At the popular NYC nightspot S.O.B.'s, a classic hip-hop moment is underway. Wu-Tang disciple Raekwon is spitting his greatest hits and misses over live, funk-laden interpretations of RZA's soundscapes by funk/soul band El Michels Affair. With the sinewy funk stew cooking on stage, you'd swear they were sho' nuff old school vets. But unless you're hip to the scene, the group's racial composition might jar you. "When Raekwon walked in [rehearsal], he was a little shocked," recalls Truth & Soul Records co-founder/ engineer Jeff Silverman. "People assume they're old records." Co-founder/ saxophonist Leon "El" Michels has a similar account. "This journalist heard the [Mighty Imperials] record and thought we were a group of 60-year-old black dudes. Then he came to our show and was like, 'I don't know about this.'"
Comprised of a loose collective of musicians, El Michels Affair is but one of their many noms de plume-the group is the intersection of members of The Expressions, Bama & The Family, Cosmic Force, Bronx River Pkwy, The Mighty Imperials and JD & The Evil's Dynamite Band. And like it or not, these 20-something white kids are waxing poetic all over your preconceived notions of soul. "Half of Booker T. & the MG's was white," cites drummer/bassist Nick Movshon. "The Atlantic Records session guys too."
While they can't claim Muscle Shoals lineage, they are indeed third generation throwback soul heirs. Confused? Check the family tree. In 1997, soul aficionados Phillip Lehman and Gabriel Roth formed Desco Records, pioneering the trend of reissuing obscure soul tracks. Fast forward to 2000-Roth and Lehman split to form Daptone Records (Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings) and Soul Fire (Lee Fields), respectively. In 2002, Lehman makes his exodus from the business; his pupils become beneficiaries of his musical estate.
Taking a cue from pre-blaxploitation film Putney Swope, Lehman's pupils dub their budding branch of the tree Truth & Soul. And parallel to the film's plot, Truth & Soul's mission was to shake up the system. "We wanted to cover everything and work with other people, not just put out soul music," says Silverman. "With Soul Fire, the way Philip ran things was very militant." But with recent guests at their Williamsburg digs in the form of Masters at Work's Kenny "Dope" Gonzales, Fatman Scoop and Lauryn Hill, it's evident that the changing of the guard involves remixing the funky precedent.