Everyone who works in music develops their own version of what to do when you’re caught out: the fixed smile and just-chirpy-enough ‘oh brilliant’ when someone you know in the real world hears what you do and says they’ll give you their demo. And everyone’s got the polite responses prepared for after listening. ‘It’s not my specialism, but yeah great,’ ‘Mmm, this is a really individual statement,’ ‘I like the percussion,’ that kind of thing. What you can’t prepare for, though, is being handed a demo like the one my son’s nursery school key worker gave me back in 2012.
I really didn’t want to have to do the polite fob-off, because I liked Joel. He was brilliant with the kids, treating them as individuals, laughing with them and showing every sign of enjoying the work. He was always chilled and easy to make small talk with at drop-off and collection (I’m a very awkward person, so ‘easy to make small talk with’ is no small statement). We occasionally chatted about music as he quickly figured out my line of work – I’ve still got a monthly progress report somewhere where his notes express hilarity that my boy knew the difference between grime and hip hop at the age of three.
Then came the revelation he was a singer, and the CDR handed over at home time. ‘Oh brilliant,’ I beamed, readying my bland praise phrases. But I took it home and played it, and was left reeling – truly at a loss for what to say, and not for the usual reasons. Here was someone who channelled Prince, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, but in his own distinctly south-east London voice. He had beats that drew on leftfield hip hop and even Balearic styles and sang about Biggie Smalls. He had intriguingly poetic lyrics and hooks for days. He was, clearly, a star.
It wasn’t just the obvious talent, but a sense of local pride that made me want to get involved. I’d only lived in London for ten years at that point, but my wife was born and brought up around Southwark and Lewisham, and had never lived further away than Blackheath. Though he was the best part of a generation younger, her reference points overlapped with Joel’s, and his accent and dry sense of humour echoed those of her friends and relatives. His guitarist at the time was the son of the nursery school manager, too – which only added to the sense of intergenerational local connection, especially once we went to gigs with nursery staff in attendance.
Oh yes, I did do my best to get involved. I knocked on doors and made introductions – sometimes helping, often not... but what an education it was for me. I knew about structural discrimination in the abstract – as an electronic music journalist and A&R, I was acquainted with the way the landscape of opportunity looked very different to grime producers than other electronic artists, for example. But this was different, this was being brought face to face with the daily realities of a Black artist being told that they needed to be something that they weren’t and didn’t want to be.
In multiple offices, people acknowledged Joel’s talent but were very firm that he wouldn’t succeed unless he stayed in one of the approved lanes. He’d need to choose one out of the following niches: Radio 2 / Jools Holland retro safety, ultra-groomed chart pop, credible soul-jazz, the rap-adjacent ‘urban’ marketing box, or eternally playing second fiddle as ‘feat.’ vocalist for dance producers. And, actually, he did make some house tracks – one with my West Country friend Jabru, which became a minor club success, and a single with Groove Armada – but he turned down many more because that’s not what he wanted to be known as. Probably just as well: the early 10s was the era of Joey Essex house music, of dozens of Sams and Heidis and Ellas and Jesses.
Joel was absolutely clear in his ambition, though: he wanted to be a real deal funk/soul artist and reach ‘more than just a specialist audience who know who Maxwell is’: to have mass appeal. But even people with great taste still threw grim ‘realism’ at him. Worst of all was the advice – offered sympathetically and pragmatically by a successful industry figure I took his tracks to – that the only realistic avenue for a singer of his style was to go on The Voice, get noticed in the industry, get paid from session work and treat his own music as more or less a hobby.
It was a long slog. From time to time after my kids left the nursery we’d meet up, sometimes for a pint, sometimes in the day with my whole family. One time we went for Venezuelan breakfast in Crystal Palace and for a walk round the park. He was still self-financing his recording, and he had a new job mentoring older kids at risk of exclusion: he told us about crying when one hyper-intelligent boy who couldn’t help cheeking adults finally got expelled. He wanted to make sure my son was staying fit and happy. It was becoming harder to see what the path forward for him was musically: he was in his 30s by now, and despite nods from people like Annie Mac and Mary Anne Hobbs the same doors were remaining closed, he was still playing to a hundred or two hundred people at a time, and his education career seemed more serious and demanding. But his self-belief was as strong as ever.
