The first number one in the UK that contained rapping in came in 1983 in the shape of New Edition’s Candy Girl, but commercial rap was being tested as early as 1981. Remember Blondie’s Rapture? The Human League gave it a go in Love Action and two members of the Talking Heads gave it a different dimension as the Tom Tom Club.
The Talking heads were formed in New York in 1975 and got their break supporting the Ramones at the CBGB’s club. Arguably one of their greatest singles, Psycho Killer, never made the UK chart but their first success came in 1981 with Once In A Lifetime reaching number 14 but the next three hits failed to make any great impact. Their only other visit to the top ten came in 1985 with Road to Nowhere.
With the ever changing music scene of the early 80s, a diversion was needed and so the husband and wife duo Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth – the Talking Heads’ drummer and bassist respectively – temporarily broke away and formed the Tom Tom Club in March 1981. Not only that, they did it in style by relocating to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas where they bought a house right next to Island record label owner Chris Blackwell. He owned Compass Points Studios and he invited the pair to record some tracks. He said that if he liked their sound he would record a whole album. Frantz and Weymouth brought in Steven Stanley, a 21 year-old keyboard player who was the sound engineer on Ian Dury’s Lord Upminster album and they found a fantastic bass player called Monte Browne who had been a member of T-Connection. Chris Frantz explained what happened after Blackwell approved, “So we then went back into the studio and did the rest of the album including this track called Genius Of Love which was eventually released as a single in America in 1981, but only after Island Records had shipped and sold like 100,000 12″ singles. Seymour Stein and the people at Warner Brothers sort of said ‘Oh, maybe Chris and Tina are on to something. We should release this album over here.’ So they did and to date it’s still one of the biggest selling records we’ve ever had, either with Talking Heads or Tom Tom Club.”
Their original intention was to record and released only one track, but they found they all inspired each other sufficiently to carry on. The band’s line up grew too and now included Weymouth’s two sisters, Laura, a freelance video technician, and Lani who was a New York student studying psychotherapy. They trio called themselves the Sweetbreaths. Wordy Rappinghood obviously impressed the reviewers in Smash Hits who exclaimed that it was ‘Aimed at the more intelligent end of the market’. At the time, Weymouth said in an interview, “When we did Wordy Rappinghood, we didn’t really know what we were doing. I think a lot of people thought Chris and I were going to do something really self-indulgent, and David (Byrne) and Jerry (Harrison) (Talking Heads members) were going to do something more legitimate.”
Wordy Rappinghood open with the tapping of a keyboard with an intellectual keyboard beat follows, setting a creative tone. The first verse, Tina noted has a vocabulary that exists for newspapers. “It’s tighter and precise. Words exist to create hundreds of pages of a book. They are spoken. There are also negative connotations. Guilty and steal are reserved for crooks. I will be with you are said to convey comfort. Surrender and truce can stop war. Stop, go, can’t express permission. Words build relationships, form bonds, and employment. I advise people to dine on the finest conversations and stimulate their minds. Swears are junk foods and leave people feeling unsatisfied. The pre-chorus is a bunch of nonsense words jumbled together.”
Blackwell had the idea to team them up with legendary reggae producer Lee Perry, but the day before, Perry and Blackwell had a falling out and Perry failed to show up. Instead they worked with a young Jamaican engineer called Steven Stanley, who later went on to have a successful career as a songwriter and is best remembered for the beat behind Mariah Carey’s 1995 hit Fantasy, mainly because it sampled Genius Of Love.
After Wordy Rappinghood, they added Steve Scales on percussion, Alex Weir guitar and Tyron Downie on keyboards. In 1986 they replaced Scales with Gary Pozner and Downie with Mark Roule. Their next album came in 1988 with Dark Sneak Love Action and despite a guest vocal appearance by Kirsty MacColl on the title track, the album failed to generate sales. In 2000 two further singles, Happiness Can’t Buy Money and The Good, The Bad and the Funky, were released and equally did nothing and so the band finally split.
In 2003, Wordy Rappinghood made a comeback in Europe in what was known as the Electroclash scene. Weymouth explained, “Those new electronic kids really dig it and they’ve used that little opening keyboard riff over and over again in remixes and stuff. It’s even been used in France for a cookie commercial…a children-oriented commercial for a French cookie called Le Petit Ecolier.” In 2011 the track was used again, this time on UK TV, to advertise Evian water.
The Tom Tom Club were the first white band to appear on the legendary programme, Soul Train. Chris Frantz explained what it was like, “It felt like a wonderful crossover. Here we are on this really cool TV show called Soul Train and that must mean we’ve got soul! That’s what we wanted – to have soul.”
Wordy Rappinghood discusses the importance of communication. “People are talking even if they don’t realise it. It’s a natural thing to do and something that’s taken for granted. Without language, people would struggle to relate to each other. Words define people and express their personalities,” Weymouth explained. In a world of texting, tweeting and Facebook, it’s doubtful that a song like this could be written now that a younger generation can understand.