Soho Rising: Ian Isiah

A man in a top hat is cupping his face with his hands

As part of our Soho Rising series, Soho House Head of Music Dom Chung spotlights members making waves in the music industry. Here, the Brooklyn-based R&B singer discusses his gospel beginnings and how, with his new funk record, he’s learnt that honouring the music that came before him is real progress

By Britt Julious    Images by Renell Medrano (courtesy of Ian Isiah)    Friday 11 September, 2020    Short read

On his latest EP, ‘Auntie’, singer and Hood by Air brand ambassador Ian Isiah takes a sonically stark but riveting departure from his earlier releases. If 2018’s Shugga Sextape (Vol. 1) was an ode to the aesthetics and vocal constructions of the best of contemporary R&B, then ‘Auntie’ is a throwback tribute to the funk of the 1970s and 1980s. 

The music, as Isiah reveals, was an exciting challenge for the singer, who grew up in the church as a choirboy and says gospel music is one of his greatest influences. Unsurprisingly, it all works, as he has a knack for tapping into the elements and structures of the genres he loves and pulling out their best parts. On ‘Auntie’, that means groove-heavy production, confident and almost boastful lyrics, and soulful vocals. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the last days of summer. 

You have a lot of experience in the fashion world. Why is style important to you in general, but also as an artist? 

‘I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. I’m of West Indian descent. A lot of my style influences growing up came from dancehall, the early Source Awards, everything hip-hop and reggae. This generated my idea of what I thought style was. I learnt how important style was, as opposed to how important fashion was. I’ll never consider myself a stylist. I always see myself as more of a creative director or consultant for what I think style should be. This was kind of the foundation for me wanting to be like Quincy Jones and start developing what I think people should look like. Now I’m trying to show what they should sound like. 

‘In fashion, all you’re doing is developing the next look, the next person – that muse or what that muse should look like – or what the next style should be for the next season. You’re always forecasting. So I just learnt that tool and I’m applying it to music.’

Why did you want to make a funk record?

‘There’s nothing new under the sun, and in order for us to progress and move on as a culture, we have to tribute and honour the ones that came before us. That doesn’t mean just visuals – we need to sonically appreciate them as well. Everything can’t be done through a replica visual representation. People need to also hear it, so they understand what was.’
A man in a suit and hat stands in a church
A man surrounded by a crowd exits the church

What specifically about funk music really appeals to you?

‘It’s the drive. In a lot of funk music, lyrics will definitely drive you, but all the music kind of does on its own. The singer could stop singing for about two to three minutes on one track, and then you still feel the funk because the groove is so strong. It’s heavy bass, heavy drums, and the heavy journey with the music. It’s a little dirty and it’s sexy.’

Are there specific artists within the funk genre who you have been influenced by as an artist?

‘Believe it or not, this is my first funk record. I did it with Chromeo. They kind of introduced me to more and more funk. I’m a church boy, so all I know is gospel, and R&B. But that also means all I know is live music, and instrumentation and just musicianship. And that’s basically where funk came from. So it was a cool challenge and learning experience to discover what funk really is now and parallel it to my gospel upbringing. And, to be honest, it’s the same thing.

‘When I think about heavy funk artists, I think of Funkadelic and James Brown, who I also consider funk and gospel. [Then there’s] Rick James. And Little Richard, who I consider to be both as well. And also Prince.’

You mentioned working with Chromeo on this EP. Why do you enjoy collaborating with them?

‘Well, first of all, they’re amazing. Secondly, they’re so iconic. Not legends – icons. I’ve always enjoyed their grooves and their funk. And I realised throughout the years, they’re the only ones in that category. They’re icons, because they’re actually some talented White Jewish-Moroccan boys who know what’s up with funk. 

‘We met by sliding into each other’s DMs. That was already new for me, because I’m not good at sliding into DMs. I worked on a song on their current album that’s out and the chemistry just started building. Then, all of a sudden I’m in their home for like a week and we’re just writing new funk songs. And I didn’t have to explain anything to them.’

How have you grown with this EP compared to some of the past EPs, singles and mix tapes you’ve released previously?

‘I try to do everything in tribute, because all I do is study music. I do my homework on vocalists and know every bit about them. I wanted to create an R&B project, and the greats of R&B of this generation are The-Dream, T-Pain, Chris Brown and Tank. So my last project, Shugga Sextape, was basically a tribute to that vibe.

‘[“Auntie” is] more of a transition for me, because now my music is about the current climate. I’m writing about encouragement and self-empowerment. I wouldn’t call it a mature transition, I’d just call it a transition in general. There’s nothing new under the sun; you have to allow your mind to have journeys. I use my projects as, I guess, gas stations in my life journey. So let’s see what the next stop is.’
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