The ’87 Sound: “(You’re Puttin’) a Rush On Me” by Stephanie Mills

1987 was truly a peak year in the career of the great Stephanie Mills. The arc of that career coincides neatly with the decade of the ’80s as a whole, with her recording success beginning during the disco era of the late ’70s, following her star turn as Dorothy in the Broadway run of “The Wiz.” “(You’re Puttin’) a Rush on Me”, is a thumping electro Funk smash hit from her album, “If I Were Your Woman”, itself a smashing success. “Rush On Me” is a record of ’80s sexual politics that serves as a polite decline of an invite from a man, set to slow, steady synth funk, as if the groove itself is a recommendation to the songs intended to “slow down.” The song was written and produced by New York producer Paul Laurence, known for his work with Freddie Jackson, Melissa Morgan, and Evelyn “Champagne” King. In fact, he had another dance hit with Freddie Jax in ’87, the steppers classic “Jam Tonight.” Together, Mills and Laurence would drive this song all the way up to #1 R&B in the fall of ’87. Reflecting the aversion the pop charts often had to funk, the song would nestle just inside the Pop 100 at #85. Pop chart standings be damned, this is one of my favorite songs of 1987!

The songs begins out with a fat drum beat, replete with big ’80s snare sounds and deep electronic kicks. The hi-hats play a sneaky pattern that is melodic in and of itself, while the harmony is provided by those then state of the art, choral sounding keyboard tones. A bassy sounding synthesizer patch lays a faster, syncopated, double time feeling over the top of the track. After the 8 bar intro, the synthesizer bass kicks in, and its rock solid, matching the kick drum rhythms in a pattern/note sequence somewhat reminiscent of The SOS Band’s “Take Your Time.” The chorus is stated once right at the beginning, “You’re puttin’ a rush on me/but I’d like to know you Better”, with Stephanie drawing out the last line. She goes on to lay down her case very clearly, “I’m not the kind of girl/who has to lay it down before I fall in love”. She tells her suitor, “Maybe next time.” She says, “I know that we’re living in the ’80s/but some things never change.”

I heard and enjoyed this track many times back in ’87 and It still stands out as a unique one. Of all the R&B chart hits that had a funky edge in that particular year, this is one of the slowest and nastiest in terms of the groove. Which I think is such a good, fresh setting for its “Slow down” cautionary message. During the ’80s sexuality was explored in music in many overt ways, taking up where the Disco era had left off. This included specifically, more latitude for women to express sexual desire in ways male rock & roll stars had long done. Stephanie here makes it clear though even though society had changed to a degree and more things were permissible, one shouldn’t assume anything when it comes to sex! Which was a good lesson for me to learn before I even knew I needed it. Because at that particular time, all I understood was a funky synth bassline, a phat drum machine beat, and her unique, laid back, chilled out vocal phrasing in the chorus. Which is why years later, Stephanie Mills “(You’re Puttin’) a Rush On Me” is still a go to jam!

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The ’87 Sound: “How Ya Like Me Now” by Kool Moe Dee

Kool Moe Dee was one of the first rappers I ever knew. This is mostly due to this ’87 song, “How Ya Like Me Now”, and its companion hit from the same album, “Wild, Wild West.” What I couldn’t possibly know at that time, was that Moe Dee is one of the fathers of rap itself, one of the first lyrical technicians to explore many features of rap that later masters like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and even late masters like Eminem, would base their styles on. By ’87, Moe Dee was on his second solo LP after years as a member of the early rap crew, The Treacherous Three. He had also graduated from college with a degree in Communications. Moe Dee is from Harlem, New York City, which has long had a reputation of being the stylistic capital of Black America. This was reflected in Moe Dee’s slick leather outfits, knee-length boots, Leather “Golden Child” kufi’s, and Geordi LaForge oversized ski shades. And his old school Soul and Hip Hop orientation were exemplified by the way he hit cool, smooth dance steps while backed up by sharp-dressed dancers. It all added up to a package that I think was far more enticing to middle-aged Black music fans than the majority of rappers. And while Run DMC crossed Hip Hop over into the big money MTV, Pop/Rock audience, Moe Dee was successful in crossing Hip Hop over into the world of R&B radio, which is why I heard this song and “Wild, Wild West” alongside other songs from 1987 such as Alexander O’Neal’s “Fake.” And that laid a major foundation for the success other artists would very soon have in the next two years of the ’80s and the early ’90s

