Long Live the King
DJ King Britt is making Boulder part of his royal domain.
By Michael Roberts
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."
As for Britt himself, he made his biggest splash to date with When the Funk Hits the Fan: The Emotion Picture Soundtrack. The 1997 piece is credited to Sylk 130, a Philadelphia collective whose membership is split between up-and-coming locals and area royalty such as Bahamadia and the Roots. Britt's concept for the album was an ambitious one. "I wanted to do a film, but I didn't have the money, so you got this soundtrack in its place," he says. "It's like an audio film. So when you close your eyes, you go, 'Okay, I'm in this world.'"
The songs, which are linked together by Britt anecdotes and vocals by beat poet Ursula Rucker and singer Antoine Green, use jazz, R&B and hip-hop to re-create a day in the life of a young Philadelphia DJ circa the late Seventies. "I wanted to start in 1977 because that was such a pivotal year, with that Philly International sound and disco music," Britt says. "All the different types of music coming out then influence DJs right down to the present day, and it influenced me as a kid."
Sylk 130 may have been created by a DJ, but it's very much a flesh-and-blood act: Live, the band is sixteen players strong. Moreover, tunes such as "When the Funk Hits the Fan," "The Reason" and a cover of "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" bring back powerful grooves and chocolate-funk guitars far better than any Puff Daddy rehash of another group's hit record.
According to Britt, Funk is the first CD in a planned trilogy--and he's brimming with excitement about its upcoming sequel, Re: Members Only. Due in stores this year, the new long-player "is going to be the next decade," Britt says. "It's going to be a very interesting album, showing the whole Eighties scene in New York in 1984. You had artists like Blondie working with Fab Five Freddy then, and there was a unity of purpose at the time that later separated itself out. I'm going to cover everything from new wave to soul to hip-hop to old-school electro. But it will all correlate."
Like a comedy of manners for the discotheque, Re: Members Only promises to bring some formerly familiar faces back into the fray of contemporary pop culture. "I'm recording with 4Hero, the drum-and-bass legend who taught Goldie everything he knows, in Philly right now," Britt points out. "And I've also brought De La Soul, Alison Moyet and Chaka Khan into the studio. We're not playing around this time." As proof, he mentions another potential Re: Members Only collaborator: Francois K, a prolific, well-regarded Eighties remixer who's recently returned to the dance-music scene. "What I want him to do is remix the whole album, the way that Mad Professor remixed Massive Attack," Britt reveals. Afterward, the King plans to move on to the final installment of his enterprise--but like fellow trilogist George Lucas, he's reluctant to give away the concluding chapter's secrets. The most he'll say is, "The third album is going to be very futuristic."
In the meantime, Britt is looking forward to his association with Soma, which coalesced around his solid bond with Soma founder Hardy Kalisher and other figures in the Colorado dance underground. "My boy Hardy asked me if I would do it a long time ago," he says. "Julian Bradley was the first promoter to bring me to Colorado, but Hardy has been bringing me out here frequently, and he's always been supportive. Those guys have been working with the scene a long time."
Still, personal connections aren't the only reasons Britt is coming to Soma every other Thursday. He also has a special fondness for an area that the ignorant think of only in terms of JonBenet Ramsey and John Denver. "I love Boulder and Denver," he enthuses. "It's just so clean, and the air is fresh. And the people--well, you know, there's a lot of hippies. It's a very liberal scene. The feeling of the scene in Boulder is like Philadelphia. Everyone sticks together; it's very family-oriented."
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Family is very much on Britt's mind these days. "I'm getting married June 16 in Milan, Italy, and I've been chilling a lot at home with my daughter and fiance here in Philadelphia." However, the crime, over-population and dirt that the older cities of the East seem to attract like flies appear to be rubbing King Britt the wrong way. "The environment in Boulder is so diverse--big-time different from Philly. That's why I like to go. There's going to be trees and shit like that. And I like the cold."
Britt may not encounter as much of this last quality as he expects. He should get his fill of chilly weather in Boulder--but once locals hear what he can do in a DJ booth, they'll give him a reception that should be very warm indeed.
King Britt. 9 p.m. Thursday, January 28, Soma, 1915 Broadway, Boulder, $6 in advance/$10 at the door, 303-938-8660.
Published:"Long Live the King," the lead article in last week's Backbeat section, was improperly credited to Michael Roberts. Its author is Kelly Lemieux.