Every now and again, a record carves itself an indelible place in the history of a place, a scene or a genre, all under its own steam – without a big budget, without a press campaign, without mainstream radio, just by hitting all the right notes at the right moment. Maybe you had to have been there to really feel it – locked into the pirate stations, a regular at the right clubs, or leaning on the counter in the right records shops on a Saturday afternoon – but if you were, there are some tunes that will always vibrate with the underground cultural energy of their time.
Bô'vel's 1996 Manchester streetsoul anthem 'Check 4 U' is one of those tunes. The kind of song that makes the over-used phrase 'underground classic' mean something again, it effortlessly distills the sounds of its era into one of the most undeniable, genre-spanning cuts of the mid-1990s. The song resonates with the regional flavours of UK sound-system culture: the sweet club sound of Manchester's vibrant streetsoul scene, the dubwise hip-hop throb of the Bristol movement, and the bass-lore of the reggae sound systems whose wisdom stretched from Leeds to South London and beyond. Built around a humid kick drum and a bin-busting bass pulse arranged in head-nodding syncopation, the song is blessed with an instantly memorable harmonised hook, and perfectly set off by Bô'vel's crystalline vocals. Upful, stepping and tinged with melancholy, it remains one of the most well-loved and highly sought-after UK streetsoul sides.
The three mixes of 'Check 4 U' appeared as the a-side of a blank-label five-track 12". It was Bô'vel's second release, after a soulful five-track EP issued in 1995 on her own Bô'vel Records had been a surprise success. Produced by Kev Waddington, that initial record had come about almost by accident after a chance encounter in Manchester's HQ Studios, as Bô'vel recalls today: 'We were making these five tracks because we were having bit of an argument with radio not being able to play what they wanted, really, only what the record labels wanted… they never had anybody coming through properly, because everything was pretty much underground. We were making records, like really pop stuff, to take the piss… So in the studio one day, this guy came in – all I know is that his was name was Nigel. And he came in and said, I want to put that five-track EP out with you. We just don't know who the hell he was to this day, really. And he said, you've got to do it 50/50, it's going to be £1000. So I said okay – I just trusted him. I gave him 500 quid. He gave me 1000 records. He just dropped them at the studio. I picked them up and then I went into Manchester city centre and gave it to a couple of DJs on underground radio.'
Pirate radio loved it. With play on stalwart Manchester pirates like Buzz FM and Soul Nation, the EP immediately blew up. Bô'vel took the record into Fat City Records, Manchester's premier outlet and distributor for soul, hip-hop and dance, who took a batch, quickly sold out and took several hundred more copies; it eventually transpired that a large quantity were selling to Japan, where the combination of soul smarts and classy production had been caught by discerning ears. Elsewhere, friends distributed the record by hand in London and Birmingham, working them through UK's then burgeoning network of independent dance music shops.
The warm reception the record received encouraged Bo'vel to return to the studio for sessions that would become 'Check 4 U'. The EP had been issued under a Bô'vel Records imprint, but she had sold it to Fat City without disclosing that she was the artist – 'I said, "There's this singer, she's great, she's done this cheesy stuff, try it, it's a bit Kylie Minogue". He said "oh, give us 300", and then he had some more.' For the next release, she decided to keep things completely minimal. 'The next one, I said, right, let's just put it out as a white label, and if people like it they like it, they don't have to see who we are or anything.'
Though punitive legislation and overexposure had tamed rave culture, and the inflated status of superstar DJs had pushed once underground scenes fully into the mainstream, dance music culture in mid-1990s Britain still retained a certain feral energy. There was still a groundswell of vital local scenes and rapidly changing musical styles, and – combined with local record shops – clubs and pirate radio were still the chief arbiters of influence. 'In the 90s, pirate radio just played the best music. I mean, you couldn't really get music like that anywhere. The same as you couldn't get music like that [being played] in the Reno, which was very different,' remembers Bô'vel, referring to the legendary Moss Side soul club, an underground institution from 1962 until its closure in 1986. 'That's where music really started for me, going to clubs like the Reno at the age 15, 16, 17, and going to places like the Nile [upstairs from the Reno], which was all reggae, you know – that's really where the beats came for me.'
