In California of the ’60s, a style of music known as Chicano soul (sometimes referred to as “brown-eyed soul”) took hold among listeners. Groups like Cannibal & the Headhunters (“Land of a Thousand Dances”) and Thee Midniters (“Whittier Boulevard”) thrilled audiences and achieved national success. But as prevailing styles came and went, Chicano soul seemed to disappear into history.
Yet for lovers of the style like San Jose resident J.M. Valle, Chicano soul never went away. Thanks in part to his efforts, and to the work of current acts like San Jose’s Thee Baby Cuffs, the genre is today enjoying a spirited resurgence. Connecting with the passion among listeners following the genre’s renewed popularity, Valle launched a record label for Chicano soul music, Raza del Soul, in 2014.
Valle doesn’t shy away from taking a bit of credit where it’s due.
“I’m basically one of the pioneers of the current explosion of the soul scene,” he says. “The thing that’s going on right now is probably as big as it’s ever been.”
A decade ago, Valle co-hosted Block 2 Block Radio with David Madrid on 91.5 FM KKUP-FM. That helped keep the music alive, bringing it to a new generation of listeners.
Today, the popularity of classic American soul has extended far and wide—even to Finland, home to Timmion Records, a label focusing on contemporary soul and funk. After some time, Valle noticed that neo-soul labels like Daptone and Numero Group were starting to focus on the Chicano market.
“My thought was, as Chicanos, why don’t we not only be marketed to as the customers? We can be the artists and even the label owners.”
Valle describes his original vision for Raza del Soul: “I thought, ‘If I’m able to connect [labels like] Timmion with the low-rider community, record collectors and the people who go to the Super Love Jams,’” he says, “‘then sure enough, something’s bound to happen.’”
Starting as an online record shop selling new pressings of classic soul 45s, Raza del Soul has quickly grown in popularity. All the while, Valle has been encouraging the modern-day revival of Chicano soul, especially in San Jose.
“I just kept on pushing it, pushing it, pushing it,” he says. “Eventually it exploded on its own, with little to no influence from me.”
In its early days, Raza del Soul concentrated on collaborative projects. “I would buy records wholesale, and then do exclusive limited runs of somebody else’s record, but with a special sleeve with artwork on it,” Valle says. “That’s how I got started. But then I got these guys together like Thee Baby Cuffs.”
Despite being recorded in the 21st century, everything about Thee Baby Cuffs’ sound suggests the music was waxed sometime between 1965 and 1972. Joe Narvaez is the vocal trio’s lead singer. Gilberto Rodriguez, the trio’s second lead, handles the Spanish-language vocals. Reality Jonez sings the falsetto parts.
“I grew up with that kind of music,” Narvaez says. “Because I’m an older dude, I was there. And I guess that’s where the authenticity comes from.”
Valle’s guiding hand as songwriter and producer helped with the band’s authentic sound.
“We do it old school,” he says. “We record on tape, and we release the music on records. There’s no autotune or anything like that. The stories are real. They’re singing straight from the heart. I think that’s what people are in need of right now.”
Backed by San Francisco-based instrumental soul group The M-Tet, Thee Baby Cuffs’ debut single, “Where Did Our Pride Go?” was pressed in a run of 500 7” records. It promptly sold out.
“They go for about $60 online now,” Valle says with a laugh. The group’s follow-up singles “My My My Baby” and “You’re My Reason,” feature Thee Baby Cuffs backed by Finnish soul powerhouse instrumental group Cold Diamond & Mink.
Valle’s plan to keep bringing Chicano soul to today’s listeners involves a slow and steady approach. To date, Raza del Soul has released only five titles. But a sixth, Thee Baby Cuffs’ psychedelic soul-flavored “How Could I Right All My Wrongs” is due by Christmas—on a vinyl 45, of course.
In the words of Valle: “We’ve got some good stuff coming out.”
Thee Baby Cuffs
“You’re My Reason” single