Among lost media, there are few records that lived in the shade of rumor & legend longer than the fabled second album from Electribe 101.
Recorded in 1991, Electribal Soul was the follow-up from the pioneering electronic music band fronted by Billie Ray Martin. Martin had previously broken through on S’Express’s 1989 smash “Hey Music Lover” — among the first handful of acid house tracks emerging from the underground to the top of the charts — and Electribe 101’s major label debut, Electribal Memories, had reached #26 on the UK charts and spawned a top 10 US dance single with “Talking with Myself.”
Electribal Soul was never released. It had little to do with the recordings. Determining that Electribe 101 “wasn’t successful enough to bother” with, Mercury dropped them from the label in 1992. The album was shelved, and so were remixes of “Heading For The Night” by Frankie Knuckles.
“Lost albums” and “lost recordings” locked away in a record company’s vault are powerful myths in the music industry. They carry even more power today, in the streaming era, when nearly everything you can think of can be heard by nearly everyone on the planet at their convenience. Sometimes the sense of mystery that envelopes a lost album becomes so thick it obscures the music itself. It would be hard for his music to match the hype behind Prince’s Black Album, shelved in 1987 amid rumors that Prince thought it was a work of evil. Guns’N’Roses’ album Chinese Democracy was more talked about during its torturous 10 year recording process than after its eventual release in 2008. The most recent example is Dear Tommy, the fabled album by electronic music band Chromatics whose producer Johnny Jewel reputedly smashed every copy on the eve of its release, though recent inquiries speculate that it never existed.
How good was the material in Electribe 101’s vaults? What was it about the record that Mercury never let us hear? Pieces of Electribal Soul emerged over the years but in unrecognizable form from the album sessions. Martin gave us a taste of the quality material we’ve never heard when she released Frankie Knuckles’ remixes of “Heading For The Night” in July 2021. It’s some of Frankie’s best work from the early 1990s. He clearly loved the song — he produced a total of six mixes and, Martin reveals, asked to remix another single. The label inexplicably declined.
And so the best surprise of 2021 has spawned the best surprise (and maybe the only pleasant one) of 2022. I’ve heard Electribal Soul, slated for release in March 2022 some 31 years after it was recorded. It is a missing link in music history. Electribe 101 saw the future and almost created it — a vision of electronic music fused with pop and soul which would only be partially realized a decade later.
With just their debut album and a handful of singles to their name, Electribe 101 are frequently described in the language of cult classics — as “influential” or “pioneering.” With Electribal Soul we have to add another word: “visionary.” The album anticipates musical currents that weren’t but a wisp in the early 1990s, or even by the year 2000: dark psychedelia, alternative R&B and the nod of a trip hop sound that in 1991 didn’t even have a name. It’s a postcard from the future delivered 30 years late.
I had a chance to talk to Billie Ray Martin about shepherding this album into release after decades in the vault and why those Frankie Knuckles remixes remained buried for such a long time.
Photos by Lewis Mulatero
You always hear rumors about really good remixes that get shelved. The Frankie Knuckles remixes of “Heading For The Night” were one of the best (and one of the few good) surprises of 2021. What was the reason they were held up for 30 years? Were they shelved by a suit somewhere, or were these remixes caught up in the general chaos of the Electribe 101’s dissolution?
After the band broke up, I don’t think anyone thought about them any further. The record company had shelved them already, because they did not deem Electribe 101 successful enough to bother. Frankie had also asked them if they would let him mix “Diamond Dove.” They declined. So I guess that was that.
I knew I had them in my drawer of course, but I guess everyone moved on and it was not until recently I decided that the music probably needed to be heard. So yes they were definitely shelved by a suit, and then shelved by us too.
You can tell Frankie must have loved this track and loved remixing it. Back when everything was vinyl, you didn’t often have one remixer doing six different mixes of the same track, right?
He did love it. I found an old interview by him where he talked about how sublime he thought I sounded and how much he loved the song. He really went for it and it feels like he really wanted to try all angles here.
What were you doing, or where were you, or when was it when you first heard them yourself, and what did you think?
To be honest, I think at the time I just sort of knew we had another great Frankie mix here. And then I guess they sort of went under in the whole situation of the group ending.
I loved the mixes at the time and while I don’t remember the conversation us as a group must have had about them, I know we loved them and we were in touch with Frankie in mutual admiration. I kept in touch with Frankie later of course with “Your Loving Arms” and beyond. He was always a presence for me and whenever I was in New York he would be backstage waiting, and I would go to his clubs.
So after one of the great surprises of 2021 we get one of the great surprises of 2022. Electribal Soul is one of the great “mysteries” of the scene, an album that everyone knows about but nobody heard. It was said the album was complete when the group disbanded. Is that true? When we listen to this now, are we hearing it as it was finished then, as we would have heard had it come out in 1991?