The heat that Moe Dee builds on in this song is a fued that he picked with the hottest solo M.C of the era, L.L Cool J. On the cover of his album, he has a bell-shaped Kangol of the type L.L Cool J wore underneath his Jeep. The accusation? That L.L was getting PAID (DUHHHH!) using his rap style. This all seems like typical rapper drama until you realize that for a lyrical pioneer like Moe Dee, who was in his late ’20s, which was territory no rapper had entered before, this was serious business, his livelihood. And I’ve learned in recent years that to the extent L.L based his style on that of T La Rock, who was the brother of Moe Dee’s Treacherous Three partner, Special K. And L.L in that era did have a penchant for vocabulary busting rhymes that Moe Dee and The Treacherous Three perfected.

The music of “How Ya Like Me Now” and who produced it is part of its historical appeal. “How Ya Like Me Now”, much like “Go See The Doctor” on Moe Dee’s previous album, were produced by the young Teddy Riley, who was making his breakthrough at that time. Teddy is truly one of the key figures in music over the past 30 years because of the way he mixed musicianship with Hip Hop sensibilities. Taking over from where Run DMC and Whodini producer Larry Smith left off, Teddy regularly produced both Hip Hop and R&B, keeping a funky street edge in R&B, and adding smooth musicality to Hip Hop. His incorporation of the swing of Go-Go would soon become THE beat for Hip Hop, and would be felt even after the music got much more spare in instrumentation.

For “How Ya Like Me Now”, Teddy delivers a hell of a groove, a funky, swinging James Brown influenced creation that took advantage of the new sampling technology in ways that sounded more like music and less like samples. The drumbeat is swinging and has ghost notes just like Clyde Stubblefield would play with JB. The sampled horn blasts hit hard on the “One”, much like Jam and Lewis did on “Fake”, and are then followed by a swinging James Brown-style horn part. The track is very bouncy, with a sprightly stop and start feeling. It finesses Moe Dee’s martial theme, floating like a butterfly around the lyrical battle ring, like a musical Muhammed Ali. On the bridge, Riley uses the synth horns to restate Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s “Salt Peanuts” theme. Which is both an example of an early, Pre Gang Star jazziness in Hip Hop, and also a throwback to the Sugarhill Records era practice of interpolation, which would be key in the future of Hip Hop as artists like Dr. Dre and The Neptunes endeavored to sample less, and play more music.

“I…….throw my tape on/and I watch ya/three seconds later/I got ya…”, Moe Dee begins his rhyme, and it is an excellent one, simple on the face of it, but truly an exercise in perfect rhymes, multiple rhymes, and subtle rhythms, as well structured as an essay. It exemplifies Moe Dee’s focus on “sticking to themes” and his pride in being able to rhyme coherently without digressing. One of my favorite lines is “Rap is an art/and I’m like Picasso.” Now for a while I thought Moe Dee was taking the easy way out because Picasso is the most famous artist of the 20th Century. So did he mean he was simply the best artist in Hip Hop? But Picasso wasn’t known for painting pretty pictures, which Moe Dee does here with a sharp, precise rhyme. Picasso took a little bit from here, and a little bit from there, so is a rap artist being like Picasso a reference to how rappers take words and expressions from everywhere, or Hip Hop music takes beats that might not seem to belong together and puts them together? Whatever he meant, its the one line I got when I asked a friend to quote a Moe Dee rhyme a few years back.

Back when I was a kid when my Uncles and Uncle figures talked about rap, they were talking about Moe Dee. The “How Ya Like Me Now” video and performance footage exhibit how Moe Dee took sharp technical rap and put it with the traditional showmanship and sharp dressing of R&B, Soul, and Funk. That is a package that would totally disappear in the ’90s and I have never been satisfied with Hip Hop since. Maybe Diddy tried to revive it but he was nowhere near as skilled an M.C as the great Moe Dee!!! But the fact that Moe Dee was able to do it here is an example of why that was a special time for music all across the board!

As a bonus, Moe Dee’s performance on Soul Train, where he seemed to be on that shortlist of M.C’s Don Cornelius dug!

