Various Artists: Smooth Grooves: After Hours, Cool Down

[8 May 2002]

By Mark Anthony Neal

While Studio 54 remains the quintessential memorial to the disco era and disco perhaps remains one of the most disparaged popular music genres of the last 30 years, the fact of the matter is that the energy and passion of the dance music craze of the 1970s did not disappear after Danny Terrio and “Tony Manero” traded in the white three piece suits for infomercials and film careers opposite Jamie Lee Curtis. Places like the famed Paradise Garage in NYC and The Warehouse in Chicago, where the late Larry Levan and “Frankie Knuckles” helped incubate house music, continued to be the hyper-democratic spaces where class, race, gender and sexuality were all redefined with a fluidity that created dance floor communities that unfortunately too rarely transcended into the real world. On a much smaller scale, the 1980s also witnessed the development of high-styled urban after-hours spots like Bentley’s and Silver Shadow (both in NYC), where the black and brown yellow-power-tie wannabes, jerri-curl mishaps and big hair all came together to celebrate the brand new funk of the 1980s. Whereas Smooth Grooves: After Hours (Vol. One) celebrated Chicago-styled “stepper set” classics such as Loose Ends’ “Slow Down” and Dennis Edwards and Siedah Garrett’s “Don’t Look Any Further”, volume two, Smooth Grooves: After Hours, Cool Down finds its groove with upscale New York dance music from the 1980s, where the music was more about looking good as opposed to getting all sweaty and funky.

Smooth Grooves: After Hours, Cool Down opens with an obscure extended mix of New Edition’s “You’re No My Kind of Girl”, which originally appeared on the group’s comeback disc Heart Break. The disc was their first recorded with Johnny Gill after the defection of Bobby Brown in 1986.(New Edition recorded a disc of doo-wop classics minus Brown). “You’re No My Kind of Girl” was the third single released from the project after the lead single “If It Isn’t Love” and the definitive NE ballad “Can You Stand the Rain”. Like most of the popular NE tracks, it is the thin yet muscular vocals of Ralph Tresvant that are featured on the track. The commercial success of Heart Break was in part owed to the popularity of the New Jack Swing sound (brilliantly appropriated by Heart Break producers Jam and Lewis), which was cultivated in the mid-‘80s by Teddy Riley. Acts such as Riley’s Guy (with lead singer Aaron Hall), Al B. Sure, and the aforementioned Bobby Brown, who’s Don’t Be Cruel was the best selling of all of the New Jack discs in the late 1980s, all benefited form the sound that melded traditional R&B vocal styles and juttering hip-hop-styled drum rhythms. The one original New Jack artist, who actually had some longevity was Keith Sweat, who debut Make it Last Forever was largely produced by Riley. As a vocalist, Sweat is known as the quintessential “whiner” on par with Spike Lee’s “Mars Blackman” (see She’s Got to Have It, 1986). Sweat largely earned that reputation with the release of the title track “Make It Last Forever”. Sweat is joined on the track with Jacci McGhee, who would later sing the hook on Salt N’ Pepa’s “Express Yourself” and become the lead vocalist of The Family Stand in the late 1990s. The song remains one of Sweat’s most memorable and inspired performances.

The New Jack Swing sound lost some of its currency in 1989 as other producers successfully aped Riley’s sound (LaFace producers L.A. Reid and Babyface were as adept as Jam and Lewis in this regard) and Riley spread himself thin doing projects for Boy George, The Winans and a host of other folks far removed from the “Urban” music scene. The New Jack era was also pushed aside by of a “British soul” invasion, courtesy of producer/impresario Jazzie B, vocalist Caron Wheeler and their collective Soul II Soul. “Keep on Movin” (Riley’s remixed “Rubba Dub” version is included here), forced contemporary American R&B to get beyond the fatigued sound of late ‘80s “urban” music. The song was built around a stutter rhythm, (which ironically could be heard on the Marley Marl produced Biz Markie track “Pickin’ Boogers” two years earlier) and the exquisite vocals of Caron Wheeler, whose solo album UK Blak, produced by the Jungle Brothers, was nothing short of brilliant (check out Wheelers vocals on the forthcoming MeShell Ndegeocello disc Cookie: The Anthropological Mix Tap due out on June 4). Soul II Soul was not able to sustain the revolution, though they released three more discs in the early ‘90s. On some level the group’s bad fortunes could be traced to overexposure and the departure of Wheeler from the fold, paralleling the commercial misfortunes of Arrested Development after the departure of vocalist Dionne Farris. Farris like, Wheeler, remains obscured in black music circles despite their undisputed brilliance.

The influence of the Soul II Soul, legitimately helped create markets for British soul acts in the States 1990s (including Lewis Taylor, Carleen Anderson, who’s from the states, Mark Morrison and the whole acid jazz thing) and at least one prominent Black British cultural theorist (Paul Gilroy, author of The Black Atlantic and Against Race ). In reality the initial success of Soul II Soul can be traced to an earlier “British soul” invasion via the likes of Loose Ends (“Slow Down”) and the “Trini” born and Brit reared Billy Ocean. Ocean had a major pop-crossover hit in 1984 with “Caribbean Queen” and the dreary ballad “Suddenly”. “Love Zone” (1986), which is collected here, was his last major hit recording.

Besides NE’s “You’re Not My Kind of Girl”, the songwriting and production skills of Jam and Lewis are also featured on Smooth Grooves: After Hours, Cool Down courtesy of tracks by Change and Human League. The neo-disco group Change first emerged in 1980 with their debut The Glow of Love, which featured stunning lead vocals by a relatively unknown Luther Vandross (who is also featured here on Charme’s 1984 remake of Toto’s “Georgy Porgy”) on the title track and the brilliant “Searching”. After Vandross left the fold to began his solo career, the group had moderate success with the 1981 track “Paradise”. The Jam and Lewis produced “Change of Heart” was their last real hit on the R&B charts. Change of Heart was one of the initial projects that Jam and Lewis worked on after being jettisoned from The Time for producing other acts on the side. Their first success came with The SOS Band’s “Just Be Good to Me” (1983). By the time they were behind the boards on Human’s League’s “Human” they were also being celebrated for making Janet Jackson relevant after their work with her on Control. The fact that the duo could succeed in producing solid R&B/dance grooves for Cheryl Lynn (“Encore”), Change and the SOS Band, as well as the detached, cold European funk of Human League speaks volumes about their production genius. It was of course that very cold and detached sound that the duo reconstructed for Janet Jackson on Rhythm Nation (1989).

Other standout tracks collected on Smooth Grooves: After Hours, Cool Down include the extended club mix of Stephanie Mills’ “(You’re Puttin’) A Rush on Me” the “blue-eyed, blue funk” of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” which topped on both the pop and R&B charts. The duo had a large following among black audiences in the US dating back to the mid-‘70s with songs like “She’s Gone” (also recorded by Tavares) and the “simply beautiful” (to reference Rev. Al Green) “Sara Smile”. “I Can’t Go for That” from Private Eyes (1981) helped establish Hall and Oates as the quintessential ‘80s pop group, garnering a following among traditional R&B/soul and dance audiences. The collection is completed with tracks by RJ’s Latest Revival (“Heaven in Your Arms”, 1986), Five Starr (“Let Me Be the One”, 1985) and The B.B.Q. Band (which stands for Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens).

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