The year was 1988. N.W.A were coming Straight Outta Compton while Public Enemy were bringing the noise from Strong Island. Meanwhile over in London, a curly-haired B-girl named Neneh Cherry was blurring the lines between hip-hop, pop, and dance with her breakout single "Buffalo Stance" off the album Raw Like Sushi. More hip-hop than Madonna, "Buffalo Stance" mixed spunky raps and a sweetly sung hook ("No money man can win my love," she sang—gold door-knocker earrings and dollar-sign medallion notwithstanding—"it's sweetness that I'm thinkin' of.") Neneh's alluring blend of toughness and tenderness set a stylistic template for the likes of Lauryn Hill and M.I.A. in years to come. Produced by Mark Saunders with an assist from Bomb the Bass, the song peaked at No. 3 on the U.S. pop charts and became a worldwide hit, making 24-year-old Cherry an overnight star.
A quarter century or so later, the step-daughter of jazz artist Don Cherry—who grew up between Sweden and New York and mingled with the likes of Miles Davis and Allen Ginsberg as a child—is about to release her first solo album in 18 years. Produced by the dusted beat duo RocketNumberNine, Blank Project is a stripped-down affair recorded in less than a week with lyrics that are even rawer than sushi. Reached by phone at her home in Sweden, Neneh Cherry was making some Indian dal and coconut rice with fried greens, but graciously took time out to talk with Complex about her eclectic musical history, her new album, and shared memories of her early '90s studio session with Biggie Smalls.
How's everything going?
It’s been a shit Monday. It snowed on the weekend and it thawed out and the air’s got this kind of gray, heavy thing. I woke up today and I felt very conscious of… you know you just wake up and it’s like, shit, it’s Monday, the weekend went by too quickly. I don’t really want to deal with real life but I have to.
I’m right there with you.
And then with this bloody record coming out, it’s all starting to go into gear—stuff and schedules. I was just saying to my really good friend how I woke up today and I thought, I know why I needed to take some time out of this whole thing, quite a few years ago.
Hopefully you're also remembering what's great about making music too.
Yeah, of course there was a part of that thing that's really what it’s all about. But I mean it takes me away from family and the things in my life that make things make sense. Now I can feel it pulling and I woke up today feeling a bit anxious about all that, like leaving my daughter, being away, looking at schedule that’s building up over the next six months, that kind of thing. [Laughs.]
Are you going to tour?
Yeah I mean none of it’s set in stone, but it’s going to happen. In a way, I’d kind of be disappointed if nothing happened, so… [Laughs.]
"Blank Project" is a great record by the way.
Oh do you think so? Thank you.
Very, very raw. Maybe not like sushi, but raw in another way.
Raw like something else.
Yes, exactly. Maybe like steak tartare.
Thank you. Like steak tartare? Like really raw. [Laughs.] Yeah, like not in an urban sense but in a raw sense. Blood on the plate. [Laughs.]
The sound of the record is very stripped-down, almost spoken word at times. You’ve made such different kinds of music over the years. You were in a punk rock band before Raw Like Sushi, correct?
Yeah, like a kind of coming-out-of-punk into something else. Rip Rig + Panic was this band I was in and we were kind of a mish-mash of being in a space where everything’s possible, so there’s a bit of a lot of things.
Sort of a London thing basically.
Yeah, it was a London thing. It was with half of the members of another band called the Pop Group that were around in the late ‘80s. I was a punk when I was 15—I was definitely into it in a big way and loved it—but I came to London when punk was maybe where you’d say punk is dead. The cool thing about punk, I think anyway, is that it’s more about a mentality than a sound, and that feeling of rage that you sort of associate the sound of punk with, I kind of feel that it’s in so many other things.
I think the punk movement just grew and changed, and in London, there are so many people from various, different cultures and it’s quite a small melting pot, so people just started experimenting with it. Like The Slits, who I spent a lot of time with, they started doing stuff that was influenced by reggae music. Rip Rig + Panic that I joined, they were really influenced by jazz and blues and punk. So I think what happened from punk, which was kind of DIY, was that it created a kind of creative place that was kind of without limits, in a way.
Right, punk could embrace rock and reggae and rap and everything else…
Yeah. People just kind of branched out into different stuff. The urban, the dance thing came in, and techno. It was an interesting time in London because everyone kind of knew each other.
And also outside of London. Because you were a part of the whole Bristol scene as well, correct?