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The ’87 Sound: “Fake” by Alexander O’Neal

“Fake”, from Alexander O’Neal’s second album, “Hearsay”, written and produced by the legendary team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, is on the shortlist for my absolute favorite songs of 1987, the ’80s as a whole, and songs in general. The relentlessly pounding dance groove and O’Neals sharp, accusatory vocals and ad-libs were a sound I heard all the time that year, on the radio, from cars, on Soul Train, and from the stereo system in my own home. Jam and Lewis were coming off the success of Janet Jacksons’ “Control” album and taking their place as the preeminent production team in the business when this song was recorded. It’s well known that O’Neal was slated to be the lead vocalist for The Time until he questioned Prince Rogers Nelson about the business side of that group’s existence. Although he lost that gig to Morris Day, Jam and Lewis never stopped believing in O’Neal, which led to them producing his albums. “Hearsay” was an absolute smash in ’87, producing big singles such as “Fake”, “Criticize”, and another in his series of duets with Cherelle, “Never Knew Love Like This.” The smoking dance songs and duets were appropriate for a singer that Jam and Lewis viewed as a throwback to the male soul singer as exemplified in the ‘690s and ’70s by artists such as Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass and many others. This was very important for the 1980s because as the decade developed, that type of gutsy soul singing took a backseat to younger artists, female diva’s, and Hip Hoppers.

“Fake” is a song that is so appropriate for its era because it deals with the type of woman you might meet in Los Angeles or any big city where people are doing a lot of social climbing. This also was a big theme for Black men and particular then and since because the ethic in the ’80s aesthetically veered long ways from Aretha Franklin’s “Natural woman” of the late ’60s. The woman Alex sings about has different aliases for her name, wears weaves, calls him by other men’s names, and has different eye colors everytime he sees her. He sings, “Whenever I go out with you/I find out something new.” When I was younger, not being of dating age at the time, I thought this was just a funny story, like the scene with Anna Marie Johnson in “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka.” But as the years passed I came to hear other subtexts of changing relationships, social climbing, vanity and even white aesthetic standards in this song.

“Fake” has an angry, strong, paranoid tone that goes very well with the other, more political songs of the era such as “Skeletons” by Stevie Wonder, “System of Survival” by Earth, Wind & Fire, and “Sign O’ The Times” by Prince, not to mention the political Hip Hop released in that and the next year. “Skeletons” in particular has a theme very close to “Fake”, both being about deceptions on one level or another. It also has much in common with Public Enemy’s “Sophisticated Bitch” from their debut album. Now of course, “Fake” wasn’t written to be political, but the seething, pounding energy of the song was perfect for its era, just as in the early ’70s there were popular songs in Black music such as “The Backstabbers”, “Smiling Faces”, and “I Heard it Through The Grapevine”, that, while being about love matters, also revealed something about the political subtext of the Nixon era.

Plus on a groove level, “Fake” is a monster, built on a punishing, pounding beat that hits you like a boxer’s body blows. On top of that, there is a growling synthesizer bass, mixed with percussive live bass. The synth claps are loud enough to warn you a hurricane is coming while the synths hit you on the “One” like a Tyson uppercut, seeming to say “FAKE” in a way that supports O’Neal’s story. Behind that Jam and Lewis layer ominous harmonies that linger and sustain and sing almost like a choir. All of this is broken up slightly by a theme song worthy synth horn break before Alex gets a chance to once again violently state, “You’re a FAKE!/Baby!!!!”

“Fake” seems to dominate my musical memories of ’87, it seems that every time I watched Soul Train, for about two or three months, this song played on either a dance segment or a Soul Train line. Alexander O’Neal delivered a fine singing performance over Jam and Lewis’s punishing Funk beat. In fact, this might be the very finest dance/funk hit by a soul singer of it’s era. The interesting thing about the ’70s was it’s musical diversity, so that a singer like Al Green who was masterful at “ballads” also could riff over barn burning Funk as well. As the music business progressed things got a bit more segregated, but on “Hearsay”, Alexander O’Neal was a real true soul man who could do it all, including the hardest of hard funk. Jam and Lewis have stated that working with him holds a special place in their oeuvre, as they see it as akin to working with the great soul singers, though he didn’t have that sustained success. “Fake” for me is one of the funkiest soul songs of it’s era and one I will forever associate with that time period!

