Last week I stumbled across (OK obsessively hunted down) a grainy VHS rip of "The Rise of Neneh Cherry" (link to pt.1-3). Visually it could have been 2010, a beautiful young mixed race woman walking down the street in a pair of Nike Delta Force Highs, a skin-tight black lycra dress you would be forgiven for assuming came from American Apparel, and huge *gold* Ridley Road Market special door knocker earrings. Almost 20 years later Neneh Cherry's signature look became more of a uniform than a blue print in East London, but it's perhaps not so much what she was wearing as much as what she was doing whilst wearing it that lead to her status as team mascot for my generation. If you don't read the rest of this article please watch part 3 of the "documentary" to see Neneh recording vocals and shadow boxing whilst heavily pregnant, then handling her biz on an 80s brick mobile in the car and doing the running man with a newborn strapped to her chest. Talk about a role model.
The 1988 hit Buffalo Stance (where has the time gone??!) will probably always be Cherry's best known track, and from what I can see online (yes, more stalking) she's still really proud of it, however I wonder if it may have partially obscured who she really was as an artist at that point. The daughter of jazz musician Don Cherry, the young Neneh had already lived in Sweden, New York and London, dropped out of school age 14, been in post punk and dub bands, and was itching to work with Ornette Coleman to "push herself musically". She must have scared the life out of label execs at the height of the Kylie/ Bros/ Bananarama Smash Hits late 80s. I was very young back then so it's unlikely I thought of Neneh as a trailblazer, a pioneer or a renegade, but I can distinctly remember thinking she was somehow different to the other pop stars - and that I wanted to be her.
More music followed in the 90s, and plenty of collaborations unbefitting a beautiful brown girl who's meant to be jumping up and down in cycling shorts on Top of The Pops. Pregnant. With some weird dancing cowboy clown people. And a cameraman on stage... sorry, I digress. To pick a few from the enormous list, Neneh went on to work with Gang Starr, Michael Stipe (REM), Geoff Barrow (Portishead), Bernard Butler (Suede), Tricky, Pulp, Gorillaz, Groove Armada and a Grammy nominated song with Youssou N'Dour "7 Seconds" (her second Grammy nom, she lost best new artist to fraudulent front act Milli Vanilli in 1990, which must have been galling). Today she would probably have been signed to XL, curating the Meltdown Festival and with a pedigree like that be in some sense on par with Damon Albarn (for better or worse). Yet when you bring up the name Neneh Cherry today most people still say "ahh, I loved Buffalo Stance!".
Which brings us on to today, and a brand new collaboration with Swedish jazz trio The Thing, covering music by Suicide, Martina Topley-Bird, Mats Gustaffson, The Stooges, MF Doom, Ornette Coleman and of course Don Cherry (the group took their name The Thing from the title of a Don Cherry song). In 2012 covering a track outside of your usual musical sphere is an affordable and pretty standard marketing tool (a collaboration is even better), but it is pretty much mandatory for the current generation of young black women terrified of being labelled as "soul" (which for some in the music press is apparently a black hole of boring from which ye shall never escape). Actually to be on the safe side you'd better get some tattoos, shave at least part of your head and say you're really in to minimal techno and K-pop for good measure.
So Neneh Cherry's return as a veteran experimental pop star may not be greeted with full recognition for all of the doors her Nike high tops helped kick down, but the after effects have contributed to a rich and diverse musical community awaiting her return as a beloved and respected monarch.
Neneh Cherry & The Thing “The Cherry Thing” will be released on 18th June 2012.