The Brand New Heavies
The Brand New Heavies
Acid jazz band
During a run of wildly successful shows in New York with their new lead singer, N’Dea Davenport, the Brand New Heavies broke onto the scene as bold jazz-funk innovators in late 1991 and early 1992. They soon began to play their music as live accompaniment to the rhymes of rappers like Grand Puba, Masta Ace, and the Black Sheep. Such live collaboration led to their second album, 1992’s Heavy Rhyme Experience: Volume I.
Meanwhile, cuts from the Brand New Heavies’ debut album from 1991, The Brand New Heavies, found an audience over the airwaves and rose in the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts in both the U.S. and their native U.K. Their third album, Brother Sister, released in 1994, offered a mix of their newfound jazz hip-hop pace and the 1970s-style funk and soul reminiscent of their first record. Before they began “setting the pace,” as described in Rolling Stone in 1994, however, the Brand New Heavies had to overcome an initially unreceptive audience in their native U.K.
Members include Simon Bartholomew, guitar; N’Dea Davenport (from Atlanta; began singing, 1991, made full band member, 1994), lead vocals; Jan Kincaid, drums, keyboards; and Andrew Levy, bass.
Band formed in London informally, late 1970s, formally, 1985; released debut album, Brand New Heavies, 1991; toured U.S., 1991-92; “Dream Come True” hit U.K. Top 20, 1992; recorded album Heavy Rhyme Experience: Volume I, with East Coast rappers Main Source, Gang Starr, Grand Puba, and Kool G Rap, L.A. ’s Pharcyde, and others, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —EastWest Records America, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
The Brand New Heavies came out of the “Rare Groove” scene in the U.K. in 1985 to playing soul and dance music. Ian Gittins of Melody Maker described the three original members—Jan Kincaid on keyboards and drums, Andrew Levy on bass, and Simon Bartholomew on guitar—as “three old muckers from art college.” The spiritual root of their music derives from 1970s funk and soul masters such as James Brown, Earth, Wind and Fire, Chic, and others. In fact, the three high-school friends started playing together in the late 1970s, but didn’t become more serious until the mid-1980s. When Gittins suggested the three had a sound similar to 1970s television cop shows, they cheered. “Yeah, the music to something like ’Starsky and Hutch’ was brilliant,” Levy asserted. “Or the first ’Death Wish’ film. It was the standard thing then. Now everything’s gone Housey [keyboard-driven, beat-heavy dance music].”
Early on, the Heavies helped establish a new label called Acid Jazz. “When we first started, we were the only real band on the Acid Jazz label,” drummer Kincaid told Marisa Fox of Raygun in 1994. He continued, “There was a techno DJ, and the label was based out of one room. We launched that label.” Since then the group has influenced a score of new groups and labels, including Mo’ Wax and Talkin’ Loud.
When the Brand New Heavies released their debut album, and before they signed on N’Dea Davenport as lead singer, the group found at best a reluctant reception in the U.K. Gittins described it thus: “[Their] killer fusion of freeform jazz, heavy-duty funk and rave euphoria was greeted by the British public with earth-shattering indifference.” Rather than merely acceptingtheir lot or remaking themselves to fit dominant U.K. taste, however, the band shored up their sound and took it to the United States.
First, the Brand New Heavies hooked up with Atlanta-born N’Dea Davenport, former backup singer for Young MC and Madonna. “When I was on my own, I was always looking for another sound, the sound that the boys—the Heavies—had,” Davenport was quoted as saying in Vibeln 1994. “I was just a little ol’backup singer, singing behind Madonna and a bunch of other people. I was supposed to be the third girl in the Blond Ambition tour, but something told me not to go. I didn’t. I heard the Heavies. I moved to London. They accepted me. That was it.” Matt Dike and Michael Ross of the Delicious Vinyl imprint at Atlantic Records had heard both Davenport and the Heavies and suggested the match.
In London, Davenport and the Heavies joined together and departed for a debut tour of the U.S. Soon the songs from their debut album made the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Their single, “Never Stop,” became the first by an English group to make the U.S. rhythm and blues Top Ten since Soul II Soul. Likewise, “Dream Come True” made the U.K. Top 20. Gittins called “Dream Come True” an “upfront, untroubled soul smooch which provides a fine platform for N’dea’s vocal prowess.” Still, the hit was simpler and more commercial than the album, which Gittins characterized as “past-midnight, darkly serene, an intricate jazz-tranquility dotted with pockets of intriguing funk turbulence.”
While playing for the first time in New York at S.O.B.s in early 1991, the Heavies combined with rappers MC Search and Q-Tip, who jumped onstage during the Heavies’ encore and improvised to their music for a thrilled audience. The Heavies’ second album, Heavy Rhyme Experience, featured “the current cream of the East Coast hip-hop crop,” according to Reflex. Still, the album failed to garner altogether positive reviews.
Frank Owen of Vibe pointed out that the idea of combining rap with live music and not merely sampled sounds dated to 1982 to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s album The Message. While he credited Heavy Rhyme Experience as the most ambitious such attempt to date in 1992, he also reported that, unlike the live mixing, the record was compiled by combining various tracks: The instrumentals came first, followed by the rappers’ vocals, and finally, additional bass and guitar lines.
The difficulty of recapturing the live feel in the recorded product continued to haunt the Brand New Heavies in their third album, Brother Sister. Marie Elsie St. Leger noted that drawback in Rolling Stone, but excused Davenport’s singing from the critique. “She has a quality not found in R&B vocalists since the height of disco: looseness,” St. Leger wrote. “Vocalists of that era—from Gloria Gaynor to Donna Summer—could make you believe that those screeching high notes were nothin’ but a thang. Davenport, of course, doesn’t screech; she sings sexily, without coyness…. She is as fluid as the band is tight, as blase as the players are intent.” With the aid of Davenport’s vocals, Brother Sister finally succeeds, according to St. Leger.
When the Heavies were finishing Heavy Rhyme Experience with a number of rappers, Davenport collaborated with Guru, an old friend of hers, to record another jazz hip-hop album, Jazzmatazz. Reported in 1994 to have been named an official member of the Heavies, Davenport considered both Heavy Rhyme and Jazzmatazz to be “side projects, not really reflective of what we’re about as the Brand New Heavies,” she told Raygun. Brother Sister approaches the sound of their first album, solid funk and soul with a fusion jazz twist.
What the Brand New Heavies are really about, however, is experimentation and the generation of a new sound. From their debut album, which Rolling Stone praised for “[setting] a standard that was hard for imitators to meet,” through their 1994 recording, the Heavies continued to develop their particular style. Although other bands have picked up on their funk and soul combination, the Heavies are not worried about losing their distinct identity. “We don’t really sound like anybody else,” Kincaid told Fox of Raygun in 1994. “I mean, we’re constantly changing anyway, so it would be hard for a band to keep up with us even if they wanted to.”
The Brand New Heavies (includes “Never Stop” and “Dream Come True”), Delicious Vinyl, 1991.
(With Grand Puba, Masta Ace, the Black Sheep, and others) Heavy Rhyme Experience: Volume I, Delicious Vinyl, 1992.
Brother Sister (includes “Have a Good Time,” “Dream on Dreamer,” “Mind Trips,” and “Forever”), EastWest, 1994.
Melody Maker, March 7, 1992.
Raygun, April 1994.
Reflex, issue 29.
Rolling Stone, September 17, 1992; April 7, 1994.
Vibe, fall 1992; May 1994.
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