In a Big Year for New Soul, a Small But Influential Label Turns 10

2011 marks a decade of Daptone Records, which lovingly recreates '60s sounds

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In a year when Adele, the retro-soul stylist with a ground-shaking alto, sold a gazillion albums, and Amy Winehouse, the game-changing soul-revivalist who battled her demons in public, passed away, it's been easy to overlook another milestone in this new era of soul: the tenth anniversary of Daptone Records, the very label that helped usher in that era.

Founded at the start of the decade by musicians Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman, the label puts out classic soul, funk, blues, R&B, and afrobeat. Their continued success has been largely off the mainstream radar, serving as a reminder that the soul revival of the past few years has been taking place at all levels of music, from indie-leaning clubs to the Grammys.

Daptone's creation story is also a reminder that soul never entirely went away in the first place. While working as a musician in the New York soul and funk scene in the '90s, Roth and his colleague Philip Lehman started the short-lived Desco Records, where Roth began crafting his analog producing process. Sugarman, meanwhile, came out of the Boston punk scene in the '80s. When he arrived in New York he worked as a freelance jazz musician. He forged his relationship with Roth when his group, The Sugarman 3, recorded music on Desco.

There wasn't really a plan to start Daptone. Roth and Sugarman wanted to keep their records together and sustain the energy that they started at Desco. The forward-thinking friends felt there was no other label that could deliver the sound they wanted, so they decided to create it themselves. "From the beginning we never planned to have some big record company," Roth explains. "I wasn't trying to become a mogul or producer; we just wanted to make some records and have fun." They now both play in flagship band the Dap-Kings: Roth on bass and Sugarman on sax.

The Dap-Kings catapulted to worldwide fame when producer Mark Ronson asked them to work on the late Amy Winehouse's now legendary second album, Back to Black. That record went on to sell more than 10 million copies. The Dap-Kings also backed her on the subsequent North American tour. Roth won a Grammy for his work behind the glass and was even issued a platinum record.

There was already growing interest in soul and funk making its way into contemporary pop music before the label started. But Roth insists that the label's artists make music that sounds good to them—if it happens to sound like music from the '60s, then so be it. The team at Daptone was following their muse, while the zeitgeist had already been shifting.

Terry Currier, manager of Music Millennium in Portland, Oregon, the longest running independent record store in the Pacific Northwest, says the success of Daptone has had a significant impact on the music industry. "The soul revival has been really exciting; a lot of new bands have been given a chance like, Black Joe Lewis, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, and Daptone was the catalyst for spreading this style of music to a wider audience," he says. "Not only are new bands playing '60s-era soul, but there are a lot of reissue labels like Light in the Attic Records and archival label Numero opening their vaults to release things that have never been out before or have been out of print, and there is now a big interest, especially among younger people who maybe have never listened to this music before."

Music writer David Ma, who runs and writes about hip-hop, R&B and soul for Pitchfork, The Source, and others, has covered Daptone's rise extensively. "Daptone doesn't only make soul songs with themes and arrangements in the style of soul music but, more importantly, they make records that aesthetically sound like the era," Ma says. "You can see their influence with almost every modern soul group, most of which flooded the market after Back to Black. To make soul music is one thing, but to sound as brassy, drum-heavy, and project the warmth that can only be achieved with analog equipment, is probably Daptone's biggest influence."

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Raj Dayal is a music and culture writer based in Phoenix. He's a critic and features contributor for American Songwriter.

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