‘It Ain’t Retro’ Author Jessica Lipsky Details the Dap-Kings’ Involvement in Amy Winehouse’s Classic ‘Back to Black’ Album
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‘It Ain’t Retro’ Author Jessica Lipsky Details the Dap-Kings’ Involvement in Amy Winehouse’s Classic ‘Back to Black’ Album

It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st-Century Soul Revolution (out August 10 in the U.S. on Jawbone Press) tells the story of the iconic Daptone label, and the international revivalist funk/soul scene it helped inspire in the 2000s and beyond. Here, in a passage from the book, author Jessica Lipsky takes us through how the label’s house band, the Dap-Kings, came to play on one of the most beloved albums of the 21st century — Amy Winehouse’s 2006 LP Back to Black — and the impact, both good and bad, that the soul-pop set’s success had on the Daptone family. (The section has been condensed from how it appears in the book.)

Mark Ronson grew up in New York City and attended NYU, where — like many musicians who packed a love of raw funk and soul into their performance gear — he found a growing fascination with the link between the old school and the golden age of hip-hop. He graduated from guesting at DJ nights to running his own popular gig and spinning album release parties for Jay-Z, eventually producing for pop-soul artist Nikka Costa, playing multiple instruments on his own records, and starting a label. Ronson had developed a unique ear for samples, and came into the favor of Puffy, Pharrell (then known more for his work with hip-hop group The Neptunes than as a solo act or producer), and Busta Rhymes for his beat-making and DJ sets — which he’d say were “60 percent hip-hop, 30 percent funk and disco, 20 percent reggae, and 10 percent rock ‘n’ roll,” often mixing jazz-pop and rock from the likes of Steely Dan with hip-hop hits for a club crowd.

This musical philosophy existed concurrently with the rise and fall of Desco Records, and Daptone’s early successes. And while Ronson and Daptone were operating in separate scenes, the label’s musicians got around. In early 2006, Ronson was beginning to work on Versions, an album of covers in a throwback soul and hip-hop style, and he connected with Dap-King trumpeter Dave Guy to develop horn arrangements for demos.  

Guy — who had come into the Daptone fold post–Dap Dippin’ — arrived at Ronson’s Mercer Street studio in downtown Manhattan with his own demo in hand. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings had just cut a cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1970 Motown hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” and when Guy pressed play on the track (which wouldn’t be officially released until 2014), Ronson was blown away. “It was just so much the real deal,” he later effused. 

When Ronson wasn’t squeezing in demo sessions for his own project, he was collaborating with a young British singer named Amy Winehouse who was looking to evolve from the jazz-inflected vibe of her debut record. 

***

Winehouse’s expressive contralto vocals and intensely personal tales of love lost, addiction, and rebellion were a perfect match for Ronson’s production style, but getting her rough cuts to sound both old and rhythmically engaging was a challenge. “I was probably using, you know, like, whatever computer trick I could [to] make things sound old,” Ronson told NPR. Then, he put on the Sharon Jones cover Dave Guy had recently shown him. “I said, like, ‘How good is this? We should get these guys to play these demos.’” When Winehouse responded with an affirmative, enthusiastic “It’s the nuts!,” Ronson called up [producer, bassist and Daptone co-founder] Gabe Roth to set up a few days of studio time. 

Winehouse had already flown back across the pond by the time Ronson knocked on the door of 115 Troutman for his session with The Dap-Kings, CD-J demos and arrangements in hand. The band recorded six songs for Back to Black and, later, the ever-popular “Valerie” for Ronson’s Versions. 

“That was, like, the most professional thing we’d done to date,” [guitarist] Binky Griptite reflects. “We’d just been doing our own thing and on our own time in Gabe’s studio, or were at home smoking weed and working on our own schedule. So we weren’t used to having another producer being in there, like, ‘Okay, we gotta knock this out by five.’ I mean, we’d had a taste of it, but it was still in the early days.”  

