Neneh Cherry’s breakthrough single melded hip-hop and cut-and-paste sampling into a perfect pop record.
At the tail end of 1988, Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’ was everywhere. A punchy, upbeat track of early hip-hop sass with a propulsive groove, filled with great hooks and modernist twists, the record was overseen by Bomb The Bass’s Tim Simenon and co-producer Mark Saunders and made a star of the cheeky and provocative and — on her famous Top Of The Pops appearance — visibly pregnant Cherry, reaching number three on both sides of the Atlantic.
‘Buffalo Stance’ was a track that went on a journey over two years before being very quickly finished in an intensive two-and-a-half days. “I mean, the whole thing was the most painless track I’ve ever worked on,” remembers Mark Saunders. “It was my first hit really and nothing’s ever been that easy. It’s crazy how easy.”
From its scratched-out “g-g-gigolo” intro through its rapping verses and sung choruses, ‘Buffalo Stance’ was a tour de force of pop sample collage, matched with Cherry’s tongue-in-cheek ad-libs (“What is he loike?”), that moved through various sections in a highly inventive arrangement.
“It’s such a bizarre arrangement,” says Saunders. “I think that was the beauty of Tim and I not really knowing what we were doing. I was so busy programming, I don’t think I was aware of how many different bits there were. Tim kept coming up with these samples and it would lead you into a different section. If we’d have been thinking properly about how to make a hit record, I don’t think we would’ve had anywhere near as a many different parts to it.”
“Nothing was held back,” Tim Simenon remembers today of the making of ‘Buffalo Stance’. “It was just tried and if it didn’t work, we just sacked it, deleted it or whatever, and moved on.”
The roots of ‘Buffalo Stance’ can be traced back to 1986 and a London fashion movement, Buffalo, spearheaded by the late, Dundee-born stylist Ray Petri. Cameron McVey, originator and co-writer of ‘Buffalo Stance’ and Neneh Cherry’s future husband, was a key player in the scene.
“Ray Petri was a cultural phenomenon really,” he says. “He was really into music and fashion and lifestyle and spirituality. He was this surrogate older brother and father for a whole movement of kids around about the same age from the same era who all happened to be living in the west end of London around various squats and apartments.
“We were all into reggae music, we were all into early rap music, R&B and stuff. I was the main musician in the crew. So that was my main job. I was translating the philosophy into the records that we made.”
At the time, the enterprising McVey was also working in the studio at PWL, Stock/Aitken/Waterman’s production house. “I was just farting about really,” he laughs. “I was in there working doing stuff on spec for Pete [Waterman]. He got me in there ’cause he’d heard a few tracks I’d written.”
One of those tracks was ‘Looking Good Diving’, a Scritti Politti-ish pop dance track subsequently produced by S/A/W and released in 1986 by Morgan McVey, the duo comprising McVey and his songwriter/model friend Jamie Morgan. But while the A-side was destined for obscurity, its B-side was to provide the seeds for ‘Buffalo Stance’. “‘Looking Good Diving’ was kind of like your typical S/A/W production really,” says McVey. “It was one of those one-day jobs. And then we needed a B-side so Nellee Hooper [of Bristol group/sound system the Wild Bunch, later to become Massive Attack] and I went in and cut up the backing track. I basically wrote a B-side loosely based around the same sentiment as the A-side.”
This B-side, ‘Looking Good Diving With The Wild Bunch’, featured McVey’s then-girlfriend Neneh Cherry on vocals and provided a slower-paced blueprint for what would become ‘Buffalo Stance’. “I sort of came up with the concept, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a rap tune that had a sung chorus?’” McVey recalls. “That’s why I thought I would just use this opportunity of having a B-side that needed to be done to buy the studio time to make it work. We wrote it really quickly.”
Fast-forward two years and following his instant rise from obscurity with Bomb The Bass’s first hit single ‘Beat Dis’, DJ Tim Simenon was one of the hottest producers and remixers in London. Simenon had been a record obsessive and DJ at house parties since his teens. “I kind of always loved music,” he says. “From the age of about nine, I was already buying singles. By the time I was 14 or 15, I had enough music to take to house parties and I was the kid with the records at that point.”
