February 8, 2007

I almost never listen to the radio. Not out of any sort of musical snobbery (well, maybe a little). But mainly, I don’t listen because I’m an album sort of a guy. But every now and then, a moment will come along that reminds me why I loved the radio so much when I was younger. Yesterday, in particular, was one of those instances, as I flipped on the radio for the first time in a long while, to fortuitously hear one of the my favorite pop songs of all time, Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart”

I’m sure you’ve all heard it before. During the summer of 1990, it reached “Crazy” or “Hey Ya” levels of ubiquity. It was one of those rare songs that had something for everyone. Rockists appreciated its rubbery, impossibly funky Bootsy Collins bass lines, its Maceo Parker sax riffs, and its Fred Wesley trombone, not to mention its jazzy Herbie Hancock “Bring Down the Bird” sample. Hip-Hop heads appreciated the mellow buttery smooth verse kicked by a very young Q-Tip, fresh off his succesful debut, People’s Instinctive Travels in the Paths of Rhythm. Teeny bopper pop enthusiasts dug its sheer sense of fun, as the song struts along, full of dizzying slide whistles, jittery tambourines, and Dee-Lite vocalist, Lady Miss Kier’s, breathy soaring vocal. All this coupled with the kaleidoscopic psychedelia of the video, featuring Tip, Bootsy and of course, the terminally sexy Lady Miss Kier in a leather mini-skirt and/or a saran-wrap tight full body suit.

What strikes me the most about the video and the song itself, is how very much a product of its age it seems. A throwback to the midst of hip-hop’s Golden Age, a pop song that seemed to soak up the genial Native Tongues spirit, piggy-backing on their undeniable sense of playfulness, bright colored clothing and throwback jazzy vibe. Most of all, it was fun, something that most American pop music seems completely bereft of 17 years later.

Lady Miss Kier and George Clinton in 2006: Groove is Not the Only Thing in His Heart

In contrast to the booming Pro-Tools mini-symphonies of today, “Groove is in the Heart,” feels infinitely looser, warmer, and more organic. Lady Miss Kier nonsensically babbles about succotash wishes, hula grooves, oblique Dr. Suess references, nth hoops and somebody named DJ Soul who reportedly was “on a roll.” Meanwhile, Q-Tip’s spends most of his 8 bars rambling about his sense of rhythm, his sense of funk and feeling high like a Hendrix haze. If this song were re-recorded today, it’d probably be done by Gwen Stefani, feature a few apropos-to-nothing yodels, a couple lines about LAMB and a guest verse from TI, where he’d probably tell you how he’s on fire, how he has fans from Peru to Japan, and something about “the trap.”

Inevitably, the song would’ve been cooked up by six empty suits in a laboratory, scheming on what alchemy of producers and guest verses would make the album go platinum. In contrast, “Groove is in the Heart” came about when Dimitri (the Ukranian dude with the pony-tail in the video) sent a demo to Bootsy Collins. That’s it. Don’t get me wrong. Pop has been and always will be a manufactured art form, but with the decline of R&B and the rise of shiny Mickey Mouse Club pop starting in the late 90s, it seems to grew ever more contrived and lacking in true joy or fun. Today, we don’t get lyrics about Horton Hears a Who, we get male pop stars cooing lewd come-ons that sound closer to a date-rape (yeah, you Timberlake) or we get boring braggadocio about how “fly” or “dope” said pop star is (Hi, Gwen.)

Sure, every now and then a Lily Allen floats through the muck to seemingly refute my thoughts. But Allen herself has gone on record to state that the songs that made her a star were initially rejected by the suits who wanted her to work with bigger-name producers who could properly sanitize the sound and lyrics. In a time where the music industry is in a dire-panic about their flagging sales, they might want to re-think the manufactured synthetic product they’ve been cultivating. Musicians should celebrate their quirks and eccentricities. Not recite seedy cliches to the backdrop of atmospheric synths and anchor-heavy drums. But even if pop ends up further devolving into a morass of pre-packaged sanitized personalities, its always nice to look-back on weird pop gems like “Groove is in the Heart.” Songs that remind you that pop doesn’t have to be a paint-by-the-producers product and that the genre isn’t inherently bad. Just Gwen Stefani.

MP3: Dee-Lite-“Groove is in the Heart”

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