In part, this was down to one of the introductions I’d made. Cameron Palmer, aka Swindle, was another south-east Londoner, from a just little further out into the ’burbs in Beckenham. I’d signed his self-released music for distribution around the time I met Joel, and been blown away by his drive and focus. He’d got his start as a producer in grime, but had way wider ambitions. When I met him, he’d already made connections with the South African house scene and with the dubstep world, and was incorporating his love of classic soul, funk, blues and jazz into his work (he briefly considered calling his record label Boogie Chillen after a John Lee Hooker song). He was a one-man industry – directing his own videos, doing his own publicity, the works – all from his mum’s basement.
The two hit it off instantly, and Swindle, more than anyone, became Joel’s ‘someone in my corner’. ‘He’s acted as a mentor,’ as Joel puts it, ‘and someone who’s given me a massive amount of confidence. He’s like an A&R of today, in the old-school fashion, not in the “how many followers have you got on Instagram?” but in the sense of understanding using raw ability and instilling belief in each person that “you are the person to do that job, and we’re going to get you to do it”. He’s taught me the industry has to catch up with you, not the other way around.’
In a wry nod to this hope to outpace the industry despite a lack of obvious progress, Joel’s crowdfunded second EP in 2017 was called The Tortoise. It featured the Swindle-produced song Woman. Perhaps ironically given Swindle’s electronic roots, it was one of Joel’s most trad soul songs yet, and his performance of it for the Berlin-based COLORS – top off, in trackie pants – went nova: it’s currently on 13 million streams and counting.
Between inspiration from these movements and Swindle’s experience from the grime scene’s interactions with the mainstream, Joel and he built up a fiercely maintained philosophy around what they were doing. I watched and listened as this became a quiet radicalisation, drawing also on the Black Lives Matter movement, on Joel’s youth work (which inspired tracks like Mr & Mrs Jones and Black Boy). They were adamant that collectivity mattered.
‘We’ve been subject to that stardom cliché,’ Joel says. ‘From the labels, whoever, it’s all about “you you you you you” – and we buy into that... but I realised, no: it’s got to be about the scene. The Americans know this: so it’s never just Anderson.Paak, it’s The Internet, Thundercat, Flying Lotus there with him. You had the Soulquarians movement with The Roots and D’Angelo. This is a we thing, not a me thing, there’s strength in numbers and we’ve got to decide to do that.’
The last time I saw Joel before COVID hit was a small celebration party he threw to mark the final mix of his album Sgt Culpepper. It was just before Christmas 2019, and he’d hired out a little jazz basement in Greenwich, and it was perfect: lots of familiar faces, a proper south-east London soul crowd, everyone dressed to the nines and properly dancing, with Joel’s mum in the middle beaming with endless pride. It was emotional: I’d just got my book Bass Mids Tops, which I’d been working on for three years, back from the printers and was able to present him with a copy, and we looked at each other with a kind of shared disbelieving relief at these milestones.
Obviously, lockdown disrupted everything, but Joel has emerged from it like a cannonball with his album finally emerging this year to untold praise. The next time I saw him in the flesh was at We Out Here Festival in August. He was beset by nerves before going onstage, but the second he got on – shirtless as ever – he was the superstar I’d always known he was. Hundreds upon hundreds of people sang his words back at him, a crowd of women hovered by the backstage entrance wanting selfies: it, too, was a celebration, on a much grander scale. And he’s continuing to play bigger stages still. But the self-belief that was always there has never allowed for complacency. Even now, he says ‘There’s so much work to do, in fact it’s really just starting.’ Swindle’s sixth album comes out this October: Joel features alongside soul voices like Maverick Sabre and Poppy Ajudha and rappers like Ghetts, Akala and Knucks. It’s another determined blow against those industry pre-approved boxes for Black – and other – British artists, and it’s a masterpiece to boot.
One of the most thrilling things on first hearing Joel’s CDR was the thought that my son was, perhaps, going to see someone who was important in his life become very famous. I never thought it would take until he was nearly 12 for that to happen, but there you go: life has a habit of complicating things. And in a way I’m glad, because that decade-odd of meetings, progress reports and seeing those closed doors up close has been an education for us all. Now, we’re in the age of SAULT, of Greentea Peng, of Joel’s old mate Kay Young getting signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation: of a true British soul renaissance, which provides platforms for individualist, maverick artists but is also the genuine movement that Joel describes. To have witnessed some of the battles that have made this possible has been both an eye-opener and a privilege. And I never ignore people’s demos these days.