“Yeah, everybody still calls me ‘Ab’,” says Aaron Abernathy, on Skype from his digs in DC, with an audible hint of resignation. With the new record, Monologue, his long-awaited second physical album, he’s even titled one of the tracks Ab Is Gone.
“With my last name being ‘Abernathy’, everybody in my family gets called ‘Ab’. My older brother is called ‘Ab’. My father is called ‘Ab’ – I call him ‘The Original Ab’ – even my grandfather is called ‘Ab’.”
So, 11 years after his critically acclaimed debut release Lyrically Inclined 1:3 – The Odyssey [one of the critics being the gaffer here at Echoes], Aaron has officially retired the name ‘Ab & The Souljourners’ to take on the more authentic mantle typed on his birth certificate, hoping, once and for all dammit, that people could stop introducing him on stage as bloody Ab Abernathy.
“I feel like in soul music people use their [real] names, so I just thought it was important to really put my name out there,” he says.
For those of us on the outside, the news, in late 2015, that Jan Kincaid had left the group he had helped to found came as a shock. Brand New Heavies were for over 30 years – indeed, they still are – a cornerstone of modern-era UK funk and soul, right? Sure, they’d change vocalists from time to time, usually depending on contractual commitments and solo ambitions, but the core trio of Jan, Simon Bartholomew and Andrew Levy was here for all time, wasn’t it?
Apparently not. Now, alongside the continuing Heavies – featuring Bartholomew, Levy, vocalist Sulene Fleming, Matt Steele [keys] and Luke Harris [drums] – there is MF Robots, a newly created and entirely separate outfit led by Jan Kincaid and former Heavies lead singer Dawn Joseph, a cracking debut single, The Night Is Calling, that energetically channels both Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind & Fire, and a whole new venture that will see the group’s debut album arrive in September.
Thus, when Jan and I sit down in a West End bar to discuss the above chain of events, there is only one place to start: the phrase ‘elephant in the room’ [bearing in mind the Heavies’ famous logo] has rarely seemed so apt. How come he left?
“A lot of reasons,” he replies, thoughtfully…
Porter Ray talks with the self-awareness of someone older than his actual age of 26, yet his voice makes him sound several years younger. It’s not a typical rap voice. If a young LL Cool J were to record I Need Love in 2017, you think he might aim for a similarly sensitive tone to Ray.
“Yeah, I think I have a light voice, it’s softer,” agrees the Seattle rapper on the phone from America’s west coast. “When I first started rapping, I was intimidated by my own voice, ‘cos it wasn’t aggressive, and my rhyme style, how I was delivering lyrics, it’s a lot more poetic. I was embarrassed about it, but now I take it as a unique trait, it’s one of my attributes. It separates me. It’s just the natural way that I rap. Now I like how my voice is lighter. I’ve tried to make it one of my strengths.”
I don’t mention LL to Ray, but he might not mind. Where rappers like Vince Staples reject any association with bygone eras, Porter doesn’t care a bit: he embraces it openly. He’s a fan with a knowledgeable enthusiasm for the past.
“I like being compared to rappers from back then,” he says. “I love music from the ‘90s… ”
Rasta love is alive and well, and Spiritual’s Stand Up Rasta is one of those songs that’ll be pulled up again and again in reggae dances. The lyrics speak of repentance, surrender, endurance and even triumph, and they’re sung over a dread heavy, seventies-style rhythm that’s cloaked in authenticity. Listening to Spiritual is like hearing Burning Spear for the first time. The voice is earthy and natural, whilst the music and the messages it contains come right from the soul. The singer from Allman Town is well named, and he’s delivered a debut album – called Awakening – that deserves a place alongside any roots reggae classic of the past.
Whilst Stand Up Rasta is a definite highlight, the entire album is strong from start to finish. All 14 songs are originals and have custom-built rhythms to match, but then Spiritual believes in making music the traditional way. This means creating songs from scratch, and in the company of musicians – hence he records with “live” instruments, including a full-size horns section, guitars, organ and percussion, plus backing singers. The result is timeless music…