The sound of Philadelphia is one as profane as it is empowering; the voices of paper vendors breaking the morning mist to allow the din of panhandlers, day laborers, street performers, and the gears of justice to grind slowly to a fever pitch, punctuated by sweeping strings and offensively smooth horn arrangements. The city bleeds pride and hubris in equal amounts and does everything with great fervor, especially refusing to apologize. Tragedy as treasured as triumph, Philadelphia wears its heart on its sleeve and packs heat in its pockets. The emotion swelling from craggy alleys, colonial haunts, and ornately decorated walls is translated better through song than the sight of garbage suffocating the gutters or national headlines clogging the wire with stories of heinous crime. The notion of brotherly love is best exemplified in the music, which unites a populace otherwise divided according to classist geographical dividing lines and longstanding racial tensions. From jazz haunts to storefront churches, doo-wop corners, and the nation’s oldest orchestra, the city boasted the tools necessary to create the kind of sound that could rise from the swelling mound of funk oozing from every hamlet of Black America as the civil rights era ended in the late ’60s, to inject an unmistakably distinctive sound into the pantheon of soul.
Philadelphia’s soul music legacy is synonymous with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the production powerhouse who began working together in 1965 as songwriter and pianist, respectively. Their early time as a team was spent penning hits for artists on Atlantic and Mercury as those labels rose to prominence. Following a string of hits that resurrected the failing career of Jerry Butler, Kenny Gamble got off to a rough start founding his own independent label. He set out shortly thereafter with Leon Huff to found Neptune Records in 1969. The label was distributed by Chess Records until it shifted focus away from soul music, at which point Gamble & Huff found themselves under the umbrella of CBS records and a much more memorable moniker by 1971; Philadelphia International Records. Over the years, the label was anchored by names like Archie Bell, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, Bunny Sigler, Jerry Butler, Harold Melvin, The O’Jays, Patti Labelle, The Spinners, The Intruders, The Stylistics, Jean Carn, Phyllis Hyman, Hall & Oates, and even boasted The Jacksons in a joint deal with Epic for the first two albums after their departure from Motown. Their songwriters included Thom Bell, Dexter Wansel, Linda Creed, McFadden & Whitehead, and Norman Harris.
The music was typified by gritty soul stirring vocal performances often juxtaposed by much more refined soul arrangements, including lush strings and teeming horn sections – all engineered by Joe Tarsia. Philadelphia International Records made music that sounded like they took that hulking bruiser of a balladeer out of his backwater factory job and dressed him in a tuxedo, but never bothered to wipe the sweat from his brow. That is the essence of the sound that shoves itself back to the fore everyday at lunchtime in Philadelphia, as local disc jockeys pay homage to the music that likely did as much to conceive of them as it did their careers. Almost all of their vocalists were the kinds of talents who remain without parallel – many still working and regularly sought after, while an unfortunate few have met an untimely demise. The never-ending roster of artists aside, the biggest weapon in the label’s arsenal was the almighty MFSB; the band of thirty-plus musicians, known as Mother Father Sister Brother, that worked from Philly International’s home base of Sigma Sound Studios and provided The Sound of Philadelphia in real time to the majority of the label’s artists – a sound that would become highly sought after as the hits mounted. MFSB was one variable of their ultimate success; those that had less to do with music were directly related to the convenience of great timing as STAX fell apart and Motown pulled up stakes and moved from Hitsville, U.S.A. to Los Angeles, making Philly International the recipient of a windfall of talent without a place to call home as other funk and soul institutions were snuffed.
With greater success comes greater responsibility and often tragedy. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Philly International suffered the blows of a payola scandal, the loss of Teddy Pendergrass to a nearly fatal car crash, and the evaporation of soul music as live instrumentation, the lifeblood of the label and Philadelphia’s music scene, was increasingly abandoned in favor of electronic instruments and synthesizers that could do the job of a full orchestra for the price of one or two producers. The industry was changing and had little interest in preserving the house that soul music had built. Having suffered the fate of so many institutions as Boogie, Rap, and New Jack Swing became the more popular alternatives moving into the ’90s, Philadelphia International Records did its best to keep up but was ultimately buried in the pit where its orchestra once played. The national focus shifted and radio marched on as it always does, to the next new thing – except in Philadelphia. Within the city limits a generation of children were being reared on grown folks music as though it were the gospel. Booming systems rattled across cobblestones blasting The O’Jays “Back Stabbers” as storefront churches shook like shivering addicts between the liquor stores that flanked them – their tambourines and bass drums cutting against the Islamic call to prayer. From that jumble of sound came the molecular combination necessary to incubate a generation of kids who feared their parents, talked tough after school, sang from their diaphragms, played classical music, hung out in dive bars for the live jazz, and spent their spare time taping mixtape rap shows off the radio.
