It could be said that the 1990s was the last golden age of modern R&B music. In fact, it is an idea that is often repeated throughout cyberspace as some lament the parlous state of the present scene. Nevertheless it is not just empty nostalgia that has earned that particular decade a place in the heart of soul lovers. This was a special time in urban music; the decade when Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing took the airwaves by storm and launched a thousand careers. There was much in the way of variety – not just in front of the mic but also amongst those twiddling the knobs.
The 1990s saw the rise of the super-producer. Stateside you had such luminaries as Riley, R.Kelly, Dallas Austin, Babyface, Keith Sweat, Devante Swing, Timbaland, Jay Dilla, Puff Daddy (as he was then known), Trackmasters, Jermaine Dupris, Wyclef Jean and Swizz Beats making their name. Some international production stars emerged from the UK and Europe as well; Soulshock and Karlin, Linslee, Stargate and the Ignorants to name a few.
Perhaps the toast of 1990s R&B was the healthy proliferation of trios, quartets and quintets bringing back the tight Doo-Wop harmony sounds of 1940s and ’50s America. The fellows were represented by the likes of the mighty Boyz II Men, Intro, Shai, Blackstreet, Dru Hill, Hi-5 and Soul for Real. As far as the ladies were concerned we can look back on such titans of talent as En Vogue, Brownstone, Kut Klose, Jade, Xscape, the original line-up of Destiny’s Child and the UK’s Eternal.
Nevertheless no assessment of 1990s urban music would be complete without mentioning Tamara ‘Taj’ Johnson, Leanne ‘Lelee’ Lyons and Cheryl ‘Coko’ Gamble, the ‘original TLC’ or, as they are better known, SWV (Sisters With Voices). The three childhood friends decided to form a trio after watching a very young Shanice ‘I Love Your Smile’ Wilson perform on America’s ’Star Search’ and went on to become a seminal part of contemporary R&B in their own right.
I first heard of SWV in 1993 as a pre-teen, stumbling across a performance of ‘I’m So Into You’ on Top of The Pops and later a remix of the song courtesy of Teddy Riley on one of the myriad compilation cassettes that were popular during that decade. There were so many vocal outfits at the time it was important that a band made their mark if they were to stand out from the rest. SWV had several selling points. First there was lead singer Coko; she of the soaring, distinctive, ultra-nasal soprano and disturbingly long talons. Lelee’s feather-light mezzo and Taj’s confident alto complemented Coko’s vocals perfectly; like three different versions of the same voice- the secret of many of the more successful harmony groups of the time.
The SWV girls knew how to hold their harmonies close as well. Their arrangements might not have been as complex and adventurous as the Barbershop quartet feel of Boyz II Men and En Vogue but neither did SWV play it boring and safe. The girls made some very interesting chord choices, sometimes eschewing the obviousness of your 1sts, 3rds and 5ths and opting for some spicy diminished chords instead. Anyone who has tried harmonising along to ‘I’m So Into You’ and ‘Rain’ will attest that it’s not as straightforward as you might think.
Let’s not forget the hits. Although none of the girls wrote material for the band, they were blessed to be surrounded by a supreme team of composers and producers. Brian Alexander Morgan was responsible for many of their top tunes including ‘You’re Always On My Mind’ (on which he provided guest vocals), ‘Right Here’ (album version), ‘Rain’ and the song that perhaps most cemented SWV into the public consciousness, ‘Weak’. This landmark tune was later covered by teen starlet Jojo, Jazz singer Gretchen Parlato and has probably been sung by every girl with a passing interest in R&B anywhere from the bathroom to open mic events.
SWV and their team also recognised the power of the remix in a decade when the art form was taken to another level. The original ‘I’m So Into You’ is an unmistakeably good R&B jam on its own merits but throw in the infinite number of remixes and you have a bona fide classic on your hands. I don’t have this on any authority but I suspect it’s one of the most remixed songs of all time. During my teens I owned several different versions and over 15 years since it was first released I am still discovering more.