Yes it was finished then but I had to really go to town restoring the audio and trying to get the best mastering done. This was not easy. So in 1991 you would have heard a version that sounded a bit more like a demo in places. All I had was a DAT with low volume tracks on it. So you hear a few of those fluctuations still. I guess it’s part of the journey.
“I’d like us to be thought of as part of a worldwide movement, where people inspired each other across oceans and borders, on a daily basis. That’s all.”
So this existed as just a DAT tape for 30 years?
I had a DAT in a drawer all these years. Just sat there. I don’t think I thought about releasing them as the group no longer existed and I respected that.
Some of these songs appeared on Deadline For My Memories your 1996 solo album, including the title track of that album. They sound RADICALLY different, though. I did not even recognize “Hands Up And Amen” until I listened a second time. Were the Electribal Soul tracks used as a reference point at all on Deadline, or were the tracks on Deadline created totally from scratch?
On Deadline everything was created from scratch. I never referenced the Electribe versions again after the group ended. Literally never listened to the album until I started the process of a release. So there was no recollection in my mind even, about how they previously sounded. Just a vague memory.
And I did not give any instructions to the co-producers of Deadline for My Memories about referencing the old versions. I just started fresh. And in the early and mid-’90s iI had a phase where I was kind of into quite commercial sounding dance and rave stuff. Just a short phase really, which makes me chuckle. So when I did Deadline I didn’t mind going a little bit in that direction. I was just really feeling the joy of where dance music was at that time and I wanted to participate in that.
“Your Loving Arms” is the best example where me and the Grid got together and — I blush — listened to Haddaway, and chuckled and said: Let’s go for it.
Nothing else sounded as good as Electribal Memories in 1990. It was like a machine built entirely around your voice. What were you doing to make it sound so much different than anything else?
The guys in the group were so unique in the way they built everything around my voice. The vocal was up loud from the start on the desk and they built everything around the vocal. That was the process. If anything disturbed the vocal, they’d get rid of it. If a part no longer served the whole the next day, they got rid of it. They spent days and days on a mix. This is pre-automation we are talking about— they did it all live. They come from a background of reggae, soul, Roxy Music etc. Great, strong songs with strong vocals. They had that angle, which they brought into the group.
As a singer who is very particular about how my vocals sound and how they turn out on a record, with them, I never had to worry about this. They had a magic.
You’ve had a long and storied career, you’ve collaborated with lots of people, heard your voice interpreted many different ways and have grown as an artist. What do you feel when you look back on this album now?
Honestly I never think about it. I do have nostalgic moments every once in a while. And I do wish we had continued, when I feel like that. We had something going on that was unique. But it was not to be. So I just moved on — I had to, out of necessity. I had to keep trying to get out there, make my music, look forward. Which wasn’t easy, I can tell you.
Everyone is going to ask what else is left in the vault. We knew this album existed in some form, but the Frankie Knuckles remixes were a total surprise to me. Is there anything left in the vault?
There are a couple more songs that were more demos. The band were not convinced they were good enough at the time, so I think they’ll stay in the drawer. Other than that I think that is it. There is that Mantronix mix of “Inside Out.” Now that one was shelved by the band, as it was pretty bad. He didn’t care about the song, which was obvious from that mix. Might be a novelty at some point to put that out, but not really…
What was the environment in the studio when Electribal Soul was being recorded? From the long perspective of today, can you as a participant “hear” turmoil or emotion or defiance or anxiety in the songs?
We had come off the Depeche Mode Tour, which had been hard on us as a group, and we’d gotten rid of Tom Watkins and there was pressure from the record company to shift units so there was a mixed situation. There were days where we had great fun. “Persuasion” was a day like that. Just loving the song and working late into the night. Also there were days where we were proud of our songwriting, like with “Insatiable Love” and “A Sigh Won’t Do.” And there were days where we were not sure of ourselves as songwriters, as a group of people to pull that off. So I think I brought in some songs I had previously written before, just to be sure we had enough songs. In retrospect, we could have had more trust in each other. If we had not been so injured by the whole machinery and by our mistrust in each other, who knows what would have happened in terms of more songs being created.
Electribe 101 was such a huge influence in the States, and provided a bridge between the New Wave and Alternative music we might have caught at a show or which they (sometimes) played on the radio, to electronic music, which wholly new for much of the country. It’s obviously different in the UK & continental Europe too. From your perspective, where does the group fit in music history?
I’d like us to be thought of as part of a worldwide movement, where people inspired each other across oceans and borders, on a daily basis. That’s all.
What do you want people to get from listening to this now?
There is a lot of emotion which I hear in these tracks. From all of us, not just me as a vocalist. The lyrics and melodies are all about what I went through at the time in my life. But also the guys emotions are right there and you can feel it. They put their love in there. Rob Cimarosti from the group passed a way a couple of years ago and I want people to hear his love too in his keyboard work. Joe’s hooks are incredible. I’m just thrilled with how good some of it is and am puzzled we didn’t see it at the time. So I just want people to hear and feel the love.
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