* Bonus Material: I was delighted when one of my favorite shows, the British/Netflix show “Black Mirror” had a great episode, “San Junipero”, set in ’87 ,where “Fake” was featured, which was the first time I’ve come across it in popular culture in a very long time

Here is a scene I will always associate with this song, from Keenan Ivory Wayans “Im Gonna Git You Sucka”

Alexander O’Neal on Soul Train!

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The ’87 Sound: “Happy” by Surface

“Happy” by Surface is one of those funky songs that will forever be associated with 1987 in my mind. At the young age I was then, its combination of killer synth bass, 808 drums, atmospheric synth pads, and synthesized flute tone, in connection with bassist/vocalists Bernard Jacksons fragile, youthful sounding tenor was something that never failed to captivate me. The song brought a mid-’80s electro vibe into the world of late night Quiet Storm love jams. But make no mistake, much like Rene & Angela’s “Your Smile”, this was a tune that had an enormous amount of hump factor for the car speaker systems.

It was only in researching this piece that I found out more about the band Surface. I was not even aware that they had a big single, “The First Time”, that actually hit #1 pop in ’90. Surface was a trio from New Jersey consisting of Bernard Jackson, David Conley and David Townsend. David Townsend had been a guitarist from that other famous New Jersey Funk and everything else band, The Isley Brothers. He also was the son of Ed Townsend, songwriter for Marvin Gaye’s essential seduction song “Let’s Get It On”, and its teetotaling twin, The Impressions, “Finally Got Myself Together.” Surface also had an unusual lineup of a bassist/vocalist, and two other musicians who were primarily keyboard players, which made them a group well capable of handling the synth-based sounds of the ’80s. They wrote songs for New Edition and Sister Sledge and had their own successful singles, such as “Falling in Love” in 1983 and “When Your Ex Wants You Back” in 1984.

“Happy” is a song the trio wrote and produced on the British funk band Hi Tension in 1984 as “You Make Me Happy.” If you listen to Hi Tensions version, which is very good, the main thing that stands out is that when they produced it for themselves a couple of years later, the arrangement was sparser, focusing on the wicked synthesizer bassline, atmospheric synth tones, and the still futuristic sound of the 808 drum machine. It all added up to major success for Surface as this song went all the way up to #2 R&B, #20 pop and #36 on the dance charts.

The song begins with a synthesized flute, after which Bernard Jackson states the very direct theme of the song, “Only You can Make me Happy.” The drumbeat is very interesting, an 808 kick with claps on the 2 and 4 and stuttering hi-hats. On top of all this rhythm, keyboard chords hold the harmony steady. The keyboards have that mixed “string/vocal choir” sound so prominent during the ’80s. The killer synth bass comes in with the verse, as well as the drum machine snare drums. The bass is very funky and makes the most out of an economical number of notes. When I first heard it, it brought The Average White Band’s classic, “Pick Up the Pieces” to mind. All of this is a funky setting for Jackson to sing his devotional, “I never thought that I’d find someone like you/I feel hypnotized/with the things you do.” Which is fitting because if he’s hypnotized by his love, the listener is hypnotized at the same time by the groove! At the same time the piano plays little comping parts behind the vocals in support.

When the chorus comes in, so does a subtle quarter note synthesized string stab. But for the most part, the groove continues funking in the same vein. Which is probably what made it so unusual to my ears in ’87. “Happy” is a relatively slow song, with a romantic lyric, but the groove, it’s construction, and purpose, are straight up funk, using the digital tools of the day.

One of my favorite moments of the song is the telephone call breakdown, “Hello? How you doing baby? I’m glad you called. Oh you’re coming over? Beautiful baby!” Which has probably inspired a lot of Black love man shtick on my part!!!

“Happy” is a song from my youth that makes me just that when I hear it today. Occasionally when I go shopping I hear this cut and its a great thing for me because it is one of those songs people remember but don’t mention much when they speak of tunes they enjoyed from the era. But for me, it had a unique combination of funk, electronic beats, and an earnest, youthful, heartfelt love vocal, which mark it as a unique song of its era!

As a bonus, here is the Hi Tension version of this song written and produced by Surface in 1984.

