By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
King Britt is a musical force of nature. His whirlwind of activity includes fronting his own band (Sylk 130), running a label (Ovum Recordings, distributed by Sony), remixing songs for the famous and infamous (he's worked with Brandy, Tori Amos and the Wamdue Kids, among many others), and deejaying around the country. This month Britt is adding bimonthly stops at Boulder's Soma to his unbelievably busy schedule, but if he's feeling overburdened, he doesn't let on. "I can't wait to start my residency there," he says.
Named in honor of the King James bible, Philadelphia-based King James Britt comes by his eclecticism naturally: Early on, his parents exposed his young eardrums to disparate sounds by the likes of James Brown, Sun Ra and Billie Holiday. This mad stew of inspirations became more varied with each passing year. "It's all autobiography, observation--my life, basically," he says. "Back in the Eighties, I'd listen to the Go-Gos, INXS, Afrika Bambaataa, Kraftwerk and New Order. You could check out the Eurythmics right next to Grand Master Flash, and they would sound harmonious."
By his teens, Britt was an amateur DJ specializing in segues that fused R&B, jazz, hip-hop, house and pretty much anything else into singular soul. But his career didn't start in earnest until 1989, when he met and became partners with fellow Philadelphia DJ Josh Wink. The two spent the next several years refining their ideas together, and the effort paid off with E-Culture's "Tribal Confusion," a single that became an early favorite of American technophiles in 1993. But shortly thereafter, the readily apparent gap between Britt's taste for funk and Wink's almost robotic take on sound took the duo in different directions. While Wink achieved international fame on the strength of numerous techno-trance hits, Britt hooked up with Ishmael Butler, a pal of his from their days attending Philly's Temple University. By that time, Butler had transformed himself into Butterfly, the transcendental leader of the pioneering hip-hop/jazz-fusion outfit known as Digable Planets, and he needed a man with the King's abilities. "When he finished the Digables' first record, he asked me, 'You want to DJ for us?'" Britt remembers. "And I said, 'Yeah, let's do it.'" This decision led to more than two years of international touring and a performance at the 1994 Grammy Awards, where Digable Planets was named Best Rap Group.
After Digable Planets disbanded, Britt and Wink teamed up again, this time as vinyl distributors: They oversaw the release of Dynamics' "Lift Me," a breezy four-by-four house track starring vocalist Jay Cruz that Britt wrote, arranged and produced. "Josh and I did really well with that, putting it out ourselves before Ovum was formed," Britt says about the song, which was recently re-released on the popular mix compilation New York Afterhours: A Later Shade of Deep. "That record actually had my daughter on the cover--her very first picture."
The success of "Lift Me" convinced Britt and Wink to form Ovum in 1995. The timing turned out to be perfect. "Josh's records started blowing up all over the place," Britt says. "And everyone was asking him if he wanted a solo deal. But, you know, we had a dream about this label." The executives at the majors responded by drawing up contracts designed to bring Ovum under their umbrellas. "We had a lot of offers," he concedes, "but Sony seemed to be the best thing for us. We're affiliated with Sony through Ruffhouse Records, which is also based in Philadelphia. That lets us keep a family vibe going on. It was a great move for us."
The Sony-Ovum pact is an indirect one that leaves room for creative production and distribution. But the relationship that's resulted demonstrates both the possibilities and the pitfalls many newly signed DJs are experiencing these days. "We've had to learn a lot during the last two years," Britt says. "We've done really well considering our backgrounds as DJs, but I think Ovum could do a lot better if Sony knew what to do with us." To that end, Britt adds, some changes have been made in the original agreement. "Now we've made some arrangements. If we have a record we don't think Sony can work with, we put it out ourselves."
Meanwhile, Wink and Britt keep their turntable muscles toned and limber with a regular regimen of platter-scratching. "Josh and I do a residency together on Wednesdays," Britt says. "The party is called 'The Womb' and it's at a club called Fluid. We focus on super-deep house, and we bring in everybody from Doc Martin to Carl Cox." Creative freedom is the key to this venture, he feels. "When DJs come, they play what they can't play at other venues. It reminds me of a little place in Boulder called Red, I think, where I played with Tres Manos [a popular Denver DJ]. Fluid is a little bigger than that, but the vibe is the same."
Another Britt project with a Colorado connection is Scuba, a group that specializes in what he calls "very deep, aquatic house." He remembers overseeing "a really deep Scuba single with Jim Stout and Julian Bradley from Nebula 9 in 1995, but we never put it out." A little over a year later, Britt issued a Scuba EP highlighted by "You Are My Heaven," a song that wound up on a Derrick May mix CD, and followed it up with Swell, a new piece featuring singer/lyricist Victor Cook that he says is "doing really well in the clubs and record stores."