Joel Culpeppers’ subconscious knew that he was capable of making a great album before he did. A long-held joke with himself, “SGT CULPEPPER” is a pun that hints at the leadership he was wary of embodying, the relief when you realise you’re capable of all that you feared.
“‘SGT CULPEPPER’ just felt right as a title for so many reasons; ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is recognised as one of the first concept albums obviously, but it’s also me finally being in this position to go, yeah, you've finally been approved to make an album, and here are all the soldiers involved,” he says. “The team of producers, the strategy and allegiances and legacy, with me having to steer it all; there’s an internal battle when you step into those public positions. It’s conflicting; you feel like you can do it, but at the same time you're scared of the outcome, even if it’s positive. And I feel like ‘SGT CULPEPPER’ is that story - who is this guy, and what is he all about?”
Born in Peckham before moving to Catford, South East London, Culpepper’s journey of musical self-discovery began as an ardent fan. From a very young age, he was raised on the work of the legends – watching from the top of the stairs as his mother swooned to the soulful vibes of Teddy Pendergrass on the record player, attending church during the growing era of Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond’s Gospel cool. Friends were getting down to Chart RnB and American-import Hip-Hop, but for Joel, a true sense of belonging came with the discovery of both Prince and Neo-Soul, a fusion that shaped his ear for soaring falsetto and loose-swinging beats.
“Musiq Soulchild, D'Angelo, Jill Scott, Indie Arie, Erykah Badu, The Root, Dwele…it was literally like I’d found the world,” he smiles. “I got a little bit obsessive with it actually, a little too streamlined. But I had started to develop my own tastes, and then Prince suddenly became on my radar. With him, I learnt that the most powerful thing you can do as a performer is to allow yourself to be free in the moment – just do you and be present. Once I knew that, my performance flew.”
Having attended Croydon College as a performing arts student, a wide-eyed, 18-year-old Joel had seen enough episodes of MTV’s Making The Band to know that America was the place to be. Staying with an Aunt in the Bronx, he took to the streets with 100 demo CDs, thrusting them into the hands of likely industry types who showed interest in his style. Despite major label interest no deal was signed, but Joel returned to London with a much-needed sense of self-belief, the knowledge that he could put himself out there and survive. Now in his thirties, he believes that that early near-miss might have been the best thing to happen to him, allowing him to stay true to the kind of compassionate artist he wants to be.
“I do think friendship is a big thing for me; I lead with that and the music is second,” he says. “I want to understand who the person is that I'm working with and what they're about and if we can be pals. Not in a like 'please be my friend!' way, but everyone that I work with I respect; they’ve become family to me. Sometimes it takes time for the musical aspect to reveal itself; it did with me and Swindle. ‘Woman’ was maybe two years into our friendship, but we knew when we had something that felt right.”
An indispensable member of the Culpepper family, producer Swindle (Ezra Collective, Mahalia, Kojey Radical) plays a pivotal role in Joel’s creative expression, right there with him from the laidback 2017 EP ‘Tortoise’ (including the aforementioned ‘Woman’, the Colors Show performance of which has racked up 13-million-and-counting views) to the joyful style and ambitious focus of ‘SGT CULPEPPER’. Having mythicized the format of an album to impossible levels, the pressure Joel put upon himself to create his own ‘What’s Going On’ or ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ created a kind of perfectionist-procrastination, the sort that can be difficult to snap out of without a good pep talk. Swindle, it seems, was that great friend.
“I don't know if it was anxiety, but there was definitely a responsibility to make a record that can do all these multiple things, you know?” says Joel. “It's got to have a strong identity, it's got to be impactful, it's got to be genuine but crossover. An album isn’t just a collection of songs; it’s a whole story. Where are the messages? Where is it nice, where is it sweet, where is it sour? It needs to pull and push and I think I just overthought it and became intimidated by it. My relationship with Swindle kind of changed that; recognising that we had not only great chemistry in our friendship, but at work too. I started collecting all these producers via unplanned scenarios, becoming friends and then naturally involving them in the record. When I finally asked Swindle to executive produce, it was him basically going 'Thank God. I've been waiting for you to ask forever, let's do it'. So, yeah, it took a while, but I think it needed to.”