Yeah, well actually the guys who were from Rip Rig + Panic—Bruce Smith, who I also had a kid with—we were together for years and had a marriage and we remain great friends until this day. My oldest child, Naima, is our child. The Pop Group were a Bristol band: Gareth Sager, Bruce Smith, Mark Stewart—Mark wasn’t in the Pop Group but he was from Bristol. From the beginning basically, I had a connection to Bristol through them.
And then that brought the Massive Attack guys…
The scene in Bristol is even smaller so I met Nellee Hooper, who was part of the Wild Bunch, which then became Massive Attack—3D, Daddy G. I met Daddy G because he’d gone to school with Bruce. So the Bristol thing has always been a part of everything.
So influential around the world.
Yeah, we were all, and still are, in the same family. Cameron and I set up a kind of production company I suppose you could call it, a sort of organization to keep ourselves afloat when everything started going haywire. Even before Raw Like Sushi did what it did, we set up our own production-management company to hold on to what we were doing. We literally had the reins from within our house, and then after Raw Like Sushi, we really felt that we wanted to give it back, feed some of what we’d gained into some new music and that was Massive Attack, and from that Portishead also kind of came out of our little mess.
You also had a DJ phase, didn’t you? You were DJing on a reggae pirate, if I’m not mistaken.
Yeah, DBC radio, Dread Broadcasting Corporation, which was a pirate radio station.
Did that have anything to do with Mikey Dread?
No, no, not with Mikey Dread. It was a guy called Leroy who ran it, who was from West London. I just used to go on and do an hour’s show, playing a really weird mixture of Rose Royce and Sun Ra into, like, a hip hop record. [Laughs.] Super out-there. I must’ve done that for about a year, but it was pretty free form. It was funny. It was totally disastrous.
Disastrous? It sounds amazing.
Yeah I mean, the music choice was pretty cool but I don’t think I really knew what I was doing with the technical shit. I just kind of put the records on and God knows. But yeah, that was a really long time ago now.
It all has to do with that variety we were speaking about. Now here you come with a totally different sound again, a record that I’ve read was recorded kind of in one big burst of inspiration. Is that a fair description of the process?
Yeah, it was done in one place in five days. We knew with RocketNumberNine, you know RocketNumberNine is a steam engine, alright? A musical force of nature, I’d say. I went in with them and Kieran Hebden and we just kind of went for it over five days. In one period, wanting to make the record, to record it live, to record it as it was. To sort of capture the time, to not make lots of alterations and post-production and stuff, to really let it happen there and then. And Kieran was really able to make that happen. We had the sound—obviously he’s also a big part of the production and the sound of record of course, but it was about… We set up in the studio and pretty much played the songs as you hear on the record, it’s pretty much how we did them.
Were the lyrics composed first before you put them to music? Because there’s definitely a throughline on the album.
The lyrics, the songs came first. I don’t know, I’ve always felt pretty strongly, committed to having the song even if I’m writing the songs to music. To me a song is a song when you can sit in a room and just sing it from end to end. A lot of the content of the songs and the directions they went into just kind of happened in the spur of the moment, as we were writing, because we were writing a lot of it together with Cameron and a guy called Paul Simm, was also part of the writing team. We had the songs and then, thank God, we found RocketNumberNine. [Laughs.] And then we gave them the songs.
So you say RocketNumberNine were the engine. What did they do? Why were they so important?
All the music is theirs. So basically, I had the songs and I gave them the songs and some of the tunes. They just went home and took them to their bedroom, their little workspace, and put the instrumentation to them. Some things we kind of worked out together.
I spent time getting the raw material and the emotional content of the songs. When we were looking, myself and Cameron, at the body of work, of where they’d gone and what the lyrics were about, we felt it would be a mistake to make a multi-layered heavily produced record. It needed to be just "come as you are" in a way. So then it’s like, well that can be easier said than done. Sometimes it’s an actual thing of making something simple that still soars with energy or spirit or whatever, that’s a tall order and such a big part of that, of course, is chemistry, finding people who you can actually go into a room with and make that happen. It’s a different story if you’re sitting with a bunch of machines in the room and you’ve got total control.
Kieran was definitely...we’d met him around The Cherry Thing record. I don’t know if you know that record I did with The Thing. He did a remix of “Dream Baby Dream” and my dream or fantasy or hope was that maybe he’d produce at least some tracks on the album. We tried doing some work together and he sent some backing tracks. He’s been putting out some of RocketNumberNine’s music on his label, so that’s how we found each other.
