March 2nd, 2015
Todd plays "Word Up" on the piano.
CAMEO - WORD UP
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we look at bands and artists known for only one song. But before we do that, I just wanted to confirm, "Uptown Funk"—still awesome.
- Clip of Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars - "Uptown Funk"
- Bruno: Come on!
Todd (VO): At the end of this week, "Uptown Funk" is still the #1 song in this country, which is great, and it's made me realize what a wonderful trip Bruno Mars has taken us through a neglected era of R&B.
- Clip of "Treasure"
- Bruno: Treasure
Todd (VO): Bruno Mars knows his '80s funk and soul, I'll tell you that much. Who knows what he's getting into next. Bobby Brown? El Debarge?
Todd: Man, I can't wait 'til he gets to the '90s.
- Clip of "Gorilla"
Todd (VO): But you know what, I don't actually know that much about the genre myself. Most of the funk I listen to is from the '70s. So...
Todd: ...if I want to know what it was like in the decade after, well, I can think of only one song I'd use to sum up the genre.
- Video for "Word Up"
- Larry Blackmon: Come on, baby, tell me what's the word
- Word Up
Todd (VO): This is Cameo. Y'all know who they are, right?
- Clip from Saturday Night Live
- Evan Bayh (Chris Parnell): I'm sorry, I don't remember you. What was your hit song?
- Larry (Tracy Morgan): "Word Up"!
- Evan: Still don't...how does it go?
- Larry: Word up!
Todd: Yeah, you know them.
- Larry: Yo pretty ladies around the world
- Got a weird thing to show you
- So tell all the boys and girls
Todd (VO): As far as I can tell, "Word Up" got a little forgotten after the '80s, but it has really, really grown in stature over the last ten years or so, as everyone suddenly seems to remember how awesome it was. [Brief clips of Target ad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin with Andy singing and dancing to it, and live performance of Korn's cover] You see it in commercials, movies, weird metal covers. And yet, the rest of the Cameo oeuvre has been forgotten over time. I mean, you'd think this band just made one brief appearance and then disappeared. [Album cover of Cameosis] They were called Cameo. That's literally what that word means.
But it turns out, there was a lot, a lot more to them than just this. I mean, people remember the song and the weird fashion—we'll get to that, trust me—but there was so much more, you guys. So much more.
Todd: And I'm gonna try and sum up all the highlights just for you because I have heard the code word, and when you hear the call, [singing] you've got to get it underway. Word up!
- Larry: No matter where you say it
- You'll know that you'll be heard
- Now all you sucker DJs
Before the hit
Todd: Before Cameo was one of the greatest '80s funk bands, they were a pretty decent '70s funk band.
- Clip of Cameo performing "I Just Want to Be"
Todd (VO): They started out in New York City, they were originally called the New York Players, but they changed their name to Cameo sometime in the mid-'70s. Now, this is the earliest footage I could find of them, from 1979, but they had a ton of R&B hits before this and after this, too.
Todd: Here's one of my favorite songs of theirs from 1980.
- Clip of "Shake Your Pants"
- Cameo: Shake your pants, shake your pants
- And let the vibes come through
- Just watch me and I'll show you how
Todd: Uh...okay. [Picks up a pair of pants and shakes them until something falls out] There's my keys.
- Clip of "Cameosis"
Todd (VO): Now, like I said, they had had hits before this, but they hadn't really made a name for themselves. People said they were a little too much like, you know, [brief clips of...] George Clinton or the Ohio Players, and they had to change their original name [album cover of Keep It Hot] because it sounded too much like the Ohio Players. So, of course, they themselves sounded like the Ohio Players. But that's only where they started. They were not afraid to grow or change with the times. And let's be clear—the transition from the '70s to the '80s was traumatic for a lot of people. [Brief clip of...] Stevie Wonder's peak period ends right at 1980. A lot changed real fast, and a lot of acts could not keep up with the times.
Todd: Cameo was not one of them.
- Clip of "Just Be Yourself"
- Cameo: Just be yourself, say what's on your mind
Todd (VO): The first thing they did was, they moved from New York to Atlanta. I have no idea why they did that, maybe they thought the music scene was less crowded down there. But I've heard arguments that, you know, they were the first step in Atlanta becoming the center of black music by the new millennium. Secondly, [back to "I Just Want to Be"] look, they had too many goddamn members. How was anyone supposed to get paid when they had to divide the check thirteen different ways?
- Clip of "Flirt"
Now, they pared it down to about five people, which, you know, stripped down their sound a lot. But you know, who needs a full horn section when you have synthesizers? So their sound changed entirely, and in some cases, that would mean they sold out, but not in this case. Where a lot of funk acts died, they thrived.
