Stories Behind Some of Your Favorite Dance Songs

Just as every person has an interesting biography, every song has a noteworthy back-story.  Unfortunately, there’s not enough disk space in the ether for us to write about every song.  So we’d like to put the spotlight on some trends and a select group of songs.  Click on Return to Radio Megamix for what’s popular on dance radio.

Singing Animals and Other Vocal Effects

On recent hits like Hellogoodbye’s “Here (In Your Arms)” and Akon’s “Don’t Matter,” you can hear vocal special effects that have become quite common in the 2000s.  Recordings with altered vocals go back to at least the late 1950s.  In 1958, David Seville (thechipmunks.com) was responsible for two No. 1 hits that featured sped-up vocals:  “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song” (the latter for three cartoon characters he created).  Singing animals pop up again on such novelty hits as “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots in 1976, “The Hampsterdance Song” by Hampton the Hampster in 2000, and Crazy Frog’s remake of “Axel F” in 2005.

Thanks to the 2007 film “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” Seville’s trademark sound is introduced to a whole new generation.  You can also hear echoes of the chipmunks, as it were, on records by these non-novelty acts:

Freeze, “Pop Goes My Love” (1983)
Newcleus, “Jam on It” (1984)
Prince and the Revolution, “Erotic City” (1984)
Nu Shooz, “I Can't Wait” (1986)
Kanye West, “Through the Wire” (2004)
Akon, “Lonely” (2005) and “Don’t Matter” (2007)
Armand van Helden, “My My My” (2005)

Note that West’s “Through the Wire” and Akon’s “Lonely” sample Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” and Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely,” respectively.  And van Helden’s “My My My” samples the obscure “Comin’ Apart” by Gary Wright.

The strangest case of speedy vocals involves Bryan Adams—a few years before he became a rock star.  The producer of 1979’s “Let Me Take You Dancing” thought Adams’ voice would be more suitable for this dance record if it had a higher pitch.  So he sped up the vocal track and the rest is history.

After Seville, the next person who left an indelible mark on vocal effects is Peter Frampton (frampton.com).  The album “Frampton Comes Alive!,” which was recorded live at San Francisco’s Winterland and would go on to sell 6 million copies in the U.S. alone, produced two top 10 singles in 1976 that showcased his signature “Voxbox” guitar sound:  “Show Me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do.”

Whether they used a talk box, a vocoder, or some post-production technique, various artists experimented with robotic-sounding vocals throughout the 1980s.  Until the end of the century, the biggest dance hit to utilize altered vocals was “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. in 1980.  And for a long time, Laurie Anderson was the only female artist to substantially change her vocals, starting with the 1981 alternative hit “O Superman” (a surprising No. 2 hit in the U.K.).

Electric funk artists incorporated a lot of vocal effects, especially Greg Broussard and Tony Butler.  Broussard is better known as Egyptian Lover (1984’s “Egypt, Egypt,” and 1985’s “Dance” and “Dubb Girls”), but he also recorded under the name Jamie Jupitor (1985’s “Computer Power”).  Butler used the monikers Freestyle (1984’s “The Party Has Begun,” and 1986’s “Don’t Stop the Rock” and “It’s Automatic”) and “Pretty” Tony (1984’s “Jam the Box”).  With support from producer Arthur Baker in 1982, “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force became a street anthem that helped define the electric funk genre.  The World Class Wreckin Cru, whose lineup included Dr. Dre, released “Juice” in 1985.

On the R&B side, Roger Troutman (zapptown.com) always sounded like an instrument.  His solo records (under the name Roger) include “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1981), “In the Mix” (1984), and “I Want to Be Your Man” (1988).  His group Zapp’s biggest hits are “More Bounce to the Ounce” (1980), “Dance Floor” (1982), and “I Can Make You Dance” (1983).  Three years before he passed away, Troutman scored his second top 10 hit with 2Pac’s “California Love” in 1996.  This record interpolated his song “So Ruff so Tuff.”

With or without altered vocals, Germany’s Kraftwerk (kraftwerk.com) managed to sound mechanical on such songs as “Numbers” (1981), “Tour de France” (1984), “Musique Non Stop” (1987), and “The Telephone Call” (1987).  The band inspired Baker, Broussard, and many others.

