The latest R&B sound is music with a 'Timbaland' groove, and now 'NEW FLAVA VOL 2; THE PROJECT' offers British gospel artists like Melanie Ephson, Ray Lewis and Eska with a Timbaland R&B vibe. George Luke reports.

New Flava
New Flava

All those years of spraying CFC-laden aerosols into the atmosphere have paid off; the Greenhouse Effect is here in full force. It's early August, and it's HOT so what am I doing in Brixton when I should be in Brighton? (actually, I'd rather be in Barbados, but I'm on a tight budget).

Anyway, here I am in the boardroom of the Hardzone PR company, with a few nibbles and an endless flow of Sunny Delight (yellow top). I'm joined by Paul 'Vibe' Cumberbatch, producer of the groundbreaking New Flava R&B gospel compilation, to talk about its long-awaited follow-up, sub-titled "The Project". With us are three of the artists featured on the album: Eska Mtungwazi, Melanie Ephson and Ray Lewis. Two others can't join us (probably out in the sun where I should be). Junior Robinson isn't here, and neither is saxophonist Jason Yarde, better known as a member of the hot new jazz ensemble, J-Life.

In a way, I'm kind of relieved to be here. When the first New Flava album came out two years ago, all the usual 'pioneering project' and new wave of British gospel clich's were trotted out.

Then it all went quiet, and more than a few of us feared the worst: that it'd all been a false alarm; that apathy had seen off yet another 'pioneering project', and that the 'new wave of British gospel' had been postponed yet again.

Ironically, Paul points out, the reason why the follow-up took such a long time coming was because the first one had actually been quite successful. "A lot of people were still buying it," he says. "I suppose we were also trying to find a new sound. Also, while everyone was talking about the first one, we were using that as a reference to go ahead with the second.'

"The second one's definitely a new approach, in terms of how the artists were chosen," says Eska. "Well, the whole approach was different," adds Paul. "The first one was basically an underground thing: a raw, almost demo-like vibe. You're at home, you come up with an idea, and by the time it gets all polished, it's lost that rawness that you loved about it. We were trying to take that raw approach which other people would listen to and want to take further.

Like the way people take on James Brown's music, or Stevie Wonder's, and take it to another level or commercialise it -I suppose I was trying for that sort of idea - get some vibe that people could get into, and then they could polish it, make it sound sweeter, or whatever. That was the concept of the first one.

"With this one, I went for a more current sound, and I also wanted to make people understand that even though everyone in the project are Christians, we can still sing about everyday issues. We're still everyday people, as well as being Christians, and we can still come out with the beats, and be new and fresh, like everybody else. That way, people have no excuse. They can't say: 'I don't go to church because it's boring and not with-it.' We're very with-it." To which Melanie gives a heartfelt "Amen!"

In comparison to Vol. l's eighteen tracks and twelve featured artists, the twelve tracks and five featured artists on Vol. 2 seems like an extreme case of downsizing. "It was refined down a bit." concedes Paul. "We were looking more at people with more of a focused talent, whereas on the last one we just wanted people in from different churches. This time round, we focused on people we felt were really talented; people with a quality that could take things further. By sticking with fewer songs and fewer people, we could be a bit more focused. An artist has. on average, about three songs each - as opposed to just one or two on the last one - so they can show what they're really about. It's pretty good for getting majors interested in the artists, as they have more of an idea of what they can do."

"So what was it about the project that attracted the three singers to it?" I asked.

"The whole idea for me was very fresh," says Ray. I was impressed by the first album; it had a flavour that wasn't really current in British music at the time - it was more Stateside. I was eager to be a part of the second. When I met Paul and heard some of the tracks he was working on, the vibe he was coming with was really original. I felt this was something I wanted to get involved in - not jumping on a bandwagon, but being involved in something fresh. Not just doing something people would hear and say: 'Yeah - I've heard that before.' It was very fresh; it was a new vibe, and I just wanted to get involved in it. Plus it was a good avenue to get myself more exposure.

"I've been singing publicly since I was about seven or eight; going to primary school and singing in choirs; standing up in church and giving a little testimony and singing -1 was really little. I sang with a few regional choirs, youth choirs, and just thought this was the time to take it to another level, and do something that's about Ray Lewis, rather than fronting another choir, or doing another background vocal for someone."

"I felt it was time for me to break out," says Melanie, "because I'd previously been trying to get a demo tape sorted out, and it wasn't really going anywhere. This opportunity came up, and I wanted to be a part of it. I knew that we could break through, being new British artists. I've been singing for about three years -mostly last year - and since I've been working with these guys and Paul, it's taken a different direction. I've seen different vocal abilities that I have, and I believe I'm a performer as well.

Eska's massively diverse CV includes backing vocal work for Hugh Masekela and Bim Sherman, a stint playing keyboards for underground soul star Lewis Taylor, and a regular monthly gig with a hip hop jam session called "DJ Pogo's Lyrical Lounge" at London's Jazz Cafe. She became a Christian at 15; prior to that she was singing opera. Four years ago, she started singing jazz, with Tomorrow's Warriors and another band called Quite Sane. Her Christian music work involves regular gospel gigs in Germany.