About twenty five years ago, two German dance music producers and a U.S.-born rapper plucked from a nearby military base battled it out against Queen Latifah’s friend from Jersey and a tiny hip-hop label to prove who had “The Power” on global dancefloors. Despite the fact that they had used a rapper’s vocals on their track without permission, the odds were in the Germans’ favor once they had the backing of Bertelsmann Music Group, a record industry Goliath pitted against the humble independent Wild Pitch Records.
In many ways, this epic musical “Power” struggle established a precedent, defining the rules around sampling other artists’ work. But it was also a conflict pitting the U.S. vs Europe, accomplished rhymes vs elementary raps and the spoils of success vs the soul of a song. When, exactly, does a remix become a rip-off?
In 1990, after my tenth grade school dance, a group of us had managed to gain entry into a local nightclub with the help of female classmates who were already experts at getting into bars sans ID. When we hit the dancefloor, a thrilling prospect in itself, the air vibrated with the sharp guitar stabs, driving percussion and an exhilarating vocal hook that months later we’d come to identify as Snap’s “The Power.”
When the rap kicked in — “it’s gettin, it’s gettin’, it’s gettin’ kinda hectic”► — I immediately recognized the booming vocal tones of rising New Jersey MC Chill Rob G. Along with the entire club, I proceeded to lose my shit. I wasn’t sure why this underground Flavor Unit rapper was helming an amazing dance track, but I was too busy enjoying it to think in much detail.
As one of the most iconic dancefloor anthems ever, “The Power” has since been heard in a dozens of movies, TV shows and commercials — it’s sampled by more than 40 prominent hip-hop and dance artists. But did you know that its complex and often baffling origin story can be traced to James Brown, Chaka Khan, The Gap Band and The Police?
It turns out there are at least five different versions of “The Power” in existence. The original was essentially a megamix (a pre-digital term for a mash-up) put together by German producer’s Michael Münzing and Luca Anzilotti in 1989 and released on their Logic Records label in January the following year as Snap! They credited themselves under the pseudonyms Benito Benites and John Virgo Garrett III, respectively, possibly because they thought nobody would believe that Germany could produce good dance music (Kraftwerk, anyone?).
The track itself combined three key elements from other sources: the drums from a Mantronix b-side titled “King of the Beats”►; the hook from the a capella version of Jocelyn Brown’s 1985 single “Love’s Gonna Get You”►; and the entire a capella rap of Chill Rob G’s “Let The Words Flow”► (with the first verse repeated again at the end).
Snap! then added some some guitar stabs, ambient keyboard, a Russian advertisement for a computer system designed for the visually-impaired, and the live horn riff played by Jack Bashkow (also from Chill Rob’s original song) to create a catchy track that blew-up dancefloors across the country and soon spread worldwide. “The Power” would eventually become one of the defining pop singles of 1990, albeit in slightly different incarnations.
Before we attempt to untangle the convoluted tale of the how “The Power” evolved to that point, it’s worth examining the origins of the rhymes. New Jersey’s Chill Rob G — who released “Let The Words Flow”►as the b-side to his second Wild Pitch single, “Court Is Now In Session”► — worked exclusively with The 45 King at the time (the man who gave us “The 900 Number,”► Eminem’s “Stan”► and Queen Latifah). When he arrived for the studio session, Ron discovered that The 45 King had prepared a track built around The Police’s “Voices In My Head,”► which was quite an unorthodox choice for a hip-hop loop back then.
“I didn’t even want to use that Police record,” Chill Rob G recalls. “Mark [The 45 King] suggested it to me, and it was different from what everyone else was doing at the time, so I was like, ‘I don’t think I want to use that song.’ He kept telling me, ‘You’ve gotta use this beat, this is hot!’ When he first played it he was playing it a little faster than what we actually ended up using, he was playing it like a hundred and something beats a minute. But then he slowed it down and I decided, ‘OK, let me give it a shot.’
“When I rhymed to it everybody was real hype. I thought it was OK, but everybody else seemed to think it was one of the best things I did. These two guys in Germany working in a basement got a hold of my record — I told Mark, ‘If we keep putting a capellas on these records, somebody’s gonna snatch the a capella and make a whole ‘nother record [out] of it.’ That’s exactly what they did! They threw in a bunch of different elements from different records; it’s a remix, that’s what you do. It’s basically ‘Let The Words Flow’ lyrics with a Jocelyn Brown singing riff in it. They handed it out to club DJs, started playing it on the radio, they was loving it.”
“I think Stu Fine [owner of Wild Pitch Records] actually licensed the record to them — but they didn’t have a deal for the U.S.” Rob says. “So since the record was doing so big out there, Stu came to me as if he had no idea what was going on and he said, ‘Yo Rob, let’s put the song out. I mean it’s doing really well in Germany, we might as well make some money out this.’ It was me, it was my stuff, so I said, ‘Cool, let’s do it.’