In the 1990s, European artists did their share of knob-fiddling in the recording studio.  There was the memorable “Magic Carpet Ride” by Mighty Dub Katz in 1995, one of Norman Cook’s alter egos.  The next milestone in the evolution of audio effects is the debut of Daft Punk (daftpunk.com, virginrecords.com) in 1997.  This French duo has consistently made records with enough disembodied vocals that computers would love:  “Around the World” (1997), “Revolution 909” (1998), “Digital Love” (2001), “One More Time” (2001), “Harder Better Faster Stronger” (2002), “Robot Rock” (2005), and “Technologic” (2005).  Their side projects include Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You” in 1998.

Even Basement Jaxx released the vocally processed “Rendez-Vu” in 1999.  And after Eiffel 65 (bloom06.com) scored a worldwide hit with “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” in 2000—and its follow-up “Move Your Body”—there’s been a steady supply of male robots on CD.  Here’s just a sampling of such European acts:

C.O.P. Project, “Pornostar” (2000)
Eyes Cream, “Fly Away (Bye Bye)” (2000)
Dance Nation, “Sunshine” (2001)
Soul Dujour, “Here We Go Again” (2001)
Dax Riders, “Real Fonky Time” (2002)
Dirty Vegas, “Days Go By” (2002)
Benny Benassi Presents The Biz, “Satisfaction” (2003)
Ferry Corsten, “Rock Your Body, Rock” (2004) and “Watch Out” (2006)
Tiesto Featuring BT, “Love Comes Again” (2004)
Mylo, “Drop the Pressure” (2005)
Mylo vs. Miami Sound Machine, “Doctor Pressure” (2006)

Not to be outdone by their European counterparts, American male artists also got in the act:

Lucas Prata, “Let’s Get It On” (2002)
BT, “Simply Being Loved (Somnambulist)” (2003) and “The Force of Gravity” (2004)
3 Speaker High, “Make Me Dance All Night” (2004) and “Have a Good Time” (2005)
E-40, “U and Dat” (2006)
Chris Brown, “Kiss Kiss” (2007)
Fabolous, “Baby Don’t Go” (2007)
Hellogoodbye, “Here (In Your Arms)” (2007)
Plies, “Shawty” (2007)
T-Pain, “Bartender” (2007) and “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” (2007)
Snoop Dogg, “Sensual Seduction” (2008)

Cher’s (cher.com) 1999 worldwide smash “Believe” added a slight twist to the bag of vocal tricks (the singer felt the verses needed a boost) and has inspired female vocalists—and some male artists listed above—to do something similar.  This is one of the first songs—certainly the most commercially successful—to feature electronically produced vocal runs or melismas (several notes sung to one syllable) throughout.  Below are some of the female vocalists who jumped on the bandwagon in the 2000s:

Fiori, “If I” (2000) and “Take Me Where You Are” (2002)
Madonna, “Music” (2000), “Die Another Day” (2002), and “American Life” (2003)
Willa Ford, “I Wanna Be Bad” (2001)
Sarina Paris, “Look at Us” (2001)
Pulsedriver, “Cambodia” (2001)
Casero, “Shimauta” (2002)
Nayer, “First Kiss (Primer Beso)” (2002)
La Factoria, “Todavia” (2003)
Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek” (2005)
Aly & AJ, “Potential Breakup Song” (2007)
Amanda Perez, “Candy Kisses” (2007)
JJ Flores & Steve Smooth, “Being in Love” (2008)

Note that Madonna’s “Music,” like “Funkytown,” uses altered backing vocals and is really a throwback to the 1980s.  And the distorted sound of Heap’s “Hide and Seek” owes more to the cult classic “O Superman” than anything else.

Finally, we should mention two more special effects.  The first is the “megaphone” sound as heard on The New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral” (1966), Paul & Linda McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” (1971), and White Town’s “Your Woman” (1997).  The other creates a broken or stuttering effect a la 1969’s “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and The Shondells and 1999’s “Praise You” by Fatboy Slim.

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