The Riff
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The Riff

Michael Wycoff and Zhane Influenced a Generation of Grooves

A pair of timeless R&B classics are responsible for hits well after their heyday.

It only took one album for a group of five British singers, collectively branded as the Spice Girls, to take over pop music in the 1990s. Following their debut album, Spice (which spent 105 weeks on the Billboard charts), critics and fans were overcome by “Spicemania” a rendition of the same phenomenon that The Beatles influenced some three decades earlier.

The group was less united by its self-defined sound than it was by a relentless appropriation of a tapestry of musical styles. Of course there was the debut single “Wannabe” that championed the girl power subgenre (which sampled singer-songwriter and James Brown inspiration Bobby Byrd). But beneath the best selling girl group track of all time there were the bouncy funk rifts of Earth Wind & Fire (“Say You’ll Be There”), the dance-y basslines of Brass Construction (“Love Thing”) and the drunken bebop swagger of Digital Underground (“If U Can’t Dance”).

Though many of Spice’s samples put a healthy amount of calendars between the original song and the spicy rendition, the eighth track, “Something Kinda Funny,” steals the spotlight of a track that’s just three years its senior.

“Something Kinda Funny” by the Spice Girls

Borrowing its melody from “Hey Mr. DJ,” a 1993 song by R&B Duo Zhane, “Something Kinda Funny is historically significant, if sonically underwhelming, fare for Spice. The track laid the groundwork for the Spice Girls’ launch to stardom. Produced by Absolute, a duo formed by college buddies Paul Wilson and Andy Watkins, “Something Kinda Funny” was the demo that linked the Spice Girls to music mogul Simon Fuller. And while the track never charted on its own, its place on the seven-times-platinum Spice carved out an alter for it in the annals of music history.

It’s not surprising that the Spice Girls found success sampling sounds from archives of black music. Mega star Madonna did as much on her Billboard Hot 100 №2 single “Material Girl in 1984, which took its bass line from the Jackson Five’s “Can You Feel It.” What is surprising, however, is that despite Scary, Baby, Ginger, Sporty and Posh’s unparalleled international success, the swaying groove captured by defunct duo Zhane remains the foundation for the sample in the 21st Century.

To understand the influence of “Hey Mr DJ”, we need to pay our respects to, well, the DJ. But if you let Kier Gist, professionally known as DJ Kay Gee, tell it, he’d rather stay behind the scenes. The producer from the hip-hop group Naughty By Nature never really wanted to takeover the spotlight.

“I’ve always knew that I could most likely be a producer or be an executive or be a manager or something behind the scenes a lot longer than you can in the front,” Gist told You Know It Got Soul in 2012. Following a decade of production that included a pair of platinum albums with the New Jersey-based group, Gist struck out on his own, founding Illtown records in an attempt to follow one of his passions: R&B.

Gist’s style was influenced by his father’s record collection. In an era before cellphones and tablets, he’d sit in the back of the car listening to track after track of his father’s tapes as his family made its way down south to visit family.

But while many producers during the 1990s embrace a short-lived run at the choppier, more dramatic, New Jack Swing off shoot of R&B, Kay Gee took his influences to heart at Illtown, working with acts that would continue to build out a more soulful sound.

Enter Zhane, the duo of songstresses Renée Neufville and Jean Norris, from Philadelphia. Kay Gee would stumble across their demo tape, which they left for him among a pile of other hopeful acts at his label in Newark. You could call it luck that Zhane’s tape rose to the top of the pile. Unlike the Spice Girls, who were a carefully manicured act organized over months of auditions, Zhane was a diamond in the rough. Their musical origins were organic — Norris was a member of the church choir at which her father preached. Zhane was the embodiment of what happens when countless talent shows and friendly nudges to go pro add up to making a run at the spotlight.

Their hit record, “Hey Mr. DJ”, was recorded shortly after Zhane met with Kay Gee. Gee was working with Flavor Unit Records on a compilation album, Roll Wit The Flavor, that featured artists from Freddie Foxx, to Queen Latifah to Gee’s own Naughty By Nature.

The album came sealed with a sticker boasting “Phat beats and dope rhymes from the most lyrical family around.” “Hey Mr. DJ” was the 16th and final cut of the bunch, and by most accounts, the least fitting of the “dope rhyme” descriptor. “When the deejays got the promo copies of Roll wit tha Flava, which had Fu-Schnickens, Freddie Foxx, Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature, and many other great artists, they, for some reason, decided on their own to play our first single,” Neufville said in 2014.