The SWV ladies enjoyed so much success with their remixes, they followed the example of fellow 90s icon Mary J Blige’s What’s the 411? and put out a re-vamped version of their debut album, It’s About Time. Who could forget Method Man’s famous ‘SS-double-double-U-double-V-V’ rap on the Allstar remix of ‘Anything’ from the Above the Rim OST? Or the trio’s biggest UK hit – the ‘Human Nature’ (MJ) remix of ‘Right Here’ by Teddy Riley? The artistic union between Riley and SWV was a particularly auspicious one and it helped that the group’s musical career took off at the height of New Jack Swing’s far-reaching impact. Teddy and the trio later collaborated on yet another remix – Blackstreet’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’.
Make no mistake; SWV were not your one-album wonder. Their sophomore project New Beginning is arguably one of the best R&B albums of the 1990s. As the girls slowly moved away from the Swing club vibe to a more mature, soulful sound it could be said that they came of age with their second album. You can put on any of the tracks from that record now and still have a ball; ‘It’s All About You’ for example, ‘Fine Time’, ‘On And On’, ‘You Are My Love’ and the smooth soul ballad ‘Use Your Heart’ (produced by a very young Pharrell Williams). SWV’s third and final album before their major hiatus, 1997’s Release some Tension, was not short on tunes either. The unbelievably popular Timbaland-produced ‘Can We?’ was a party favourite and I always had a soft spot for ‘Someone’ (featuring P.Diddy) and an even bigger one for the mesmerising ‘Rain’- which was the closest thing you could get to an archetypal SWV ballad.
Then, whilst still riding relatively high, the band appeared to slip off the radar. SWV did a very ’90s thing by not officially breaking up, although in effect that’s what happened (cross reference Dru Hill and TLC before Lisa Lopes’ untimely death). Solo projects aside, things seem to come to a stand still for the trio in its entirety.
So what went wrong? Why the silence lasting nearly a decade and a half?
Well, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the disproportionate way SWV’s workload was shared would cause problems. With Coko singing the vast majority of the lead vocals and the other two more like glorified backing singers, this was an injustice of Destiny’s Child proportions. Lelee and Taj were given a couple of solo spots on New Beginning but that wasn’t enough to redress the overall balance. In a recent interview on actress Mo’Nique’s chat show the girls admitted that youthful naivety and selfish ambition drove the band apart. Taj still speaks of Coko’s voice in hallowed terms as she reflects on the demise of the group…
“…We were all very young…There were so many people around us wanting to infiltrate our bond and it was easy for them to do it. She [Coko] did the bulk of the work. The reason why we were so successful was her voice, couldn’t nobody match it. They still can’t in my opinion!”
Lack of good management meant the girls were not adequately protected and things went downhill from there. “Basically,” Taj confesses, “people came in and destroyed us and we allowed it… because we were so young… We couldn’t stop it.”
So it was at the turn of the new millennium that Coko Gamble went on her own. Her first single from debut album Hot Coko, the Rodney Jerkins’ produced ‘Sunshine’, couldn’t hold a candle to SWV’s best work, catchy as it was. And without Taj and Lelee around to temper Coko’s tendency to over-sing, her solo career showed up her vocal-style for what it often was; irksome showboating.
Coko continued down the solitary path, doing guest appearances on two Hip Hop covers rapper AZ’s take on ‘Hey DJ’ imaginatively titled ‘Hey AZ’ and Will Smith’s monster smash ‘Men In Black’ (sampling Patrice Rushen) from the film of the same name. Eventually Gamble moved more and more towards her gospel roots where she still remains doing her own solo work as well as cameo vocals for artists such as Onitsha and Brent Jones. Lelee and Taj seemed to disappear into domestic oblivion; getting married, raising children and keeping a low profile.
2010 thus sees the trio return in earnest for an official reunion. There have been previous rumours of such and the odd comeback tour but nothing concrete until now. For certain old SWV fans it probably wouldn’t matter too much if they didn’t record any new material – a trip down memory lane would suffice. The band is inextricably linked to a specific part of soul music history. As occasionally grating as Coko’s upper register could be, her vocals came to define the 1990’s R&B sound unlike any other. In my ears that style of singing now sounds rather restricted to its time…but that maybe is its very appeal; it triggers an excuse for a good old reminisce. And it would be plain silly to deny Gamble’s vocal influence on her contemporaries; everyone from Kut Klose lead singer Athena Cage (an easier-on-the-ear version of Coko’s voice) to Gina Thompson and Kameelah Williams (formerly of 702).
Having set the template for several female acts that have come in their wake, let’s hope that SWV’s return shows the current – and rather feeble – R&B crop how it’s really done.