Best Song Ever: Word Up

 

It was New York, it was the ’80s, and the men of Cameo were in deep clover. An R&B powerhouse since the late-70s—with hard-jamming hits like “Shake Your Pants” and “Freaky Dancing”—the Manhattan-bred crew of funky sophisticates was by now entrenched in the top tier of Afropolitan society: profiling at hotspot Nell’s, night-crawling with Miles Davis, taking jazz and ballet classes at the Broadway Dance Center. Bliss was it in those nights to be alive, but to be lycra-trousered funksters was very heaven.

Unlike most vets of funk’s ’70s heyday, Cameo were still players in the charts by 1984, thanks to a slick synth-heavy upgrade to their sound and clever, comedic song writing. But change was in the air. An amateurish form of uptown braggadocio called “rap “was gaining national momentum and before long its artists would go on to unseat the funk band as Prime Mover as urban music. But Cameo were not ones to go quietly.

Jamming on bass and guitar in their hotel suite, Cameo, fronted by drummer/bassist/singer/mastermind Larry Blackmon, found one particularly mean groove and began refining, distilling. They developed a gunshot snare sound by recording in a stairwell at Manhattan’s Quadrasonic studios (later famous as the site of Tupac’s first shooting). And when they were satisfied with the track’s intensity, Blackmon got into character.

“You get a song like you get a script for a movie,” Blackmon says. “You create a character that best suits the song’s attitude.” In this case, the attitude sprung from a new saying, “word up”—”a kind of affirmation of what’s real,” Blackmon says. Inspired by the adenoidal drawl of longtime hero Sly Stone, he began singing this and other bits of slang. Thus was born Cameo’s bold address to rap arrivistes and sucker DJs, “Word Up”—an eerie, ominous groove featuring one of the stankest vocal performances in music history.

“He’s hip, he’s slick, he’s a guy who’s been around,” Blackmon says of the song’s imaginary protagonist—what literary critics would call its “speaker”—a character the band nicknamed Vicious. “He’s a New York guy, he’s a Paris guy. He’s international.”

And he’s unflappable: Addressing egocentric MCs that he felt “were trying to work out their psychological problems in the music,” Blackmon says his character was telling them, “We don’t have the time for psychology. Give us music, we can use that—we need to dance.’” And despite the song’s confrontational edge, Blackmon insists a more utopian vision was at work, too: “I’m using a saying that unites us all,” he explains.

The song was released to radio in 1986, and went on to hit number one on the R&B charts and #6 pop, spreading some nascent hip-hop slang and helping Cameo’s 12th album go platinum.

In mid-April, MTV premiered the video, in which Cameo’s kinky freak brotherhood is chilling in an underlit, model-bedecked warehouse when the cops—led by a fedora-sporting, megaphone-wielding Lavar Burton—show up outside. The beat hits, the groove kicks in, and, rising from his sofa-bound rumination, Blackmon lifts his head, gazes deeply into the camera, and murmurs one fateful “Oww.” Then leads his crew to face the music, red codpiece blazing. The stark contrast of Blackmon’s cartoonish sound and heavy-lidded poker face brought Vicious to life, making for an indelible character: a deadpan street preacher in such an advanced state of funkiness he can barely keep his eyes open.

Now a key touchstone of oddball ‘80s pop, the song has since been covered by Korn and Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown, as well as used in a fairly notorious mash-up with Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” In a way, though, its most memorable appearance came in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, when Steve Carrell’s stunted homebody busts that signature nasal verse in a karaoke performance – alone, at home, in shorts. “Yo, pretty ladies,” he sings. “I got a weird thing to show you.” Never has the line been more ominous.

 

© 2006 by Chris Norris, Blender.