Key Tracks: The Underground Boogie Sound of 1982

In the early 1980s, the boogie sound was red hot. John Barera runs down some of the quintessential tracks of the day that have become favourites of DJs, musicians and fans alike.

D-Train - Keep On

At the forefront of the boogie movement was Prelude Records, the label which championed Sharon Redd and released her 1982 sophomore solo album, “Redd Hott.” In the same year another Prelude artist, James “D-Train” Williams, alongside his producer, arranger and keyboardist Hubert Eaves, defined the boogie funk sound with their track “Keep On.” (Hip-hop heads may recognize it as the tune used for the hook on The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s the Limit.”) With its dubbed-out breakdown, relatable, life-affirming lyrics and Williams’ rock-solid voice, it became a stand-out effort of the genre.

In the studio, Eaves used the Prophet-5 as his main instrument, a keyboard that was developed by analog synth guru Dave Smith and widely used during this era. Citing Herbie Hancock as his main inspiration, Eaves emerged from the funk hotbed of Minnesota with piano skills learned from his father. After D-Train, he carved out a respectable career doing behind-the-scenes work with Roberta Flack, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, and Teddy Pendergrass, among others, but it was his contribution to the boogie funk sound that makes him a significant figure in US electronic music.

Don Blackman - “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide”

Don Blackman - Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide

Keyboard player Don Blackman is often regarded as an unsung hero of the boogie sound. Like Hubert Eaves, Blackman was influenced by Herbie Hancock, and rubbed shoulders with Parliament, Funkadelic, and Roy Ayers as he learned the ropes. “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide,” from Blackman's self-titled 1982 debut, became one of the biggest underground dance hits of the year. Dennis Chambers, another Parliament and Funkadelic associate, provided the tight and inventive drum fills, and vocals were supplied by frequent collaborator, Desire White.

The album would be later mined for samples by the likes of J. Dilla and Madlib, among others, and is considered a must-have record for boogie collectors. Following his debut, Blackman shied away from the limelight and embraced the studio and, like Eaves, worked on dozens of records as a session musician. Both Blackman and Eaves even appeared on the same album, jazz saxophonist Najee's "Tokyo Blue." Behind the scenes, Blackman remained particularly influential within hip-hop, playing on records by Kurtis Blow and his protégé Bernard Wright, whose debut album “Nard” was heavily sampled by G-Funk rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.

First Love - “Party Lights”

First Love - Party Lights

First Love was a soul-boogie vocal quartet put together by Chicago producer, composer, arranger, and musician Donald Burnside, another keyboard wizard on par with Blackman and Eaves. Burnside worked on several soul and funk albums that were popular on the roller rinks and dance floors of the 80s, such as Yvonne Gage's "Virginity." He also had a hand in cult funk albums, such as fellow Chicago artist Captain Sky’s early LPs, where he handled keyboard and production duties.

By the early 80s Burnside was feverishly making dance tracks in his studio, often with his group First Love. Their synth-heavy single “Party Lights” was released on Chycago International Music, a short-lived but compelling label whose discography is dotted with Burnside productions. The song features tight riffing and a curious breakdown: where the groups vocalists take turns to lett the listener know how they feel. In recent years, Burnside’s work has found favor with boogie aficionados like Joey Negro and the Horse Meat Disco crew. Peoples Potential Unlimited, a key source for obscure and unknown 70s and 80s dance music, has also reissued his work.

Pure Energy - “Breakaway”

Pure Energy - Breakaway

With its Chic-esque groove, “Breakaway” is a tune that draws heavily on the disco sound, and exemplifies the fluidity of the boogie genre. One of the strongest records in the Pure Energy discography, the track does not rely heavily on keyboards, but its mid-tempo slap-bass-driven sound is complimented by a few synth and drum machine workouts.

Pure Energy, who would later dabble in Freestyle music, included bands members Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens. Hudson and Stevens were the writers behind Madonna’s “Holiday,” which was offered to Madonna by her producer John “Jellybean” Benitez when she was looking for a potential hit track to include in her debut album. This turn of events ensured that Hudson and Stevens’ music would be widely heard and wildly popular, but it was their output as Pure Energy that really earns them a place in the dance music cannon.