At 17, and under-age, Simenon began DJ’ing on Saturday nights at The Wag, Soho’s uber-cool epicentre of clubland. “The stuff I was playing was what people called rare groove back then,” he remembers. “Party music really was essentially what it was. The Jimmy Caster Bunch to the JB’s, but throwing in some Afrika Bambaataa and some EPMD maybe.”
In addition, since his early teens Simenon had been dabbling in making his own music with a Dr Rhythm DR55 drum machine and Yamaha CS01 synth. One of his earliest musical memories is trying to programme the beat of the Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’ into the Dr Rhythm. “That was the one beat that I was sort of tapping out first,” he says. “‘Cause I kind of loved the sound of it and the simplicity of it and it was a rhythm I felt I could actually program on the drum machine with some success.
“The CS01 was my first adventure into sort of making my own sounds. I didn’t really know much about synthesizers. I mean, it was limited in what it could do, but again it was enough for me to play around making bass sounds and mess around with the frequency and the resonance and get my head around these kind of things. It had a built-in speaker as well, which was great.”
Over the winter of 1987/88, in tandem with his career as a DJ, the 20-year-old Tim Simenon also enrolled on the music production course at the School Of Audio Engineering in north London, although he wasn’t destined to stay there very long. “During that time I think it was the only sound engineering school in London,” he says. “The lessons were mainly doing a lot of reading about sound physics. They were more like tutorials. For me, I wanted to get onto the mixing desk and have a bit more hands-on experience really. I mean, we got into splicing tape and stuff like that, which was great. I loved that. I wish we’d just done more things like that. But then it was during those first three months that I’d made the ‘Beat Dis’ single, and I’d actually started getting experience outside in other studios.”
The debut Bomb The Bass single, ‘Beat Dis’, was another blueprint for ‘Buffalo Stance’ in that it took a cut-and-paste, turntable-driven approach to sound collage. Simenon’s shift into becoming a recording artist was as a result of his friendship with dance label Rhythm King Records’ founder James Horrocks. Along with producer Pascal Gabriel, Simenon created the track at east London’s Hollywood Studios. “Not as glamorous as it sounds,” Simenon jokes. “I think it was like two days of pre-production and one day of mixing. Pascal had an [Akai] S900 and we’d hired in another two, so we had a tower of three S900s. That was living large back then, y’know... [laughs].
“We started basically with the drums and the bass. I went to the studio with two bags of records, mostly music that I was playing at The Wag at that time, and then there was also a Juno-106 synth which is how we did the bass line. There was one turntable set up and I’d play the stuff and then say to Pascal, ‘Oh I really love this part here... I really love the hi-hat on this... the snare’s great on this.’ And then Pascal just sort of loaded probably maximum capacity of all the sounds into the S900s, and then put them onto the keyboard and I started playing around with them.”
The idea from here, which went on to inspire the name of the project, was to ‘bomb’ these beats and bass line with sounds. “Yeah exactly,” Simenon laughs. “I mean, it was a literal translation of what I was doing, y’know. We had a basic foundation of a groove, and then I would scratch stuff on top of the groove. That’s how we built up on it really.”
More than 50 samples featured on ‘Beat Dis’, from classic TV series such as Thunderbirds and Dragnet to musical snippets from the JB’s and the Bar-Kays. “The buzzsaw sound was a sample from ‘Blow Your Head’ by the JB’s,” remembers Simenon. “The introduction of the record was literally a Minimoog going wang-wang-wang. So we grabbed that and then replayed it. It was all crafted with little sounds and then we played them. ‘Son Of Shaft’ [the Bar-Kays], the wa-ca-wa-ca sort of guitar, that was impossible to get in time. Pascal was pretty cool in understanding; ‘OK, let’s chop it up and then we can play wa-ca-wa-ca on one key and the other part on the other.’ He broke it down, and that was really cool because then we could actually get things into time.”
