As I wrap up this little musical tour of 1981, our last stop will really make you want to dance (or so I hope). Yeah, it’s R&B time, kids! And since we’re going back to my high school years, these artists were extremely popular at “School Two”– oh, and for those who haven’t been following along, 1981 was the year I attended three high schools.
In the early ’80s, the R&B/soul sounds started to evolve away from disco toward a sound that was heavy on the synthesizer, electronic drums, and a thin processing that kept the beat going, but did so in a more sterile fashion. Hey, it was the ’80s … what can I say? I didn’t make the music, I just listened to it. But, sterile sound or not, many of the artists represented here went on to superstar fame (Prince being the biggest). However, in 1981, many of these guys and gals were up and coming — and, to some, cutting edge. I’ll admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of R&B/Soul in 1981, but a couple of years later I was buying these records with the same enthusiasm as the rock and new wave bands I admired.
All Freak-A-Zoids To the Dance Floor
“Get It Up,” the Time (Download)
Years ago, I was reading Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince by Alex Hahn and what I found interesting was the hyper-masculine personae that Morris Day had become know for was actually a character created by Prince when the Purple One and Day would hang out and go bowling (!). Indeed, it was Prince who used to the do the character in public, and only later, as Prince and Day’s music careers started taking off that Prince bequeathed the character to Morris — insisting he should use it. On the Time’s debut album, the band is clearly being directed by Prince, and Morris Day’s comedic swagger is nowhere to be seen or heard. However, as a dance floor tune, “Get It Up” has a lot going for it. First off, the beat doesn’t vary, the song is tailor made for clubs (clocking in at over nine minutes), and it has some mighty fine guitar work by Jamie Starr (Also known as Prince).
“Ghetto Life,” Rick James (Download)
The album that was very very good to Rick James. His first #1 album on the R&B charts, Street Songs was Rick’s desire to take his passion (sex, prostitution, sex, and prostitution) and make it happen in song. Do you think it’s an accident that Rick looks like a street walker on the cover? Street Songs had two huge hits (i.e., “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak”), but “Ghetto Life” is a tune that features a slightly more serious Rick. Sure there’s usual reference to a prostitute, but it’s not really the subject of the entire song — which could be why the song wasn’t as popular as some of the others.
“Double Dutch Bus,” Frankie Smith (Download)
This tune is featured so KingofGrief can get his rollerskating mojo on! He commented that this song was one of the biggest pre-teen rolling skating songs back in the day. And, if you haven’t read the Wiki on Smith’s contribution of “izzle” to the hip-hop vernacular you’re missing out on a little history lesson. Oh, and it if you don’t feel like reading about it, you can simply listen to “Double Dutch Bus” to hear it for yourself.
“Jack U Off,” Prince (Download)
Certainly the early to mid ’80s were the most creatively fertile period for Prince. Working non-stop on songs for not only his band, but also writing, playing and recording music for the Time and Vanity 6, Prince Nelson Rogers was a very busy guy. Sure he was a “Johnny One Note” when it came to song ideas (i.e., sex), but Prince knows that sex sells — especially when marketed to teens. Working on the theory that quantity (and not necessarily quality) would eventually produce hits, the album Controversy did quite well for Prince (#3 on the R&B charts). It also has this upbeat, auto-erotic tune that closes out the album, and solidified Prince’s gender-bending personae that was not exclusively his — as our next artist makes clear.
“Pull Up To The Bumper,” Grace Jones (Download)
From disco queen in the ’70s, to WTF in the ’80s, Grace Jones’ act was a combination of styles (i.e., European, new wave, night clubs, and a healthy dose of soul). The result of this conflation of styles was one of the best albums of her career that crossed over from the R&B realm to ping with young new wavers. It didn’t hurt that Sting wrote “Demolition Man” for her, nor that “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” had that Parisian feel to it, but really if it was dancing you wanted, you couldn’t go wrong with “Pull Up To the Bumper.”
“Yearning For Your Love,” the Gap Band (Download)
Laugh at that cover all you want, but many of the most noted hip-hop artists have sampled the Gap Band’s songs to use as hooks for their own rhymes. “Yearning For Your Love” finds the Gap Band in classic balladeer mode (Can you hear me Boyz II Men?), but they could certainly bring the funk with songs like “You Dropped a Bomb On Me” and “Burn Rubber On Me” – which begs the question: are these guys into pain?