In the wake of a post-M.I.A., Santi, and Nicki world, it’s worth re-evaluating the catalog of Neneh Cherry, the one who taught the world that a buffalo stance was more than a Bruce Smith pose. In ’88, her massive hit fused rap, roots music and UK dance in a way that was far less corny than most of the hip house flooding the market. Yet within the US, she’s largely relegated to one hit wonder status, even though her sound was probably 20 years ahead of its time. No less than Milli Vanilli beat her out for the 1990 Best New Artist Grammy, ensuring that Chuck D is/was/and always will be right: no one should give a fuck about a goddamn Grammy.
Less discussed is Cherry’s role as a sort-of early Trojan horse for the Bristol sound. I’m sure that there would have been a market for Massive Attack and Portishead even without Neneh Cherry’s fusion, but neither would have existed had Cherry not exhorted The Wild Bunch (M.A.’s sound system predecessor) to get off their ass and record something. She famously bankrolled and arranged Blue Lines and gave a pre-Portishead Geoff Barrow an early break on “Somedays.” Then she mostly disappeared for a decade and a half.
Her new album, Cherry Thing, finds her in union with The Thing. While I have yet to hear it in its entirety, any album with a Four Tet remix of Cherry singing a Suicide cover can’t be all bad. In fact, I’d wager that it’s mostly good after watching Cherry give the breathy Billie H. treatment to Madvillain’s “Accordian.” Soul singers covering rap songs is nothing new, in fact it’s practically de rigueur these days. But Cherry can rap too and unlike many of the acts who followed her, it’s always felt natural. As though she’s only hemmed in by boundaries of her taste on any given day.
There’s an obnoxious trend in music criticism to pretend that only 23 year old Brooklynites/Londonites can produce the year’s best music. And while I’d never argue against a musician’s early work usually being the most vital, it’s reasonable to think that an artist like Cherry has finally returned at a time when it makes more sense. When she first started clashing sounds together, the idea seemed practically radical. Now it’s obvious. But being raw like sushi never goes out of style. Below: some new cherry, some old Cherry, and the new Four Tet single that’s predictably amazing. He understands.