Last August, two dozen elite producers, DJs, and musicians met on a tucked-away Delaware estate to workshop and network. Founded by hip-hop icon DJ Jazzy Jeff, the inaugural gathering, dubbed The Playlist Retreat, pulled together progressive young musicians with their more-practiced influences—DJ Scratch, James Poyser, Lord Finesse, and Young Guru, for example.
"It started with me and some of my DJ friends who look for cool music. We would swap music," Jazzy Jeff remembers. "I thought it'd be really cool if we got all the DJs together, but then somebody made the suggestion: 'Why don't we invite the guys that make some of the music we swap?'"
One artist Jazzy Jeff soon recruited was producer, composer, and songwriter Paris Strother, one of three women in the new R&B dream, KING. Jazzy Jeff first heard the trio after the group released its breakout 2011 EP, The Story. Initially, KING was an Internet phenomenon that gradually inched toward the mainstream. A year later, Robert Glasper Experiment included KING on Black Radio, while Prince, Erykah Badu, Questlove, and Phonte Coleman cosigned the trio, too. Coleman recruited KING for a Foreign Exchange song; Prince added the group to a "21 Nights" concert at The Forum.
"It was an honor," says Strother from a stop in Pontiac, Michigan, just days after the release of her debut LP, We Are KING. "It reflected that we took our time to make an album that people really wanted to hear."
Before the rest of the world got to hear (and unanimously praise, it seems) the great We Are KING, Strother played the album for some of Jazzy Jeff's assembled experts at the Playlist Retreat. It quickly confirmed KING's ability to update throwback R&B, to make past masters feel vital again. It's especially obvious on the three songs borrowed from the EP, now refitted with more florid instrumentation.
KING's primary vocalists, Amber Strother (Paris's twin) and Anita Bias, layer We Are KING with the sort of sweet soul mystique that's gone missing from so much contemporary R&B. On newer numbers like "Red Eye" and "Carry On," they sing life into Paris's royal arrangements.
"The three of us always considered the vocals to be an instrument along with the other instruments," says Paris. "It's all very much different pieces of a puzzle, all very integrated."
For Jazzy Jeff, KING's writing and harmonies stem from a sisterly kinship, genetic or otherwise. This inherent ease and familiarity helps them translate complex recording techniques and ideas into songs that are easy to enjoy—an idea, he says, lifted from history but often lost in the moment.
"I hate when people dumb music down because they think that people can't understand it. There was absolutely nothing simplistic about Earth, Wind & Fire's arrangements, but we all got it," he says. "KING is reminiscent of the past—the very lush chords and the structure of the music. It isn't dumbed down. Let it be what it is and people will follow along and catch up."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Holding Court"