The production on the new record would reflect these influences more than the EP had been able too. 'I liked a big bassline,' the singer reflects. 'There's a big bassline there on the five-track EP, 'I Can't Get By', which is a really, really good song, but they just could not get the bass – I was so gutted when that came back…if they'd have shown us the master we'd have said no.' These problems were to be avoided on 'Check 4 U' by the involvement of producer Uriah Gale. 'We already had the tune, and Uriah came on board, and I said, it's just not soulful enough. I was working with Kev Waddington, and he said "I just can't do it." So when Uriah came along, the bass was there, but he tidied it all up and made it really cool, and he was tremendous on the harmony,' she recalls. 'Out of all the mixes, his was the best. He was incredible to work with, and also incredibly talented.
With alternate mixes of 'Life Changes You' from the 1995 EP as the b-side, 'Check 4 U' was issued with blank blue labels and sent out with a DJ one-sheet describing Bô'vel as 'Manchester's favourite soul Diva'. 2000 copies were pressed, and the record was distributed by Jetstar. It quickly became another pirate radio hit. 'Soul Nation and Buzz FM did support me from the very start [along with] every single DJ on Manchester radio,' she recalls, 'They're my biggest fans, the DJs here, I've got to big them up!' Manchester's support was mirrored by pirates around the UK. 'We had the support of radios across the country – I just could not believe it. So we went on a tour… We would go to the pirate stations, do an interview, then do a gig – that's how the gigging came about… gigging in Birmingham, Huddersfield, Liverpool, London – I've got so much respect for the pirate radios down there. They were brilliant… We used to take all my stuff straight to London,' she remembers. 'Each radio was doing pretty much the same thing, in their own style, with their own beats. Like, when I went down to Bristol, I showed them the EP and 'I Check 4 U' and they said, hey girl, you've got the Bristol beat!'
But her core audience was at home in Manchester. 'London did support me a lot, but not like my home town – they loved me as I love them… Manchester supported me through and through, to this very day,' she remembers. Performing in mid-1990s Manchester was not always straightforward, though: 'In Manchester, it was kind of hard to do gigs, because there was a bit of gang warfare. So, you know, that was a problem. You'd be doing a gig and they'd all be there in their [bulletproof] vests, you know, Cheetham Hill and Moss Side, and it was a bit of a nightmare. And because I was more Manchester side, even though I went to school in Cheetham Hill, I was with a guy from Moss Side. So it was pretty hard gigging in Manchester, I had a bit of a hard time.' Nevertheless, 'my gigs were packed to the rafters…I wasn't scared because I knew I had protection. The gigs were fantastic, here in Manchester and everywhere, and I'm glad and very grateful to be able to say that.'
A further single followed – the garage-flavoured 'Earthling', made with producer Ben Stansfield – but this would be her final release. 'My life changed,' she remembers. 'I had a split… I was just bringing my daughter up. I used to live in the countryside, and I was having a bit of a different life… I just spent a lot of time writing when I split up – I couldn't sing, it was like my voice wouldn't work. I was just thinking all the time, and not speaking. So I was just speaking through my music… I just became a writer, and I was more looking for other people to sing the [songs], you know? Because there's a lot of talent here in Manchester.' However, she retained access to a studio, and over time she began to record again, working with various producers and amassing a large amount of material.
It is this unreleased material that we collect on Life Changes – nine unheard Bô'vel songs from the period 1997-2008(dates?), selected from her own archive. Until now, none of this unreleased work has been heard. Not an artist to be constrained by genre, the music showcases Bô'vel's exploration of a wide range of styles, from the dubbed-out downtempo of 'My Man' or 'I Wanna Be Free' to the updated streetsoul of 'Let Down And Liar', via the breakbeat hype of 'Do It Your Way' and the straight-ahead reggae vibe of 'Daydreamer'. This unreleased music is presented alongside the unfadeable 'I Check 4 U' and two classic streetsoul cuts from her 1995 EP, 'Life Changes You' and 'Coming Back'. The common denominator across the album is of course Bô'vel herself: a singer of rare timbral clarity whose musical vision has determined the sound of every record she has made, a prolific and personal song-writer in the UK soul tradition, and the artist behind one of the most celebrated underground soul tunes of the pirate radio era. Still most definitely someone to check for.