FEATURE: Hymns from the Love Ghetto: Neneh Cherry’s Raw Like Sushi at Thirty




Hymns from the Love Ghetto

ALBUM COVER PHOTO: Jean-Baptiste Mondino  

Neneh Cherry’s Raw Like Sushi at Thirty


NOT that I am representing every major album…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Neneh Cherry circa 1989/PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Eichner/WireImage/Getty

that is celebrating in a feature but, as Wednesday marks thirty years since Neneh Cherry’s debut album, Raw Like Sushi, was released, I only felt it right to mark that! I was originally going to put it in my Vinyl Corner feature but, having looked online, I cannot find a good copy! I am not sure whether Cherry is going to put Raw Like Sushi on vinyl but it seems like an album that would sound perfect coming from a record player! I remember the album coming out on 5th June, 1989 and, whilst my memory as a six-year-old is spotty, it is a record that sounded pretty different to everything else that was out at the time. I have put Raw Like Sushi under the spotlight before but, now that it is thirty, I felt it warranted another spin. I will come to the modern output of Neneh Cherry in the final parts but, to start, it is worth looking at Raw Like Sushi and its impact in 1989. Whilst a few producers and musicians helped make Neneh Cherry’s debut a success – including her husband, Cameron McVey -, it is Cherry’s unique and incredible talent that shines from every note. In a year where some stunning Pop and Hip-Hop was thrilling people, there was some wonderful R&B working in the mix. It is amazing to think of all the epic albums that arrived in 1989 and how, in its way, Raw Like Sushi slipped right in.

Whereas Cherry was tackling big subjects like the inner-city and men who need to do some growing up, there was an accessibility and common touch that meant the songs connected with fans and critics alike. One reason why Raw Like Sushi impacted in 1989 and sounds fresh now is because of all the sound pollination and how genres are spliced together. Cherry brings together brass, guitars and myriad sounds to create this wonderful spritz and explosion. Cherry, even that young, was talking about her experiences of motherhood and her own upbringing. Not many artists have that sort of experience and background – giving Neneh Cherry more clout and depth when it came to her songs. It is clear that, whereas her contemporaries such as Madonna (her debut arrived in 1983) went in quite commercial and safe, Cherry was pushing boundaries and digging deep right off the bat. I guess there was something about the late-1980s that inspired artists to be bold and challenging. I mentioned how Hip-Hop was reaching heights in terms of scope; sampling was common and the lyrics being addressed by artists were a lot more eye-opening than what was happening in Pop. Cherry, whereas she might have been marketed more in a Pop vein, had more in common with the Alternative bands and Hip-Hop artists that ruled 1989. I have talked a lot about the album’s themes and strengths and, at the time, Raw Like Sushi resonated.

Critics in 1989 saw this bold and brilliant artist come through whose music was dizzying and electric. Contemporary reviews are ecstatic and it seems that, almost thirty years after its release, Raw Like Sushi is gold. AllMusic, in this review, had their opinions:

 “Those arguing that the most individualistic R&B and dance music of the late '80s and early to mid-'90s came out of Britain could point to Neneh Cherry's unconventional Raw Like Sushi as a shining example. An unorthodox and brilliantly daring blend of R&B, rap, pop, and dance music, Sushi enjoyed little exposure on America's conservative urban contemporary radio formats, but was a definite underground hit. Full of personality, the singer/rapper is as thought-provoking as she is witty and humorous when addressing relationships and taking aim at less-than-kosher behavior of males and females alike. Macho homeboys and Casanovas take a pounding on "So Here I Come" and the hit "Buffalo Stance," while women who are shallow, cold-hearted, or materialistic get lambasted on "Phoney Ladies," "Heart," and "Inna City Mamma." Cherry's idealism comes through loud and clear on "The Next Generation," a plea to take responsibility for one's sexual actions and give children the respect and attention they deserve”.

Pitchfork approached Raw Like Sushi from a slightly different perspective in their review:

 “Manchild,” the second track on the album, is probably the best example of Raw Like Sushi’s widescreen view; it reunites Cherry with Wild Bunch member Robert “3D” Del Naja, who by then had formed trip-hop collective Massive Attack. Anyone expecting something like “Buffalo Stance II” to be Sushi’s second single was probably surprised. Its shape-shifting, woozy synths, which floated in and out of keys, led and were led by Cherry’s soulful yet pointed vocal. She’s acting as the prodding yet sympathetic sage to a flailing other, rapping about “R-E-S-P-E and C-T” while chords quiver and hover.

