Epicenter of soul

Boston Globe, May 28, 2006

LOS ANGELES—Of all the neighborhoods in this vast entertainment capital, the yuppie haven of Santa Monica is one of the last ones where you’d go in search of cutting-edge anything. Much less anything to do with soul music and the black experience.

Yet if there’s a secret laboratory where the next wave of American soul music is being concocted, it’s here, nestled into a generic shopping stretch of Wilshire Boulevard.

Just as neo-soul the late-’90s movement that bred such artists as Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Bilal made its spiritual home in Philadelphia, its successor is coming to life here. It’s a 21st- century soul: A restless, edgy sound that makes full use of new electronic possibilities, one that’s devoted to classic soul values but pushing in its lyrics and techniques into the future.

The scene is fiercely independent. Besides being performers, the artists are entrepreneurs who cut their own CDs and distribute their wares independently at stores, clubs, and on the Internet. To them, creative freedom and commercial viability need not contradict.

Several times a week, their theory gets put to the test at Temple Bar, a Santa Monica venue, and its two offshoots, Little Temple and Zanzi bar. Helmed by Irish/Israeli couple Louie and Netty Ryan, Temple Bar has become a launchpad for on-the-verge artists. The producer-performers known as Sa-Ra Creative Partners, newly signed by Kanye West, began as regulars here. The male-female duo J*Davey feature a futuristic sound and gender-bending style that have made them a hot commodity and, some believe, a sensation waiting to happen.

Temple Bar is home port for singers Kim Hill, a onetime member of the Black Eyed Peas who decided to go solo, and Sy Smith, who left a group and record deal to go independent. Many other local artists appear here, including N’dambi, Kandace Lindsey, Frank McComb, Gina Loring, and Daniel.

“LA right now is flourishing with soul,” says Dexter Story, Temple Bar’s booker. He can list two dozen artists who can fill the room to its 300-person capacity. A measure of the scene’s vitality, Story says, is that the venue, though far off the celebrity circuit, attracts such discriminating patrons as Meshell Ndegeocello and, quite frequently, Prince.

Predictability to freshness

The advent of this fresh new sound marks a passing of the torch. Ten years ago, the neo-soul movement rejuvenated black music behind live instrumentation, conscious themes, and quasi-mystical accessories. But for all the brilliance of its pioneers the first albums by D’Angelo, Badu, and Scott have gone down as classics the sound quickly grew predictable. Labels pushed derivative acts that mined the terrain of personal and cultural affirmation without the grace of the innovators.

Meanwhile, old-school soul of the 1960s and 1970s has come back in favor, thanks to CD releases of music from obscure labels as well as the hipster adoption of new bands, such as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, that specialize in preserving the “authentic” sound. The idea that quality soul music has petered out, forcing a return to the music of yore, has gained currency.

But what’s happening in Los Angeles suggests otherwise.

Open to electronica and cross-genre exploration without sacrificing its black-music roots, the current LA sound possesses a freshness not felt since the electro outbreak of the 1980s and equipped with a far greater range of tools and possibilities.

“What’s progressive is a lot of people playing around with sounds that are not organic,” says singer-keyboardist Smith. “There used to be musicians who wrote based on live performances and those who sat in the studio. Now you can get a live drummer on top of drum machines, synth-bass with live bass on top of it to give it that human feel.”

Smith, a Howard University honors graduate who grew up in Washington, D.C., listening to go-go and jazz, writes songs that serve well hot on stage with a horn section and cool on her trippy self-released album, “The Syberspace Social,” an underground gem of 2005.

For Smith, cyberspace represents more than an aesthetic. She’s written songs through online collaborations with partners such as Dutch producer Nikolay. The Web has also been her sales channel and marketing device, via independent retail sites and her My Space page.

The music of J*Davey is edgier still. Highly tweaked sonic layers from keyboardist-producer Brook D’Leau merge with the sexy, laconic flow of his partner, who calls herself Jack Davey, making a unique sound: woozy, funky, and highly charged. It feels like early Prince catapulted to some point ahead of our time.

