Drew Schultz’s Contemporary Soul

Based in Detroit, Michigan Drew Schultz is an instructor at the Detroit Institute for Musical Education, and regularly performs around the Motor City. He's kindly taken some time out of his busy schedule for us here at TFSR to pick some of his favourite modern soul tunes.

I’m sure you’ve heard it all before:

“What happened to all of the ‘real music’ like we had back in the day?” Or, perhaps, “Music just isn’t the same today.”

I could go on, but I’m sure you understand. There may be some truth to it all – autotune, pitch correction, melodyne, quantized sequencing, loops, drum machines, and synthesizers can all make today’s music feel more processed and mechanical. You could say that it’s all perfected to a fault. However, there’s been a movement building lately. Go to your local department store and look at the ever-shrinking music section, and you may be surprised at what you find. Naturally you’ll see names like Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, and more of the household names in Contemporary R&B. However, included in these ranks you may find artists that are keeping the flame of classic soul alive. Artists who embrace the imperfections that made classic soul music so human. The cracks, breaks, and gruffness that gave soul powerhouses like Otis Redding, David Ruffin, Levi Stubbs, and Mavis Staples their earnest, relatable humanity. I’m here to tell you that it’s not a lost cause.

This playlist is a list of soul music that comes straight out of the autotune era, contemporary artists and songs that retain many of the qualities that Classic Soul listeners hold near and dear.

Eli “Paperboy” Reed – Am I Wasting My Time?

Eli “Paperboy” Reed is a monster singer and guitar player based out of Brooklyn, and his albums often feature live rhythm and horn sections, virtuosic vocals, and hooks that you’ll keep humming for days. “Am I Wasting My Time” sounds like it could’ve been a misplaced classic, lifted from the era of Motown, Stax, and Okeh smash hits.

Leon Bridges – Coming Home

Leon Bridges seemed to explode out of nowhere when he released his debut album in June of 2015. His album sounds like it came straight out of the era of Sam Cooke, a consciously retro collection of classic soul songs.

Mayer Hawthorne – Kalia

Mayer Hawthorne is an inspiration. Starting out as a hip hop artist using the stage name “Haircut,” he started making his own classic soul songs to sample without having to clear the rights usually needed to sample records dug from the crates. These side projects were heard by the staff at Stones Throw Records, who insisted that he craft a classic soul album of his own. His debut entitled “A Strange Arrangement” is an incredible mix of sounds borrowed from Mayfield, Motown, and more. This song, “Kaila,” is a bonus track from the deluxe edition of his most recent album that is built around a bubbling beat, live horns, and an infectious chorus.

Eric Roberson – I’m Not Trying To Keep Score No More

Eric Roberson is a beast! In addition to writing songs for artists like Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, Will Downing, and Will Smith, he has also been an independent music sensation that tours and records outside of the major label system. This song, “I’m Not Trying To Keep Score No More” is a classic relationship-mending song. The rolling, syncopated drum beat and thick horn arrangement make this one a dreamy slice of positive R&B.

Ledsi – Devotion

Ledisi should be a household name by now – she’s an effortlessly virtuosic singer who can be at once smooth and gritty, always using her vocal runs and flourishes with a tasteful musicality that doesn’t get in the way of a song’s melody and message. I first heard of her through Maurice White’s album entitled “Interpretations,” which contained re-arranged versions of Earth Wind & Fire classics delivered by contemporary soul stars. Ledisi’s version of the iconic “Devotion” is simply amazing, especially that outro vamp!

John Legend – Stay With You

John Legend may be an obvious choice, but it’s well deserved. Legend can slide easily in between a Top 40 pop style and a classic sound like “Stay With You,” which is simply feel-good soul:

Anthony Hamilton – She’s Gone

Although most of his material may have a contemporary sheen to the production, Anthony Hamilton’s voice is a throwback to the pure emotion of artists like Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, and even the boomy voice of Sweet James Epps. “She’s Gone” rides the line between melancholy and encouraging, and Hamilton’s delivery is understated but incredibly earnest.

