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The Decade In Music: '00s

Soul's Past Stays Present

Mainstream R&B radio, retail and video industries never had cause to pay retro-soul much mind until Amy Winehouse demonstrated its commercial potential. ( ) Sean Gallup / Getty Images Entertainment hide caption

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Sean Gallup / Getty Images Entertainment

Mainstream R&B radio, retail and video industries never had cause to pay retro-soul much mind until Amy Winehouse demonstrated its commercial potential. ( )

Sean Gallup / Getty Images Entertainment

In the early 1990s, two brothers and some friends in Munich formed the Poets of Rhythm, a band inspired by the "deep funk" sound of late-1960s James Brown, The Meters and similar groups. The Poets wanted to re-create that style so precisely, their 7" singles were often mistaken for being "vintage." The Poets are now recognized as one of the first "retro-soul" groups — contemporary artists who based their sound around classic R&B styles of the '60s and '70s. Over the next 15 years, a small but global community followed, including Breakestra (L.A.), The Bamboos (Melbourne) and Quantic Soul Orchestra (London), among many others.

To be sure, "retro-soul" is an ill-fitting term (and, notably, very few artists embrace it as a descriptive label), since it refers less to a particular sound than it does a gesture. In other words, retro-soul is partially about bridging past styles into the present; when Sharon Jones shouts, you can hear the lineage of Marva Whitney and Lyn Collins while Helsinki's Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators capture the verve and spirit of Martha and the Vandellas. Either way, for most of its history, retro-soul was a niche style with a cult following to match. Then came Amy Winehouse.

Prior to 2007's Back to Black, she was an up-and-coming vocalist with torch-singer sensibilities. But on her sophomore album, Winehouse and producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi spun a heady mix of Motown rhythms, Brill Building hooks and TMZ punchlines into a surprising success (more than two million albums sold). Backed by the Dap-Kings Horns in the studio and on tour, Winehouse catapulted retro-soul styles into the mainstream, igniting a mini-renaissance at the decade's end that's brought artists such as Raphael Saadiq, Little Jackie and Myron & E into the fold. Retro-soul's sudden vogueness won't likely lose Beyonce Knowles any sleep, yet younger sister Solange released a notably throwback soul CD in 2008 (Sol-Angel & The Hadley St. Dreams).

Retro-soul's popularity raises any number of intriguing thoughts and questions about nostalgia, race and American pop cycles. For example, it has to be said that in practically every generation since the '60s, soul and funk have left indelible imprints on pop production. Even as early as 1971, singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, in collaboration with the funky divas of Labelle, recorded Gonna Take a Miracle, an all-covers album revisiting classic doo-wop, girl-group and Motown-era songs, some barely five years old. New-wave/post-punk hits of the '80s — like Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" and The Jam's "Town Called Malice" — played with Detroit R&B of the mid-'60s. And where would hip-hop have been without plumbing countless soul and funk samples?

Nostalgia must play some role here — the pluck of a James Jameson bass or crisp snap of an Al Jackson Jr. backbeat serves as powerful shorthand to recall the tumult of the cultural and political revolutions of the '60s. But Big Chill wistfulness alone doesn't explain why labels such as Motown, Stax and Atlantic ran the pop charts in their heyday; Stevie Wonder's inventive arrangements and Aretha Franklin's emotive vocals found eager audiences internationally, long before they became mnemonic triggers.

That today's retro-soul bands try hard to replicate those classic sounds — collapsing the distance between 1969 and 2009 — can also serve as a commentary on contemporary R&B. Excepting Beyonce's seemingly endless performances of Etta James' "At Last" this past year, popular R&B singers such as Rihanna, Keri Hilson and T-Pain are far more conversant with hip-hop and synth-pop trends. Retro-soul offers a familiar, comfortable contrast — an analog escape from the digital avalanche of ringtone rhythms and AutoTune-philia.

A similar phenomenon existed 10 years ago, when neo-soul artists such as D'Angelo and Erykah Badu were lauded for reviving the lush warmth and sensuality of '70s icons like Donny Hathaway and Minnie Riperton. However, whereas neo-soul singers and songwriters were largely black and versed in the self-love and racial-pride politics of the Black Power Movement, retro-soul is more in tune with civil-rights-movement ideals of post-racial integration. Perhaps not surprisingly, its artists and audience are both predominantly white.

Retro-soul's conspicuous whiteness (or at least, non-blackness) remains to be fully explained. One commentator argues that black-music populists are uninterested in the past (an intriguing though unconvincing thesis), but there are more logistical reasons, as well. Many retro-soul labels had a background in promoting and marketing to younger underground hip-hop fans, but lacked knowledge of how to work with regional radio and performance venues that cater to older black listeners. Likewise, the mainstream R&B radio, retail and video industries never had cause to pay retro-soul much mind until Winehouse demonstrated its commercial potential.

These issues aside, the remaining question is where retro-soul goes from here. The recent success of L.A.'s slow-jamming Mayer Hawthorne, beloved by John Mayer and Snoop Dogg, shows that the potential is far from tapped out. Moreover, at a time when the overall music industry is threatening to atomize, retro-soul has already been a viable niche for nearly 20 years. Its appearance on pop charts may seem new, but its presence is not. If nothing else, retro-soul's impact on the '00s demonstrates the enduring, indelible force of soul music on pop music's past, present and future.