Rock critics of a certain age have written hundreds of articles (and in one case, an entire book) about the moment in 1972 when David Bowie draped his arm around guitarist Mick Jones on Top of the Pops and jump started a sexual revolution.
Less has been written about Neneh Cherry’s appearance on the same show 16 years later, but for young women and girls across the UK, it was just as important.
Dressed in a black mini-skirt, gold bra and high-top trainers, she rapped, skipped and spun through her hit Buffalo Stance with a huge gold medallion draped over her prominent baby bump.
Her appearance echoed the song’s lyrical celebration of womanhood, putting sexual self-confidence and maternity firmly on the pop agenda.
Predictably, not everyone was impressed. One critic asked Cherry if it was safe to perform when she was seven months pregnant. “Yes, of course!” she replied. “It’s not an illness.
“It’s what your body is made to do, for Christ’s sake. And anyway performing generates a lot of good energy.”
But other viewers were captivated by the star’s electrifying stage presence. A week after her Top of the Pops debut, Buffalo Stance shot into the top 10.
Her second daughter, Tyson, was born eight weeks later, at the same time as Cherry was putting the finishing touches to her debut album, Raw Like Sushi.
Released in June 1989, the record was a vital, energetic blend of street rap and sweet soul, with Cherry addressing topics like urban deprivation, emotional blackmail and the challenges of parenthood.
“Think of this newcomer as the Joni Mitchell of hip-hop,” enthused the Chicago Sun-Times in its review.
“That’s a bit much, isn’t it?” laughs the singer, as she talks to the BBC in 2020.
“I guess I always wanted to write songs that mean something – but at the same time, I wouldn’t say I write directly political lyrics. They always end up being about being human.”
Those words, combined with Raw Like Sushi’s pulsating pop melodies, definitely struck a chord. Raw Like Sushi sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week, went platinum four months later, and Cherry was nominated for best new artist at both the Brits and the Grammy Awards.
To celebrate the album tuning 30 (30-and-a-half, to be precise) it’s being re-released with two discs of bonus tracks and remixes, and Cherry agreed to share the story of those songs, track-by-track.
“It’s going to be an interesting journey because I don’t really listen to the album,” she remarks. “And when I do, I’m like, ‘My God, you sound like a little kid!'”
A Buffalo Stance is “an attitude you have to have in order to get by”, Cherry told the New York Times in 1989. “It’s not about fashion but about survival in inner cities and elsewhere.”
The song started life as the B-side to Jamie Morgan’s Looking Good Diving, with a rap Cherry composed as she visited her local supermarket.
“I stepped up on the kerb and, as my foot came down, I was like, ‘Who’s that gigolo on the street?‘” says the singer. “And pretty much between going into the store and coming out, I had half of the rap.
“I remember doing the second half, ‘The girls with the curls and the padded bras,’ back in my house, and we more or less did the song in an afternoon.”
Although Morgan’s single flopped, Cherry’s B-side caught the ear of Bomb The Bass’s Tim Simenon, who asked to remix it for her album, adding samples from Miami’s Chicken Yellow (for the sax riff) and Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals (for the hip-hop scratches).
“It was amazing going into the studio with Tim,” says Cherry. “He had such a clear idea of what he wanted to do. He was like, ‘I don’t want any harmonies, I just want the vibe.’
“And thank God he had the vision because I never would have gone back and considered re-doing [Looking Good Diving]. To us, it was like done, ready, whoop, doop, forgotten about.”
Cherry’s second single was an accusatory but compassionate ballad about a man who has some growing up to do. The haunting lyrics and sumptuous strings, recorded at Abbey Road, signified there was more to the singer than the upbeat party vibes of Buffalo Stance.
“I was on the bus after going to see Matt Johnson from The The,” says Cherry. “And I started singing ‘Is it the pain of the drinking or the Sunday sinking feeling?’
“I just had that phrase in my head. Then I went home and found the chords and just totally went off piste.”
Cherry attributes the song’s unusual chord progression to a Casio keyboard she borrowed from her partner Cameron McVey (credited on the album as Booga Bear).
“It had this little auto-chord accompaniment system,” she explains. “Cameron, who’s a great musician and a great songwriter, didn’t really know how to play, so he was always pulling out and finding strange chord sequences on that [keyboard] when we wrote together.
“And when I sent that song to my stepdad, Don Cherry, who was a jazz musician, he said, ‘Damn, there’s seven chords in the verse. That’s not bad!'”
Kisses On The Wind
One of the album’s most pop-forward moments, Kisses On The Wind tells the story of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – “She was the first girl to turn the boys on” – and how that affects her confidence and friendships.
“It’s a really difficult time, isn’t it?” says Cherry. “Because you come to an age where you start having all these feelings, right? You’re almost longing for it. But at the same time the attention you’re drawing to yourself is kind of overwhelming and embarrassing.
“You go from thinking you’re a grown-up to feeling nine-and-a-half in an instant.”
Cherry says there are elements of autobiography to the lyrics, but the song was also inspired by watching girls on New York’s Lower East Side, where she lived in her early teens.
