As It Happens

Why this funk band's 1st album was released decades after the songs were recorded

After receiving a collection of thousands of tapes from a Philadelphia's well-known Sigma Sound Studios, a university puts out a debut album by the band Nat Turner Rebellion — decades after the songs were recorded.

Philadelphia college unearths long-lost recordings from Nat Turner Rebellion, named for Virginia slave revolt

Drexel University's music department helped unearth long-lost recordings from Philadelphia funk and soul band Nat Turner Rebellion. (Reservoir Media Management)
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It's an offer any music fan dreams of — a storage facility in Philadelphia calls you up and says they have thousands of unclaimed tapes up for grabs from the city's legendary Sigma Sound Studios. 

Drexel University's music department received that phone call more than a decade ago. And since then, staff and students have been combing through the music collection. They're not even close to getting through it all. 

But this year, the university helped release a new record from the collection by Nat Turner Rebellion. It's the '70s funk band's first ever full-length album — even though the songs were recorded decades ago.

From 1969 to 1972, the Nat Turner Rebellion put out singles, but never released a full album. Many of the tracks on this new album have never been heard before. 

Toby Seay, a professor of music production at Drexel University, spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about the band and how the project came together. Here is part of their conversation.

What has it been like for you to see these songs by the Nat Turner Rebellion finally get out into the world?

This is kind of a dream for any archivist.

A lot of times you think of archival stuff sitting in a shelf and just being saved for no apparent reason and here you have this wonderful music that surprisingly hasn't been heard much other than in the small collectors market.

So, for me, it's a joy to be able to bring this out to light and have the world be able to hear this work that was incredibly well done. It just didn't get through the politics of a record label at the time.

A reel from a Nat Turner Rebellion recording session at the Sigma Sound Studio at Drexel University in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Why weren't these tracks released in the late '60s and early '70s when they were recorded?

When you look at the label, the Philly Groove label, at the time, their first hit record was the Delfonics. I feel like that was the direction the label wanted to do.

They were competing against Gamble and Huff and all those soul records. And here you had a group like the Nat Turner Rebellion, which was more like Sly Stone. They were much more of a funk-based band and the label kind of wanted to turn them into the Delfonics.

The music on this album — it kind of goes back and forth as they try this direction, they tried that direction, and they never came to a consensus.

Can you tell me about the name — the Nat Turner Rebellion. Where does that come from?

It's named after a famous slave revolt of 1831 that happened in Virginia [led by enslaved preacher Nat Turner].

Joe Jefferson, who started the band, is from Virginia. This is a cultural event that the world knows as this uprising. Now, it was a horrible outcome and [there were] many, many deaths. But in the same sense, it's representative of the black struggle in America.

So for a 1969 band to name themselves after that event — not only that, but Joe Jefferson went on stage as Nat Turner — it was an interesting statement at the time.

And, you know, they weren't really a confrontational and in-your-face kind of a band. But they started the conversation that way, which I think was fascinating.

Graffiti covers the base of a Confederate Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. The letters and numbers 'N.T. 11 11 31' are believed to be a reference to Nat Turner, an enslaved man who was hanged in 1831 for starting a rebellion and for whom the band Nat Turner Rebellion pays tribute to in their name and music. (Rob Carr/Associated Press)

One of the songs on the first Nat Turner Rebellion tape that you listened to was called Tribute to a Slave. What did you think when you first heard that song?

That was the first song I heard of the collection. This "my friend Nat" line, where you know they're invoking the spirit. It's obvious that Nat Turner is a representative of the struggle that black Americans were going through.

My favourite line in the song, though, is: "You might be here with us, in the midst of all this fuss."

That, to me, just kind of hooked me to that song right then and there.

An NPR reviewer looking at the album says it's all over the map stylistically. Do you think this album would have ever made it to the shelves back when it was recorded?

No, I really don't because the label was trying to find their way. The band was trying to find a place where both sides were happy. And so you end up with songs that are all over the map.

I think retrospectively, 50 years later, that now tells another story that wouldn't have been a commercial thing at the time.

But now, for us, from an archival point of view, [it] does paint an interesting story of this ensemble and it makes you think of how many other stories just like that are sitting on shelves in archives.

Toby Seay, project director of the Drexel University's audio archives, helped resurrect the music of largely forgotten Philadelphia funk band Nat Turner Rebellion, and is hoping to discover more gems in its archives. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

What other artists of significance recorded at Sigma Sounds Studio?

Sigma was the seat of basically the Philly soul sound — the sound of Philadelphia. So all those Gamble and Huff hits. You've got Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, and the Delfonics and the Stylistics.

Even David Bowie came and recorded there wanting that sound to kind of rub off because the amount of work and the lush sound that came out of there at the time was so compelling. 

A reel from David Bowie's recording sessions at the Sigma Sound Studio while getting together his 1974 Young Americans album. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Your university received some 7,000 tapes from this storage facility. How much do you think you've made your way through?

We've kind of arranged and described most of it. So we kind of know what is sitting on the shelves. But as far as digitization and playback and actually examining the contents — less than 10 per cent.

You got a lot of work ahead of you.

A lot of work.

Any more treasures you expect to find hiding in that collection?

Yeah, I do. I mean, I have five things right now that I feel are primed and ready just like the Nat Turner project.

Written by John McGill and Katie Geleff. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has edited for length and clarity.

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