Sing It Baby

Apparently it all started as an experiment with LSD.

Keirin Kirby was an aspiring fashion designer, living in a New York apartment with her Ukrainian immigrant boyfriend Dmitry Brill, he the main breadwinner of the couple with a growing reputation as a club DJ. After he arrived home buzzing from one of his trademark eight-hour sets, she claims she dropped a tab to join him and by the end of the trip had now found a new calling as a singer and performer.

Over the course of a year in the mid-80s the pair would write around 30 songs together. Kirby transformed herself into the otherworldly Lady Miss Kier and the duo begin performing at any venue that would have them. They called their style "holographic techno-soul", incorporating synth-pop, funk, and hip-hop and discovering that the eclectic mix played well no matter where they were booked - gay clubs, house clubs, hip-hop venues. The pair had also purchased one of the very early models of the Akai sampler that added an exciting new dimension to their sound. Kier's design skills also meant they both performed in eye-catching outfits and their advertising flyposters were as eye-catching as their music was compelling.

One of the many fans the newly-christened Deee-Lite acquired was a bespectacled Japanese student. Dong-Hwa Chung aka Towa Tei gave his idols a tape of sampled mixes he had created in his bedroom. He was no musician, but Dmitry and Kier realised that his technical brain made him the programmer they had been searching for, the avid record collector also a walking database of potential samples and beats. It would turn out to be the final piece in the jigsaw.

By 1989 the trio had their repertoire perfected. "We had three years of material by that point", Kier told Music Radar in 2016, "Because we were doing it live we recognised what songs people liked, so worked on those in the studio". Handily by this time they also had record labels courting them, Elektra winning a short bidding war for their services. Deee-Lite's move from stage to the studio was eased by the mentorship of funk legend Bootsy Collins who had come on board after Lady Miss Kier had reached out to him and professed herself a fan. He not only supplied the expertise as they self-produced their debut album but played bass on some tracks and introduced them to many of the musicians who would eventually make up their full touring band.

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A Good Beat

Groove Is In The Heart wasn't planned to be their first single. The track What Is Love? was selected as the group's introduction to the world, but DJs in clubs and on American radio stations much preferred the track tucked away on the flipside of the initial white label promos, forcing a rethink and for the planned release to emerge as a double A-side instead. Truthfully it is hard to see why they would have made any other choice. Groove Is In The Heart was the quintessential Deee-Lite track, a lolloping, seductive funk groove and with Lady Miss Kier's yowling, purring vocals pushed to the fore. The music itself was little more than layer upon layer of samples, the bass from Herbie Hancock's Bring Down The Birds, the drums and most importantly its iconic slide whistle hook borrowed wholesale from Get Up by Vernon Burch. Yet the track still sounded like nothing else on earth. Added to the mix was a mid-song rap from a then-unknown Q-Tip, himself on the verge of fame as part of A Tribe Called Quest but at the time just a part of the New York hip-hop scene having fallen in with the Jungle Brothers. He apparently improvised his mid-point intervention during the course of ten minutes and although he didn't quite make it onto all the radio edits it was his own first brush with celebrity as well.

Introduced to British clubs in the summer of 1990, the track was a guaranteed smash even before release. Single of the week reviews flowed like liquid and it was really a matter of when, not if, Groove Is In The Heart would find its way close to the very top of the singles charts. In fact, it took just five weeks to get there, bounding 60-32-13-4 and then finally - it seemed - to second place in early September. Denying the single a place at the summit on the chart broadcast on September 9th that year was a golden oldie, a re-release of Steve Miller Band's The Joker (ironically itself a 1970s revival, albeit of a very different kind).

Then on Monday morning when full figures were made available to the record industry things started to become unglued. Elektra's UK arm fired off memos and press releases expressing outrage. Because on the face of things Groove Is In The Heart wasn't actually the Number 2 single at all. Both it and The Joker were in a unique dead heat tie at the top of the charts.