“They were young women I was fascinated with, or very much in awe of, who seemed to be very much holding their own and very beautiful – but also very vulnerable and quite fragile.”
Inna City Mamma
Inna City Mamma opens with a sample from Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City – “New York, just like I pictured it” – which was a direct inspiration for the album’s fourth and final single.
“There’s a bit in that song where it just goes from telling the story of this young girl, her legs are sturdy, she’s growing up in the countryside, to someone getting off a bus and arriving in the city,” recalls Cherry. “Then they get thrown in jail and you hear the gate being shut, and a voice goes, ‘You’ve got 10 years’.
“I listened to that track a lot when I was growing up. So it inspired another version of that New York City story, through my own eyes.”
It’s not a flattering portrait. “I trusted you and you crushed me to a pulp,” sings Cherry as the song draws to a close.
“What I was trying to do was portray New York as a lover,” she says. “It’s an interesting city because after you’ve been there for a while, you become part of the city and it becomes part of you. Not many places affect you like that. So Inna City Mamma was my way of trying to have a conversation with the actual place.”
The Next Generation
A song encouraging young men and women to accept the responsibilities of sex and parenthood, The Next Generation also addresses the brutal realities of child-rearing: “They keep you awake at night sometimes and mess on your clothes [and] you worry about whether it’s really worth the sacrifice.”
“There was a lot of dialogue at the time about pro-choice, anti-abortion, contraception – all of which are still big themes now,” says the singer.
“Teenagers in a lot of places don’t have access to birth control and end up with unwanted babies. But I also wanted to sing about the beauty of life, so there were a few different threads to that conversation.”
Crucially, Cherry was delivering this message as a mother, promoting her record while raising a newborn baby and her six-year-old daughter Naima.
“In retrospect, I’m like, ‘Bloody hell, I’m not sure how I did that,’ but I was determined to make it work.
“That was a thing, as a woman, as a mother, doing the kind of music that I’d chosen to make, I really wanted to break through those boundaries and step out of the norm.”
And she says travelling with her family stopped her from being swept up in the whirlwind of Raw Like Sushi’s success.
“Finishing a day’s promo and lying in a bed, breastfeeding Tyson was such a blessing. There wasn’t any space to get drawn into any of that extraterrestrial crap.”
The second half the album opens with a soulful reflection on a failing relationship, and it deliberately swerved away from the strident tracks of Side A.
“I didn’t want to get trapped in being bombastic or shouty or cheeky,” says Cherry. “So I put some elements in there from a more thoughtful perspective.
“A lot of the songs are fundamentally about being a woman, wanting to survive, needing to fight back, not wanting to be an underdog. But we all end up in these more complex situations where you can’t be like that, or it takes a while to get there and defend yourself.
“That’s where Love Ghetto came from.”
One of the album’s funniest and most caustic songs, Heart is addressed to a woman who’s stolen Cherry’s boyfriend. “Everybody knows you’re a phony,” she chastises. “You just want his alimony.“
“I can’t exactly remember the essence of where I was and how the tune came together, but it is quite vicious,” says Cherry.
“It’s almost an answer to the song before – about the moment you get to a place where you go, ‘Do you know what? That’s enough now.'”
“That song actually came from a friend of mine, Vivien Goldman, telling me about some dodgy guy she’d been seeing, and how he’d been seeing someone else on the side.
“I’m sure Viv said, ‘The worst thing is that these women he’s hanging out with are just phonies.’ No disrespect to the beautiful women, but these were kind of tacky girls.
“And so Phoney Ladies came from that conversation… I wrote it in my kitchen in Kensal Rise. The bed and my kitchen are my favourite working places!”
Outré Risqué Locomotive
There’s a lot of sex on Raw Like Sushi, but this is the only song where Cherry gives in to lust. “My body’s clean but my mind is so bad,” she purrs over an irresistible funk groove.
“The sound of Prince was probably floating around in our minds,” she says. “He was such a big part of everything at that time.”
In a 1989 documentary about the making of the album, Cherry is seen recording the vocals just 10 days before her due date, clearly in some discomfort.
“I was literally standing with my leg up on a chair singing that song, having weird little contractions,” she recalls.
“Quincy Jones said he’d never record a pregnant woman, which I think is a little bit extreme, but it definitely affects your vocals. Everything is squished, so your diaphragm isn’t at full capacity.”
So Here I Come
A blistering coda, So Here I Come sees Cherry deliver her manifesto, “If you’re gonna do it, you got to do it right“, before she signs off for good.
But the song also paints a vivid picture of her upbringing, including the crushing disappointment of her first day at school.
“I’ll never forget it,” she says. “I was so proud of the fact I could read and I wanted to show my teacher, but she just basically ignored me.
“I suppose in her mind she didn’t want to treat me different to anyone else in the class but it was heartbreaking.
“I didn’t last at school for very long. I’m so thankful my parents had the guts to say, ‘This situation isn’t right, let’s work it out.’
“To have that understanding and that faith is brilliant. And that’s why I’m still here.”