Daptone Records looks to the past for inspiration.
Of all the hidden secrets of the music industry, the dusty, analog sound of Daptone Records is hands down the most soulful – in every sense of the word.
This self-described “little indie label that could” out of Brooklyn was formally launched in 2001 by Dap-Kings bandmates Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman, and over the last decade has grown into the very epicenter of “the New Sound of Old Soul”. “Our Brooklyn-based family of soul-drenched talent,” Roth and Sugarman explain on the label website, “channels the spirits of bygone powerhouses like Stax and Motown into gilded moments of movement and joy…whether your preference is for discs 7-inches or 12, LPs or CDs, this is music to be savored and felt, again and again.”
For the most part, Daptone flies under the mainstream radar – they do what they do, and do it incredibly well, deepening their relationship with loyal fans rather than scrambling to gain superficial ones. Still, the label has enjoyed considerable success with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, whose cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” accompanied the opening sequence of the Oscar-nominated Up in the Air. Another shining moment for Daptone occurred when Jay Z sampled “Make the Road By Walking,” a title track from the vocal-less funk powerhouse Menahan Street Band. (50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar have also offered vocals over the band’s sampled sounds – no surprise, though, given that hip hop producers are fond of digging into just the kind of era Daptone is resurrecting here and now.)
Given its unique style and substance, it’s no surprise that Daptone is also busy making passionate songs of faith. Rest assured, this isn’t the singsongy sanctimony you’ll hear on K-Love, a Christian radio station devoted to “positive” and “encouraging” (i.e., predictable and saccharine) songs. Instead, Daptone offers raw, sometimes dark glimpses of faith in a cold, hard world.
Soul of America, a documentary about Daptone singer Charles Bradley (who has also been sampled by Jay Z), is the quickest route to understanding the respectful and engaging way Daptone makes space for faith with its artists. Bradley, a James Brown imitator who traveled all across the country working as a chef and performing odd jobs, eventually landed back in Brooklyn, sleeping on an old mattress in the basement of his mother’s apartment. It was here that Roth discovered him; and as he learned more about Bradley’s story – the brush with suicide, the near-death experience, the murder of his brother – the raw, strained voice of the “screaming eagle” must’ve taken on a whole new meaning. "I wanted to die," Bradley recalls in one interview.. “I wanted to leave this world. I could not take the pain.”
What they might not have expected, though, is that Bradley is to this day a man of abiding faith, and still cries out to God in thanksgiving and prayer in his songs:
Then, there’s the Como Mamas, a straight Gospel vocal group of three women (Ester Mae Smith, Angela Taylor, and Della Daniel) from the small town of Como, Mississippi. Unlike Charles, the Como Mamas really have no interest in singing about anything else but God, and emanate a timeless passion and wisdom that generates goosebumps:
Last but not least, there’s Naomi Shelton, an Alabama native who – along with her backup singers “the Gospel Queens” – offers a kind of middle ground, a soundtrack of faith that’s in the world but always not of it. Shelton’s voice, like Bradley’s, has immense grit and power, and both of her albums – What Have You Done, My Brother? and the latest, Cold World – testify to the joys of faith, hope, and love, as well as the sorrow of human weakness we find all around us and within us:
As the music industry continues to change, and becomes more and more commercialized, compartmentalized, and computerized, the clamor to get at the cutting edge of where cuts are made – and to squeeze the most profit or savings out of the whole machine – leaves both audiences and artists starving for something more.
Meanwhile, Daptone Records is that kid on the playground who found and clings to an old, neglected toy, using it as a gateway to some hidden world, forgetting that there are shinier toys altogether. Soul, and the soul, are its passions…and the music world is better for it.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.