Soul Underground: the story

Year Zero is early September 1987, a slow night at Dingwalls, a dive club in Camden. I’m at Across The Tracks, Simon Goffe’s Rare Groove night, to photograph the sharp-dressed crowd, when I bump into Darren Reynolds. He tells me he’s starting a fanzine and needs a photographer – am I interested?

It soon becomes clear that we share a passion for music and an amazement that no-one is covering the scene the way it deserves. Neither of us knows the first thing about publishing, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem: within a few hours, I’m assistant editor! So of course I’m in. Now we have a fanzine to produce.

Issue one
Soul Underground number one was produced in a haze of furious energy, put together on Darren’s kitchen table with some big sheets of card, yards of copy and a lot of Spray Mount. Although it had all the hallmarks of a fanzine – a bit scrappy, obsessive, heavy on the text – we both felt we were onto something. Surely there must be people willing to spend 40p on our cool little rag.

We printed 850 copies. At the time it seemed a huge number, a daunting prospect to punt out almost a thousand thin, cheap, fanzines. But we did it – we figured getting the magazines out there shouldn’t be a problem, with the huge network of record shops that covered the UK at that time. It’s difficult, now, to imagine now just how many there were: Soho alone boasted around a dozen specialist stores, each with its own clientele and its own vibe. The shops ordered… and reordered! Within ten days, we’d sold out.

The first few editions seem a little crude now, but from the off, Soul Underground knew what it was about. We simply wanted to capture the essence of the music scene we loved, to treat it with some respect, and to write about it with passion and intelligence. And, more than anything, we wanted to be there first. And that meant putting in the hours, building up a team of contacts – in those pre-Internet days, social networking happened in the real world; our piece on the truly Underground ‘Circle Line Parties’ came from a whisper overheard in a club queue.

Soul Underground was also driven as much by the sources we rejected as those we sought out. This meant operating an effective bullshit detector, avoiding as much as we could the hype-merchants, PRs and sleazeballs who’d begun to smell money in this emergent scene, and would go on to dominate pop culture a few years later and more or less destroy it.

The end of the beginning
Too many fanzines seemed as keen on deterring outsiders as they were on preaching to the converted. I wanted Soul Underground to be both inspiring and inclusive. The more people who read it, the better. My aim was to marry the attitude and energy of a fanzine with the professionalism of a ‘real’ magazine. For Darren, this smelled of selling out, and what had began as a creative tension between us became more of a problem as the print run grew, we started attracting more advertising and larger record companies began to take an interest. It was becoming a business. After one argument too many, as issue 7 went to press, Darren and I parted company. Although he had no further involvement, his role in creating Soul Underground was incalculable.

It was an amazing period for music and the only people I’d wanted on board were the ones who really got it. I went out to attract people with something to say, even if they weren’t too sure how to say it. Soul Underground would be the exact opposite of the cosy, smug, introverted and conservative magazines that nobody I knew read.

Ignorance is bliss
So while some of our contributors were experienced journalists, many had never seen their words in print before. What they had was passion, provocative opinions, incredible underground connections and record collections that put even my half-a-room of vinyl in the shade. A large chunk of my time was spent convincing DJs, musicians, scenesters and would-be journalists to have a go at writing – more or less the exact opposite of the normal editorial role of sending out rejection letters. This was where I saw Soul Underground getting its strength – content over style. In the era that saw the birth of the style magazine this was already perhaps a radical view. Nowadays, it’s closer to heresy. A large part of the fun of running the magazine was seeing such a disparate group of people – soul boys, import junkies, rap obsessives, club promoters and borderline anarchists – come together to fill this little magazine for 38 monthly issues.

So what was it about? Attitude, a sense of identity and a willingness to take risks – with the music we championed, with the new talent the magazine nurtured, and with the assumption that our readers were intelligent enough to have their views challenged. There was also a spirit of playfulness – nowhere better shown than in Bill Dew’s cartoons, which skewered the absurdities of music, clubs and ‘yoof’ culture like a modern-day Gillray.

Fanzine to magazine
Soul Underground’s transformation from ambitious fanzine to proper magazine was quite sudden; our first anniversary saw it selling as many copies through newsagents as through record shops. The old mini-ads for obscure labels were being replaced by full-pages from the majors. PR companies wanted to be my best friend. It was getting trickier to stick two fingers up at The Man when he was buying thousands of pounds in advertising, or offering an interview with the next big thing… in New York.

My response was to carry on with the same freewheeling fanzine ethos that had got us this far. That’s not to say that we didn’t accept freebies – we did, quite often – but no-one ever got coverage, much less a cover as a thank-you for a return trip to Manhattan and a few nights in a 3-star hotel. There was too much genuinely good music to cover… and, of course, the contributors would have lynched me.

Soul Underground’s second year saw the magazine become more ambitious as Malu Halasa and Jay Strongman (who both became assistant editors) brought social history and politics into the mix, on everything from Malcolm X to the rap scene in East Germany.

Selling hip-hop to Manhattan
And most amazingly, we were now selling Soul Underground in New York! To anyone into black music at that time, the city had a mythical status. It existed in Henry Chalfant’s Subway Art graffiti photos, in obscure import record labels and in the bootleg mix tapes of a young Marley Marl on WBLS I’d buy in Camden Market. And now New Yorkers were buying a British black music magazine – one that was reporting their own scene back to them. We had featured news from the US from the magazine’s earliest days, but it was the arrival of Leonard Abrams that really gave us a presence there.

Leonard had published the hugely influential East Village Eye until the beginning of ’87, and immediately got what we were all about. He quickly built up a group of street-level writers and photographers, and donated his feel for what was happening in music, his ear for high-quality gossip and a killer address book. We even opened a New York office – in reality, a walk-in wardrobe in Leonard’s Avenue A apartment. To this day, it amazes me to think that that Soul Underground was being bought by Manhattan’s DJs, musicians and music lovers.

And the magazine’s legacy? Well, it was often first to cover new scenes – from clubbing in Rio to the emergent Bristol sound, and there were dozens of artists we discovered or promoted way ahead of the pack.

Another thing, I hope, should be obvious: unrivalled coverage of this uniquely exciting period for music, written by a new generation of journalists, many of whom who didn’t even see themselves as journalists. I can take little if any credit for where they ended up, but it’s great to know that many can trace their roots back to my little magazine.