It was the era that produced Bilal Sayeed Oliver; a man who grew from progeny of the church to prodigy of the jazz circuit well before getting a good grip on life as a freshman at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts; a factory of local talent that boasts Boyz II Men and The Roots amongst notable alumni. Philadelphia is a strange town, amongst few others across the nation, including Washington D.C. and New Orleans, where children still learn to play instruments despite the non-existent budget for arts and culture in schools. It is a city sustained by a glut of jazz musicians and gospel halls pumping out prodigies faster than major label artists can recruit for touring bands. Bilal, himself sang backup for Grenique and Erykah Badu before stepping into the limelight. Bilal’s talent was as staggering in his earliest performances as it is today, as much for his unmistakable range as his onstage antics.
As soul was reintroduced during the late ’90s – a wayward child of fusion and classic soul – Philadelphia was thrust back into good musical standing with production teams like James Poyser’s Axis Music, The Roots, Ivan Barrias and Carvin Haggins, Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, and Philly soul institution, Larry Gold’s The Studio – the official home of Philadelphia’s musical renaissance. The unofficial home was The Black Lily, an open mic venue founded by The Roots’ female counterparts, The Jazzyfatnastees. What started as a small performance series quickly became a revolution driven by live music, which produced a wave of artists including Ursula Rucker, Kindred, Jazmine Sullivan, Jaguar Wright, Floetry, Jill Scott, boasted a number of memorable male performers, including Musiq and Bilal, and had the industry at Philadelphia’s doorstep clamoring for more.
Catapulted by early appearances on Common’s Like Water For Chocolate after being discovered by Q-Tip during college in New York City, Bilal was inducted into the fold of a group of influencers across soul and hip-hop that would come to be known as the Soulquarians, lead by Detroit producer, J Dilla. His debut, First Born Second, would boast hit songs and thrust him into the vortex of popular demand, as his second album Love For Sale was shelved and ultimately leaked to fans thirsty for more than the bubblegum R&B that pervades popular radio – especially as the prospect of new music from fellow Soulquarian, D’Angelo became less reliable. Bilal became an instant ambassador, not only for the kind of talent Philadelphia is capable of, but the brand of musical innovation with which the city is synonymous. A direct recipient of the baton, under the tutelage of gospel singers and jazz legends, like Trudy Pitts, Bilal became the physical manifestation and in some ways an unlikely messiah for musical traditions that were dying in other parts of the country. Equal parts Bunny Sigler and Billie Holiday, Bilal channels the crude elements of Black music at its earliest and most ripe with unbridled emotion to produce music that best suits his electronically charged aesthetic.
Preferring to perform and record without limitation has left Bilal floundering at points in his career as a very independent thinker signed to a major label where corporate interests and individuality do not jibe. The same approach to his career, however, has won him a legion of fans as devoted to his refusal to bend as he is – generational peers who are thirsty for more of The Sound of Philadelphia that raised them. Channeling Muddy Waters, Prince, and Sun-Ra, Bilal has moved into a new independent label deal and a strata of soul music that few dare to occupy at this point in history, not because it is not accessible, but because they simply do not have the cojones or the chops – a phenomenon that has led many established artists to be booed from stages in Philadelphia. Through Bilal and his band of deviant cohorts, soul music is receiving a new lease on life – one that managed to evade Gamble and Huff in later years, despite their best efforts. Their resurrection, instead, comes not only during the lunch rush, but much more indirectly as the artists who were spoon-fed their music throughout childhood have since grown to crave the sounds that nourished them enough to integrate those elements into their own music. In accordance with his birthright as a Philadelphian, Bilal has managed to survive despite the odds against him in an industry more pop driven than empowered, his realism a sharp contrast to the mainstream’s lack thereof. Airtight’s biggest revenge, however, has undoubtedly been a calculated dismantling of the labels applied to his music in the process of creating an indelible niche for himself. Borrowing from a bottomless fount of expertise, and generations of tradition, he has almost single-handedly put the neo-soul label to rest. While Bilal’s music defies classification in the traditional sense, he is proof that there is nothing new about the concept of soul: you either have it or you don’t. Philadelphia still does.
Words by Karas Lamb