Let’s get something out of the way: it’s really easy to make plays on King Britt’s name. The king is back! Long live the king! Even the title of this piece was painstakingly chosen after a lot of agony over what would be slightly witty without being superfluously cheesy (you can argue about whether or not this was successful in the comments).
Still, the man whose official documents read “King James Britt” has left a legacy for which such comical proclamations are actually quite accurate. For over two decades, the 40-something DJ and Philly native has commanded a tiny kingdom of rabid followers through a variety of beloved and critically lauded endeavors. For these fans, which endeavor they care about the most says a tremendous amount about who they are. Perhaps they were drawn to Britt’s multi-year tenure with the bi-costal hip-hop institution Digable Planets, where his genre-mixing aesthetic slant sat effortlessly with the Plantes’ Afro-centric, laid-back brand of quiet innovation.
Some might’ve instead been captivated by Britt’s unquenchable experimental and avant garde tendencies, manifest in numerous groundbreaking and headscratchingly trippy side projects; these projects have propelled him to a very different kind of recognition, garnering him Pew and NEA grants and putting him on stage at places like TEDxPhilly and the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
A very recent event, in which Britt teamed up with local multimedia artist Kate Watson-Wallace and members of Living Colour and Shabazz Palaces to pay tribute to the legendary Sun Ra, is more emblematic of the spaces in which Britt seems most at home – places where the artistic meets the ecstatic, and the envelope is pushed in order to transform the emotional release. These are places for audiences to feel something that is simultaneously intellectual and emotional, to learn with their hearts and their minds. This ability, honed over a never-ending slew of projects that sends Britt all over the world and has played itself out in a prolific volume of stylistically diverse albums, justify Britt’s name and consecrate the seriousness with which he wears his crown.
Britt’s considerable reputation grew out of seeds planted in 1990 with Back2Basics, a long-standing soul/funk residency at Northern Liberties’ Silk City and the now-defunct Revival Nightclub (in the Old City building that National Mechanics now occupies) that brought DJs, instrumentalists, vocalists and every manner of creatives together and serves as a chronicle to the neighborhoods’ (and, if we’re being real, the city’s) nightlife transformation. On Friday, Britt and longtime co-conspirator reinvigorate Back2Basics Dozia Blakely for one night at the Hard Rock Café. It will be a call to the old days and a chance for people to mainline nostalgia, as well as a rare opportunity for younger partiers to live in the rarest of cultural memories: the moments where parties actually delivered on their transformative promises, a veritable reproduction of those “I remember when” times that the most sensorily curious among us spend lifetimes seeking.
In those fleeting moments where one gets to see Britt in person, it is hard to miss his conceptual genius. As he sat on a curiously-lit stage at International House for a panel at this weekend’s BlackStar Film Festival and waxed philosophical about the financial viability for film scoring (you might’ve heard his underscoring in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice reboot), the seamlessness with which he mixes encyclopedic music knowledge with offhand business acumen was extraordinarily obvious. At the same time, he does not seem burdened by the realities of his fly-by-the-minute existence, exuding an almost comical relaxation about it all.
In fact, when talking to me the next day about the Back2Basics reunion over the phone, he’s comfortably upfront about the reasons for choosing the oft-maligned Hard Rock Café over his old stomping grounds.
“Being real, we would love to do it at Silk City again, and I’m sure that it’ll happen in the future. But [Hard Rock] reached out to us and gave us this budget. We’re not gonna turn that down. Everybody is gonna get a nice bit of change for that, whereas back in the day, we made only a little bit. It was about the love back then, and it still is, but now, we have other factors to consider,” he says. These “other factors” – among them, making a living and paying for his daughter’s college tuition – are a difficult reality of any adult’s life, and reveal a lot about how far he’s come since Back2Basic’s 1990 start and 2007 closing.
To Britt’s credit, this isn’t the main motivation for bringing Back2Basics back. Instead, he cites the same inspiration that compelled him and his creative partners to start the residency in the first place: a void in Philly’s nightlife that begged to be filled. “Philly’s incredible and everything’s rocking, don’t get me wrong. But, there seemed to be a void where, when Back2Basics left, the whole band-jamming-with-DJs concept dissipated. We thought it would be good to do this as a reunion, but also as a reminder that this is possible,” he explains. “I also just found out that it’s 18 and up, so a new generation can see that they can incorporate this too,”
Despite the location change, Back2Basics has lost none of its allure for Philadelphians of a certain age who grew up going to these parties. As excited as he is for the possibility of inspiring new acolytes – ones who can perhaps reinvent this format for younger nightlife denizens, Britt is keenly aware of how big of a moment he has created for his original fans.
“People are getting babysitters, people’s moms are coming out….some people can bring their kids!” he laughs, excited about these cross-generational possibilities.
A big part of Back2Basics’s allure were the guests who Britt would bring on stage. In addition to a band featuring some of the city’s most respected instrumentalists (this time around will feature many of the original Back2Basics instrumentalists, as well as some of those who partnered with Britt on the Sun Ra project like bassist Anthony Tidd), Britt and co. would mix things up with local celebrities like The Roots’s Ahimir “Questlove” Thompson and James Poyser, as well as spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker. Although he is reticent to reveal exactly who his special guest will be on Friday, he insists that it’s a “percussionist from Philly.” We’ll let you figure that one out.
But past the sheen and epic reputation that Back2Basics carries, it remains a testament to a time in which Philadelphia’s nightlife scene was not as widely understood as fun or viable. Back2Basics put Silk City on the map at a time when doing something in North Philly wasn’t hip or even smart. “Northern Liberties wasn’t called ‘Northern Liberties’, that shit was North Philly,” he emphasizes. “[now-closed] Black Banana was on 3rd and Race, and that was the furthest north anybody would go. But 5th and Spring Garden? In 1990?? But, people came because of the music, and so they could hear things that they couldn’t hear anywhere else in the city.”
Even though Britt does not like to live with the weight of unrealistic expectations, he is keenly aware of how transformative Back2Basics really was. Today, Silk City and Northern Liberties cast broad shadows over what they used to be. Many of the people who attended these parties are now parents and professionals with strong investments in this city’s changing fortunes. Britt and his cohorts are not likely to forget this anytime soon, and Friday night will be a welcome return of some limitless potential for great parties and sonic innovation in the same moment. Fortunately, Britt is very aware of what all of this ultimately means.
“It’s not just partying…it’s existential,” he says, with no visible trace of irony in his voice. With a reputation like his, statements like these aren’t hyperbole.
King Britt & Dozia present Back2Basics with special guests at the Hard Rock Café this Friday at 8. Click here for tickets and more information.
Back2Basics, King Britt