The Dap-Kings also developed on Ronson’s arrangements, sinking into horn parts, charting chords, and adding [Homer] Steinweiss’s drum sound, which managed to meld the refinement of a jazz-educated drummer with a minimalist, almost childlike approach to playing. In an NPR interview, Ronson cited the band as the driving force behind “You Know I’m No Good,” Back to Black’s second single: “I had always thought of it almost as… kind of Latin, like, samba.” He wasn’t feeling his arrangement in the studio, so he offered it up to The Dap-Kings to interpret in their own vocabulary. [Daptone co-founder and saxophonist Neal] Sugarman and Guy came back with horn lines, emphasizing Ian Hendrickson-Smith’s baritone sax to complement Winehouse’s deep voice (Ronson speculated that Back to Black was the first time he’d utilized that instrument), while Steinweiss and bassist Nick Movshon developed an intimidating rhythm.  

“[They’re] probably the most incredible rhythm section I’ve ever worked with,” Ronson added, publicly cementing the band’s torch carrying lineage. “That was when I really discovered the magic of The Dap-Kings and… very much like The Wrecking Crew in L.A., and, you know, The Funk Brothers, like, are a special group of musicians that really just bring you something that nobody else does.” 

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While doing local promotion for Back to Black in October or November of that year, Winehouse finally got a chance to meet the band on her record; the songstress and The Dap-Kings hit it off immediately. Ronson observed Winehouse as she walked around Bushwick and settled into the homey vibe of the House Of Soul: “It was one of the last times I remember her just being unencumbered by any threat of drama or press or paparazzi,” he later told the Village Voice. They recorded “Valerie” the same day — unlike the originals on Back to Black, it was a cover of a song by the British indie-rock band The Zutons.  

The Dap-Kings spent an entire day working up a slow, sweeter version, Steinweiss remembers, “But then at the end of the session, Mark was like, ‘Can we just try a Motown version where it’s upbeat?’ That type of beat is not something we ever did; the tempo is more like The Strokes or something,” he adds, matter-of-factly. The band did one final up-tempo take, which became the radio version of “Valerie.” Released in 2007, the song was one of Winehouse’s longest-lasting hits and a testament to the collaborative pop genius of Ronson and The Dap-Kings. 

Back to Black was released on Island Records (Ronson’s producer credit shared with the legendary Salaam Remi, who worked with Winehouse on her debut, Frank) in October 2006. It quickly ran up the charts in both the U.K. and stateside, its pop-meets-soul sensibility, Winehouse’s punky Ronettes look and diaristic but insightful lyricism coming along just ahead of what pop scholar Simon Reynolds called “retromania.” 

“Amy just had such a unique voice and lyrical vision,” reflects Steinweiss, who considers Back to Black one of his favorite professional efforts. “I think that the production kind of fell on Mark to meet that with something as classy. That’s why producers come to people like us, because they’re like, We want that classy sound and you guys are obsessed with it.”

***

Even though Amy Winehouse had already achieved a significant fanbase and sales in the U.K. — and came from the same Camden soul scene that had long supported Desco and Daptone’s revivalist efforts — few at the label thought much about the session after it was over. “We didn’t have a clue about her already being a star,” Griptite says casually. “She probably told us that, but we were, like, Whatever, her name ain’t Marva Whitney. So we did it and it was done.” But the reality of Winehouse’s skill and celebrity quickly became apparent — Back to Black had several charting singles in 2006 and 2007, and Time magazine dubbed “Rehab” the best song of 2007. The following year, she took home four Grammys, including album of the year. Winehouse’s “retro” soul sound was officially back in style.

“Soul music never went away and soul lovers never went away, but they’re just kind of closeted because they didn’t think it was commercially viable. Even soul fans inside of the record labels grew up with this,” Griptite continues, flipping through his collection of records in his own home studio. “Then, when Amy’s record hit, all the undercover soul fans are like, I’m free. And then that’s when everybody’s like, Oh, there’s money in it now.”  

