Graeme Thomson

The power of cultural reclamation

Popular music has always been a dialogue between present and past

The power of cultural reclamation
Neneh Cherry, a graduate of the cut-and-paste London and Bristol scenes of the 1980s. Credit: Guy Bell/Alamy Stock Photo
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‘Version’ is an old reggae term I’ve always loved. It refers to a stripped-down, rhythm-heavy instrumental mix of a song, traditionally dubbed onto the B-side of a single. On paper the concept sounds throwaway, and often it was. Over time, however, using reverb and a fair degree of ingrained madness, pioneering Jamaican producers such as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, King Tubby and U-Roy twisted ‘versions’ into mind-bending shapes. Time-stretched DJs toasted new rhymes over the top, and dub was born, an art form built from borrowed parts and hair-brained ingenuity.

The notion that popular music is now obsessed with recycling old content is not necessarily fanciful, but it can be reductive. It’s true that release schedules – and my inbox – are filled with news of reissues, anniversary editions of half-forgotten albums, padded-out ‘deluxe’ versions of records younger than your car, box-sets of demos and studio scrapings. That’s before all those tours where vintage artists dutifully perform an entire record from their glory days.

But this churn of cultural reclamation is not new, and it comes in many different stripes. One of the joys of Bob Stanley’s recent pre-pop history Let’s Do It is how it illuminates the extent that popular music, as far back as the early 1900s, has always been a dialogue between an eternally evolving now and a constantly looming then. Jazz artists and the most adept interpreters of the Great American Songbook spent entire careers circling the same repertoire. Frank Sinatra recorded ‘Night and Day’ on umpteen occasions, each time bringing new slivers of weathered experience to the reading. Remake. Remodel. If pop has a raison d’être, there it is.

Those who feel that pop is eating itself more greedily than ever before may be wary of Neneh Cherry’s latest record. On balance, they shouldn’t be. The Versions features cover versions of some of Cherry’s best and most familiar songs, among them ‘Buffalo Stance’ and ‘Manchild’. Cherry is the daughter of jazzer Don Cherry and a graduate of the cut-and-paste London and Bristol scenes of the 1980s, where rap, reggae, punk and soul not so much merged as collided head-on. She understands that interacting with legacy does not have to be nostalgic or lazy.

For The Versions she has enlisted ten artists to reinterpret her music. They are all women, which makes sense. The sussed big sister’s advice dispensed on a modern pop classic such as Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’ owes an obvious debt to Cherry’s withering way with dodgy Romeos and two-timing street players. Given a smart twist, her messages of female power are imbued with striking new resonances. Now, instead of the late male US rapper Guru stating that the sexually confident subject of ‘Sassy’ is ‘so sassy and completely secure’, as was the case on the 1992 original, London R&B artist Tyson is claiming these attributes for herself. Transgender singer Anohni similarly pulls the words of ‘Woman’ – ‘I died so many times, I’m only just coming to life’ – fully into the 2020s.

There are ‘versions’ here that live up to the old dub spirit of adventurous recreation. ‘Heart’ by Sudan Archives is a brilliant blend of stomps and hand claps, weird twangs and dusty violin. The grungy melodrama of Cherry’s original recording of ‘Kootchi’ is turned by Jamila Woods into smooth neo-soul – and improved in the process. ‘Kisses on the Wind’, one of Cherry’s most dated songs, time-stamped with 1980s production values, is transformed by Seinabo Sey, though the lyrics still feel a little pat.

Just as it would be impossible to ruin ‘Buffalo Stance’, it is impossible to improve it; Robyn’s version is more homage than deconstruction, and thus does neither. Sia’s take on ‘Manchild’ surrenders the woozy weirdness of the original to a sulky toughness which feels like a misreading. Kelsey Lu later revisits the same track (not only is this an album of old songs; two of them appear twice) to better effect. She rips up the text and reassembles it, juxtaposing drifting dreaminess with deep, bass-heavy interludes and distorted rap. Greentea Peng’s ‘Buddy X’ is a true ‘version’ in the dub style, retaining only the bones of the rhythm and a few recurring melody lines. Later, Honey Dijon’s floor-filling remix of the original track brings Cherry’s voice to the fore for the first time, a neat way of closing the record.

Though her name is on the cover, to what extent this is actually an album by Neneh Cherry is an interesting question, but perhaps not the right one. Best to view The Versions as a microcosm of pop music’s current state of engagement with its past, in which some reclamations are genuinely inventive, some fine but safe, and a handful rather tired and gratuitous. ’Twas ever thus, most likely.

The Versions is out now on EMI.