?
Yeah for this first release we’re donating all of the label’s share of profits to The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise delivering Black British history programmes and teacher training to facilitate both national curriculum and wider societal changes. Our distributor Prime Direct Distribution have also very generously offered to do the same with their share so it should be a really healthy donation.
Prior to the label and COVID, Heels & Souls was primarily a not-for-profit party and over the past five and half years we’re amazed to say we’ve raised over £30,000 for charity, something that wouldn’t be possible without all the support we’ve had from friends, fam and beyond. In the early days the venue and charity used to change with each party, with us opting for unusual spots over club spaces where possible. Three years ago though we made the decision to fundraise for a whole 12 months for one charity at a time, giving more direction to the fundraising and a target we could push for. Over the past three years we’ve worked with three incredible charities, Key Changes, MAP Charity and Possible.
What’s next for Heels & Souls Recordings, what can we look forward to next?
Lockdown has been a really productive period for us, getting things up and running with the label and on the hunt to license music. We’ve got the next four / five already licensed and contracted and as mentioned before you can expect to hear quite a broad range of sounds across those first releases and beyond. We’re keeping our cards relatively close to our chest though so you’ll have to wait and see what we have in store.
1. Trichelle - Satisfy Me
2. Bassline - You’ve Gone
3. Stirling McLean - It’s Not Alright (Mix 2)
4. Harlem Gem - Missing You (Missing Me)
5. Soul Connection - R U Available?
6. Special Touch - Share a Little
7. Judy Albanese - That Ain’t Right (Club Mix)
8. Personal Funktion - Just A Little Bit (Remix)
9. FR' Mystery – I Just Wanna Be
10. Pinky - Looking For A Love (Soul Mix)
11. Lenny Dennis - Lovin You
12. Dazzle - Dazzle You (The Sound System Mix)
13. Sandra Cross - Look After My Baby
14. Gold In The Shade - Over You (Mix 2)
15. Dark Knights feat. Mary Pearce - 2 Be A Friend
16. Kleeer - Oooh With You (Quiet Storm Mix)
17. Still Life - This Love
18. Doctor Woos - Soul In Paradise
Big thanks to Ben and Patrick for the incredible mix and for taking the time to speak to us for this feature. Make sure you check their Instagram profile and keep an ear out for the next releases on this promising label.
Note - images credits:
Heels & Souls - Ben Allan
Special Touch (Photo One) - Robert Charles Roper
Special Touch (Photo Two) - Duval