A Brief History to Detroit Soul

MPC maven Jon Phonics owes a lot of his musical endeavours to Detroit soul. Its “upfront emotion” and “rawer, realer” feel, as he puts it, gave it qualities primed for sampling by the hip-hop greats. Inspired by their interpretations and aided by an arsenal of powerful vocals and breaks, he’s broken free from the cultural quagmire that is Hemel Hempsted and become a distinguished producer and label head for Astral Black. Here he charts a brief (alternative) history to a sound that’s close to his heart.

Listen to a playlist of all tracks on Spotify (below) or Youtube.

Where does your love for Detroit soul stem from?

My unhealthy obsession with rap music started in my early teens. After a few years of wondering why I couldn’t make tracks like my heroes a friend put me on to the process of sampling. From there, I had a new unhealthy obsession: discovering the samples for all of my favourite tracks. I would stand in record shops for hours listening through records for anything that had been sampled by the likes of Kanye West, Rza, Heatmakerz and DJ Premier, and I’d then take them home and try to recreate the tracks. So many of those records were Detroit soul.

Once i started to notice the same names appears across many of the records. Producers such as Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield and Katouzzion. I would begin to buy any record with their names on to find samples of my own to flip.

What marks out a Detroit Soul record, compared to the rest of the genre?

Both Detroit and Philly were vital and prolific cities for soul music in the 70s. Philly’s sound was cleaner and arguably had more commercial success, though the grit and environment of Motor City (Detroit) that came through in its sound resonated with me more; something i think comes through in the tracks I’ve selected below. The emotion is more upfront and, as a result, the records feel rawer, realer and more genuine.

What Detroit Soul record has left the biggest impression on you as a DJ, and why?

A memory I hold dear of hearing Detroit soul in the club is hearing Theo Parrish play ‘Nights Over Egypt’ by Detroit’s The Jones Girls into ‘Cherchez Laghost’ by Ghostface Killah one night in Plastic People. That moment let me know that, as a DJ, it was okay to not be confined to one genre and to play whatever the damn hell you want!

Lamont Dozier – ‘Shine’, from Black Bach LP [ABC Records, 1974]

For me the writing group of Holland-Dozier-Holland is like the seal of authenticity for any soul group operating in the 70s. If those guys wrote a track for you then you were good. If I see their name on a record I buy it, no questions asked. Lamont Dozier is perhaps the most prolific of the group and this track from his seminal solo record ‘Black Bach’ is incredibly powerful.

Lyman Woodard Organization – ‘Joy Road’, from Saturday Night Special LP [Strata Records, 1975]

Lyman Woodard for me is somewhat of an enigma; A session player in Detroit for a lot of the early Motown records before forming his own trio, which would ultimately lead to the formation of the Lyman Woodard Organization. Every track on Saturday Night Special is incredible to me. The rich sound they captured is incredibly unique. The string arrangements on this get me every time. This record recently was reissued recently by BBE and sold out in a flash. I saw an original copy in LA earlier this year going for insane amounts of coin.

The Jones Girls – ‘Children Of The Night’, from At Peace With Woman LP [Philadelphia International Records, 1980]

The Jones Girls are best known for their anthem ‘Nights Over Egypt’. This track ‘Children Of The Night’ is the opener from their second LP At Peace With Woman. Although they released on Philadelphia International (another hub for incredible soul music around the same time) the girls were actually from Detroit. Their sound consistently was executed with an unmatched sophistication. Drive around late at night to this one.

Detroit Emeralds – ‘You’re Getting A Little Too Smart’, from I’m In Love With You LP [Westbound Records, 1973]

This one’s a little obvious but I think signifies the importance of Detorit soul music, as drum breaks played a pretty integral role in directing me towards Detroit as a special place for raw soul gems. The clue is in the name. I loaded this up into my MPC 2000 for the track ‘In The Ends’ on my Half Past Calm LP and, needless to say, it’s been sampled on iconic tracks by many others: Rza and Dilla to Drake and Kendrick Lamar. This break is almost the mark of authenticity for true hip-hop heads.

Rose Royce – ‘I’m Going Down’, from I’m Going Down / Yo Yo [MCA Records, 1976]

Rose Royce is another example of exactly how sophisticated the Detroit Soul sound was. This track was produced by one of Detroit’s most vital players of the era, Norman Whitfield, and released on his label Whitfield. It’s hard to pick a favourite Whitfield production as he was responsible for so many of these important Detroit albums, but this one is definitely up there. Spot the sample and keep on going down the rabbit hole.


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