Two years in the works, you can hear every note of the thought that was poured into ‘SGT Culpepper’, every participant holding an implicit understanding of what they wanted to achieve as a team. Inspired by the multiplicities of Joel’s Gemini star sign, it is a record that is split into four sections - the battle, the surrender, the love and the lesson, each guiding the listener through a process of acceptance and healing. Every aspect of that essential push and pull is addressed, from the skittering jazz-soul frustration of ‘Dead Bodies’ and ‘W.A.R’ (“I’m tired of having to turn the other cheek”) to the summery, lovestruck effervescence of ‘Kisses’ and the double-entendre of ‘Break’, simultaneously written about a struggling romantic relationship and the weathering nature of the Brexit debate. “It was the first song I had for the record, and I was just so proud that I’d achieved this kind of Soul Train, Al Green, Sly and The Family Stone moment.”
Across the record, you can hear the hand of all manner of collaborators and producers – Tom Misch, Redinho, Kay Young, Guy Chambers, Joker – but somehow, it all comes together to feel inherently Joel, the sort of record that would have slotted seamlessly into his Mother’s vinyl collection. Whether it’s the ‘Bennie & The Jets’-esque Piano on ‘It’s In Your Sex’ or the Smokey Robinson nod on ‘Tears Of A Crown,’ every reference is lovingly curated from a place of personal significance, a recognition that it is okay for him to play host in the journey through his life. It’s abundantly clear that he’s a soul man, but despite the caperings of lead single ‘Thought About You’ (featuring Joel and viral comedian Munya Chawama in impeccable 70’s disco dress), he was keen for his love of all things old-school not to come off as mere pastiche.
“It’s a really fine line - you don't want it to be try-hard or like, 'we get it, you like Soul'. I wanted to nod to things that had influenced me, but it also needs to work on radio in 2021. And that's where having the people within your team and the producers and the right sort of creative involvement kind of helps to steer it back in a direction that's authentic to yourself. We’re all very aware that I’ve probably listened to Curtis Mayfield a few times, but I want the audience to know other things about me as well.”
One of the most formative things to know about Joel is the time he has put in supporting the generation coming up behind him. Having worked in schools as a learning mentor for young people with challenging behavioural needs, it once again informs the importance he places on community spirit, rooted in the wisdom that it takes a village to raise a child. The experience runs through ‘SGT CULPEPPER’s desire to elevate other people’s stories, but really shines on the album closer, ‘Black Boy’, an unabashed celebration of all that it takes to be unique in the ever-growing pressures of the world.
“I feel there have been so many important songs that address black men, but I wanted to hear a song that universally celebrated being a black lad with an upbeat Minnie Riperton, summertime vibe,” he says. “When I was writing I kept going back to this one memory of a boy I worked with, just this one morning when he was running late, bowling through the playground with such a confidence and an air about him. He had his older sister's leopard-print coat, a pink lunchbox, these ankle-swinger trousers with no socks on. Some of the kids were saying stuff, but he was just head forward, bowling through, didn't care. I'll never forget me turning around to the other teachers and them going 'he's got it, int he?' Like fair play mate, you've sussed out life. That lived with me; we spend our whole adulthoods trying to find ways to be that uninhibited, and he’d cracked it at 10 years old.”
“I just wanted him to have that message. I felt horrendous for leaving that job, but in my head, I just kept thinking, I don't just want to be the guy that just spoke about doing music – I want those kids to see me doing it. It’s very much me coming to terms with this contradicting feeling of responsibility that I want to carry, where you feel nervous but know you can spearhead it if you try. ‘Black Boy’ is very much in a space of nah, you're meant to do this – go ahead and tip the crown. ”
Standing on the shoulders of the musical giants we all know and love while also bringing his peers and mentees with him, Joel has found a way to craft a love letter to a community that lives simultaneously in the past and future, a retro-modernity that never feels stifled or contrived. Having conquered his uncertainties, is SGT Culpepper any closer to figuring out who he is?
“He's a leader, but he's also someone that doubted himself at points, as we all have. He’s showing you his weaknesses as well as his strengths,” Joel says. “I just want to tell that story through these chapters of this individual, the many sides to the one coin.”
“I think what matters is the experiences and the relationships that you form with people, the people who inspire you to really notch things up every time. I haven’t always been the ‘one to watch’ or the person on everyone’s radar, but there are so many people who are making me feel like you don’t just get one shot, like there’s a way to enjoy the journey. And that's the beautiful thing; I feel like I've only just gotten started.”
Jenessa Williams, April 2021