“We put the song out and then the next thing you know Arista Records decided that they wanted to put it out over here too, but since they couldn’t use me — they couldn’t just put out the same record — that’s when they got Turbo B to go in the studio and make the version that became Snap! It was Arista records versus Wild Pitch Records, so Wild Pitch lost — big time. Arista was global and Wild Pitch was like, ‘Who’s Wild Pitch?’ I was still running around, doing what I could do to help our cause, but we just couldn’t beat that money. Wild Pitch went in and did a remix to the remix and put out the song called ‘Power Jam’ and had this other female come in and try to sing the Jocelyn Brown part.”
The first version issued in America by Wild Pitch was billed as Power Jam featuring Chill Rob G and credited as “A Wild Pitch reconstruction of a Logic reconstruction of a Wild Pitch production by DJ Mark, The 45 King.” The video enlisted actress N’Bushe Wright to mime the Jocelyn Brown vocal, while the songwriting credits are shared between Benites, Garrett, Frazier and James [Michael Münzing, Luca Anzilotti, Chill Rob G and The 45 King].
When the CD version of Chill Rob G’s Ride The Rhythm album was released on CD in 1990, “The Power” was credited to Nephie Centeno for production duties and had the entire hook re-sung by Kim Davis (but retained the original four writers credits). This version was also released as the second Wild Pitch issue of the single, but when the record was later re-issued a third time in 1998, Chill Rob G was credited as the sole performer, the original sampled hook was back and Toni C had been added as the fifth credited songwriter on the track (since he wrote Jocelyn Brown’s original song and had finally been properly credited).
“My thought was, they had some music, they got ‘I got the power!’ and they said, ‘Let’s put a rapper over it!’’ comments The 45 King. “They just happened to pick Chill Rob G and that’s how it happened. Then the record became popular and they took Chill Rob G off and they put another guy on it. That’s all I really know. The only thing I wrote on that record was ‘Baaaaaaa’ [makes the horn sound]. I didn’t have nothing to do with it. The only reason my name is on it is I did the original record to Chill Rob G’s vocals. I think the record company [Wild Pitch] said, ‘If you’re gonna bite my vocals, I’m gonna bite your music!’ I have a feeling that’s how that happened. That was a big record for Rob. That was his biggest record, I believe. Snap! made it big and Chill Rob G was lucky.”
“The ‘Power’ thing was a mixed blessing because I did get more notoriety,” says Chill Rob. “But now I was really looking at my contract with Wild Pitch. We were negotiating the second record, Stu Fine offered me this mad low number. I was insulted, I was like, ‘Nah, you crazy? I ain’t doing it.’ I walked off on him, that was it. They always had meetings in restaurants. Try to give you a cheeseburger to think he’s gonna get you to sign. ‘I ain’t signing for a cheeseburger this time, Stu!’”
Once Snap! had signed a distribution deal with Arista Records subsidiary Ariola Munich, the group remade the song with Turbo B and Penny Ford adding new vocals, while still retaining elements of the original samples (the hook and the “It’s gettin’ kinda hectic” line remain). To further confuse things, the version that you hear in the Snap! video with Penny’s adlibs (inspired by Chaka Khan’s “Some Love”) is different from the one included on the Word Power LP, which removes them for a more stripped-down mix.
Penny Ford, as it turns out, has quite the musical heritage behind her. Her father, Gene Redd Sr. was bandleader and A&R man for King Records, the home to James Brown for many years and the place that he met Penny’s late mother Carolyn Ford-Griffith, a fellow musician. After singing at church and idolizing Chaka Khan as a child, Penny broke into the music business at 16 when she sang lead for a local band who invited her on a three month tour of Japan. When she returned, Penny stayed in L.A. and soon landed her record deal with Total Experience, releasing her debut solo album in 1984.
“I left my first record company and took over as the lead singer of a group called Klymaxx,” says Penny. “Then they got some growing pains and everyone decided they wanted to go solo, and I quickly took over the lead position for the group the S.O.S. Band when their lead singer wanted to go solo. There was a period of me replacing lead singers, because I have a knack for sounding exactly like another singer, if they want that. Then I started working with Chaka [Khan] and Barry White and Prince and tons of other groups that I worked with in the studio or live.”
“I’d moved to London and I was doing some writing,” continues Penny. “Chaka and I had an apartment together and they asked her to do the Snap! project. She was busy being Chaka Khan so she sent me to do it. The record was number one in several countries before Turbo and I even met. There was a guy, Rico Sparx, that was heavily involved in the beginning of that track even coming together, and he died and we buried him a couple of years ago. There were some ex-pat Americans that were from the military that were working along with the Snap! producers. [Turbo] was in the army and they just kind of found him. It was just developing as it went along. I believe that they had worked with Chill Rob G on the project, and I don’t know if it was whether he didn’t want to collaborate with them or he wanted to go and release it on his own version in America, so it ended-up with him going up against BMG, and of course the rest is history! [laughs]”
Once the new version was released with a video and the promotional muscle of Arista/BMG behind it, “The Power” rapidly began lighting-up music charts all over the world.
