- We revisit a defining gem of UK street soul.
- Rewind is a review series, published in partnership with Discogs, that dips into electronic music's archives to dust off music from decades past.
For many UK soul diggers, Garden Of Life has been at the top of the wantlist for a while, but little is known of the two musical geniuses who recorded, mixed and released the album two decades ago in North West London. As the label name TSR—Top Secret Recordings—suggests, they placed emphasis first and foremost on the music. Robert Charles Roper, founder and lead producer on all TSR releases, described the label as "just creating music, creating a vibe, from our own inspirations and those also from our history of listening to music, whether it be R&B, reggae, hip-hop."
Founded in 1990, TSR released nine records that have retrospectively been called "UK street soul." Special Touch's Garden Of Life was the label's only LP, alongside eight stunning EPs. Unfortunately the label's existence was short-lived. It closed its doors in 1992, as the rising popularity of CDs in the UK made selling records harder, and Robert prioritised his time with his family.
Robert's musical journey began at home. His dad came from Jamaica and raised his son on reggae and dub. As Robert got older, he collected records from labels and artists such as Motown, Philadelphia International Records, Teddy Riley, Soul II Soul, Leroy Burgess and Loose Ends. They inspired him to try his hand at DJing and later producing. But he really cut his teeth in the reggae soundsystem scene, supporting his friend Rasi and recording in the local Survival Studios. This, he says, is where he got his "first insight into actual studio recording, where I started getting to understand about sequencers, sound modules and so fourth."
Working at Survival Studios motivated Robert to start TSR and begin making his own productions, collaborating with artists of his choice. It was only natural that he worked with his brother Duval first. "He always could sing along to a tune," Robert said. "He had so much music. He just naturally just loved singing along to his music. I always felt he had a good voice." This informed the organic process of how the Roper brothers made their music. "I would lead on the constructions of the song with the music and [Duval] basically on lead vocals. That's how we formed Special Touch."
Special Touch had five releases on TSR: Garden Of Life, plus the singles You're So Good, That Special Touch and I Want You. But Garden Of Life is without a doubt one of the most complete UK street soul LP's of its time. Many releases of this genre and era were dance singles (45s). Garden Of Life, meanwhile, has a broad stylistic range, eclectic production and an uplifting message that make it stand out as a classic.
After a few listens, Garden Of Life becomes one continuous groove, and forms a beautiful narrative of boy-meets-girl. The opening tracks, "Searching For Your Love" and "Share A Little," set the tone with hypnotic drums that draw you in. "It's Your Life" serves up punchy piano stabs, punctuating the space between an emotive hook you can't help singing along to. "That Special Touch"—TSR's first single, released two years before Garden Of Life—is a beautifully vulnerable serenade from Duval, accompanied by sleazy drums and ethereal sound effects.
"Music" reminds me of the hook of "Music" by One Way featuring Al Hudson—although not alike in musical structure, both are earnest accounts of an artist's adoration for music. Hard as it is to pick standouts, the title track is definitely a frontrunner. The R&B swing in the drums is very reminiscent of Loose Ends, with euphoric synths and a message that couldn't be more relevant for the world today. Robert said this track was inspired by Africa. "So much resource is there," he said. "An ancient civilization, a place to inspire many people."
One of the most interesting things about Garden Of Life and TSR is the sense of an intimate community behind the music. The studio in which the album was recorded was built based on blueprints of Survival Studio, the creative home of Robert's musical mentor and his sister's partner, Rasi. Located a stone's throw away was the industrial estate in Park Royal where the labeling and pressing of their records took place. This neighbourhood mentality was reinforced by the close-knit roster of artists on the label. Sonia Johnson, the lead vocalist for TSR act Gold In The Shade, was a longtime family friend, and of course Special Touch itself was a duo of two brothers. Everyone involved seemed to be operating in the same postcode, or the same family.
Garden Of Life is a great example of what an amazing musical melting pot London can be. The influences of Robert's home life, his parents with strong roots in Jamaica and his early involvement in Soundsystem culture, clearly inspired some of the reggae style baselines. Along with being exposed to UK soul music of that generation, Loose Ends, Soul II Soul, Central Line, Junior Giscombe and more have no doubt influenced the songwriting and melodies. US hip-hop comes through in the gritty drums on tracks like "You're So Good."
Though the album was recorded in North West London, the influences are transatlantic, and can only truly be identified as Black music. Robert explained: "I've got family members that have always identified strongly with Africa, and although I'm a Black person of Jamiacan heritage, I'm ultimately of African heritage." That sense of identity comes through strongest in the artwork, showing two African male and female sculptures, borrowed for the photo from a friend. It makes sense that Heels & Souls, who have reissued the album, have ensured all profits go to The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise that aims to deliver Black British history all across the UK.
01. Searching For Your Love
02. Share A Little
03. It's Your Life
04. That Special Touch (625 Mix)
05. Thank You
07. Garden of Life
08. Your So Good (Remix)