One Saturday night this past February, a line formed outside the door of Richmond’s Balliceaux. The venue was hosting a Grits n’ Gravy dance party, and people were eager to get in and dance to the funk and soul that poured through the sound system, a series of old school singles spun by one of Charlottesville’s most popular DJ duos.
Robin Tomlin and Colin Powell have been spinning records together and hosting Grits n’ Gravy dance parties for nearly five years. Tomlin has been “an R&B fanatic” since seeing James Brown for the first time in 1980. Powell came to the genre via hip hop and turntablism. “I’m a fiend for detail,” he says, “so I was compelled to search for the origin of music samples used in all the songs that I liked. This led me to the classic funk breakbeats, to iconic soul labels like Stax, and eventually to more obscure local and regional acts.”
The two met when they were part of the same DJ lineup during one of WTJU’s rock department dance parties. They enjoyed the gig so much that they teamed up to play their favorite music around town every once in a while.
They started the Grits n’ Gravy dance party at the Tea Bazaar and later expanded to a monthly gig at Rapture’s R2. They’ve also played dance parties in Richmond and will begin playing at Yearbook Taco in June. They’ve also played afterparties for some of the big-name funk and soul acts that pass through town, such as Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and Charles Bradley, and regular New Year’s Eve gigs at The Southern.
Grits n’ Gravy dance parties feature rare soul and R&B 45 RPM singles exclusively (45s are the smaller, 7” records that are played at a higher tempo [45 rotations per minute, to be exact] than a regular LP). They stack their sets with funky dance numbers that keep the crowd grooving for hours. “So many soul artists never got their just deserts,” says Powell, “and with our dance party we try to share some of those forgotten gems from lesser-known artists.”
Tomlin tends to gravitate towards Southern soul; his favorites are Bobby Womack, Willie Hobbs, and Jackie Beavers. Powell, on the other hand, favors “stone-cold classics from right here in the Commonwealth” and tunes from the1960s and 70s Miami R&B scene. Their slightly different tastes blend nicely, keeping the sounds fresh and different from track to track.
They find their 45s in record stores near and far. “We travel all over the South to get ‘em,” says Tomlin, to Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, and other places. “There are a number of fine record stores locally [Charlottesville and Richmond] that stock 45s,” adds Powell, who often buys from individual collectors.
With this playlist, you won’t have to wait until the last Friday of the month to get your funk fix (but we still suggest you check out the dance party– nothing beats the real deal). Tomlin and Powell have put together a list of tunes to bring the Grits n’ Gravy dance party to your living room.
“To see a room full of people getting down to the music that you love, to see such appreciation not only for your efforts, but for the amazing work of these nearly-forgotten artists and labels—that’s just the greatest,” says Powell. “Nothing beats having people go crazy to something like Sir Guy’s ‘Funky Virginia.’”
So turn up the speakers, or put on your headphones, and prepare to get funky.