“It’s sexy,” says Davey. “That’s what D’Leau’s tracks bring out in me, sensual things. I don’t think people know what to expect [from us] just yet. We add something all the time.”

In the new soul sounds emerging from LA, Story hears an embrace and modification of classic soul material.

“They make use of the electronics, but they know how to bend it in a way that references older streams of music,” says Story. “You hear the reference to Miles Davis; you hear the reference to Prince; and then you hear the gritty, soul-blues, church influence. They’re not afraid to get dirty with it.”

`It all stems from culture’

“There’s a certain raw quality now that was missing after neo- soul got co-opted and watered down,” says DJ Garth Trinidad, whose show “Chocolate City” on KCRW public radio revealed artists like Scott, and who now strongly backs the local scene.

Jon Liu, who sells self-released CDs by local artists at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, says the change is less a repudiation of neo- soul than a reflection of new influences.

“You have a direct line from neo-soul, and some people are still skirting that,” Liu says. “There’s a continuum of the black experience in which headwraps are always going to be there, incense, medallions, culture.

“It all stems from culture, and now the view of culture is getting broader. Groups like Sa-Ra or J*Davey are on a new millennium psychedelia.”

The sound’s experimental bent fits poorly, however, with the catch-all commercialism of the music industry’s “urban” category, which favors proven formulas like gangsta rap or overly produced teen groups. Several LA artists, including Smith, Hill, and singer Frank McComb, at one point signed record deals only to find themselves limited creatively. Getting commercial radio play presents the same challenge.

“A radio dude asked us, `How am I supposed to sell this to the urban market?’ ” Davey says. “Being two black artists, if it’s not going to hit big on urban radio, what’s it going to do? There’s no way they would take a chance to market us between urban and alternative.”

At the moment, of the major LA acts, only Sa-Ra has a record deal, with GOOD Music, the label started by Kanye West. Yet thanks to computer technology that can affordably turn any home into a production studio, CD-burning facility, or Internet retail store, artists have found alternatives to signing a record deal.

Hill, who left Black Eyed Peas as the group moved into mainstream pop, produced the 2002 album “Suga Hill” on her own. She estimates she’s sold about 30,000 copies. “I was doing show after show with no merchandise,” Hill says. “So I burned 30 CDs and made an announcement at the end of a show at Temple Bar. It was mayhem. They were gone in two minutes, and people were mad at me for bringing only 30.”

Amoeba took 50 copies of “Suga Hill,” and soon Hill was building accounts with retailers. Now, her garage is a music-making factory. She bought a house and is making a living: enough, she says, to have “Ethiopian food or sushi” a few times a week.

“I’m always going to be the girl with the dirty grin on her face,” Hill says. “Because I did what the industry told me I couldn’t do.”

In lieu of the record label marketing machines, the LA soul artists rely on a loose network of supportive DJs, promoters, and publicists. It’s a coincidence of resources that cannot be taken for granted, even in a big city. Retailers, meanwhile, are springing up. Los Angeles-based Mobile Underground offers handpicked independent soul alongside hip-hop and electronica, working directly with the artists on a consignment basis.

It might seem odd that the new soul sound was born in Los Angeles, nerve center of the entertainment industry and a city often derided as vapid and glitz-obsessed. In fact, many LA soul artists work closely with the entertainment industry not as recording artists in the traditional sense, but in “day jobs” and freelance assignments as singers, producers, session musicians. Smith, for instance, sings backup for contestants on “American Idol.”

“I do so many things,” she says. “I’m able to sustain myself as a working musician with everything that includes session work, voice- overs, writing and recording songs for video games.”

For now, a fortunate alignment of venues and supporters is making Los Angeles a soul epicenter, while sparing new artists the need to define their scene. There is, as yet, no catchy shorthand label for the LA sound.

“It could be a movement,” says Trinidad, “if it wanted to be.”