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Book Review: It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st-Century Soul Revolution


Book Review: It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st-Century Soul Revolution magazine cover



Daptone Records, the Brooklyn -based record label reached it’s 20th anniversary this year. With any celebrations under a pandemic having to be kept small they are releasing a live album from their 2014 soul revue at the famous Harlem Apollo in October before that, just out is ; It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st -Century Soul Revolution by Jessica Lipsky,  a book that chronicles and celebrates this unique label’s history & more. 

Lipsky, a Brooklyn based journalist in music, culture & politics introduces her book, in fact, with this very revue. A perfect scene setter for the bands, characters, & the heart & soul of Daptone that follows in her compelling journey over the twenty years  and where the sold out crowd witnessed continuous sets by the likes of: Como Mamas, Naomi Shelton, Sugarman 3, Antibalas, The Budos Band and headliners, Charles Bradley & Sharon Jones.

Firstly, and the devil is often in the detail, this book looks so good - a stylish striking cover and some great photos in the centre of the book and weighs in at an impressive 300+ pages - this is no featherweight cut & paste treatment of an idiosyncratic but influential label. And such a great title. And as Lipsky has loved the records, played out with them as a D.J. interviewed the main players before for U.S. publications we are in safe hands with her as our tour guide. As a journalist she knows the two rules: inform & entertain - she manages effortlessly to tick those two boxes.

Coupled with her enthusiasm and passion as a fan, I was taken back, almost fifty years, to Charlie Gillett’s ‘Making Tracks: the History Of Atlantic Records. Gillett, also a journalist, D.J,, music fan, explored this famous label and produced a book still revered to this day as the benchmark of music biographies. It Ain’t Retro’ is that good. If you think it’s straightforward, Justine Picardie & Dorothy Wade also wrote the story of Atlantic Records years later and it failed to capture the energy of the company and left you with a dry treatment of something that was alive and exciting. Avoiding this, Lipsky has structured or woven several threads of the story: The two main players: Gabe Roth & Neal Sugarman, the two main artistes: Sharon Jones & Charles Bradley, and the influence this label has had, and still has, on the U.S. music scene not just musically but how they operate. To juggle those and also keeping track with the many other Daptone outfits and releases can be like catching water but Lipsky by getting behind the scenes and talking to the right people about the right thing gets the colour and gets the quotes. And Roth & Sugarman are very quotable.

 “I really, personally, never tried to be somebody I’m not. Or tried to emulate some music, or tried to steal some history or tradition that I’m not part of. What I try to do is make records that sound good to me, and make honest records.” Roth in an interview in 2010.And Sugarman, “If it’s a new record (but) they liked it before they realized we were new, and once they realized they liked it, they couldn’t not like it…”

Not only is he touching on the bogus idea that’s in vogue of ‘guilty pleasure’ but also the accusations levelled against Daptone, by either unashamed ‘purists’ or the well meaning that they are just copyists. Look no further than the book’s title. I said it was great title as it doesn’t skirt round the elephant in the room but has it in bold letters bang on the cover. And raises your curiosity as to where or who did it come from? In fact, you do have to look quite far into the book to find out who. “Speaking to the New Yorker, Sharon Jones snapped: “There’s nothin’ retro about me, baby, I am soul!”

And although Daptone (and before that Desco Records) was born out of young punks who lived and breathed music and had no business training they had, from the get go, a philosophy, or at least an unshakeable belief of what they were never going to be and the book captures this so well. “At the time it was all about the break beats, and heavy stuff like that, “ Roth says. “Everything was kind of slick and all the musicians in New York at the time were plying six strings, slapping and popping everything. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to play it simple” But he soon did with guitarist Binky Griptite (Frank Stribling) “ We just started talking about music and we were on the same page. It’s a syndrome - good guitar players will have a tendency to want to show how good they are and play a lot. I was just like, Yeah, I have nothing to prove, I just want to play rhythm.”

Lipsky certainly isn’t blinkered or focused on just a Brooklyn or Stateside view on Daptone she writes extensively on the U.K. Music scene’s role in putting them on the map, specifically club D.J., Keb Darge, and she includes the great ‘recording manifesto’ by Roth that UK hip-hop & funk magazine, Big Daddy invited him to write. However, although this manifesto makes great reading, characteristically direct but intelligent, Lipsky is able to show by skilful research and the pertinent anecdotal stuff that Daptone’s rise often a series of happy accidents and/or chuztpah: with Desco records (pre-Daptone) they decide to just phone soul legend, Lee Fields and persuade him he needs to sing on their recordings.

Sharon Jones was desperate to get back singing just as Daptone came along, Mark Ronson loving their sound which ultimately led to the Dap Kings playing on Amy Winehouses’s Grammy Award winning ‘Back to Black album. But the book also captures the series of setbacks particularly financial which hit them and it was through Jones & Winehouse’s success which kept them afloat and more and also how resourceful the company was when either Jones was sick or sadly after she was gone. With a company that thrived on live shows and it’s revenue - this stopped when Sharon stopped. In fact, it was at her funeral that maybe the most definitive words, by her manager, Austen Holman, on Daptone were expressed: “The thing that makes Daptone so special is they do not compromise."

It would have been good maybe to have the views of James Hunter, their only U.K. Artist, a man who has been with a number of labels so is insight to why it works with Daptone would have been interesting and also some photos of the new acts. With both Roth & Sugarman out of Brooklyn and 20 years older they are now busy as 'veterans’ with the ‘sweet soul from the West Coast through their label, Penrose. 

I was fortunate to know Charlie Gillettt and, if he was still around, I expect he would be interested in the recent ‘world’ music releases by Daptone has he’d moved on from soul but I’m confident he would have loved this book.
 Daptone has survived and thrived because of a love of the music, professionalism and a focus - all the qualities Lipsky shares in her writing.

On the back of Gillett’s ‘Making Tracks’ there’s a quote from Creem magazine: “Wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who cares about rock.”...

I wholeheartedly recommend ‘It Ain’t Retro’ to anyone who cares about soul.”




Product details


Publisher ‏ : ‎ Jawbone Press (30 July 2021)

Language ‏ : ‎ English

Formats: Paperback and Kindle (see below for free Kindle preview)


It Ain’t Retro follows a family of musicians whose dedication to 60s and 70s sounds went from dingy basement studios all the way to the White House.

Soul is the most powerful expression of American music -- a distinct combination of roots, migration, race, culture, and politics packaged together for your dancing pleasure. But if you thought the sounds of Motown or Stax Records died along with 8-tracks and macramé, you’d be wrong. For two decades, Daptone Records has churned out hard funk and such beautiful soul that these records sparked a musical revolution.

Run by a collective of soul-obsessed producers and musicians, the Brooklyn-based independent label launched the careers of artists such as Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, and Bruno Mars. Their records paid homage but never lip service to the original artists, proving that soul is still culturally relevant and just as exciting.

It Ain’t Retro charts this revival’s players, sounds, and tectonic shifts over the past twenty years, taking you from dingy clubs where soul crazed DJs packed the dancefloor, to just uptown where some of the genre’s heaviest musicians jumpstarted the renaissance in a basement studio, and all the way to the White House. This definitive tale of Daptone Records’ soulful revolution chronicles the label’s history, players, and sounds while dissecting the scene’s cultural underpinnings, which continue to reverberate in pop music.

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