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The ’87 Sound: “Rebel Without a Pause” by Public Enemy

“Rebel Without a Pause”, Public Enemy’s breakthrough single, is a perfect example of the changes music, Hip Hop and otherwise, would go through in 1987. P.E released their first album, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” on February 10, 1987, after recording it in the summer of 1986. By the time it was released, it’s DMX drum machine dominated sound already sounded dated, next to the new, sleek James Brown samples of Eric B & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul.” Writer Christopher R Weingarten put it this way, “Tempos became quicker and peppy drum licks zipped around the sluggish elephant stomps of 1986’s DMX drum machines.” Bomb Squad lead producer Hank Shocklee said that by ’87 he heard the DMX in so many songs he was tired of it himself. These newer, sleeker beats, which in actuality were closer to Hip Hop’s breakbeat party origins in the days of DJ’s Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, also enabled new, more complex rhyme styles, pioneered by Rakim, KRS ONE, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane. The inspiration for “Rebel Without a Pause” on a musical and technical rapping level came from Eric B and Rakim’s Funkadelic and Bobby Byrd sampling “I Know You Got Soul”, which itself would inspire Chuck to say in this song, “I got soul too!” Chuck and Hank Shocklee speak of going to a party and being dejected by the brilliance of “I Know You Got Soul”, which inspired them to go into the studio and concoct “Rebel Without a Pause.”

A James Brown sample would power “Rebel” the same way it did “Soul”. Interestingly enough, just like Eric B and Rakim’s record, they found their J.B sample, not in James Brown’s catalog, but in his extended catalog of artists he released and produced, this time from The Bootsy and Catfish Collins lead original incarnation of the J.B’s, from the song “The Grunt.” Ironically for those who feel sampling is theft, “The Grunt” itself is an almost wholesale interpolation of an Isley Brothers song called, “Keep on Doin.” But what the J.B’s had that the Isleys didn’t, was the wild, wailing, almost atonal sax playing of Robert McCullough, which The Bomb Squad would utilize as the sound that occupies the high end on “Rebel.” When Chuck D took the record home, his mother wondered if he had a tea kettle going off in his room. It’s interesting that that horn part came from a player Fred Wesley describes as “inferior to any horn player the James Brown band had before him”, but it had a raw vibe that was perfect for the alarming note Public Enemy was sounding in the late Reagen age.

The record itself begins with alarming sounds, first, the strong, southern voice of Jesse Jackson at WattStax, introducing the Soul Children’s record, “I Don’t’ know what this world is coming to”, which he began with a booming, now legendary “Brothers and Sisters!” Which P.E then follows with another alarming sound, the horn hits of James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing”, which had been used before in Boogie Down Production’s “South Bronx.” “Get Up Offa..” is one of JB’s angriest records, made at a time when he felt his commercial relevance was slipping. Also interestingly enough, Jesse Jackson himself was launching his second run for President in ’87. Chuck begins his legendary rap verses with a thundering, “Yes!” He goes on to say in the verse, “They played the music/this time they play the lyrics” which is a reference to how Public Enemy’s first single, “Public Enemy No.1” was rejected by New York Hip Hop D.J Mr. Magic. “Bum rush the sound/I made a year ago” was a reference to the fact that the album P.E had just released some months earlier was actually made in 1986, a kind of apology as P.E dropped this brand new bag. He ends the verse speaking of “Panther power/on the hour/from the Rebel to you”, which is an even more explicit embrace of Public Enemy’s “Black Panthers of Rap” position they’d been slowly cultivating during their time in the music.”

In between the verses, Flavor Flav provides his Bundini Brown, Bobby Byrd, boxing cornerman hype, which was in itself a radical new sound in Hip Hop at the time. Chuck begins the next verse with the classic and often sampled, “Radio/Suckers never play me/on the mix/they just okay me”, which was a clear protest at the way Hip Hop was treated as a whole on urban radio and Public Enemy in particular by the New York Hip Hop elite. Chuck’s goes on to rap in the new style, using shorter sentence lengths and multiple rhymes to lay out the points through which Public Enemy’s whole career would rest on, such as stating he was “old enough to raise ya”, a reference to P.E’s late 20s ages at the time and the older mindset they brought to Hip Hop. He also proclaims them “Supporters of Chesimard”, a reference to Assata Shakur, who is still in the news today as Conservative forces call for her extradition from Cuba.

