Soul and R&B were at a very unique place in the late spring of 1988. On one end, you had a number of artists still carrying on the traditions of the styles from the mid to late 70’s. You had a good share of artists who were also utilizing pop music formulas to create their hits. There were a growing amount of dance music offshoots that were heavily influenced by soul but couldn’t be called that with distinction. The growing rise of rap music’s popularity did leave many wondering if the ways of soul were dying. James Brown was still making music, but “Living In America” sounded nothing like “The Payback”, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”, or “Licking Stick – Licking Stick”. The success of Prince’s career post-Purple Rain left many wondering if the Minneapolis man was soul, funk, rock, new wave, or pop, and when he embraced them all, that confused even more people, yet what he was doing showed how strong he was to music as a whole. The production of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis lead to the great success of Janet Jackson’s Control, showing people that there was someone else from the Jackson household that could make incredible music. That lead to many people wanting to look and sound like Prince and Janet Jackson, they created the sounds everyone wanted to achieve. That’s not to say Michael Jackson wasn’t someone to look up to, but one becomes untouchable when you influence a group of people to impersonate you. However, there was something brewing in Harlem, something that was not expected but when it came, it seemed to arrive at the precise moment.
By the time Guy released their self-titled debut album on June 13, 1988, the lineup on the cover was obsolete. The group had a vocal line-up of Aaron Hall and Timmy Gatling, but by the time the group had finished the recording of Guy (MCA), Gatling had left to try out a solo career. When the group had released their first video for “Groove Me”, there was a new man in his spot, Aaron’s brother Damion, and they would solidify the lineup and face of Guy. Created by producer Teddy Riley, Guy was his way of getting out a vocal group that could pull off the kind of music he wanted to create himself: a mixture of soul and R&B stylings, a hint of gospel, but also bringing in some of the elements that made hip-hop music work. No one in soul at the time was truly tapping into the essence of what made hip-hop work, except by bringing in a rapper to drop a verse. What Riley ended up doing was creating an all new sub-genre, bringing in something that would keep the people moving while showing the old heads what the new heads could do. This was new jack swing, and Guy were very responsible for a sound that is still tapped into, 25 years after the fact.
Guy’s album may seem formulaic from the outside: start the album with some great songs that will rev up the listener, move into some groove that are laid back, get them into a slow jam, come back for a refresher, move them into another slow jam, and then end the album on a bright and positive note. That is essentially the template for many soul/R&B albums, a formula that generally works with the right amount of talented people. For whatever reason, the Guy formula worked, and it all started with the immortal “Groove Me”.
Suggestiveness aside, the keyboards and synths were a bit more than something you might hear in a song by Atlantic Starr or Starpoint, it was lush and full bodied, not unlike the way Prince would utilize it in his own recordings. However, there was also something else in the song that hooked many, or at least hooked the ear of anyone who loved hip-hop music: the very brief organ sample from The Mohawks’ “The Champ”. It would only take the chopping of three notes from the original song created by Alan Hawkshaw to ignite the start of the storm.
There were also two other essential ingredients: the use of a single word (“funky”) from James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” and another word from “My Thang” (“yeah”) that would contribute to this moving instrumental. No one in soul music was using the sounds from another record, so this seemed revolutionary, leading me to say “wait a minute, these guys are doing what the rappers are doing”, but making it soulful and funky with their brand of boom bap. It was revolutionary, and it was the start of something major.
As for the video for “Groove Me”, it was to be expected that if you were not Michael or Janet Jackson, your video would have a lower budget than your pop (read “white”) counterparts. The atmosphere of the video looked like a cross between a sweaty evening at a hot nightclub and high school or college assembly, complete with dancers wearing what look like cheerleader or stepping outfits. You have the sexy ladies showing a good amount of this and that, the men who wanted to show and prove, but what did it for me, what truly sealed the deal, was seeing the dancer in the video wearing a Public Enemy T-shirt, one I had myself, behind her denim jacket:
This was not something you’d see in a soul or R&B video, someone/anyone wearing the T-shirt of another artist. That was the rock and heavy metal thing to do, but here she was, grooving on the wall, almost as if she’s saying “I’m down with rap music, I am a public enemy, and yes, you may be able to groove me if you’re lucky”. For me, the video builds up to that moment right before everyone on the dance floor is getting down to the point of no return after the false breakdown. When Riley tells the listener that “it ain’t over” and that “the party’s not ever”, I absolutely went nuts. It was as if he was bringing back various elements in music that had been considered old or forgotten, or untapped in soul, and resurrected the goodness. There was no way anyone would dare attempt to do the same. The jump and groove in the song was different, there were extra beats heard throughout, as if there was a nice Latin touch/tinge at hand, and the constant repetitive James Brown and Mohawks sample stabs: I wanted to know who this was, what it was, and how could I get down with the program. It was glorious.
“You know, girl, as I look into your eyes
you got me hypnotized
…perature’s about to rise
oh, just get up on the floor
baby, go for yours
’cause, I know that’s what you came here for”
Add that with some of the countermelodies Riley is playing behind Hall’s voice, and there’s that bit of that something which is irresistible, wanting to hear more of what is being offered.
“my dreams are now reality
each and every time, you are hear with me
the touch you give me with your hands
when you caress my skin, I’m under your command
girl, you hypnotize me with your eyes
it took me some time, now I realize
it’s you to whom which I belong
I love it, the feeling’s getting strong”
It’s basically a song about a woman jacking him off, isn’t it? What she does is bringing out Aaron Hall’s ecstasy.
“You can get this ring, if you can ride this thing”
As he states earlier in the song, he is the sole controller of his merry-go-round, and once she gets off, there is no telling when it’s going to end. We don’t know what will end, or if it responds to her rear end, but we know it involves riding it.
Maybe looking back at Guy is a way of looking back at what we were like when younger, when love, romance, and sex was everything to look for and perhaps fear at times. We were tempted to play with, among many things, emotions, even though we couldn’t quite figure things out. We would learn right from wrong, but suffer many times when wrong got in the way. Nonetheless, it showed that soul music was one of hip-hop music’s roots and that it still had a lot to say and prove, and it was going to be said with some new kids on the block. Funky? YEAH!
(P.S. When I bought and collected all of the 12″ singles from Guy’s album, I had made my own custom tape because MCA didn’t bother releasing one in the same way they did for Bobby Brown and Jody Watley. It featured all of the extended versions I had at the time, and I called the tape One, Two, Three…Swing It!, which I ended up playing for years.)