Panel Beaters

To follow why this appeared to be the case required a far deeper understanding of the intricacies of charts compilation than most people were familiar with. The charts at the time boasted that they were compiled from a sample of 500 record shops nationwide. In an attempt to counter attempts at chart hyping and to confound those who wished to organise targeted buying campaigns compilers Gallup had actually taken steps over the preceding few years to increase the range of the survey. By 1990 there were in fact over 900 shops across the country equipped with the barcode scanning terminals used to collate the data used to compile the singles chart. Every few weeks the set of 'live' terminals used for sampling was changed, meaning it was impossible to truly tell which stores were contributing to the chart survey week in week out.

Good for foiling the cheats, but as a statistical sample it would have been chaotic, with no week to week consistency in terms of the size of the market. So each week the sampled sales were adjusted to a consistent baseline that presumed the same 250 outlets were used each week. It was all done market sector by market sector and region by region. So, in the most commonly quoted example, if there were readers in 12 of the 30 medium-sized Woolworths branches in the South-East and together they logged 18 sales of a record then it was safe to presume that all 30 would sell 45 copies. Once a nationwide total had been arrived at, the figure was divided back down (at the time by a factor of just over 17) to work out the "panel sales" from the core 250. Yes, it all sounds a little inelegant, but without logging all sales wherever they happened it was a necessary process to obtain a consistently representative sample. Most importantly it made one week's chart survey directly comparable with the next, preventing things like in-store appearances from distorting the market too much.

Herein lay the problem. On the chart of w/e September 15th 1990 both Groove Is In The Heart and The Joker had both ended up with 2,595 panel sales. The rules at the time did provide for such an event, and it had long been agreed that ties would be broken with the record showing the greatest increase in sales week on week taking precedence. The Joker had leapt up the charts from No.6 the previous week. Groove Is In The Heart only from 4. Steve Miller was the fastest-growing single and hence he was No.1 by rule.

The label's main beef was really that they had been denied a useful marketing hook. To be able to promote the single across Europe as "a UK Number One" was quite a big deal back then. "The track that made it to No.2 in Britain" was a less compelling hook for sure. If nothing else they argued, surely a hot new upcoming act deserved a place at the top of the charts more than a superannuated rocker whose single was only in the market because of a jeans commercial. It was the first major PR challenge for the newly-incorporated Chart Information Network, the joint venture formed in July that year between the BBC, Music Week and BARD to formally codify ownership and management of the UK charts.

You Dig?

The outrage turned out to be slightly misplaced. Panel sales were expressed as whole numbers, simply because that's how they always had been. However, this was after rounding had taken place. Gallup subsequently revealed that in actual fact The Joker had registered 2,595.2 panel sales, and Groove Is In The Heart 2,594.7. Tracing this back to the originally sampled numbers their calculations were that The Joker led by 44,118 copies to 44,110. Just eight copies in it for sure, but a miss is as good as a mile. Who knows, perhaps in a world where like today practically every single sale could have been sampled the Deee-Lite single may indeed have shifted more copies that week. But the 1990 data had them short by the narrowest of margins and that was what the record books would show. Astute observers noted that the availability of the Deee-lite album (which had been released at the start of September while the single was still climbing the charts) may well have siphoned sales away from the single and prevented it from reaching its true chart potential.

The following week the two singles were once again 1 and 2, only this time The Joker had a clear margin at the top and was rightfully the No.1 single of the week, putting the matter to bed once and for all.

The furore did have one impact however, as in early 1991 the rules were changed. Panel sales would henceforth be expressed as fractions where required, and perhaps just as significantly although the chances of a tie were now substantially reduced singles would once more be permitted to occupy joint chart positions. This would indeed happen on a handful of occasions in 1991 and 1992, but it would never again occur anywhere near the top of the charts.

Deee-Lite's World Clique album wasn't quite the huge sensation its lead single suggested it would be, spending three weeks in the Top 20 at the end of September while Groove... was at its peak. Nothing the group released subsequently would attract quite the same level of attention and they would be to all intents and purposes one-hit wonders as far as the British charts were concerned. Groove Is In The Heart wasn't marketed worldwide as a British chart-topper, although it would make it to No.1 in Australia and peaked at No.4 in the group's native country. Lady Miss Kier was active on social media until mid-2019  before abruptly vanishing, although given her last few tweets appeared to be expressing her outrage at the online treatment of Paul "Mapwanker" Watson, this may not entirely be a bad thing.


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