SoulBounce’s Class Of 1992: SWV ‘It’s About Time’

The first half of the '90s was the second golden age for
girl groups in music -- with everyone from Total
to Brownstone to Changing Faces (and maybe even MoKenStef) crafting the sound of the
era. But 1992 was the year the standard was set with big debuts from upstarts Jade, TLC and Sisters With Voices --  or SWV,
if you're nasty. Originally a gospel group formed in 1990, Tamara "Taj"
, Cheryl "Coko" Clemons and Leanne "Leelee" Gamble (having lost  first
rights to the band name TLC despite having the right initials), found
themselves signed to RCA Records after their demo tape caught the attention of
New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley. Their
first single, the New Jack-inflected "Right Here" was a modest hit, cracking
the Billboard R&B Top 20. But the follow-up "I'm So Into You" was the
group's real coming out party.

With its simple,
sing-along-friendly "You're so fine / You blow my mind" refrain squarely aimed
at America's
middle schools, the feel-good bounce of "I'm So Into You" established SWV among
the key faces of New Jill Swing. It
became their first top 10 single, and would go on to define the group for
years to come. By the time third single "Weak" had completed its run, their
debut album It's About Time was an
unqualified success, and America
had taken notice. With its lush vocal harmonies (and gorgeously shot video),
the ballad was a triumph in emotional narrative, hitting number one on both the
Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.

But their look got almost as much
attention as their sound. While their harmonies clearly referenced their gospel
roots, their image redefined what we expected of three girls from church.
Though they had the little skirts and leather jumpsuits, they didn't feel like
they were pushing sex-appeal (like Jade). On the other hand, they also weren't
trying too hard not to (like TLC).
And while reigning girl-group En Vogue,
riding high off the success of their just-released Funky Divas album, sought to continue
the legacy of black style icons Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, SWV felt
perfectly at home in their round-the-way look. With their doorknocker earrings
and signature Freddy-Krueger-meets-Basquiat manicures, they became trendsetters
in their own right (most notably bringing riding jodphurs to the streets, thanks to the hugely popular "Right Here" remix video).

But unlike the other newly-minted
Jills TLC, nothing about their presentation felt forced or gimmicky -- no easy
task, considering the multi-layered image complex they were working against. As
a genre, New Jack Swing was a harder-edged cousin to R&B music, meant to
bridge the gap between the emotionally present (read: ostensibly "soft")
R&B singers and the altogether rougher hip-hop acts. Rather than deny their
ovaries, the ladies put out an album heavy on keyboard leads and programmed
drums that (especially on cuts like "Think You're Gonna Like It" and "Right
Here") could have been recorded by Guy
or Public Announcement. They
maintained a sexy, totally accessible femininity layered over a streetwise edge
that made It's About Time one of the
more unisex-friendly R&B albums to come out at the dawn of the Gangsta Rap
era. In true New Jack Swing style, they handled their own rapping duties -- most
notably Taj's Grand Puba-conjuring
turn on the raunchy "Blak Pudd'n" and the raucous party cut "SWV (In The
House)." With their brassy delivery (and Coko's formidable talons), there was
no doubt that they were tough enough to hang with both the New Jack guys, and -- as they'd later prove on an epic remix -- the rappers the NJS fellas wanted to
prove they could roll with.

And yes, let's talk about those
remixes. It's About Time is
emblematic of its time, especially for the quality and significance of the
remixes it spawned. Despite its abundance of gorgeously arranged ballads that
perfectly balanced the party atmosphere of the album, some of the strongest
slow-burners got the full 180 on reworkings that took them from bedroom to
dance floor. From "Downtown" to "Anything," the '90's tradition of making a remix
an even bigger event than the original record is something that, though
tragically missing today, is all over this album, giving the
set new commercial legs with each single. And this album was the very definition of
"legs" (a term only Adele and Gaga, Our Lady of Focus-Group Edge can understand in today's singles
market). A year after its initial turn as the lead single, "Right Here"
received new life in the summer of 1993 with the Pharrell-assisted "Right Here / Human Nature" remix -- featuring vocals
resung to match the mellow, contemplative tone of the Michael Jackson hit it sampled. As part of the soundtrack to the
1993 blockbuster Free Willy, it peaked
at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, eventually spending a stunning 54 weeks on
the chart.

"Anything," another scorching
quiet storm number, was all but eclipsed by its 1994 remix on the all-star soundtrack
to the basketball flick Above The Rim
(back when urban movies were really just a delivery system for killer soundtrack
albums). The video played a major part in the top 20 success of this, the
album's seventh single. Now secure in front of the camera and in their success,
we saw a raucous (and very, very handsy) SWV having an absolute ball -- the song
and video combining to create one of the most exuberant musical moments of the
'90s. And its re-remix, featuring the Wu-Tang
, rests comfortably in the pantheon of the greatest R&B-hip-hop
remixes of all damn time. With all respect to Mariah Carey, SWV was the first to let
the world know the subversively euphoric magic created by the collision of R&B and ODB.

Two decades later, the R&B
girl group is all but gone -- contemporaries TLC halted by tragedy, one-time
opening act Destiny's Child
disbanded after serving its purpose as Beyoncé's
star-making vehicle, and the demand for multi-part harmonies likely killed altogether by Nicole Scherzinger and her daisy-chained
paper dolls. Thankfully, SWV is back among us, a little older, a lot wiser, but
thankfully still very much able to murder a three-part harmony, as they proved
on their latest set I Missed Us. They
may not get discussed as much as the iconic En Vogue or the larger than life
TLC, but they managed to influence the course of contemporary R&B more in
one album than many present-day acts will ever really know.

SWV It's ABout Time [Amazon][iTunes][Spotify]

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  • Kay

    This write up made me smile. Just remembering a time when there was a lot of really good music, in my opinion anyway. I used to rock this tape (yes, the tape) almost constantly back in the day. And yes,their remixes are the bomb; "Anything" was my favorite and I can't even remember the original version,lol. I can't believe it's been 20 years!

    • Remi

      Yes, Kay. If you listened to this on CD, you weren't about that life.

    • Derrick

      See Kay, you said "tape." So you know I had to rummage through my tape box and find this. lol! Classic! I love this album so much. @Remi, you're right, if you didn't have the tape, you weren't about that life. lol! Keep loving R&B y'all. :)

  • Dayo

    As I've all but given up on contemporary music, this just made me smile and reminisce.
    That being said, you must have been a music-listening prodigy :)

  • bibi93

    Great song!! Golden Years!!

  • JNez

    so many good memories. i thought 'you're always on my mind' was a perfect follow-up to 'weak.' by the way, here in nyc, 'weak' spent something like 4 months as the #1 song on Wendy Williams top 8 at 8 nightly countdown on radio station 98.7 KISS-fm in the spring/summer of 1993. i believe it's a record that still stands: 80 consecutive weeknights at #1.