Remembering The Enduring Legacy Of Acid Jazz Band D’Influence ✨

Words: Jesse Bernard

The advent of the internet/digital age was a strange moment for underground, black British music culture. While technologies improved and consumers pushed to become accustomed to digital music, just a few short years after the CD became widely used, then came the MP3. Of course, the internet explosion allowed the grime scene to flourish at a time when most were just figuring out what the World Wide Web truly meant. But for those artists whose legacies were confined to the pages of print mags no longer in circulation, delving into archives is often the only way to learn about their stories. The legacies of artists survive through the communication and passing on of recorded or oral history. However, for many underground artists of the ‘90s—such as production team and acid jazz group D’Influence—legacy is survived through aural memory.

Chances are that at the last summer cookout you went to, you would’ve heard the work of D’Influence blaring from the speakers. To be accurate, at any given moment in time since the mid-90s, the majority of the British population has come across this band’s work. The nu-jazz movement sweeping London in recent years can be traced back to D’Influence—even more so when you consider that, like many artists today, they sought independent, DIY success.

Like many soul artists of the time, D’Influence struggled to find label interest in the early years of their career, forcing them to distribute their own music; a story not too dissimilar to the forefathers of garage and grime. It’s hard to imagine that over twenty years ago—twenty-seven, to be exact—British nu-soul acts were struggling to receive major label interest as the general consensus was that they often sounded American and inauthentic. The ways in which music travels, particularly soul through the diaspora, meant that such an idea didn’t account for the fact that for many black British musicians, soul was a part of their DNA.

Jamiroquai, who were at the time signed to Gilles Peterson’s label Acid Jazz, had already grown into prominence by the release of D’Influence’s second album, Prayer 4 Unity, in 1995. While D’Influence would remain in the underground as recording musicians, perhaps it was less so that audiences weren’t receptive to black British funk and soul but rather they just would have preferred to hear it from a group like Jamiroquai.

Prayer 4 Unity saw their sound fully realised and matured, branching out beyond soul into rare groove and house. With Sarah Anne Webb leading the vocals in the group, guitarist and composer Ed Baden-Powell, multi-instrumentalist Kwame Kwaten and drummer Steve Marston, D’Influence traversed the thin lines between rare groove, soul and acid jazz, employing jazz-heavy chords and soul-led vocals. The use of hip-hop breaks combined with live instruments gave rise to a British neo-soul movement previously led by Soul II Soul and Omar.

By the release of the group’s third album in 1997, London, D’Influence had built a significant profile for themselves, not just as a band themselves but as a production team. Their biggest success came through Mark Morrison’s “Return Of The Mack”, the royalties of which are no doubt still putting food on the table. Finding its way around the world, “Return Of The Mack” was a step away from the rare groove sounds D’Influence were exploring in their own music but indicated that, if they wanted to, they could’ve released music ripened for chart success.

A few months later, the band would go on to produce Shola Ama’s breakout single, “You Might Need Somebody”, as well as various other records throughout the singer’s career. However, D’Influence’s influence and presence became apparent when the production team were tapped to produce a remix of Jay-Z’s “Wishing On A Star”. Jigga wasn’t quite the icon he is today, but in 1997, the idea that an American rapper would work with British musicians was a big deal, given that producers couldn’t just send an instrumental file via WeTransfer.

Next month, D’Influence will be playing a number of shows at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, as Kwaten said “it felt right.” The group regularly rehearse together but bookings such as this, especially at a well-loved venue, challenges the idea of relevancy when it can seem your moment has passed. For artists who feel as though they’re called to create music based on feeling, there’s no window or sprint—instead it’s an arduous marathon that has its highs and lows, much like life itself.

D’Influence isn’t a name that you’ll hear often these days, but the permanence of their legacy remains not only in their music but also the work they created for stars such as Shola Ama and Jay-Z. While the names of cultural contemporaries remain in our present consciousness, honouring the voices of artists from bygone eras is how we ensure that legacies aren’t forgotten or lost.

Posted on May 10, 2019