Audacity was what made Raw Like Sushi such a thrilling album three decades ago, and it’s also a big part of why today it looms large, both as an example of musical possibility and as a totem of womanhood. The front of Raw Like Sushi shows Cherry in full-on Buffalo stance, her arms crossed, her gaze set, her pout square. Its back cover, however, shows Cherry in flight and lost in the music, her curls midair, her arms splayed—realizing the joy in pure possibility, and dancing along with it as fast as she can”.

It doesn’t get talked about much, but I do think a lot of Pop who arrived after Raw Like Sushi was released owe the album a lot. The way genres were mashed and that distinct Neneh Cherry quirkiness; I can hear that in artists today. Very few artists before Cherry were covering the sort of themes she was and I think her subsequent albums helped cement that quality and influence – 1992’s Homebrew and 1996’s Man were huge albums that saw Cherry grow and expand. I will finish with my own thoughts but, in this great retrospective from 2014, The Quietus dove into Raw Like Sushi:

“…Even today, Cherry remains one of the most disorientingly eclectic of artists. On her debut album, Raw Like Sushi (1989), most of the tracks are catchy yet confusingly dense, throwing us off with their mood changes and far-flung references. Her voice switches nationalities within a single breath; she can come across as a sage or a brat, sophisticated or cacklingly malicious. Her tough persona implies a straightforward approach to her craft, but what the music presents is harder to decipher.

When we get to the critique of the pimp and the girls, Cherry's voice is superior and strident; throughout the album, there tends to be a view of boys as dominated and unripe, while the girls are predatory, standing around "wearing padded bras, sucking beer through straws." Men may be limp, but these young women are even less sensual, with their lacquered lips pursed over a can. So this first part of the song is rather abject, with its hawking voice, and its allusions to gross female display.

Cherry and McVey's style is not the warm, full-bodied sound of R&B: it has a much more inorganic feel, favouring fizzy noise over the deep tones of funk or soul. 'Buffalo Stance' has a coiled, compressed sound; beats form little eddies and bubbles which correspond to the blooming digital shapes of the video. The synth is thin and airy, evoking something crude and mass-produced: that's what makes the track distinctive rather than generically tasteful. Audiences may expect great music to be rich and rootsy; Raw Like Sushi remains strange because its sound is exactly the opposite – bright, sharp and cold, a rejection of the past.

Although she clearly draws from a wealth of cultural influences, Neneh Cherry has never been anything so wholesome as a "world" artist. Released at a time when both hip-hop and sushi were considered alternative, this album still stuns with its unique take on rawness: not the fuzzy lo-fi kind, but a sound which is actually grating and alarming to the ear. Raw Like Sushi is proof that great albums don't have to take on heroic structures; the record's most distinguishing feature is its exploration of superficiality and tackiness on both sonic and verbal levels. Instead of a sense of grandeur or orchestration, transcendence is achieved through an accumulation of small detail: a sampled screech, the odd tinny note, an image of tiny-mouthed women sucking through straws. Soulful phrases are combined with synthetic textures, so that each sound retains its own idiosyncrasy, rather than being refined into a whole”.

To me, Raw Like Sushi represents the introduction of an artist who startled the music world and opened minds. We can talk about the standout hits like Manchild and Buffalo Stance but there are also the more challenging and evocative tracks such as The Next Generation and Love Ghetto. I was very young when Raw Like Sushi came out but, through the 1990s, I followed Cherry closely and Raw Like Sushi gained new light. It is an album that does not sound dated and, every time I play it, I pick up fresh revelation and glory. It is a truly wonderful debut and, although Cherry has released some fantastic albums since 1989 (her latest, 2018’s Broken Politics, is exceptional), I do not think she has created anything as staggering and ambitious as Raw Like Sushi. I can spin these brash and wonderful songs but, as you play the whole album through, these other gems emerge. Neneh Cherry plays this year’s Glastonbury - and it will be a great opportunity for songs from Raw Like Sushi to reach new ears. I do wonder why Cherry wasn’t selected as a headliner this year but, with such a fine body of work under her belt, she will delight and excite those who are lucky enough to see her. If you have not heard Raw Like Sushi, make sure you listen to it and experience this phenomenal album. On Wednesday, it turns thirty and I do think it warrants fresh inspection and praise. 1989 produced some world-class and iconic albums but, riding high in the pack, is Neneh Cherry’s…


 PHOTO CREDIT: David Burton

IMMENSE and timeless debut.