A Beginner’s Guide to Neneh Cherry’s Essential Songs
Neneh Cherry’s sonic repertoire has never settled into a predictable pattern, and over a career that has spanned over three decades she has dabbled in jazz, funk, rock, rap and techno. The multitalented Swedish artist cut her teeth with post-punk groups the Slits and Rip, Rig & Panic before mounting an impressive career that’s included collaborations with free jazz trio the Thing, legendary Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, Massive Attack and Four Tet. EB was lucky enough to catch her recent live performance in Berlin for Pop-Kultur Festival—see video from that performance here—which sent us down memory lane, so we asked Rewind columnist Finn Johannsen to compile Cherry’s most iconic tracks over the years.
The Slits “In The Beginning There Was Rhythm” (1980)
At the age of 15, Neneh Cherry was introduced to the seminal feminist post-punk group the Slits by her stepfather, Don Cherry. She even joined the band for a brief period, providing backing vocals on tracks like “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm.” The Slits were integral to the UK’s early punk scene, but they quickly became more adventurous and funky, a vibe that owed influence to producer Dennis Bovell’s dub expertise. Edginess was rarely as charming, but the Slits had loads of attitude to boot. One can assume that Neneh Cherry took her cues from the experience.
Rip, Rig & Panic “Those Eskimo Women Speak Frankly” (1981)
The next band Cherry joined was the Bristol collective Rip, Rig & Panic, which included members of legendary band the Pop Group. Their music was a feverish mix of punk, funk, jazz and avant-garde. As with the Slits, Don Cherry was a collaborator, but his stepdaughter eventually took over as lead vocalist, displaying the charismatic mix of soul and rap stylings that would make her famous later on. Before that could happen, however, Cherry took a brief hiatus to become a young mother, and the band fell apart. In 1983, Rip, Rig & Panic reformed with Cherry under the name Float Up CP, released one album and then fell apart again. In those years, bands with consistent membership might have been considered dull—by those standards, Rip, Rig & Panic certainly were not.
Raw Sex, Pure Energy ”Give Sheep A Chance” (1982)
After collaborating with On-U Sound’s mighty New Age Steppers, Cherry teamed up with the band’s bass guitarist George Oban and Joe Blocker, the drummer of ’70s jazz-fusion outfit Karma. The trio covered Edwin Starr’s Motown standard “Stop The War Now” in reaction to the Falklands War, with an icy, computerized dub version called “Give Sheep A Chance” on the flip. In the years leading up to the next entry into her discography, Cherry also became a pirate radio DJ, danced in a Big Audio Dynamite video and dueted marvellously on The The’s “Slow Train To Dawn.”
Neneh Cherry – “Buffalo Stance” (1988)
Seven months pregnant with her second child but still filled with energy, Cherry performed this ever-infectious song on Top of the Pops and stormed the Top Ten. “Buffalo Stance” referenced Malcolm McLaren’s hip-hop classic, “Buffalo Gals,” and updated a 1986 single by her future husband, Cameron McVey. On that record, her rapping features on b-side cut “Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch”.
Neneh Cherry “Manchild” (1988)
Cherry told the boys some more news—albeit with a bit more sympathy—on “Manchild,” a fantastic downtempo song co-written by Cameron McVey and Robert Del Naja, who later founded Massive Attack. In a rather weird video, Cherry proudly sports her newborn daughter Tyson and a flygirl outfit, replete with the cycle shorts that were de rigeur in 1989.
Neneh Cherry “I’ve Got U Under My Skin” (1990)
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was Cherry’s contribution to Red Hot + Blue, an AIDS charity compilation covering Cole Porter songs. AIDS was still spreading fast at the time, and given the topic, Cherry’s selection from Porter’s discography was very well-selected. The heavy and brooding downbeat groove foreshadowed Massive Attack’s Blue Lines album, to which she would also contribute. The video by Mondino is appropriately dark and lacks any misplaced pretensions. Its final message is “Share the love, don’t share the needle.”
Neneh Cherry “Buddy X” (1992)
On her second album, Homebrew, Cherry again addresses men that like to play around, wrapping her criticism of male hypocrisy and infidelity in hip-hop pressure. The song “Buddy X” still features prominently in club playlists due to a clutch of Masters At Work remixes. At the height of their powers, the two New Yorkers applied their raw swing to a groove that successfully merged hip-hop and house sophistication without ever distracting from the message. Deadly dubs, too.
Youssou N’Dour & Neneh Cherry “7 Seconds” (1994)
“7 Seconds,” Neneh Cherry’s collaboration with famous Senegalese singer Youssou D’Nour, was a moving celebration of humanity without prejudice. By then, the combination of a downbeat and dramatic strings had almost become cliché, but the trilingual “7 Seconds” proves why said combination became so popular in the first place.
Neneh Cherry & The Thing “Dream Baby Dream” (2012)
Cherry worked with a Scandinavian jazz trio named after her stepfather on her 2012 album The Cherry Thing. Given her native country’s healthy jazz tradition, the partnership should not have come as a surprise, but because it followed a long hiatus from recording music, it did catch some off-guard. The album consisted mainly of freely interpreted covers that seem to stand for Cherry’s whole life in music. Her version of Suicide’s no-wave classic “Dream Baby Dream” sounds more like her very early days than a former pop star crooning Christmas standards.
Neneh Cherry “Everything” (2014)
Cherry made her overdue comeback as a solo performer in 2014 with an album mourning the death of her mother in 2009. Four Tet’s sparse production focuses on rhythmic textures and backing band RocketNumberNine’s subtle electronic arrangements. The album eschews any of Cherry’s former pop obligations, and while the songs here are very personal, they are engaging as well. Remixers Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer must have agreed—on their version of “Everything”, Cherry’s vocals creep into their trademark micro-house jams after only two and a half minutes.
Cover photo via Neneh Cherry’s website.
Published November 12, 2015.