DANCING IS strictly encouraged at a Soul II Soul show. A performance by the British ensemble turns a concert hall into an underground dance club experience. (With these bonuses: The band goes on before your bedtime. You won't go home all smoky-smelling. And no snooty nonentity will snub you at the door if you have a ticket.)
So "An Evening With Soul II Soul" starts with a fashion show (featuring the group's own designer merchandise, available in the lobby and by mail order), breaks for a DJ demo and moves into a performance by a live band/orchestra with 15 performers, including strings, the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section and five dancers.
"The whole vibe is to recreate that sort of clubby atmosphere," says Jazzie B, the 27-year-old maestro, emcee and impresario of the British music-fashion-media collective Soul II Soul. The group has started an international soul revival with the one-two punch of its hits "Keep On Movin' " and "Back To Life."
"We made the albums like you could listen to it in your own bedroom or your car and you'd get that kind of feeling and flow of a club or a party," he says. "So at the shows, instead of sitting down with their mouths open and that, we hope people will get up and get into it, and release how they really feel about the music. Because that's what it's all about -- self-expression."
While everyone else in pop music seemed to be in a sound-alike competition, Jazzie B and his partner Nellee Hooper turned around and invented a relaxed, natural dance groove that made everyone who chose to move to it look good.
Not that moving to it was ever a matter of choice. Whenever "Keep On Movin' " came on, with its shuffling, almost indolently lazy hip-hop groove, percussive Barry White-style strings and swooning vocal by Caron Wheeler, there was no question -- you moved.
The group modestly titled its first album "Keep on Movin': Club Classics Vol. I" and the title proved prophetic: "Vol. I" went double platinum in the United States, harvesting two Grammy Awards and two Soul Train Music Awards.
The second collection, "Vol. II: 1990 A New Decade," features more indelible melodies and irresistible rhythms, but it wants to get your mind moving, too: Jazzie B and company slip some affirmative, inspirational thought bubbles into the mix -- notions in motion.
"Achieve what's in your mind's eye," Jazzie B intones. "Be selective, be objective, be an asset to the collective." Soul II Soul's motto remains "A happy face, a thumping bass for a gentle race."
The British-born son of Antiguan immigrants, Jazzie B (formerly known as Beresford Romeo) started out as a DJ in the late '70s, renting sound systems and marketing his services to the emerging London club scene. He'd carry the speakers himself, lugging them to party sites via subways and buses. Along with Philip "Daddae" Harvey, Jazzie B soon established a reputation for imaginative, nomadic "outlaw parties" or "raves" in warehouses around town.
In 1982, he hooked up with Nellee Hooper, and the completed Soul II Soul nucleus invented the look and lifestyle they call Funki Dreds, which they began to market themselves, complete with clothing line. Like filmmaker Spike Lee, who recently opened his own boutique in Manhattan, Soul II Soul retains control of its extensive range of merchandise, maintaining two shops in London, a mail-order business, and soon, boutiques in L.A. and Tokyo.
Says Jazzie B: "Face it -- young people are going to follow some kind of subculture while they're growing up. Some will be punks, some will be rockers, some will be Funki Dreds. We saw that the clubs and record labels were selling the merchandise. So instead of having someone else out there exploiting us, we decided to handle it ourselves, and put the money back into our own business."
Jazzie B confesses that he's not a musician. "I mean, I can bang out a few chords here and there, but my talent lies in finding the talented people and interpreting my ideas to them."
He tapped many of his club acquaintances for the first album: Caron "Keep on Movin' " Wheeler's gone her own way, snapped up by a major label for a solo album almost as soon as the single hit the airwaves. The new album spotlights Jazzie B's cousin Marcia Lewis on the exhilarating "Get a Life" and "People," and the British sax sensation Courtney Pine makes a swinging cameo on the instrumental "Courtney Blows."
With the Soul II Soul sound so instantly identifiable and influential, imitators naturally started popping up all over the place -- Lisa Stansfield's entire debut album is the most obvious example.
"We've been asked to do additional mixes for people," Jazzie B says, "and everybody's coming with this vibe that they all want it to sound like what we did with the Family Stand" -- Soul II Soul remixed that group's first hit "Ghetto Heaven" -- "or even exactly what 'Back to Life' was like.
"It's always a shame within the whole industry that everybody just tends to go the same way. It doesn't leave much to one's imagination. Personally as a consumer I like that diversity. In America -- I've been coming here for the last two years pretty constant -- everything seems somewhat synthetic, they just tend to crank it out. If you go into Tower Records you might buy 50 CDs and you get them home and all 50 sound the same.
"I love music," Jazzie B says. "And I don't want to see it just end up as a video entity where everything's so synthetic and really straight. We've gotta go back to that rough bit, raw and human. Let's bring back the idea of musicians and players of instruments."