“Rebel Without a Pause” is a landmark record of 1987 for many reasons. Public Enemy and their producers The Bomb Squad were able to react with almost Internet era speed to the changing tides of Rap music at the time, away from the drum machine sound to the funkier, more supple samples of actual funky musicians playing on wax. Also, lyrically, Chuck and Flav introduced a strong, Pro Black, radical message, through the voice of the young people’s music, Hip Hop, that would provide a touchstone for the Afrocentric explosion of the late ’80s and early ’90s. As we will see as our series on 1987 continues, even older socially conscious musicians like Stevie Wonder and EWF would get back to their commentary as a rejoinder to the Reagen administration, but Public Enemy here does it for the younger set. This song and others like it would basically form the attitude of young Black people from the late ’80s to about the mid-’90s. This was born out of a New York City that was full of racial tension in the ’80s, often times aided and abetted by the man who is President as of this writing, Donald J. Trump. But Public Enemy also succeed here in changing the musical side of the times, taking the innovations of Marley Marl and affordable samplers and grounding the James Brown beat as the foundation of Hip Hop. In fact, when you put “Rebel” and “I Know You Got Soul” with Prince’s “Housequake” and many other records, the late ’80s may be one of the best times the James Brown sound has ever had in the business. This sound would not only be big in Hip Hop but it would also go on to influence the realms of European and American sample-based dance music as well. And this was the first truly landmark, revolutionary record in a career that has taken P.E all the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Panther power on the hour from the Rebels to you!!!!

* A little bonus material, Public Enemy’s performance of this song on Soul Train, and the diss from Mr. Magic that inspired some lines on this song and much of P.E’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

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The ’87 Sound: “Rock Steady” by The Whispers

The Whispers “Rock Steady”, which hit #1 R&B and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, is for my money, the top Backyard barbecue jam of 1987. The song was released as the first single from their album, “It Just Gets Better With Time”, at the perfect time to rule the summertime cookouts that The Notorious B.I.G would lament the loss of seven years later in his “Things Done Changed.”  “Rock Steady” was special for multiple reasons. Amidst all the youth-oriented music that would come to dominate the R&B sound in ’87, this song found a groove that all ages could identify with. It was also the first major hit for an artist outside of their own group to be produced by L.A Reid and Babyface, who would go on to define the sound of R&B in the ’90s. “Rock Steady” also was the biggest hit for The Whispers, capping off a career that began in the late ’60s and peaked through the ’80s and continues to this day. It also might be one of the last major chart-toppers, along with The O’Jays “Lovin You”, released that same year, from an R&B group that was powerful in the 1970s. So “Rock Steady” stands as not simply a great hit record, but a meeting point for the old and the new, a crowning moment for the veteran Whispers, and a new beginning for L.A Reid and Babyface, the next phase of R&B.

Dick Griffey’s Solar Records is the meeting point that made this record happen. It had long been The Whispers label since it’s early incarnations as Soul Train Records during the ’70s, and it was also home to L.A and Babyface’s band, The Deele. Around 1986 Griffey encouraged L.A and Babyface to move their band to Los Angeles to be closer to the label headquarters and try their hands at writing and producing. They set themselves up in a condominium and wrote songs every day, which the members of The Whispers got wind of and inspired them to cut their own deal with the duo for production services.

L.A and Face cooked up this killer, drum machine bass groove in their home studio, and when it was time to name the song, looked at the equipment that was holding their gear, all with the “Rocksteady” brand, for their lyrical and thematic inspiration. Of course, “Rock Steady” had been done by Aretha Franklin in ’71. And the rock dance, which was so popular during the Disco era, was alluded to in Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” from his breakthrough “Off the Wall” LP. The Whispers, always known as one of the best performance groups in R&B, perform their own variations of the dance in the video. “Rocksteady” was also a transitional music in Jamaica shortly before the advent of Reggae. The idea of “rocking” goes way back to the origins of Rhythm and Blues and Rock & Roll, as it was often used as a sexual double entendre, as in the old blues, “My baby rocks me with a steady roll.”  The songwriters pick up on that vibe here, as they talk of “steady rockin all night long.” That type of wordplay and allusion might also make this a very late R&B double entendre hit, as they signify about “rocking” on multiple levels. The term “rocksteady” then, is a very apt analogy to the type of steady, stable, strong middle aged love a veteran group like The Whispers should be singing about, with just enough youthful Funk to still be interesting.

