No Sleep ‘Til Bushwick: Daptone Records
“Twenty thousand people can’t be wrong.” That was the mantra floating around the Brooklyn blogosphere this past August, shortly after Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings—SJDK, as they’re known to their fans in shorthand—electrified an over-capacity crowd at Prospect Park’s outdoor bandshell. Their emotionally charged set was the cap to a steamy Saturday night celebration of funk, soul, torch ballads and hypnotic grooves, with a slew of guests—including veteran shouter Lee Fields and Staten Island’s own Budos Band—on hand to keep the party hot. If there was ever a case to be made for the vibrancy of New York City’s soul scene, this was it.
“I stood there and cried after that show,” Sharon Jones recalls. At 54, with four studio albums now under her belt, she believes she’s just hitting her stride. “With me, my break will come when I’m about ready to retire. I just want to push it. I mean, Prospect Park was crazy, because I never would have thought it would be that big. They said it was the second biggest show they ever had there. And I don’t wanna sound too proud, but any new young soul singer out here now needs to finally stop calling what we’re doing ‘retro.’ If you want to label it, call it soul music today. I don’t do Motown, I do Daptone.”
Jones has a point. Since its launch in 2001, the Daptone label has drawn persistent comparisons to Motown, Stax, King and Aretha Franklin-era Atlantic, not just for its lovingly curated identity and style, but for its sound. Each Daptone release captures a live, in-studio event, recorded for the most part with vintage analog gear, that recalls the raw sizzle of a late-‘60s date with Otis Redding or The Staple Singers.
Daptone co-founders (and fellow Dap-Kings) Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman enjoy the buzz, but they insist that their music isn’t just about cranking up a wayback machine. “I could say the Daptone sound is heavily influenced by soul records from the mid-‘60s to the early ‘70s,” Sugarman offers, “and that would probably be a pretty good indication—in all genres, from gospel to soul-jazz to funk to soul. But it’s not Southern soul like Stax, and it’s not slick like Motown; the records are starting to come out now with a mixture that’s ours alone. We’re all musicians who have been playing together for a long time, and like Stax and Motown, a lot of the same musicians are on many of the sessions. To me, that’s where the sound comes from.”
Roth’s stance is more philosophical, firmly rooted in his multiple roles as Daptone’s in-house producer, arranger, engineer and bassist. “There’s a lot of tit-for-tat these days about so-called retro soul music and whether it’s just looking backward or moving forward,” he says. “The thing is, we never had ambitions to recreate or mimic a sound. Very often, people believe it’s a technical thing with us, and that we use certain microphones and tape machines and guitar amps and stuff, but it’s really not about the equipment at all. We just want to make records that feel great.”
Since 2003, when Roth and Sugarman took over a two-family house in the once-hardscrabble, now-hip Bushwick section of Brooklyn, installing a recording studio and label offices in the process, Daptone has spread its influence far and wide. In 2007, the Dap-Kings recorded and toured with Amy Winehouse and producer Mark Ronson, while Sharon Jones joined Lou Reed on stage for his critically lauded revival of Berlin. A year later, the Daptone Horns were recruited by producer (and Roots drummer) Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson to back Al Green on his Lay It Down album and Jones was invited to appear in the Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters. (More recently, she tracked a vocal session for Booker T.’s upcoming album.) Meanwhile, the label itself has expanded, launching a reissue imprint (Ever-Soul) and a subsidiary (Dunham, founded by multi-instrumentalist Tommy “TNT” Brenneck) while gearing up for its 10th anniversary next year.
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