Just as pop and rap began to intersect in the early ‘90s, a sagacious young entrepreneur on the come up had branded a very smart fusion that would take the UK music scene by storm. Whether you consider hip-hop’s merge with pop a judicious transformation or a dubious marketing ploy, it has to be observed that a young Betty Boo walked this line with sheer poise. Named after the coy and flirtatious cartoon character, Betty Boo (real name Alison Clarkson) took audiences by surprise and her 1990 debut Boomania, an album full of juicy pop hooks, cheeky raps and a retro ‘60s sheen, shot up the charts on the back of its contagious single “Doin the Do”. Recorded independently and released on the underground label Rhythm King, Boomania soon caught the attention of major label heads who scrambled over one another to sign the young rapper.
A deal with WEA records produced Grrr! It’s Betty Boo in 1992, a decidedly more pop-oriented effort which found the British rapper toning down her once spiky delivery for a softer approach. While the album caught the attention of some notable admirers (including Madonna, who wished to sign Betty to her Maverick label upon hearing Grrr!), it failed to reach the heights of the artist’s debut effort. After stalling at number 62 on the UK Albums Chart, the album fizzled out as did Betty’s career.
It was an unfortunate way to go. Had listeners tuned into Betty’s sophomore effort with a keener ear, they would have discovered a rather delightful set of pop-rap – inoffensive, yes, but enjoyable nonetheless. Going against the grain of what made up most of early ‘90s club music, Betty Boo turned toward the innocuous and fanciful exploits of ‘60s pop for inspiration yet again. Much of Grrr! consists of doo-wop appropriations, Julie London mannerisms and cocktail lounge kitsch parlayed into house beats and hip-hop lite grooves. On the charmingly blithe opener “I’m On My Way”, Betty trades in her normally crisp rhymes (far more pronounced on her debut) for a rhythmically awkward rap; such clumsy delivery would normally be regarded as sheer embarrassment, but the singer manages to elevate her verses with a cool, devil-may-care attitude. The accented touch of pop perfection rings gloriously on the brass section which interpolates a segment of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” into the song’s closing – played by the original members of the horn section who featured on the Beatles’ song, no less. Released as a single, the song was accompanied by a visually stunning and brilliantly choreographed music video that exhibited the star’s marketing prowess.
There are plenty gems here that still hold up nicely, even after more than twenty years since the album’s initial release. “Thing Goin’ On”, a bouncy slice of hip-hop funk, is etched with the smart scribbles of jazz; a lightweight rap dances atop the seductive groove, springing sweetly like a pliable piece of Turkish Delight. On “Hangover”, another single, the mid-tempo hip-hop shuffle is built around a swooning orchestra right out of a spaghetti western. Understandably, the single failed to connect with audiences, who looked for more immediate thrills at the time (of which, at least in the UK, they found in the likes of Stereo MCs). The mildly tart humour featured throughout the album, however, is a strong draw and carries the album when it sometimes falls short. “Curly and Girly” is one of the weaker tracks here, but it is bolstered by a kitschy rockabilly twang filling out a rather static groove.
“Gave You the Boo” suffers from some dated production, though the sheer hilarity of Betty’s rap and a snazzy Jerzy Milian-ish vibraphone breakdown ensure a pleasant romp through carefree pop. Things pick up on “Let Me Take You There”, a beachy, laidback groove about seaside daydreams, which features the cool, sensuous rolls of tom toms and also a Four Tops sample for its hook. Even when Betty plays it straight for pop convention, the results are often dance floor magic; “Catch Me” employs a simple house beat that is lifted by an effective pop hook. On the early trip-hop leanings of the album’s lone ballad, “Close the Door”, Betty levels the tune down to a voluptuous mid-tempo groove filled in with nothing more than dreamy guitar trills, some well-placed keyboard riffs and an understated string section; it’s simple but full and wholesome, with its only ingredient the sugar of pure pop.
Betty Boo may have had a second chance at a solo career following a planned signing to Madonna’s label a couple years after Grrr! had faded into obscurity. Madonna, who was reportedly smitten by Betty, hailed the rapper’s sophomore’s effort an underrated work. Personal complications in Betty’s life (including the death of her mother) resulted in contracts being put aside and the rapper’s early retirement from the music industry. After years of hibernation, Betty would resurface as a successful songwriter for hire and eventually win the Ivor Novello Award. There have been a few attempts at reviving the Betty Boo persona, including a short-lived project with Blur’s Alex James and a one-off single with electro house producer Jack Rokka. But the artist has yet to recapture the magic and glory of her early ‘90s days.
Cherry Red Records reissues Grrr! It’s Betty Boo as a double-disc featuring a plethora of remixes and a couple of b-sides. For the serious Betty Boo fan, this is a heavenly cache of pop nostalgia; no stone was left unturned when digging the crates for even the most obscure remix. But the extra tracks are superfluous and the real winner is the album itself, which manages a cool and tight balance between pop and dance club music. Also added are extended liner notes, featuring an essay and some new candid photos of the star. Definitely appreciated, although this new packaging somewhat takes away from the original liner notes from the 1992 edition; many of the photos on the original edition that followed the album’s design concept are missing here. Cherry Red’s remastering of these tracks is wonderful; the remaster on this edition beefs up the production and mixing for a bouncier and fulsome sound.
It should be noted that the rapper’s earliest forays into music included being mentored by members of Public Enemy, who discovered Betty in the late ‘80s and had plans on producing an all-female rap group featuring the young hopeful (a charming video of Betty rapping inside a McDonalds in the UK with Professor Griff beatboxing floats around on the net). Her Public Enemy days are quite a long way from what she would eventually become when she conquered the sphere of pop music royalty in the’90s. Grrr! It’s Betty Boo, however, is an exemplary work, showcasing the songwriter’s finely-honed sense of pop mastery. It’s hardly momentous, earth-shattering stuff – but it gives credence to the simple (if disposable) pleasures of pop music. The handsome and dishy album artwork (based on the 1950s packaging design for Tigra cigarettes – and not Josie and the Pussycats) perfectly sums up how brilliant Betty was at marketing herself in such creative and fetching ways. And it perfectly sums up the music on this album: kitschy, playful, exuberant and fun – with only the faintest smile of irony.