Initially there were no big plans for the release of ‘Beat Dis’ and, crucially, none of the samples were cleared. “There weren’t things like sample clearance houses as there are now,” points out Simenon. “It was just like, ‘OK, it’s sounding good, let’s just stick it out.’ That was kind of the attitude really. There was that kind of naivety about it which I think was exciting. It didn’t feel like there were any restrictions. James [Horrocks] liked it and said, ‘Let’s just maybe press up 1000 copies and see how it goes.’”
Almost immediately, ‘Beat Dis’ began flying out of the record shops, requiring urgent repressings. Simenon remembers that he was earning extra cash working as a waiter at a Japanese restaurant when he called Rhythm King from the kitchen payphone to find out the record’s midweek chart position. “The girl said, ‘Number nine,’ and I was like, ‘What? In the dance charts?’ And she said, ‘No, in the main national charts.’ So that just completely freaked me out.”
In the end, ‘Beat Dis’ peaked at number two in the chart, remarkably only attracting legal heat over one of its uncleared samples, from Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records about the “everybody in the street get down to the funky beat” lift from Funky Four’s 1983 single ‘Feel It (The Mexican)’. “We had to go back and re-record it for the American version,” Simenon says. “For the UK, obviously it had been released and we gave her a bit of the publishing because of that. [Laughs] You live and learn.”
In the wake of ‘Beat Dis’, it was Nellee Hooper who first played Tim Simenon the track ‘Looking Good Diving With The Wild Bunch’. The song’s co-writer Jamie Morgan then approached the DJ with a view to him reworking it as a possible single release for Neneh Cherry’s solo career. “At that point I’d been producing a Neneh solo album,” says Cameron McVey, “and that track was something that Tim got really into. He was really good at kind of old-school hip-hop beats mixed with other concepts, so it made sense. It was a bit more focused maybe than what we were doing production-wise. I felt like he would give it a bit more focus and he did.”
“I thought it sounded really raw and really good,” says Simenon. “Jamie Morgan suggested, ‘Why don’t you give it a go?’ I met up with Neneh and I had a good feeling about the whole thing, and I brought in Mark Saunders, and that was the beginning of it really.”
Since the mid-’80s, Mark Saunders had been the in-house engineer at West Side Studios in London, working closely with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Madness, Elvis Costello) and also manning the board for David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s 1985 version of ‘Dancing In The Street’. Discovered as a mixer by Jamie Horrocks at Rhythm King, he’d already worked with Tim Simenon on a couple of Bomb The Bass tracks before the DJ asked him to get involved on ‘Buffalo Stance’.
Simenon and Saunders entered Hot Nights Studio in Fulham with a plan to record and produce the track over five days, before two days of mixing at The Roundhouse Studios in Camden over the weekend. “It was a pretty funky place, but it had everything that we needed to make that track,” Simenon remembers of Hot Nights. “The bag of records went with me there.”
“The desk was nothing fancy, a Soundcraft or something,” Saunders recalls. “The tape machine was an Otari. We went in on the Monday and the first thing I was surprised about was, Tim being a DJ, the amount of records he brought was tiny. If you stacked them, it was about a three-inch stack of vinyl. Y’know I was expecting crates of vinyl. So I was thinking, Wow, that’s a little amount of vinyl to be sorting through.”
Simenon had a groove in mind for ‘Buffalo Stance’, which Saunders immediately went about programming, working on a basic set-up involving an Atari 1024 ST computer running Cubase, an Akai S900 and Casio CZ101 as mother keyboard. “I think it’s maybe the first track I ever programmed without having anyone else,” says Saunders. “I just had some drum samples. I didn’t have a huge library. Y’know, this was a temporary template to get us going. This was not supposed to be the final thing. It was just me, with my non-velocity keyboard doing very straight programming. I said to Tim, ‘Well, we’ll come back to this. We’ll finesse it later.’
