If you’ve yet to discover Mabel, you’re missing out on one of the of the most promising young acts on the British music scene. The way by which this 23-year-old takes the sound of radio pop and turns it on its ear is a testament to her futuristic vision – not to mention a nod to her bloodline as the daughter of Neneh Cherry and Neneh’s producer-husband Cameron McVey, who were doing something similar 31 years ago with the release of her groundbreaking 1989 debut Raw Like Sushi.
“It’s like the family trade, isn’t it?” laughs McVey, on the line with Billboard talking about Universal’s deluxe reissue of Sushi, out Friday (Jan. 31), which includes a remaster of the original LP from Abbey Road Studios and two bonus discs packed with rare remixes from such giants as Arthur Baker, David Morales and Massive Attack. “We were essentially slowing it down and selling it back to America.”
McVey is referring to the R&B and dance music scenes in the U.K. and the prominence of ’80s New York radio on the sound systems of London and Bristol at the time, which fused with music emerging from the burgeoning rave movement across England.
“Obviously I wasn’t a straight-up rapper,” Cherry explains to Billboard. “I grew up quite a lot in New York as a visitor, but I didn’t grow up on the streets of New York. I lived in Sweden, where I’m from originally, so I had that as well. And then I moved to London, and when I first came to live here I was really integrated into the music going to sound systems and that whole flavor, which was a huge part of the lives of the guys in Smith & Mighty and Massive Attack as well. It was a sound system culture.”
What made Cherry stand out was the bravado and confidence she brought to her rap flow and singing voice. Similar to how her youngest daughter is setting fire to the BBC airwaves, Neneh felt empowered by the music of Janet Jackson and Madonna, but recognized the malleability of the root style and expanded upon it, looking at the rise of women in the hip-hop game as a perfect means to modify a sound entirely her own.
“We would listen to DJ Red Alert whenever we were in New York,” explains Cherry. “Marley Marl of course, but at the time of Raw Like Sushi you had De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest just coming out. It was amazing to hear this fearless truth coming out of hip-hop that became the backbone and the blood of the music. It still is. I definitely became a woman or came to life listening to this music. The first female rap record I ever bought was ‘Vicious Rap’ by Tanya ‘Sweet Tee’ Winley, and I wanted to be her so bad. But I became me instead, because I couldn’t be her; I can just be a weird version of that, which is me. That fearless nonconformity was so inspiring to me, and if you look back at it now, really political. It was such a really inspired time and it was a really big part of us finding our own voices through the sound of all those records coming out of New York hip-hop radio we were listening to at the time. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Roxanne Shante; I was in a car in a traffic jam stuck on a bridge in New York, and when ‘Roxanne’s Revenge’ came on WBLS and I was like, ‘oh my God.'”
Meanwhile in England, McVey and Cherry were incubating the future sounds of modern groove by working with promising youngbloods such as Massive Attack, Bomb The Bass and Nellee Hooper, all of whom were sowing the seeds of what would be labeled trip-hop by the mid-90s. It was those more hypnotic moments on Sushi, like the late night vibes of “Manchild” and “Inna City Mamma,” that saw them altering the BPMs on their favorite instrumentals from beat titans like Marley Marl and Easy Mo Bee.
“I wound up managing Neneh because we didn’t have any money to pay a proper manager. And then Massive Attack was heading in the same direction, so I ended up producing and managing them as well,” McVey explains to Billboard. “We all had this house that we used to live in and all the groups used to come and stay there and we had the management office in there as well, so it was chaos. That’s why there was all this integration between Neneh and Massive Attack and Bomb The Bass, because all the music was being made in the same place.”
“When I think of what we did and how we did it back then, we were just kind of quite free to do as we pleased,” admits Cherry. “We were obviously tapping into the stuff that we were listening to like a lot of the hip-hop coming out of New York. We always had this pop structure in the back of our minds, but our aim was to deconstruct the idea of what a pop song is by adding in a hip-hop beat with strings or combining sounds and attitudes that weren’t necessarily the norm. It felt like the obvious thing for us to try and do. Like, for instance, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were really scoring gold and their songs were everywhere back then. They were the kind of producers we were wishing that we could maybe work with one day. But then it was like in a way we were also deconstructing that style and making it our own and turning it into something more punk in a way. That’s the beauty of the kind of DIY aspect of rap or jazz or punk. It’s about engineering your own universe and telling your own story.”
