Monday, 19 October 2009

Want A Pop Hit? Just Talk All Over a '90s Track

Currently my life seems to alternate between, at one end of the spectrum, getting het up about government policies and at the other getting het up about things in popular culture, which, in contrast to government policy, is ephemeral and does people little harm. I suppose being unemployed and having the bizarre feeling that I am reliving the 1980s again makes it very difficult to pin down to one perspective or another. Last week I was very ill so my thoughts did not extend far beyond whether I could stop myself coughing and which DVD I was going to watch next and as I got better, strange questions, such as 'why are there two radio transmission/receiving rooms in the castle in 'Where Eagles Dare'?' and 'if the Allied unit had already killed both radio operators and put their equipment out of order, how can the colonel call up General Kesselring's base in Italy?' and realising that I had probably never seen the 13th episode of 'Spaced' before. Now, I have resurfaced from my illness no doubt caught travelling by train and underground to Yorkshire and back, my brain is a bit more broadly active, though many of the questions that are taxing me remain pretty trivial.

Anyone who is thirty or older has become familiar with pop songs reusing tunes and lyrics that we have known from before. We have had remakes for many decades, but more recently, I guess since the start of the 1990s, maybe a little longer, we have had 'sampling' in which a pop singer or more usually simply a producer takes a snip or sometimes much more from another song and uses it for a bed for a new track. I think the first one I can remember is probably the sampling for 'Under Pressure' by Queen and David Bowie from 1981, used on 'Ice, Ice Baby' in 1989/90 by Vanilla Ice. I do not know which previous hit has been used most in this way, but hearing elements of 'Cars' from 1979 written and recorded by Gary Numan, must be somewhere in the lead as most reused song at present, certainly on tracks played in the UK. I have no problem with people remaking old songs and, in fact, as the Live Lounge covers on Radio 1 show, getting leading acts to cover something can bring a whole new element to the song. I do not have much problem with sampling, as there is a finite set of musical combinations that work and some very successful tunes or basslines can work well as a 'hook' into a song, especially as they young music buying public has no recollection of hits their parents were listening to.

I do draw the line at two tracks currently in the UK charts which to me simply seem to be two artists talking with a pop hit playing in the background. I know rap music is very much about someone talking, but generally you have at least some interaction with the music in the background even if it is to keep the rapper company as he extols his wonderous attributes. The two songs which offend me at present are 'You're Not Alone' by Tynchy Strider and 'Dirtee Cash' by Dizzee Rascal. The originals of these songs, 'You're Not Alone' by Olive (reached No. 1 in UK in 1997; if you like the tune rather than the rapping, can I suggest you also check out 'Set Me Free' by N-Trance (1995) and 'Let Me Be Your Fantasy' by Baby D from 1994) and 'Dirty Cash (Money Talks)' by The Adventures of Stevie V.' (reached No. 2 in the UK in 1990) were very catchy pop/dance hits. The female voices on each really hook into you. The story the lyrics tell are straightforward and really are outlined by the titles. I wonder with unemployment returning maybe there is a degree of nostalgia for the music of the 1990s when these songs which really soar in terms of vocals and force of the tune took you away for three minutes from the recession you were facing.

Both Strider and Rascal have been very successful and whilst you might not like their songs, there is more originality in 'Never Leave You' and even 'Holiday' (let us leave 'Bonkers' aside) than these two artists simply talking over these 1990s songs. In Strider's case it seems he has simply retained the original song, with Rascal he has got a female vocalist to re-record the female section. However, what you end up with is something like a guy in a pub trying to rap at best tangentially to a song playing in the background. At times it is like they are giving a commentary on the lyrics, like a naff DJ at a pub disco, saying something, 'yes, baby, come and light my fire!' over the background of The Doors (or anyone else in fact) singing 'Light My Fire'. Neither Rascal or Strider drive these songs, they are at best commentators if not simply passengers wittering on about what the original vocals are saying. The original lyrics are hardly earth-shattering, but are sentiments that listeners can get into: not being alone now you have found a real partner for life and how money is like a drug. Neither of the rappers develop or add to these themes. However, as a result of their droning on over the top of both the vocals and the music, the original song is spoilt and you get nothing new from Rascal or Strider. I suppose given their success, these were easy tracks to make quickly and did not need much creative input, just a bit of impromptu rapping.

I hope the recording artists involved in the original are getting some cash out of this. Stevie V(incent) apparently teaches music technology at a college in Bedford. He was a producer at 'The Adventures' was really his only venture as a recording artist, but as the recent samples have shown the tracks on there have really endured and I recommend checking out the whole album. Unlike the producers of the Rascal and Strider tracks, Stevie V, went and got original songs and recorded original tunes and vocals to make very engaging dance music. These days I guess some producers think 'why bother?' and simply scrabble around in their box of old CDs to find something from the past that they can hack around and reuse. In the case of the two current tracks, it seems they have not really even bothered to hack around.

Musically the 1990s is not looked back upon with much interest. I suppose because whilst cross-over hits were regular there was a sense with rave culture and dance culture that the music interesting young people was once again running down separate channels in a way it had not done certainly in the 1980s and probably not since mainstream media featured pop music as a norm in the late 1960s. However, there were mainstream hits that brought a little of the rave to those who never got to one. As a result you have entrancing, sometimes hypnotic vocals and very catchy beats that avoid the repetition of true rave music. This is why they can still fill floors today. I suppose Rascal and Strider are trying to tap into these things from when they were children and catch some of the glamour of these earlier hits. I suggest they work a little harder and create some of their own. I just hope that as the poor performance of 'Sex on Fire' by Jamie Archer on the talent show 'The X Factor' bolstered sales of the original by the Kings of Leon, that Strider and Rascal might prompt people to hunt out and buy 'You're Not Alone' by Olive and 'Dirty Cash (Money Talks)' as they are superior tracks to these current karaoke-performance rip-offs.

P.P. 15/03/2010: This trend does not seem to be dying.  This week I saw 'I Want To Be With You Tonight' by a white UK rapper called Professor Green (name apparently inspired by a character in the board game 'Cluedo' except he seems to have mixed Professor Plum and Reverend Green) sampling 'Need You Tonight' (1987/8) by INXS.  Again it is a dorky guy wittering across a classic pop song, looking no less nerdy than Dappy.  I saw a video of Plan B initially thinking there was yet another in this category, messing up some pop song while looking like the kind of man you see hanging Stratford tube station (he in fact comes from Forest Gate), singing 'She Said'.  However, then he burst into some top notch soul singing that really marks him out from some of these other dorks.  Professor Green pay more attention to Plan B and not these cheapskate idiots who think muttering across some well now riff makes a good song.

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