It’s no surprise that Zhane got played. “Hey Mr. DJ” is delightfully unconcerned with the compilation’s self-imposed mantra of “keeping it real”. Released in August 1993, it was a song that lacked a targeted demographic. It earned Zhane spots at local clubs just as it did segments on Japanese television. It was simply a breezy tribute to a stress-free weekend and all around good vibes.

Gee and Zhane foreshadow a tribute on the song’s intro. “What we’re gonna do now is go back,” a disembodied voice says, simultaneously pitched up and down while giving the go ahead to start the party. “Hey Mr. DJ,” isn’t just a fluke hit that earned Zhane praise for the next two decades. It’s founded on the Michael Wycoff song, “Looking Up To You”, a 1980s disco cut by an artist who never got to shine on the middle of the dance floor.

“Looking Up To You” was one of Wycoff’s few charting singles. Produced by Leon Ware, who had Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye credits to his name, the track had its best years in the 90s as the basis for both the Zhane single and a cover by the Swedish acid jazz collective, Blacknuss.

The subtle complexity of “Looking Up To You” creates its transformative nature. Wycoff’s keyboard melody pushes the track along, strolling towards an increasingly layered production featuring strings, horns and a choir. Strip the song back and you have “Hey Mr. DJ”, which thrives on it’s simplistic approach and loop friendliness. Add a few arrangements and you get the multifaceted cover by Blacknuss, which incorporates jazz guitar and the doo-wop swing of André de Lange and some soulful backup singers.

The beat goes on for Zhane and Wycoff in the 21st century. Though Zhane officially disbanded by 2000 and Wycoff died in 2019, hallmarks from both Zhane’s repurposing and Wycoff’s original tune find their way into a disparate collection of songs across a variety of genres.

Both tracks make for malleable foundations. Wycoff’s version resolves in a soaring hook, that, despite the ills plaguing black society at the time — divorce, infant mortality, and poverty — uplifts. From there, Zhane takes the love Wycoff thrives on and converts it into an infectious groove that exists in an untroubled bubble.

The former track is the foundation for Skule Toyama’s “To You”. Released in 2018, the Mexican producer embraces the nostalgic tones of future funk, a revivalist genre that embraces a similar optimism as its disco and funk predecessors.

“It needs to sound good, and it needs to have a lot of arrangements,” Toyama told me regarding his use of Wycoff’s foundation. His song, which released as the second track of his debut EP, Busy Nights in Tokyo, ratchets the danceability up to 11, incorporating a faster tempo and more prominent percussion.

Don’t mistake Toyama’s flip for a cover — he takes a patchwork approach, mismatching bits and pieces of the original track to prop up his own creativity.

“To You is mostly A full sample, but I play with the loops so it’s a not the same one in the whole song,”. Toyama said. “So I can add synth or other stuff, and leave the small details in.”

Meanwhile, Zhane’s track was interpolated by Donald Glover on his latest project 3.15.20. The entire album is more experimental than anything in Glover’s discography. Though 2013s Because the Internet played with the increasing prominence of digital technologies, 3.15.20 embraces The Matrix as its sonic platform, featuring computer generated vocal distortions and lyrics that merge the human with the machine. “Algorhythm”, which samples “Hey Mr. DJ” for the hook, tests Zhane’s original aspirations of getting lost in melody against the comparatively rigid, authoritarian reality of 2020. “Move your body from side to side/Clap your hands, don’t spite the vibe/Keep on moving, you might survive/Pressure is to evolve, take a bite of the apple/We crush it into the sauce, how do we know the cost?” Glover drones in the second verse.

Both Glover’s and Toyama’s tracks, though divergent in their themes, take a simple framework to construct more daring expressions. Where the Spice Girls find Kay Gee’s beat a suitable metronome for their sensuality, Glover and Toyama roll out strong offerings that both pay homage to yesteryear while making music that is bigger than themselves.

“I’m grateful to know that once my soul leaves the physical body, the music will outlive all of us,” Renee Neufville said on the 20th anniversary of “Hey Mr. DJ”.

“It’s one of the biggest gifts I could ever imagine receiving because life is so short. This is the legacy we’ve left behind. We came up in a time when classic music was being made. Not just hit records, but records that will be played forever.”

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