For both Cherry and McVey, who are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary this year, it’s a strange sensation looking back on Raw Like Sushi considering they’re still pushing the envelope in modern composition as we head into the third decade of the new millennium. After taking off much of the 2000s (though Cherry was featured on the second Gorillaz album Demon Days in 2005), the couple took the last 10 years by storm. Cherry collaborated with Swedish-Nordic jazz power trio The Thing in 2012 on The Cherry Thing, which featured wild renditions of songs by her legendary stepfather Don Cherry as well as The Stooges, MF Doom and Suicide. She would go on to release two more albums that decade, 2014’s Blank Project and 2018’s masterful Broken Politics, both of which were produced by Four Tet, whom Cherry and McVey have been a fan of since Kieran Hebden’s early days in the British post-rock outfit Fridge.
“We met when we went to see Fridge at 12 Bar on Denmark Street, which is the smallest club in London,” McVey explains about their history with Hebden. “There are usually more people onstage than there are in the audience. And then years later, I was meeting him with the team that runs Smalltown Supersound and talked with him about doing the ‘Dream Baby Dream’ remix for The Cherry Thing album. And he said, ‘Hey I remember you came to see Fridge at the 12 Bar!’ It was like I was his very first stalker in a way (laughs). And it’s funny, because he’s such a huge fan of Don Cherry and we got to show him Don’s record collection and everything. Working with Kieran is almost like working with Don in a way, so I feel like we’ve come full circle collaborating with him. He’s like the modern-day version of Don Cherry.”
“I was a big fan of his from way back and I’d actually tried to work with him before,” adds Cherry. “I’d written an email to him to try and do something, but it wasn’t the right time or whatever. But when we did meet, we were like ‘let’s keep going.’ We just had that thing where we were intrigued by each other at the same time. It was very comfortable and very natural. His insight and understanding of music is just phenomenal, and the approach to what he does is just so fearless.”
While the release of this deluxe edition of Raw Like Sushi cements her place as a heritage artist in 2020, revisiting her very first album is a bit of a beautiful conundrum for an artist whose vision is still so firmly focused on the future of pop music.
“What I really like this box is that it doesn’t take away from the classic narrative of the original,” McVey admits. “Creatively, the label has done a really good job in both representing and updating the original. As a music fan, I don’t really like remastered records and reissues. I always think that the original could never be beaten. But I’m grateful they didn’t mess with the sound of the album too much, it was more about the design of the packaging for this collection.”
“It’s like looking at some pages in an old diary for me, and you’re looking at it with a few days under my belt and more life experience than I had back then and feeling like what a privilege it was that things turned out the way they did,” Cherry explains. “These little songs started out literally as little seeds doing such arbitrary things like sitting on a bus, which is where I was when I came up with the words for ‘Manchild’ or ‘Buffalo Stance,’ coming up with the rap as I was walking up my street in London. Then I remember one day being with my dad Don Cherry in Hollywood, and he was standing by Tower Records underneath this huge billboard of the Raw Like Sushi cover. So I’m standing there like, ‘Look at my dad looking up opposite of me in that funny picture we did in the studio one day.’ It was so bizarre, but it is amazing because the journey from there to here has been amazing.”
Yet nothing seems to beat the pride that both Cherry and McVey feel in seeing their daughter bust through boundaries just like Neneh did at the cusp of the 1990s.
“Mabel is quite the accomplished musician as well,” beams McVey. “She plays drums, guitars. She went to music school but she’s currently doing this pop thing that she’s on at the moment, but actually inside her there’s a highly trained musician and I know she’s got some pretty heavy influences just from growing up in our house. But sometimes we have to simplify what we do in order to penetrate a wider market in order to get heard in the first place. And I think Mabel is very good at that; she’s able to condense down what she does, and I think that potential she’s got to use her wider knowledge will be quite interesting to see how it manifests in the future.”