Things must feel heady for RAMP, as the Cincy Soul band rides the crest of a reunion and a long-awaited reissue of its 1977 record, Come into Knowledge. Recent club dates in New York and London introduced RAMP, which hasn't performed in more than two decades, to an ardent fan base the members didn't know existed.
"That's kind of overwhelming when you meet these people you've heard about, such as DJ Spinna, Kenny Dope, the people from Giant Step Records," says Sharon Matthews, one of RAMP's lead vocalists living in Cincinnati. "Then you get all this positive feedback about how they've been listening to you through the years."
RAMP's other lead, Sibel Thrasher, was doing a theatrical production in Canada. For members of the group, the notion of a comeback caught them completely by surprise.
"I really wasn't expecting it," says bassist Nate White. "When John (Manuel) called me up (from D.C.) and told me what was going on, I was really excited."
While the 1977 recording remained out of circulation for nearly 30 years, it was resuscitated through bootlegs, samples and people rediscovering "lost" Northern Soul. Landy Shores' five-note guitar phrase from "Daylight" began a courtship with DJs wanting to "come into knowledge" of A Tribe Called Quest's sample underneath their 1990 hit, "Bonita Applebaum," which had a familiar, Roy Ayers' sort of vibe.
"I didn't know it was actually the same song," White says. "It really didn't dawn on me at the time.
I'd been writing my own music for a long time and it just never occurred to me to re-do a RAMP song."
Last year, White released the acclaimed Jazz CD, So Beautiful.
"I was impressed that they would take those five notes," Shores says. "I guess I wasn't surprised that we didn't see any money from those five notes because we didn't own the rights to that music."
"Would we have wanted financial comp for all that? Absolutely," pipes in percussionist John Manuel. "People used to ask me all the time, 'Man, how much you get off your "Daylight"? 'Cause Tribe blew up off their "Bonita Applebaum" from your "Daylight!"
Their music didn't just trickle down to Hip Hop. Interpolations of "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" and "Come into Knowledge" were heard behind newer Soul artists Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu.
"I actually was proud that we had a product that would get the attention of such outstanding artists," Manuel explains. "It further exemplified what could've been, what should've been. It's very significant to have an album that's so heavily sampled, and by them."
Recently, Manuel met Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest.
"I think we hugged about three times, just man hugs!" he says proudly.
Though they didn't attend the same schools, Manuel and Shores played together since junior high with such local bands as The Regals, then later in The Spinners during the early 1970s. Matthews and Thrasher were a sought-after female duo, backing local musicians like The Love Joys and doing occasional sessions at King Records with one of James Brown's songwriters, Charles Spurling. By 1975, the four met and formed a band and introduced Nate White on bass.
The following year, they struck a chord with vibist Roy Ayers. As his opening act at Cincinnati Gardens, Saturday Night Special had a good groove and Matthews' and Thrasher's precise harmony blended into one voice.
"We harmonized real well," Matthews says. "We even got to the point where we could read each other's minds. If we were going to make a mistake, we both made the mistake!"
Ayers took the group to New York to record in Jimi Hendrix's famed Electric Lady Land Studios, where he, Edwin Birdsong and William Allen penned songs for their album.
"Just being in the studio recording with Roy, it was almost like a dream, like it didn't happen," Shores says.
Manuel describes the experience as "cosmic."
"It was all these purple colors and lushness," he remembers. "We're in the scene of New York in Greenwich Village, recording day, afternoon, nighttime, hanging out during the day."
According to the group, Ayers suggested they ditch the name Saturday Night Special. He took his protégés seriously and didn't want them associated with a pistol. As RAMP, which Manuel says means "moving upward," they signed to ABC Records' subsidiary, Blue Thumb.
Within months the label folded. MCA Records bought ABC's catalog but wasn't interested in signing RAMP. Their LP with the illustration of a brain on the front became a tax write-off.
Obscurity eventually made the LP a curio among collectors, mostly as a bootleg. Original copies floated on eBay, pricing as high as $147. Universal Music finally issued it as a CD through Verve in October, after Japan's release in January.
Two unreleased tracks taken from Manuel's cassette were issued through Ubiquity Records as a limited edition 12-inch. The UK compilation, Gilles Peterson Digs America, Pt. 2 and other rare groove collections also include their music.
"It's like we're finally getting to experience our product being available to the public," Manuel says. "We go to London, for example, the audience is screaming and stomping on the floors and the walls, saying, 'Rewind, rewind!' asking us to stop the song and start it over because it was just so cerebral for them to be seeing and hearing RAMP for the first time."
"The interesting thing is, as we work on our next CD, what age group are we trying to reach?" Shores asks. "Some people said, 'You need to keep that '70s sound, but you still want to show your growth. It's probably going to be a little less of Roy working with us, and more of us working with each other. It'll be fresh."
RAMP performs Friday and Saturday at Alexander's VIP Lounge. See performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.