Ryan Shaw – Over & Done

When Ryan Shaw first broke out, he was understandably compared to the soaring voice of Jackie Wilson, and this track proves that he’s earned the right to be placed in that pantheon of classic soul singers. I can’t wait to hear more from Shaw. This track hails from his debut album released in 2007:

Alabama Shakes – I Ain’t The Same

Brittany Howard, the lead singer from Alabama Shakes, sounds to me like the dream crossing of Janis Joplin and Otis Redding. This track may be have some Rock & Roll inflections in it, but “I Ain’t The Same” is a bouncy romp through the verses that just plow into the powerful chorus:

Maxwell – Pretty Wings

“Pretty Wings” is one of those great I’m-setting-you-free breakup songs, and Maxwell’s delivery is impeccable. The song starts out with a neo-soul feel that’s heard in many contemporary R&B hits. However, as the song evolves you can hear Maxwell open up and abandon the smoothness. As each section moves on, more and more live instruments enter the mix. By the end of the song you can hear amazingly musical drums by Chris “Daddy” Dave, live guitar, bass, and organ, plus a surprisingly jazzy horn arrangement that flutters above the churning groove:

Michael Kiwanuka – I’ll Be Along

Michael Kiwanuka tends to evoke more folk than soul, seeming to come from the school of Richie Havens. However, you can’t deny the toe-tapping feel of “I’ll Be Along,” which features some amazing guitar trills and a fantastic string arrangement. I could listen to this one all day:

Ray LaMontagne – You Are The Best Thing

Similar to Kiwanuka, Ray LaMontagne may fit more into the folk realm. However, his gruff vocals seem to have been lifted straight from the soul and R&B world. When you plug those into a classic soul framework you get an undeniable monster of a tune like “You Are The Best Thing”

Aloe Blacc – Good Things

When Carnegie Hall held a show celebrating the iconic Bill Withers live album that was recorded on that stage, Aloe Blacc tore the house down. He sounds like Withers in his delivery, which sounds like a friend sitting you down for a chat. This track, which is the title song from an amazing album of music, just feels so breezy and casual, even though the message definitely has some bite to it:

Adele – Right As Rain

Adele isn’t always my cup of tea, but you can’t deny that her voice is amazing. This track, “Right As Rain,” is more uptempo that many of her hits, and I absolutely love it:

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – How Long Do I Have To Wait

How could this list not include Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings? The Daptone Records label has been a huge force in keeping classic soul music alive, and this song to me embodies so many great qualities about what they’re doing back in Brooklyn: it’s incredible soul.

Lee Fields & The Expression – Honey Dove

More classic soul from the Daptone stable from Lee Fields and “Honey Dove”.

Drew Schultz feat. Eddie Willis of The Funk Brothers – Take It Slow

There is so much more that should be included on this list, but it’s important to know that soul music isn’t going anywhere – you just have to know where to look! I’m going to close this out with a shameless plug! In Detroit, we still have so many Motown and Soul Music heroes who are continuing to write, record, and perform amazing music. This last entry is one of my own – “Take It Slow,” which features Eddie Willis from The Funk Brothers. This is part of a series of my original music called Back To Class, featuring soul legends including the Four Tops, Melvin Davis, Spyder Turner, and more, with 50% of profits benefiting the Detroit Public Schools. Check it out, and keep the soul alive and well!

Drew’s love affair with music began in his formative years when he immersed himself into a world of soul, Motown, jazz and rock. In high school Drew was fortunate enough to be in contact with two famed drummers: Earth, Wind & Fire’s Ralph Johnson and The Funk Brothers’ Uriel Jones. Both would provide Drew with inspiration and would serve as mentors throughout his early career. In 2006 he was accepted into New York University to on the jazz performance programme, where he developed his musical knowledge and ability. When he was just 19 years old Drew attended a Four Tops show in New York City, befriending the Top’s longtime musical director George Rowntree. Rowntree allowed Drew to sit in with the group on percussion, and before long had joined the Tops on tour.

Whilst juggling his commitments with the Tops and studies, he also worked on various Motown re-issues, and in 2012 began fronting his ‘Back To Class’ musical campaign to raise much needed funds for Detroit’s Public Schools to fund music and art classes. The Back To Class album features legendary Motown artists such as members of The Funk Brothers, Melvin Davis, Pat Lewis and the Four Tops, making it their first prominent release since the Indestructible album. You can find out more about Drew and this project here.