“Tim said, ‘Can I get a couple of channels on the board where I can hear the deck?’ So as I’m programming a beat, he’s playing stuff. And it was just fantastic. Everything he played just seemed to work. He was like, ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘Gigolo... gigolo...’ ‘Yeah that’s great, let me sample it.’ I sampled a lot of it rather than putting it on tape ‘cause I was working on programming a beat. I worked on the beat quite quickly and it just seemed to really happen fast.”
For the bass line, Saunders programmed a part using Hot Nights’ Yamaha DX7, while for the distinctive rising arpeggio synth part at the end of the choruses — which had previously featured on Morgan/McVey’s ‘Looking Good Diving’ — he discovered a sound within the Roland Super JX10. On day one, within a few hours, the basis of ‘Buffalo Stance’ was firmly in place, surprising Saunders.
“Working with Tim was really odd ‘cause I’d averaged 80 hours a week for two years,” he laughs. “He didn’t come from a studio background, he was a DJ and really young. We got to six o’clock and he was like, ‘OK, that’s it then.’ And I’m thinking, ‘We’ve only just started... we’ve only done eight hours... what are you talking about?; It’s still really raw, there’s hardly anything there.’ He said, ‘The track sounds fine, we’ll get her to come and sing tomorrow.’”
Day two and Cherry and McVey joined Simenon and Saunders in the studio. The first task was to add additional turntable samples to the track. “The turntables were set up between the speakers, sort of facing Neneh and Cameron and Mark,” Simenon remembers. “I’d just drop in different ideas and instantly they’d be like, ‘Yeah that’s good, let’s grab that.’ That was how it worked really. Then Mark would punch in and I’d give it a go and it was a take, it was done. Then, ‘OK, move on, next sound.’ It wasn’t really thought about that much.”
Snippets from records that ended up being collaged for ‘Buffalo Stance’ included Rock Steady Crew’s ‘Hey You, Miami’s Chicken Yellow’ (specifically the hooky sax break) and, of course, given the song’s title, Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Gals’. “It’s got to be one of the most fun and straightforward productions in my history, I think,” says Simenon. “Beginner’s spirit and all that.”
Ahead of the vocal tracking, Saunders recorded all of the programmed parts down onto Hot Nights’ Otari 24-track. “We laid it all down before we did the vocal, thinking that we would redo the drums,” he says. “My plan was really to change the drums because I felt like they were so straight and they were just kind of quick sounds that we’d got up. But everything ended up on tape.”
Cherry recorded her vocal on ‘Buffalo Stance’ using the studio’s Neumann U87. “Neneh was totally cool,” says Simenon. “She came in with a big [pregnant] belly and just belted out the track in three takes and we got it.”
“Her vocal was just so amazing,” says Saunders. “Every single take you did, she gave you stuff that you never asked for, in a good way. All that ‘what is he loike?’ stuff. We didn’t work on it for hours because it was so great.”
Many of the vocal ad-libs on ‘Buffalo Stance’, including the famous shout-outs to Simenon, “Yeah, Timmy” and “Bomb The Bass, rock this place”, were added on the spur of the moment. “Yeah, I think after the main vocal was done,” says Simenon, “Neneh wanted it to be quite lively and funny as well. Not taking herself too seriously with it. That was on the original and she wanted to keep that kind of spunkiness. She wanted to namecheck the Wild Bunch, namecheck Bomb The Bass, and she gave me a namecheck and it was brilliant.”
“You did that for everybody you were working with in those days,” McVey points out. “Everybody checked everybody. That was a little bit of a pisstake of all the American rap records. We went through a whole period where we were just blatantly stealing American rap beats and putting them back into tunes. We were just selling the Americans back their own stuff really. That whole shouting out was basically kinda American culture part two.”
“She came in early afternoon,” continues Saunders, “and by four or five o’clock, she was done. Tim said, “Why would you change it? It sounds great.’ And we’re only two days into the five-day recording budget. [Laughs] So we cancelled Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.”
After-hours, when everyone had left, Saunders added to ‘Buffalo Stance’. Firstly, he flipped the multitrack tape over to record the 100 percent reverb signal from the studio’s Lexicon 480L, which when played forwards providing the distinctive backwards effect that can be heard ahead of Cherry singing the “Who’s looking good today?” bridge. Secondly, he tried recording a guitar part he’d been quietly noodling away with earlier in the day.