Boeing - “Dance on the Beat”

Boeing - Dance On The Beat

Despite this group's mid-western funk sensibilities, "Dance on the Beat" was recorded in Italy and released on the Rome-based Good Vibes label. Like "Breakaway," "Dance on the Beat" is powered by a storming slap bassline and the "chicken scratch"; a style of rhythm guitar playing pioneered by James Brown's guitarist Jimmy Nolen. Also featured is an expressive synth solo not unlike the one played by Don Blackman on "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide."

The track also has an almost proto hip-hop element, with its occasionally-rapped verses. The tune was penned by a pair of local musicians and mixed by Faber Cucchetti, a club DJ from Rome who has had a hand in many Italian dance records - including his own solo 12", "Hot Shot". By 1982 Italian dance music broadly had an electronic feel, but tracks like this popped up among italo-disco songs about robots and space. Ultimately, Boeing’s music never really took off, but their lone single became a dancefloor favorite and collectors item.

Stargaze - “You Can’t Have It”

Stargaze -- You Can't Have It

Another one-single-only group, Stargaze dropped this unique jam on TNT records in 1982. The label folded just a year later, leaving behind a catalog of sought-after records including this empowering banger about a woman who refuses a man’s advances. Like Boeing, Stargaze was little known and their lone single was not a big hit in its day, but the influence of "You Can't Have It" grew steadily over time, eventually finding its way onto DJ Spinna 's excellent mix CD "The Boogie Back - Post Disco Club Jams."

Unlike the big sounds that characterize many other boogie tracks of the time, with their orchestras or flashy synths, a clean, looping guitar line becomes anthemic. “You Can’t Have It” was mixed by DJ and producer Tony Humphries and penned by Curtis Josephs, a studio talent who was involved in various electro, freestyle, and boogie releases, and worked on Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” for Emergency Records.

Fonda Rae - “Over Like A Fat Rat”

Fonda Rae -- Over Like A Fat Rat

Fonda Rae has enjoyed a long career as a vocalist, including singing with Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band, the one-album group that produced the anthemic “Dupty of Love.” Her debut single, “Over Like a Fat Rat,” whose bassline was later borrowed by Eric B. and Rakim for their debut single “Eric B. Is President,” was produced by Bob Blank, whose extended dub breaks and colorful mixing light up the track.

Blank started out in the New York music scene in 1973 as a studio session guitarist. An enlightened musician known for his open-mindedness and cheap rates, he started Blank Tape Studios in 1976 where he began racking up mixing and production credits for artists like Lydia Lunch, Chic, Sun Ra, and Arthur Russell. He even worked as a sound engineer on Madonna's eponymous debut along with Breakaway's Curtis Hudson (who, in addition to co-writing "Holiday," laid down guitar in the studio for the song). Blank had no shortage of studio work, and his productions found popularity with DJs like Larry Levan, Nicky Siano, and Tony Humphries. Yet, like Hubert Eaves and Don Blackman, he remains a prolific yet relatively unknown figure.

George & Glen Miller - “Touch Your Life”

George and Glen Miller - Touch Your Life

While not all of their catalog is widely known, West End was one of the most prominent dance music labels of the era, with releases like Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face” and others which went onto become some of the most sampled, remixed and re-edited dance tracks of all time. In 1982, West End released Tony Humphries "Master Mix Medley", and singles like Raw Silk's "Do It To The Music" & Peech Boy's "Don't Make Me Wait".

That year, West End also released "Touch Your Life,” which, legend has it, was such a commercial flop that the remaining stock of unsold records was melted down. Eventually, crate-diggers discovered this overlooked gem and the hard-to-find "Touch Your Life" became the most coveted record in the catalog. With its slower funk elements and ample musical space - "I'm gonna touch your life and reach your soul" the Miller's declare, over an enticing backdrop of cascading synths and muted guitar - it was both very much of and ahead of its time.

By John Barera on January 27, 2015

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