The R&B Club brings soul music to life in Washington


Before Verzuz and Club Quarantine, four local music lovers were hosting their own discussions about the legacy of a genre whose relevance has been questioned in recent years. Since February 2018, Marcus K. Dowling, Julian Kimble, Ashley-Dior Thomas and Justin Tinsley have hosted the R&B club – a monthly book club-style get-together for fellow soul music enthusiasts at Songbyrd Music House.

At the R&B Club, the “language we all understand” that Stevie Wonder sang about in “Sir Duke” doesn’t qualify as a “niche” or a “past.” When a recording of Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” is paused too soon, a singalong breaks out to end it. When the panel asks which version of Diddy’s “I Need a Girl” is better, a thorough discussion is guaranteed.

“I was really tired of people saying R&B is dead, non-existent, or fading away,” said Thomas, a small business operations consultant. “I don’t understand where this is coming from. It’s such a lazy conversation. R&B is sometimes treated like it’s music’s cousin rather than mom or dad.

The hosts came up with the idea for the events after attending Songbyrd’s Classic Album Sundays series. They sought to combine their mutual admiration for the genre with their respective strengths – Dowling’s knowledge of DC’s musical history, Kimble’s flair for debate, Tinsley’s talent for sharing cultural context and the expertise of Thomas in terms of productivity – to create a “holistic image” of R&B for the public. .

With year-long themes such as “R&B Albums of the 90s” and “R&B Legends” as a framework, hosts select a topic and examine how that artist’s personal journey, lyricism, vocal ability or build quality continue to make the heart of rhythm and blues beat faster today. Using a chronologically organized playlist as a guide, hosts contribute to conversations with intimate stories, steadfast opinions, and little-known facts about the topics. They keep an open mic handy to encourage members of the public to also share their connections. The sessions, which may have started as a gathering of like-minded music enthusiasts, have blossomed into a safe space for fans who have become family, according to Dowling.

“You walk into this room and your true human passion is on display at some point during these two hours,” said Dowling, who moved to Nashville during the pandemic to work as a country music reporter for the Tennessean. “Something very organic to who you are as a person comes out. … You will probably cry. You’ll laugh, and something about you that you don’t want the world to know will probably come out. We have a common experience.

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Kimble, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Post and other publications, believes he and his co-hosts are nurturing guests’ desire to “feel something” deeper than the soundtrack to their endless brunch du weekend. “In a city where people can go to multiple places, do the exact same thing, I don’t know if there’s anything like the R&B Club in DC,” he said. “That’s what people are drawn to.”

This year’s series is focused on songwriters and producers. At October’s Raphael Saadiq event, best friends and new attendees Montez Freeman from Southeast and Justin Schofield from District Heights immediately “felt a sense of community” in the audience.

“These are my people,” Freeman said. “I didn’t expect to see so many people interested in this kind of obsession with music. I no longer felt like a nerd or an outsider.

Schofield appreciated the hosts acknowledging performers he feels are not appreciated enough by the general public.

“There’s so much music from then and now,” Schofield said. “Let’s blow the dust off this thing and play it. Let’s talk about what we have in the past and make sure living Again.”

After a brief hiatus during the pandemic, the club relaunched in July 2022 spotlighting Missy Elliott. The rapper-songwriter even co-signed the “fun” of the event herself on Twitter. For Thomas, Elliott’s comment only reaffirmed what the late record executive Andre Harrell told him during a chance encounter in March 2018.

“I showed him a photo from our Jodeci event and he was like, ‘Oh, you have something going on here. I’ve never heard of that,” Thomas said. “And I knew. I don’t care if 10 people or three people came every month after that. Andre Harrel tells us that we have something going on. That’s all I needed. We take off.

Harrell founded Uptown Records, which was home to acclaimed R&B artists like Al B. Of course! and Mary J. Blige, including “What’s the 411?” The album was covered by the R&B Club in April 2018. Thomas said the music mogul was surprised that people cared enough to review R&B, let alone discuss minute details like seeing a sophisticated singer like Blige don combat boots and a backwards baseball cap while singing on “True Love.”

At the R&B Club, yes. Southeast resident Charles Nelson likes that he respects DC’s musical heritage as well.

“Like a lot of Washington natives, we love hip-hop, we really love go-go. But deep down, we’re R&B bosses,” Nelson said. “Everybody in this town knows Marvin Gaye. , Raheem DeVaughn, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack and all those people who [were] born here, have ties to this city. We are naturally [an] R&B city.

Kimble backed up that point at the Saadiq event, when he recounted seeing the multi-instrumentalist during a two-night show at the 9:30 Club. According to Kimble, Saadiq shared his affection for the go-go cover of his song “Still Ray” by local actor Backyard Band. “The second night, [they] came out and did the song with him,” Kimble said. “[D.C.] is an R&B town because it’s just in its DNA.

For Alisha Edmonson and Joe Lapan, owners of Songbyrd and its sister record store Byrdland, the R&B Club lets them think of smart ways to connect with audiences.

“According [who] the artist is, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a record that I can help [them] give’ or ‘Is there a cool R&B show?’ “said Lapon. “I [helped] they give tickets to Alex Isley and Maxwell. Because it’s a group of dedicated R&B fans, even though we’re celebrating Raphael Saadiq, we know that crowd cares about Isley and Maxwell.

Before the pandemic, sessions were held in the dimly lit basement of Songbyrd’s former location in Adams Morgan. The darkness and closeness fueled the confidence of the guests who spontaneously stood up and danced or began to sing, shielded from critical gaze. At the new Songbyrd near Union Market, guests sit at large tables in a converted, brightly lit warehouse. But Edmonson thinks the uniqueness of the community listening experience remains.

“Music is the tempo we create, and that’s what makes it intimate,” Edmonson said. “Space is a blank canvas for the vibe people want to bring to it.”

At the end of the Saadiq event, the hosts announced that the November edition would feature Virginia’s Pharrell Williams, and gasps and cheers echoed in the room. Tinsley, senior culture editor at ESPN’s Andscape, thinks those heartfelt reactions are what make the experience special.

“I’m never impressed when I look at the crowd,” Tinsley said. “You love music, but you love hearing people talk about their connection to music. I think that’s the genesis of what great music is, [and] really good R&B. We always want this type of connection because you know when a connection is real, [and] you know when a connection is made. I do not think so [there’s] nothing about this club that is made. The R&B Club is one of the biggest gifts DC has right now.

The R&B Club is held the second Sunday of each month at Songbyrd, 540 Penn St. NE. “Diary of an R&B Songwriter and Producer: Pharrell” will take place November 13 from noon to 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door and include a drink.

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