This groove is built on L.A and Face’s drum machine figure, which is just as rock steady as the song title would suggest. It starts off hard on the one, leaves a little space and hits with a very melodic sounding four kicks in the second bar. The bass lines hug this drum beat perfectly, which seem to indicate the song started from that drum figure. The bass is played by a synthesizer bass with some slap bass sounds doubling the synth bass in places. On the top end of the tune you have synthesized horn sounds that have that big late ’80s, glossy digital feel. In between that there is a warm piano sound mixed with strings that provides the harmonic pads for the song. When the vocals go into the line, “I began to touch/but you wouldn’t let it”, the groove goes into another section, with the bass line and piano filling in on the same rhythm used in the vocals. All of this works out to the line “And then you changed your mind”, which is supported by very triumphant sounding synth chords that lead us right to Scotty’s “Whoa-Ho” and the triumphant call and response chorus, “We began to Rock! Steady!!!! Steady Rockin all night long!” When the words “Rock” are sung, they are answered by the synths.

Some of the sweet features of the song are the way Walter and Scotty trade off on the vocals, and also, the attention paid to instrumentation in L.A and Face’s programming of the song, which features breakdowns, a piano interlude, several percussion fills, and The Whispers sampled voices singing “Rock”. The production is clearly dance focused as it leaves plenty of space for grooves and breaks, much like another ’86/87 song, Cameo’s “Candy.”

“Rock Steady” would power The Whispers “It Just Gets Better With Time” album all the way to platinum and  begin a run for L.A and Babyface that would spill over into “Girlfriend” for Pebbles (which is a 1987 song we’ll cover here), and “Every Little Step I Take” for Bobby Brown the next year, and a whole world of other hits in the late ’80s and the ’90s. It stands out among all the other hits of ’87 as a strong example of veteran Soul artists at the top of their game making music with the upcoming generation, with classic results.

 

*The groove for “Rock Steady” was so potent a young Kylie Minogue had to use it the very next year

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“The ’87 Sound”: “Sign O the Times” by Prince

Of all of the songs that come to mind when I think of the music of 1987, Prince’s “Sign O the Times” shines among the brightest. It’s slightly delayed, knocking rhythm groove, and bluesy synthesizer bass, slurred like the speech of old men drinking cheap liquor, was the perfect seasoning for the meat of the matter, Prince’s late Reaganomics, state of the world address, sung in a plaintive falsetto very close to the moan of the old spirituals.

It’s clear that for Prince, those words were the thing, evident in the lyric video he produced for the song and the posters with the full song reprinted as if he wanted us to learn and take heed to each and every word. On this particular song he once again achieved the lyrical poignancy of his musical role models such as Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon and many others. He also succeeded in updating the blues for the age of Digital R&B and Hip Hop in much the same fashion Marvin Gaye did for the age of Funk with 1971’s “Inner City Blues.”

Prince’s singular ability to take all of the wonderful music he knew, could play and imagine, and distill it into their most vital elements, is essential to the musical success of this piece, which caught my ear coming from my Dad’s stereo system. It starts off with four kick beats from the drum machine, answered by a delayed percussion sound, in a digital African call and response pattern. No snare drum, no vocals, no bass line, until Prince lets out a soulful “Oh Yeah”, which is the cue that brings in the reverberating snare drum and that bass.

That bass. Oh, that bass. The bass line was one of my early attractions to the song, it is a synthesized tone with a very human, vocal quality. The spareness of this arrangement is part of what makes it stand out, as other musicians and producers of the time such as Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Jam and Lewis or even The Bomb Squad might have added more delicious layers to the track, Prince simply let it be so that he could bring his message across. And of course, Prince had a musical history of making the most of simplicity, as seen in previous classics such as “When Doves Cry”, and “Kiss.” This also helped him in the climate of a rising nation of Hip Hop music that focused solely on the rhythm and made him an influence on that side of music.