- Clip of "Single Life"
Now, a big part of it was their bandleader and singer and drummer Larry Blackmon. Now, he's a very talented multi-instrumentalist who went to Julliard, but mostly, he's a weird guy with a weird delivery and a big old Freddie Mercury mustache, and the whole band was pretty silly and loose because of that, which is how you get albums with names like [album covers of...] Knights of the Sound Table and Alligator Woman. [Clip of live performance] Now, you may be asking, "if they were so successful, how come I haven't heard any of these songs?" Well, yeah, there is a reason. Middle America was kind of burnt out with black music for a while. And by "burnt out," I mean [news footage of Disco Demolition Night] they burned a lot of records, literally. The disco backlash was pretty severe for a while, and it got kinda ugly. Look, the result is that...
Todd: ...almost no black music was getting any mainstream play, and it didn't really get better until everyone was satisfied that disco was good and dead.
- Brief clip of "Take It on the Run" by...
Todd (VO): So if you listened to REO Speedwagon, well, the early '80s was a good time for you, but if you were Cameo, you could have tons of hits on the R&B charts and not have a prayer of crossing over.
- Clip of "She's Strange"
- Larry: I like the way she walks
- I like the way she talks
Todd (VO): The situation got a little better after 1983, after Michael Jackson and Prince broke through, and Cameo started to inch their way towards mainstream crossover success. For example, they had this low-charting pop hit, "She's Strange".
- Cameo: She's strange
- Larry: And I like it
- Cameo: She's strange
- Larry: Just the way she is
- Cameo: She's strange
- Larry: Walking down the avenue
- Cameo: She's strange
- Larry: Always doing something new
Todd (VO): Can I say this right now? She's not that strange. Cameo is strange. You wanna see something strange? Well, I got a weird thing to show you, so [singing] tell all the...
Todd: ...boys and girls.
The big hit
- Video for "Word Up"
- Detective: [through megaphone] Cameo, don't even think about it! Come out with your hands up!
Todd (VO): Recognize that guy? Here, let me help. [Replays clip with Geordi La Forge's VISOR pasted over, but doesn't move with shot. Todd shifts it slightly] Well, you get the idea. Yes, that is LeVar Burton himself, which I get, you know? It makes sense to me. You put him on a song called "Word Up" 'cause [brief clip from Reading Rainbow] he's been teaching kids to love words for so long. Like, this song even teaches you how to spell.
- Cameo: W-O-R-D Up!
- [Brief clip of opening of...]
- Tina Fabrique: Reading Rainbow
Todd (VO): "Word Up" was the funkiest hit song of 1986. And if you want to know why that's such a big deal, let's see how funky America wanted their funk that year.
- Clip of Lionel Richie - "Dancing on the Ceiling"
- Lionel: Oh, what a feeling
- When we're dancing on the ceiling
Todd: Come on, can't we get a little funkier than that?
- Clip of Eddie Murphy - "Party All the Time"
- Eddie: My girl wants to party all the time
- Party all the time
Todd (VO): Look, Prince cannot carry the banner for funk alone; he's a tiny, tiny man. But Cameo proved that you can take the mechanical synth sound of the '80s and still be loose and fun with it.
- Larry: Do your dance
- Do your dance
- Do your dance quick, mama
- Come on, baby, tell me what's the word
- Word up
Todd points up
- Larry: Everybody say when you hear they call
- You've got to get it underway
- Word up
Todd (VO): Now, if you're like me, you're already familiar with this. But those of you who aren't familiar, you probably have one big question about this song.
Todd: "Screw the song! What the hell's he wearing on his junk?!"
Todd (VO): Ladies and gentlemen, this is a codpiece. [Painting of renaissance man wearing a codpiece] A popular piece of men's fashion from the Middle Ages intended to draw attention to and enhance the genitals. It is the Wonderbra for men. It lifts and separates.
Todd: No, it doesn't. At least I hope not.
Todd (VO): Yeah, this is the '80s, the era of awful fashion. Nowadays, Pharrell puts on [picture of Pharrell wearing...] an overly large hat and that's his thing, but in the '80s, if you wanted a style so ridiculous that it would be identified with only you, you had to really go out of your way. [Picture of Mike Score] Flock of Seagulls managed it, but I think Cameo actually topped them.
- Larry: Word up
Todd (VO): The codpiece is also kinda what's so great about the song. You just...
Todd: ...didn't care.
- Larry: Wave your hands in the air like you don't care
Todd: It's hard to care about waving your hands when you're wearing a goddamn codpiece!
- Larry: ...you'll be heard
- Now all you sucker DJs who think you're fly
Todd (VO): Not sure who he's addressing there, but I've seen interviews from the time where he said he didn't really like hip hop, said it was giving black people a bad name. Such is the power of the codpiece. If you're confident enough to wear it, you are confident enough to tell other people that...
