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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Raw Like Sushi: the arrival of Neneh Cherry

I can still remember the first time I heard Buffalo Stance. Rarely has a record so instantly forced my attention and so quickly become entrenched in my music memory. The word "fresh" has a distinct connotation in the hip hop world, but this song and its performer were literally that: a blast of fresh sound and attitude in the dying days of pop's greatest decade. Central to the appeal was Neneh Cherry, who combined electric charisma with a confident, authorial vocal style. The debut album that followed, Raw Like Sushi, managed to live up to the promise of that extraordinary single and proved that Neneh was no novelty fluke.

The origins of Buffalo Stance are slightly peculiar. In 1986 a much touted pop duo, Morgan McVey, released their debut single Looking Good Diving to a less than ecstatic reception. It was a smooth cut of 80s boy pop (think Curiosity Killed The Cat), but to be fair was a bit more style over substance. Cameron McVey had got to know Neneh and asked if she'd provide a rap over the track for the B-side, Looking Good Diving With The Wild Bunch. If you've ever wondered what a Buffalo Stance is, it comes from the group of fashion trendsetters led by stylist Ray Petri and including Neneh and Cameron, who were known as the Buffalo group, hence a Buffalo stance is a particular type of fashion photography pose, made famous in the pages of the influential magazine The Face. Neneh would go on to become one of the magazine's key style icons.

The performance Neneh delivered transformed a humdrum pop song into an international smash hit, as the core ingredients of Buffalo Stance are all to be found in this extraordinary takeover. Morgan McVey were inevitably dropped after that one flop, but Cameron McVey knew that Neneh had raw talent and switched from pop star to producer and helped Neneh land a deal with Virgin. The two had also become an item and together they created the songs, style and sassiness that would make Raw Like Sushi an international smash. If you're looking for Cameron's credit on the album, he changed his name to the more hip hop-friendly "Booga Bear".

The magic touch in taking Buffalo Stance from B-side to worldwide hit was provided by producer Tim Simenon, whose own act Bomb The Bass was at the cutting edge of UK dance music. Simenon did not have to reinvent the song, just add the latest sounds and beats to make it current. The music video was a perfect introduction to Neneh as a performer; it was cool, cheeky and mesmeric.

Even better was her performance on the legendary UK chart show Top of the Pops, where Neneh rocked her very visible baby bump at a time when most still thought confinement was preferable for pregnant ladies. The single went to number 3 in the UK in December 1988 before going on to conquer the top ten in multiple territories, including number 3 in the US and number 1 in the Netherlands and her native Sweden.

There is a moment in Buffalo Stance that for me sums up the magic of Neneh Cherry. The song slows and Neneh sweetly sings:

Wind on my face, sound in my ears, water from my eyes and you on my mind...

That was when I fell.

That amazing debut was always going to be tricky to follow-up, but Neneh's next single would become one of my favourite songs of all time. Where Buffalo Stance was achingly trendy and insistent, Manchild was reflective and hypnotic. The song explores themes of masculinity under threat, not least from female empowerment, with the inherent truth of latent male immaturity laid bare. What makes it work though is the love in Neneh's voice. This is no lecture, it is a clarion call to men, willing them to overcome. The production perfectly sets the tone, providing a sensuous and lugubrious backdrop to Neneh's warm vocal, proving that Booga Bear had learned a great deal from hanging with the likes of Simenon. What makes the song for me though is the rap.

While Neneh was by no means the first female rapper to hit the pop charts, she was one of the first Europeans to do so and her style is markedly different from her transatlantic peers. There is an accessibility to Neneh's raps that make them almost conversational rather than confrontational. There is also a fluidity between her singing and her rapping which is rare in that genre, meaning that one flows into the other creating a single voice, not a competition. While the sung parts of Manchild are gorgeous and sensuous, it is the rap that is the heart of the piece. Instead of disrupting the song like many ubiquitous rap sections can, this rap is organically part of it, crystallising the essence of its message and speaking directly into your soul.

The music video was a stunning visual feast, featuring baby Tyson who had made an appearance since her Top of the Pops performance in utero and another electric performance from her mother. It was directed by the legend that is Jean-Baptiste Mondino and it perfectly captures his unique style. Mondino was also responsible for the iconic images of Neneh used on the album artwork and in The Face.

Manchild was another top 5 hit in the UK and across Europe, but somehow failed to make an impact Stateside. The third single, the poppy Kisses On The Wind did give Neneh another top ten hit in the US and helped the album into the Billboard Top 40. In the UK the album was an undisputed smash, peaking at 2. On tracks like Inner City Mama (the fourth and final single from the album) and The Next Generation Neneh explored the importance of motherhood and child-rearing, showing a thoughtful, connected and caring woman using her medium for more than creating radio-friendly hits. And there has rarely been a more compelling personal statement than the album closer So Here I Come.

It was pretty hard to avoid Neneh in 1989 (though why would you ever want to) and Raw Like Sushi was the soundtrack to my summer that year.Although Neneh's subsequent output has been sporadic, for a number of understandable personal reasons, nothing can detract from the enormous impact she made in her breakthrough year and the indelible impression of her debut album that showed Europe could produce female hip hop every bit as "fly" as the USA.

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