The Winehouse session was one of the label’s first real “money gigs,” and it provided a solid foundation for session work to come, establishing Daptone as one of the most important recording houses in a generation. Yet Back to Black brought up conflicting ideas about major-label ethos and the effects of celebrity. Roth acknowledged that the album was influential in making revival soul more commercially acceptable, but said the work never brought Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, or Daptone Records, any new fans.  

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As a songwriter whose ballads were written with an empowered, aware perspective, Roth found Back to Black too angst-ridden and self-involved. But Griptite, who had a close working relationship with the irreverent singer he described as a “little thing who loves to curse and shoot pool” appreciated how the album was “a flying f–k you” to pop trends; a mainstream culling of the same punk attitude that made Daptone so unique. “Amy was so 100 percent unapologetically herself. She was on that ‘zero f–ks given’ before that term was coined.”  

Sharon Jones had also been on the “zero f–ks given” tip for years as an older frontwoman competing for audiences with singers half her age, only to have one of those singers swoop her support system right from under her nose. “Amy made a f–king ten-million-selling record, and we were just trying to sell, like a hundred thousand with Sharon,” [guitarist Tom Brenneck] notes, his frustrated acceptance still audible. During the Back to Black sessions, Jones looked on at Winehouse and The Dap-Kings with a sense of impending doom and lapsed loyalty — was she going to lose her band to an artist with broader appeal, deeper pockets, and a producer who recognized the canned magic of The Dap-Kings? Jones was angry and, early on, indignant. “I’m old enough to be Amy Winehouse’s mother, how am I supposed to take a back seat to that child?” she questioned. 

*** 

Eventually, and with significant reassurance from her fellow musicians, Jones recognized the boon Winehouse’s success and a relationship with Mark Ronson could be for Daptone’s wider appeal. With a little prodding, she regularly thanked both for recognizing The Dap-Kings’ soul power during interviews. Jones also understood the need to put 100 Days, 100 Nights — SJDK’s third studio album, recorded in the latter half of 2006 — on pause while the Winehouse business ran its course. But Brenneck concedes that SJDK’s attempt to ride Winehouse’s coattails only worked indirectly. “How could you tap into a young audience with a f–king forty-nine-year-old Sharon Jones?”  

The Dap-Kings played a few gigs with Winehouse in the lead-up to her record launch, standing in for her English band when she toured the States. On January 16, 2007, the eight-piece Dap-Kings and two backup singers assembled at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan’s East Village to support Winehouse’s post–Back to Black American debut. The singer was lauded for bringing soul and R&B back to pop audiences, and seemed genuinely happy performing for an adoring audience that included musical luminaries like Dr. John, Mos Def, and Jay-Z in a short black dress and trademark enormous beehive hairdo. But despite her in-studio professionalism, the singer was starting to show signs of trouble. “She sounded great but acted like she didn’t believe it,” Amy Linden wrote in a prescient review of the Joe’s Pub show for the Voice. “It made me fear that Amy had the talent to be a star, but might not have the strength.” 

Early on, Winehouse was subsumed by frenzied paparazzi who pounced on the singer’s struggles with mental health, her volatile relationship with partner Blake Fielder-Civil (who allegedly introduced Winehouse to crack cocaine), and partying with “it” celebrities of the day, including Paris Hilton. But while the train wreck depicted in the press was real, and Winehouse imbibed heavily in drugs and alcohol, it was not the entirety of her personality. “She was like a real, 100 percent bona-fide musician,” Griptite remembers. “There were hints and moments of her issues, but there was also a lot of getting down to business and cracking jokes and being a cool person.”  

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Brenneck chalks up Winehouse’s slow spiral to youth and a relentless press, which capitalized on the tabloid-worthy qualities of her personal life. “We were all pretty young at that time, and nothing that we were doing was dangerous. But her f–king lover was Blake and then she married him. And he was really self-destructive. And she was, like, really consumed by that.” 