Todd: ...they're the ones that look stupid.
- Larry: But you've got to realize that you're acting like fools
Todd: I'm wearing a codpiece, your argument is invalid.
- Cameo: W-O-R-D up
Todd (VO): It's a ridiculous, over-the-top song in all the good ways. Cameo proved you can minimalize a sound while still being over-the-top and keeping the groove. It's little wonder that this is the song that broke them through.
Todd: Word up!
- Larry: Word up
- It's the code word
Todd: Wait, the code word is "word"?! That's a terrible password!
The failed follow-up
- Video for "Candy"
- Backup: It's like candy
- Larry: I can feel it when you walk
Todd (VO): This is their follow-up, "Candy". It did fairly well, actually, almost broke into the Top 20. If anything, it's a little weirder than "Word Up". I mean, it's got the glittering synths, but it's also got Cameo's weird, nasally voice.
- Larry: You're giving me a heart attack
Todd (VO): And then they've got, like, this jagged rock guitar in the middle of it. Also, I've noticed he's still got on the codpiece. Naturally, you wear it once, it's kind of your thing forever. I'm beginning to notice that funk might be a little too limiting a description for them. A weird thing I've found out is that Blackmon hated being called funk or R&B, at least at the time. I can see what he means a little, there's also definitely a rock edge to a lot of their stuff, but I think a lot of it comes from the fact that the funk/R&B label was used to dismiss a lot of acts from mainstream crossover, so, you know, they were trying to break the mold, at least label-wise. Actually, in interviews, Larry seemed really serious and gets angry really easily. If you read his interviews from back there, he does all the Kanye style, talking himself up about being better than everyone, breaking new ground and everyone else is sellouts.
Todd: But you know, he has the tunes to back it up, so, you know, maybe he's got the right.
A guy in the video pulls a bra out of his jacket, then a woman pulls a red codpiece out of her jacket and drops it.
Todd (VO): Okay, that's funny.
Todd: And this is their other big single off of that album, it didn't quite do as well, but it was pretty good. It's called "Back and Forth".
- Video for "Back and Forth". The first shot is the red codpiece. Todd lets out a hearty laugh. Throughout the video, the codpiece swings like a pendulum doing wipes.
Todd (VO): Oh man, that's great. I... I can't even...
Did they ever do anything else?
Todd: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, a lot. Tons.
- Clip of "You Make Me Work"
Todd (VO): After this, their albums stopped selling quite as well, but I think they aged into the New Jack Swing era pretty well, although as the '80s got more ridiculous, so did Cameo. [Larry wears an outlandish costume with a matching black codpiece] Okay, now this is getting a little bit silly. They also had a more serious song after this [clip of "Skin I'm In"] about, like, racism and stuff. It was a little bit like when Ludacris decided he wanted to rap about child abuse, but you know, I'm not complaining. Everyone's allowed to get serious once in a while. I mean, look, he's taken off the codpiece. When Larry Blackmon takes off the codpiece, you know it's serious. But after that, the hits kind of dried up. They made it through two decades, but the '90s kinda threw them. They had a good run. Larry also did some production work, most notably for [clip of "Put Your Mouth on Me" by...] Eddie Murphy's second album, which, if you remember my Eddie Murphy episode, is the good album. And Cameo certainly hasn't been forgotten.
Todd: You know how I mentioned that Blackmon didn't like hip hop? Well, hip hop certainly likes him.
- Clips of Wu Tang Clan - "Gravel Pit", Mariah Carey - "Loverboy", Beastie Boys - "Hey Ladies", and Aaliyah - "Back and Forth"
Todd (VO): Rappers have sampled Cameo songs, like, some eight dozen times, and those are just the ones I could find. Two of their members even toured with Outkast. Unless you have literally never heard a hip hop song in your life, you've probably at least heard, like, a tiny snippet of Cameo. I imagine the royalties that keep rolling in have softened Blackmon's...
Todd: ...opinion about hip hop considerably.
Did they deserve better?
Todd: Actually, they did pretty well. But yes, they deserved better.
Todd (VO): I actually don't like much '80s R&B, especially when it got into the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis stuff with Janet Jackson and all that. But pretty much everything I've heard from Cameo, I like. They had the bad luck to break out right when the public was unnecessarily hostile to black music, and if Cameo was only mainstream successful for a brief time, it's not because they were only briefly hip to trends, it's because trends were only briefly hip to them. Cameo's still touring, and I think their legacy will only grow in stature as the years go on.
Todd: [pounds chest] Word.
- Video ends
Closing Tag Song: Korn - "Word Up!"
"Word Up!" is owned by Atlanta Artists
This video is owned by me