A fortunate accident.
Yeah. And then it was like they have a kind of unique way of playing because they’re playing electronic music that’s based in dance music, but they’re playing it live. They come from a kind of experimental background that gives their music this kind of amazing quality—it breathes, it’s kind of alive.
Well your songs are very much alive. They’re so frank and blunt. On the title track in particular, there's this hate/love dichotomy—"I think I love you, I hate you, I love it all." Can you talk about that a little bit? You’re still with your husband, Cameron McVey, after many years so this is not an album about a break-up.
[Laughs.] It’s an album more about not breaking up, that kind of coming together. Because I came from a place of very nearly being on the edge of falling apart when I started writing the record. My mother died and that sucked. That was a huge, huge thing. So I came from a kind of broken place of needing to get fixed and skip the reality. “Blank Project,” that song, it’s that thing of the total extremes you can feel sometimes in a relationship with a person that you know and they know you better than anyone and you can’t play the shit and sometimes it’s so annoying. [Laughs.]
There's nothing more annoying.
No, it’s terrible. But it was fun writing that song because we actually really wrote it together. Cameron took the first verse and I wrote the second.
Wow. So he was writing from your point of view about himself?
Yeah, that’s how fucking entwined we are. [Laughs.] Like shit, that’s really scary. And then there is also of course that other place where I can look at him sometimes and just go, "I don’t even know... Do I know you?" It’s like, "Who the fuck are you?" [Laughs.]
But you’re strong enough where you can say those things without really doing damage to your bond.
No, that’s probably one of the reasons why we might make it through, because we’re able to be like that about it. I think that’s one of the places where you start to be able to really see each other and accept stuff. It’s such a complicated thing... Being one person alive in the world is super complicated and then having people that you need, like my man or my children, I can’t live without them.
But being in this long-term relationship, it’s not an easy trip. You start to be able to go to new levels from having forgiveness, and also being able to be... I find that it’s also forces me to look at myself and it’s very easy to turn around and blame other people, the people that are closest to you maybe, for stuff. It’s like, well maybe they’re pissing me off, but it’s something that I’m not doing. [Laughs.] Maybe it’s not actually that other person. Maybe I just need to take care of myself.
We make time for the people that aren’t close to us and put the energy out to be very respectful and professional with them. But the ones who are very close, who we feel we can be messy with, we’re messy with them. Do they deserve it? Probably not.
No, probably not. And then, I suppose the people who are the closest to you—I mean, you don’t know where else to take some of your shit out. You have to be prepared to take a bit of each other’s shit. And I think you’ve also got to be able to go and look at yourself and say OK, that wasn’t really fair or maybe that didn’t really have anything to do with that person.
I’m not interested in being in a relationship where everything’s perfect or where I’m pretending that I’m perfect, because God knows... it’s not and I’m not. [Laughs.] Life just isn’t like that. You meet someone and you’re kind of in a honeymoon period and then all of a sudden you start to actually see their dirty underwear lying around and it’s really annoying. [Laughs.] I suppose there’s a part of me where I have been quite good at doing the right thing. Or maybe I’ve spent too much time cleaning up other people’s shit. Because I’ve sort of felt like, well it’s easier if I do it, just get rid of it.
Even as the pop star and the strong independent woman and everything else, you still have to do that?
Yeah, do you believe it? This is what I’m trying to tell them. [Laughs.] I’ve never really spent too much or put too much gravity or placed too much importance on being a pop star. It’s like, OK great, does that mean I don’t have to do anything anymore, except walk around and be a pop star? [Laughs.] No? What does it actually mean? It changes certain things in your reality—yeah, it changes a lot of things. I always remember with Raw Like Sushi, when everything really blew up and became very big very fast, I was very aware of it. I still felt the same size in my shoes.
Even though you were on magazine covers all over the place?
Yeah, it was almost like it was a part of me. maybe it was just that thing being, and it’s not just rebellious but I don’t know, there’s a word now that’s just not coming into my head for some stupid reason but just resisted that wouldn’t quite just let myself get completely absorbed in it. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t excited because it was exciting, and it is exciting when things are going really well because it makes everything really a lot easier. It’s great and you can feel...I was feeling a lot of acceptance and love and a lot of stuff coming from people that obviously was interesting and great. But I still felt really conscious, in a tongue-and-cheek way, that it just didn’t, almost like I didn’t quite believe in it. [Laughs.]
