Baltimore, Maryland based Basement Boyz writer/producer Teddy Douglas is best known for a slew of ‘90s and 2000s dance hits, including Ultra Nate’s “It’s Over Now,” Ann Nesby’s “Shelter,” Byron Stingly’s “It’s Over,” and most famously, Crystal Water’s #1 international smash hit,“100% Pure Love.” Less known in DJ circles is the fact that Douglas has also quietly been producing the softer side of R&B with Baltimore’s own Minister of Soul, Marcell Russell, the former frontman of Marcell & The Truth. Russell and Douglas most famously collaborated in 2006 on the stepper’s classic and Truth debut, Hopes Too High. While it has been nearly a decade since that award-winning project, there are several songs on this current collaboration that could slide right into Hopes.. as a companion disc.
Baltimore, Maryland based Basement Boyz writer/producer Teddy Douglas is best known for a slew of ‘90s and 2000s dance hits, including Ultra Nate’s “It’s Over Now,” Ann Nesby’s “Shelter,” Byron Stingly’s “It’s Over,” and most famously, Crystal Water’s #1 international smash hit,“100% Pure Love.” Less known in DJ circles is the fact that Douglas has also quietly been producing the softer side of R&B with Baltimore’s own Minister of Soul, Marcell Russell, the former frontman of Marcell & The Truth. Russell and Douglas most famously collaborated in 2006 on the stepper’s classic and Truth debut, Hopes Too High. While it has been nearly a decade since that award-winning project, there are several songs on this current collaboration that could slide right into Hopes.. as a companion disc. Rightly titled Retro Soul, the single producer, single artist partnership delivers a timeless sound that still clearly marks several different eras in soul, R&B, and soulful house music. Cut down to eleven tracks from the 12 recently shared as a Soundcloud stream, the leaner experience offers fur wrapped vocals, spacious, almost jam session like productions, and quality writing for the mature R&B fan and lovers of soulful days gone by.
Right from the start, we get mowed down with a runaway train of funk and soul in the uptempo, “Can’t Keep On With My Heart,” whose driving drum and organic bass interplay is much missed in radio’s slick productions. “Can’t Keep On…” isn’t alone in keeping your feet moving and head bobbing. There are plenty of other celebratory sensations ready to brighten gloomy skies, as Douglas unloads a series of ‘90s inspired house and smoothed out ‘70s disco to keep the body in a constant state of motion. The long gloved elegance backed by a classic Baltimore bassline on “Only A Fool” harkens back to the days of early Luther Vandross with more than a nod to ‘70s era Dreamgirls. On a tribal beat with an array of synthy overlays, punchy horns, and electronic string accents, Marcell continues delivering his version of the Velvet Voice by tackling one of the biggest hits of Luther Vandross’s career, “Til’ My Baby Comes Home,” and nails it with a full-bodied baritone and a straight-ahead church boy vocal approach that is pure Russell. The festive Caribbean conga line that is “Forever (featuring Maysa)” has already proven itself a big club hit on both sides of the ocean, and is the major standout on the album, begging for hyperdriven salsa and fiery ballroom dancing routines. Closing out the fast and furious uptempo jams is a panoramic, otherworldly “Land of Love” with Russell’s deep message and Douglas’s rich musical landscape that is as much acid jazz as it is dance music.
Bridging the soulful house and uptempo grooves to the sensual and serious R&B melodies of Retro Soul is a purely instrumental cover of Donny Hathaway’s “Valdez in the Country” that Douglas astutely undergirds with the wah-wah guitar and bassline track of Marcell & The Truth’s woefully underrated gem, “Evil Woman,” from the Hopes Too High, a cut also produced by Douglas. The mash-up works and is a delightful wink and a nod by Douglas stealing from Douglas to fans whom have been around long enough to catch the inside joke. The instrumentation is spot-on and is the only cut not to boast Russell’s vocals, but that favor is soon returned.
With nothing but his accapella voice in a soul-stirring interlude, a pure instrumented Russell tackles “I Don’t Need No Help,” an obscure 1971 Valerie Simpson cut from Exposed. Russell’s reading of the bare naked lyric is unfussy, direct, and leaves you wanting more, exactly what intimate soul is supposed to do.
A quartet of simpler R&B cuts on Retro Soul each stake out corners of different periods in the annals of Black music history. An early 20th Century New Orleans blues energizes “Clap My Hands” with just enough intricate juke joint funk to hear reverberations of ragtime, work songs, jazz funk, and a whole lotta foot-stomping soul. Like most of Retro Soul’s originals, the infectious “Clap My Hands” is a zenith in Russell’s lyricism and Douglas’ production. With a killer hook that dominates a cut carved out of the late ‘80s smooth soul, “Never Com’n Down” has more than bit of quartet gospel tradition in its organ use, riffing yells, and close harmonies laid over a sophisticated bassline that is every bit of 1989. Like various moments on Retro Soul, in an effort to be period true, Douglas choses space over fullness in the mixing and production of “Never Com’n Down,” which can lend itself to a vaguely jam session feel on this and other moments present. On the mid-tempo love song, “Wonderful,” those choices give its early ‘70s country soul a romantic intimacy that works magnificently on every level. The minimalism also provides an arresting atmosphere on Russell’s neo-soul era duet ballad with Natalie Stewart, the Floacist of Floetry fame, Russell and Stewart’s second collaboration since “Greatest Love” debuted on Marcell Unplugged Live @ the Senator.
Nearly 10 years since their last release together, on an album that was recorded in snatches over several years, Teddy Douglas and Marcell Russell demonstrate once again that theirs is a magical musical collaboration lush with romanticism, polished performances, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the various styles available to the studious artist within the R&B/Soul canon. Different from the more socio-political fare that dominates Russell’s usual material on projects like Symbols, this up-tempo heavy excursion with Douglas allows the artist to have some fun and celebrate life and love without much of B’more’s Minister of Soul’s heavy-handed messaging. While some of it may be too retro in its production for younger urban music fans, Retro Soul is right on-time for the grown and sexy set. Highly Recommended.
Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, the reviewer once managed Marcell Russell and the band Marcell & The Truth from 2010-2011.
By L. Michael Gipson