Winehouse and Sharon Jones had met during a 2008 SJDK performance at the Jazz Café in London, spending close to an hour talking in Jones’s dressing room. In an interview with the New Yorker, Jones recounted seeing Winehouse in London: “I don’t even want to talk about it… Instead of people laughin’ at her, pray for her. Drugs are so horrible.” 

Although the press began to highlight her lackluster performances and stumble-drunk behavior — a result of both addiction and a contentious relationship with fame — Back to Black continued to gather awards and critical praise, and spent multiple weeks atop the Billboard charts. Winehouse’s alternative, anti-heroine vibe, combined with the timelessness of ’60s soul and the big pop mixes that dominated it, were incredibly contemporary, fundamentally changing pop music to favor a “retro-influence” and live musicians. Through Back to Black, Daptone’s aural obsessions were thrust into the limelight by a singer with appreciation but not the hard-won insight and ability to play it perfectly.

Winehouse was cool — more identifiable for her youth, and, unfortunately, her whiteness. She also made relevant a sound many of her contemporaries would’ve previously considered to be music for their parents’ generation. 

“That whole Amy Winehouse moment was kind of difficult for our scene,” says Steinweiss, who would also work with Ronson on a dozen other projects. “We were doing something that was very much more an underground, niche thing. I always believed in SJDK, but I was always really proud of Back to Black at the same time, and I didn’t feel like one was fighting the other one.” The Dap-Kings received a framed platinum record for their work on Back to Black (to signify over one million sales in the USA) and, with the appropriate amount of fanfare, hung it above the toilet in their upstairs bathroom. Roth casually notes, “It was the only free space we had.”  

***

The Dap-Kings never worked with Amy Winehouse again after that 2007 tour, though their relationship with Mark Ronson would grow plentiful fruit. Ronson employed the Dap-Kings horns on his sophomore solo record, Versions, and a dozen other projects. “He thought we had something special,” notes Sugarman, “and had us in the recording studio every week. Post-Amy Winehouse, we were getting calls from other producers who were chasing what Mark made, which is cool because we were playing raw.”  

Those producers and musicians came to Daptone not to read charts but to help create lines — a much more interesting gig than a typical union call. “We were able to influence a lot of the music and the records we played on — we were trying to make everything sound a little bit cooler,” Sugarman says. “It’s incredible to watch how things unfolded.”  

The younger generation became Ronson’s de-facto rhythm section across a variety of funk-influenced projects and straight pop acts. Various Dap-Kings appeared as session musicians or producers on tracks by Michael Bublé, Foreigner, Pharrell Williams, Kesha, and myriad others, lending a specific ear and deeply connected performance ability to more popular records than the players’ modesty would allow them to cop to. 

After Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in July 2011 at the age of 27 — a coroner’s inquest determined her death to be the result of “misadventure” — she was further elevated to the status of legendary musical genius. She’s been the subject of multiple documentaries, books, articles, and museum exhibitions, as well as unrelenting questions during interviews with Daptone musicians. Homer Steinweiss speculates that, were she alive today, Winehouse might fuse soul and jazz with her renowned lyricism. 

Although the entire Daptone crew would go on to greater levels of success, the Amy Winehouse collaboration was their biggest crossover and yielded the most sales. A 2019 op-ed in the Guardian argued that Back to Black was the best album of the 21st century, and the inclusion of The Dap-Kings a “masterstroke.”  “I can’t think of a more important moment or better climax in our career,” Brenneck reflects, adding that the fact that Sharon subsequently managed to ride the wave of pop heights and make her own indelible impression “may be the coolest thing. Everything else seems smaller than that. Any of our pop endeavors are like little apples on a tree, and the branch is those two women in the mid-2000s.” 

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Jessica Lipsky is a Brooklyn-based DJ and journalist covering culture, music and media. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, NPR, Billboard, Columbia Journalism Review, Public Radio International, Newsweek, Vice and the LA Weekly. It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st-Century Soul Revolution is available on AmazonRough Trade, and at your favorite independent book and record stores — including Dusty Groove in Chicago, Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, Plaid Room Records in Cincinnati, and Amoeba Records in San Francisco.

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