“We were listening back after doing the vocal,” he recalls. “I’d been listening to it for a while, so I went and sat in the live room to hear it from a distance, and there was a guitar in there. I picked it up and I came up with that ‘da-da-da-der-der-der’ line. I thought, ‘Oh I really like this, but there’s no way that they would like that.’ ‘Cause to me, Cameron and Neneh were like the ultimate hipsters and Tim’s this cool DJ guy and it’s all electronics and sampling. I’m playing this riff, thinking, ‘It sounds more like Johnny Marr would do this.’
“So when they left I thought, ‘Well I just really like this guitar part, but I can’t play it on the guitar because that’s way too rock and roll.’ They had an [Emu] Emulator [II] in there, so I found the very typical Emulator guitar sample, like a Fender twangy thing, and laid down that part.”
Four days later the team reassembled at The Roundhouse for a planned two days of mixing, drawn to the facility by the attraction of their SSL G-Series desk. “We were all hooked on automation at that point,” says Saunders. “I really liked The Roundhouse’s vibe. It was quite a nice, old, crusty studio.
“We go to mix, and by about 12.30pm we’re looking at each other and going, ‘Well, sounds pretty good.’ Except I still hadn’t played Tim the guitar riff. I was thinking that I was gonna get shot down in flames for this, y’know, completely ruining the track by trying out a guitar part.”
While waiting for Cherry and McVey to arrive to hear the mix, Saunders began to slowly push up the fader to bring up his Emulator II guitar part, which was destined to become such a memorable riff on ‘Buffalo Stance’. “I was really nervous about this and Tim goes, ‘What’s that? I really like it, turn it up.’ But I’m thinking, Cameron’s not going to like it, ‘cause he’s into hip-hop. They come in and we play it and they’re like, ‘Love that guitar part.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s really bizarre.’ But I was pleased about that ‘cause I really liked it as well.”
Mixed in half a day, ‘Buffalo Stance’ was done. Although Saunders admits he still harboured doubts about the track, considering how quick and painless its creation had been. “Until I heard it on the radio,” he says, “I kept thinking, ‘It’s still not finished though, it can’t be. It was two-and-a-half days including a mix.’ I kept thinking, ‘It’s gonna sound rubbish compared with everything else.’ But then the first time I heard it on the radio, it just sounded so fresh. It was a big eye opener, like, ‘Oh, maybe if we don’t work things to death they sound better.’”
When ‘Buffalo Stance’ hit number three in the UK chart, McVey and Cherry were on holiday in Jamaica, its surprise success forcing them to cut short their break and return to Britain. “I was lying in the water at Montego Bay when I got the chart position,” McVey laughs. “So I was really pissed off. It was mixed messages, y’know, like I wanted another week’s holiday, but...”
“It was the end of ’88 when it came out,” Simenon remembers. “It was an amazing year for me because the first Bomb The Bass single came out in February and this collaboration with Neneh was an amazing way to end ’88.”
‘Buffalo Stance’ made Neneh Cherry a star overnight, leading to a procession of hits including ‘Manchild’ and ‘Woman’ and a string of successful albums, from 1989’s Raw Like Sushi to 2014’s Blank Project (produced by Four Tet). Mark Saunders now works as a producer and photographer in New York, while Tim Simenon, after producing albums for Depeche Mode and Sinead O’Connor (and releasing the most recent Bomb The Bass album, In The Sun, in 2013), is currently concentrating on his business in Prague, a meatball shop called Brixton Balls.
All involved in ‘Buffalo Stance’, though, are clearly proud of the fact that the record they created almost three decades ago has firmly stood the test of time. “I think in every cycle of five to seven years,” says McVey, “there’s one or two iconic tunes that just sort of capture a moment.”
“When I listen back to it,” Simenon enthuses, “it’s just like, ‘Wow. That sounds fun.’”