Jheri curl music is an essentially synthetic musical form: like its namesake from the hair world, it is not a genre that occurs in nature, but a heavily processed transformation of traditional African American styles. That’s one of the reasons why Brooklyn jheri-curl duo D-Train was so interesting. A collaboration between the group’s namesake, singer James “D-Train” Williams, and keyboardist/producer Hubert Eaves III, D-Train took the most traditional form of African American music, gospel, and funneled it through the most synthetic of mid-’80s production methods; or, to use a more fitting metaphor, Eaves’ production softened, set, and activated the natural soulfulness of Williams’ vocals.
Arguably the best example of this technique was D-Train’s breakout hit, 1981’s “You’re the One for Me“: opening with Williams crooning the chorus over an understated piano line, it sounds for the first 45 seconds or so like a throwback to the pre-disco soul of, say, Teddy Pendergrass. But then the beat kicks in, followed by the synthesized handclaps, and suddenly the D-Train has transferred to Jheri Curl Station, with Eaves’ infectious synth line as the engine. It’s the musical equivalent of a big plate full of cornbread and collard greens suddenly transforming into the spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and taking off into the sky.
But we’re not here to talk about the original version of “You’re the One for Me.” We’re here to talk about the 1985 “Labor of Love” remix by London synthpop virtuoso Paul Hardcastle, which eschews the bait-and-switch and is a jheri-curl burner from start to finish. I’ll be honest: the original mix is probably the better, more dynamically interesting song. But it’s hard to fuck up a track as good as “You’re the One for Me,” and Hardcastle’s remix demonstrates the shift in jheri curl music from 1981 to 1985: no longer a novel updating of classic African American music, it had become a genre of more-is-more maximalism, with electronic flourishes and programmed bass lines filling every inch of sonic space. It’s also worth noting, as we touched upon yesterday, that by the mid-’80s jheri curl had gotten a fair bit whiter, with European musicians like Hardcastle putting their own spin on what had been an almost entirely Black form of music. That’s always tricky territory–especially when, as in the Top of the Pops performance above, it leads to D-Train performing in England with an all-white band and Hardcastle, not Eaves, on the keyboard. But such, unfortunately, is the way of the world; and hey, at least D-Train got paid–he would be signed as a solo artist to Columbia Records the following year, with Eaves still on board as a producer and co-songwriter.
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