It was like, this is kind of fun but it’s not really... It's this thing that comes and it lasts a while. For some people it’s different, but it’s not going to last forever. I don’t know. I also think the kind of people that my family and I know and the stuff people are committed to is driven by stuff that goes beyond being on magazine covers somehow, without sounding self-important.
Not at all.
That’s why I like writing songs. Because to me each song in a way tells a story, and that story of course comes from something that I feel or that I’ve picked up on—observations. It’s like a way of processing the world I exist in or something. [Laughs.] Trying to make sense of it and it’s funny. Sometimes I go really deep inside of myself, but then it’s like I have to step out into the outside universe to really make it real. To use that as a place to draw the kind of place where the content is playing itself out. Actually a lot of the time when I write, I think about New York.
Really, why is that?
I think because New York is a place where I always feel so much. When I go there now, I feel really possessed by it because of my childhood and all the time I’ve spent with my family and both of my parents being gone, and that kind of history I have there. I think New York is just full of life in a way that’s full of everybody’s lives. It’s full of contrast. You can see a couple sitting on a stoop, listening to music, holding hands and maybe thinking of more old school New York, and then you turn the corner and there’s someone lying there. You see a lot of things, realities in a way that are very just there. And you hear people and the crazy things people are sayin. I don’t know, it’s just kind of ultra…
Yeah. I feel like I’ve seen more things there than any other place and felt more things and been more aware of how much it’s made me feel than I have in any other place.
Speaking of New York, I have to ask you about your 1992 single “Buddy X” because the remix to that song is one of the great Biggie rarities in the world. Was that your idea to put Biggie on the remix?
I’m really proud of that. You know what? This Swedish friend of mine, a guy called Alex Strehl, was working for the label that Puffy had then—was it Big Boy Records?
Bad Boy. He was there and we were looking to do the remix for “Buddy X” and the two guys who did the remix, they were from Sweden. He was like, "Look, I know who should do this. I’ve got this guy, check him out. This’ll be really wicked." And he was Biggie Smalls then or whatever.
Right, he wasn’t Notorious yet.
He was not really at all blown up. He was just like, let me see if I can get him to do it. And Biggie said yeah, so we went and picked him up in Bed-Stuy and drove him up to the studio.
So you were there for the session?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was there.
Where was he? Did you go up to his building and ring the doorbell?
No, he was standing on the stoop wearing head-to-toe camouflage with one of his homeboys and they got in the car. We had a Volvo Estate. Me and Cameron picked them up and I think they were wondering what I was doing with this weird English white guy, and what the hell is going on. He sat in the front seat, smoked a blunt and we were playing some demos of some new Massive Attack music, which would have been from their second album and he just sat in the front freestyling to the tracks.
Wow, too bad nobody had camera phones back then.
It was a trip. It was a good day. It was a wicked day. And then we went in, and we got stuck in the elevator with this Chinese delivery guy. So I was really happy when the doors opened on the studio floor and there was Q-Tip. I knew Q-Tip. And Busta Rhymes was there doing some other stuff. Then we went in to record the rap, and Busta Rhymes came in and he was wearing light-up sneakers. [Laughs.] And then Biggie got on and did it in one take. I think if we did two takes, then it was just for posterity. The rest is kind of history.
Did you talk with Biggie about the record, or did he just go off on his own?
No, no. We gave him the backing track and the original and I wasn’t going to tell him what to do.
That record has a whole back story to it. It's the stuff of legend in urban music circles. Was he aware of all that?
No, no, no. He just did it. And I like that part of those kind of collaborations—to me they’re about the other person’s interpretation. I think that’s the really exciting part of remixes and stuff, choosing who you’d like to remix a track. I’m never interested in telling them. You send it to whoever, to the people who you want to mix it because of what they do. It just rocked. Let me tell you, when we were in that studio and he was throwing down that rhyme, everyone was just kind of jumping around. [Laughs.]
Is there any truth to the legend about that song, that you were blowing up somebody's alias who used to check into hotels as Buddy X and do dirt?
Yeah, kind of, but it wasn’t really about creating ill feeling. Because I think maybe that person got a little upset and it wasn’t a personal dig. I just thought it was kind of funny and I made a story to go with the alias if you know what I mean.
That’s a crazy record. And a great video, I love the part where you throw the panties at him. I don’t think that had been done before in a video.
No, maybe not. [Laughs.] You have to start somewhere.