Part of what Prince shared with the pioneers of Hip Hop music, as well as innovators like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell and many others of his time, was no fear about making music through technological means. And “Sign O’ The Times” is a song made possible by the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, an expensive sampling keyboard and computer system that only the richest of musicians could utilize in the 1980s. The synth sold for $40,000 back then and it amazed many musicians with its ability to put a whole orchestra at your fingertips, which is something modern DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstation) do for a fraction of the price. But Prince pulled most of the sounds you hear on this song straight from the factory settings of the Fairlight.

“Sign O The Times” is so important to me personally because it is the very first song I can say that started me on the road to being a Prince fan. Being born in the early ’80s, I grew up with songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, “1999” and “Soft and Wet.” All of this was music you heard up and down the block in Oakland, California. I’m also the youngest in my family and my siblings were all teens at that time, and Prince’s music expressed what they were going through as teens and young adults. My mother and father were also fans of music, especially my father, but Prince, along with Hip Hop, is where they began to question things. Part of it was the fact they were very religious, Jehovah’s Witnesses in fact, which is ironic because Prince himself would be for the last 20 years of his life (and Larry Graham was once a member of the exact same Kingdom Hall I grew up in Oakland, California.) My mother used to say, “That boy is fine, but why does he have to be naked?. It’s funny because the outrageousness of Prince’s image and approach wasn’t itself new. In their collection they had Issac Hayes albums where Black Moses was shirtless, chained, wearing tights, they had Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream” with a naked lady covered in the white stuff, numerous disco albums featuring scantily clad ladies, The Ohio Players soft porn album covers, even gender benders like Little Richard and David Bowie! And certainly…LOTS of short rock stars in HEELS (James Brown, Mick Jagger, Miles Davis etc).

Now my Dad in particular, he was rigid without being rigid. He never railed AGAINST Prince, and he tapped his toes and nodded his head to several hits over the years, maybe even picked up a 45 or two, but he mainly saw Prince as an entertaining gimmick more than a musician, and Dad’s first true love was Jazz. But “Sign O’ The Times” hit him much differently. ’87 was a big year I remember because Dad was going back to Liberia, West Africa for the first time since the 1980 coup. He was excited about getting some local mining exchanges started up that would help people in the interior of the country. Now when Dad was in Africa, he was known as one of the best people to get the new American music from, and he wasn’t about to let his reputation slip in ’87! So he taped a lot of songs off our local radio stations in the Bay Area, mainly KSOL, to take with him and play for Liberian parties.

“Sign O The Times” really caught Dad, from the plaintive vocals, the modern beat, and the comprehensive state of the world lyrics, dealing with AIDS, Natural disasters, gangs and drugs, the Space Ship Challenger and many other things. In fact, here was Prince with a record that very much supported a Biblical, “end times” view of the world like the JW’s had. Also, the deep blusey nature of the song hit Dad in a deep place, because Jazz and Blues were his roots music.

It seems in 1987 though, after two terms of Reaganomics reverse Robin Hood approach (Steal from the poor to give to the rich), many people in Black music had sentiments very close to Prince on this song. In this series, I will cover other politically themed songs from Stevie Wonder, EWF, and new (at the time) Hip Hop artists like Public Enemy and BDP. In history, 1987 would see the greatest stock market crash since the Great Depression, and the fiasco of the Iran Contra affair, which left a serious stain on the Reagen Presidency. The Inner Cities were beginning to crumble as ’87 was about the second or third year of the crack epidemic.

“Sign O’ The Times” has continued to grow in importance for me, from my elementary school years in 1987 to now. Chuck D, one of my favorite artists, once said on VH1 that he was impressed by and influenced by the lyrical power of Prince’s “Now he’s doing Horse, Its June” line from the song and how much that taught him about lyrical economy and suggestion. And it just so happened 20 years after that, when I walked into a party here in the Bay Area playing Prince music, hosted by DJ’s Dave Paul and Jeff Harris, the song that was playing when we walked in was “Sign O the Times” which me and my friends knew every word two, now picture that, 8 Black men singing “Sign O The Times” in unison! Prince took the title of this song from the journal of his 7th Day Adventist religion, and it was very fitting, not just for this masterwork of a song, but for the amazing transitional, funky, grooving, urban message-oriented music of 1987 and the late ’80s!

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