“I was still working with Soul II Soul, I was working with Mick Jagger, with Massive Attack and groups like that when it hit.” remembers Penny. “I was in London over Easter and I was just remembering when I saw it on Top of the Pops. They’d already done a video with this other girl [Jackie Harris] miming my voice. That’s not me in ‘The Power’ video. We were on the same label as Milli Vanilli, so in order for the same thing that happened with Milli Vanilli not to happen with this project, they found me very quickly. That’s me on ‘Oops Up,’ ‘Mary Had A Little Boy.’”
The three singles from the first Snap! album all charted in the Top 10 in Germany and the U.K., and the Word Power LP achieved gold certification in the U.S. But the sudden success had its toll on the lead performers. This came to a head when Snap! were booked to play to an audience of drag queens in a Boston club by the name of Buddies, but apparently nobody briefed Turbo B about the venue before they arrived. It’s reported that he got involved in an altercation with two men and began yelling homophobic remarks, which he confirmed in a 1990 interview with Hip Hop Connection’s Pete Lewis:
“These sissies are implying that I went haywire because they were gay,” comments Turbo B. “No! The reason I did that is because one of them grabbed my butt and that will justify why I flew off the handle. Now, if I’d been a woman and a man grabbed a woman’s butt and the woman turned around and cut him with a straight razor, everybody’d be puttin’ a cape on the bitch’s back and puttin’ a crown on her head and callin’ her ‘Supergirl’ or some shit. But since I was a guy who got his arse grabbed and he reacted… and since they were gay, they’re tryin’ to make a big deal out of this. So all of these gay people who think it is like a step in your movement, it is a step, but the step will crumble and you will fall very hard, so… Peace! Stay off my back, or I will attack — and you don’t want that!”
The fallout resulted in several radio stations and clubs blacklisting the group, while their tour with Soul II Soul was picketed by hundreds of angry protesters. Earlier in the same interview, Turbo also defended Snap!’s commercial success:
“This is a business, right?” continues Turbo. “The object of the thing is to get paid, so if you direct your attention to one audience your income will be minimal. So all these people saying, ‘Ah, it’s diluting rap and they’re selling out!’ — check the bank account! It’s like N.W.A, right? They attract one type of audience. The people who listen to N.W.A cannot stand New Kids On The Block, but New Kids On The Block have made more money in a year than N.W.A will ever make!” [Editor’s note: Snap! and NKOTB both shared the same management at the time. It’s also fair to say that none of us saw Beats By Dre coming.]
“It was like being caught in a cyclone, and sometimes when that happens it’s very hard to take it all in,” explains Penny. “It becomes a big blur at times, but it’s life and you’re living it. You either live it, or you don’t! [laughs] On the business end, people were grabbing for parts of the song, publishing on the song — it became a huge clusterfuck of greed. I left the group, because Turbo and I didn’t have the best communication relationship, to put it mildly. In defense of him and in defense of the group, nobody expected the project to be as big as it had gotten very quickly. When things happen like that, it tends to intensify parts of the character of people.
“All those childhood issues are kinda mixed-up in there, and people dealing with their issues and trying to deal with being an international sensation all at once sometimes doesn’t make for a very good mixture. He was making decisions based on not having been in the business, where I’ve been in the business for several years. I was not wanting his choices to affect my journey. I went back to America and signed a solo deal with Sony, and I couldn’t work with Sony and sing with a BMG act. But they [Sony] didn’t have me signed as a writer, so the Snap! producers paid me to bring some American girls over and I got to write and get royalties from those songs [on the second Snap! album] as well.”
“We tried to get together and do this reunion,” says Penny, when asked about the current status of Snap! “But it was kind of still the same thing, only intensified after twenty years. The touring thing is kind of my baby, they turned it over to me and what I want to do with it, as long as they have their involvement. [laughs] There wasn’t a demand for Turbo, cause he pretty much ruined his reputation over here, in a lot of circles. Michael Münzing is climbing the Appalachian Trail in America right now. Those guys are doing bucket list type of stuff, hanging out with their kids. They’ve been in that mode for many years now — seeing the world, fast cars — things like that.”
Turbo B left Snap! and released a solo album, Make Way For The Maniac, in 1993, which featured a dis towards his old group on the title track, before he reunited with them in 2000 for a comeback attempt. Penny Ford currently lives in Germany and continues to perform Snap! shows around Europe. Chill Rob G is currently working on a new music project, while The 45 King has just released a series of record bags designed for 7-inch vinyl. The next time you hear “The Power” in a car commercial or animated kids film, remember the story behind those infamous “copy written lyrics… they can’t be stolen.”
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