Showcasing a powerhouse of talent, incredible songwriting and production creativity.
Songs That Changed Music: Grace Jones – Slave To The Rhythm – 9 March 2022 | Produce Like a Pro
In 1985, producer Stephen Lipson teamed up with Bruce Woolley, Simon Darlow and Trevor Horn to create one of the decade’s most influential dance music tracks – ‘Slave to the Rhythm’. Originally intended for Frankie goes to Hollywood, the song found its iconic home in the talents of the incredible Grace Jones. The song showcases a powerhouse of talent and incredible songwriting and production creativity.
Grace Jones was born in Spanish Town Jamaica and spent most of her early life there, living with her grandmother. At age 13, she joined her parents and the rest of her family in Syracuse, New York. Her career began as a model in New York in the late sixties, and then in Paris during the early seventies. By the end of the decade, however, she had signed with Island records, releasing her first album Portfolio in 1977. Her work with disco producer Tom Moulton set her up for musical success as a star of dance music with hits like “I Need a Man” and “Do or Die” Across the 80’s Jones maintained her popular musical dominance, as a leader of New Wave and eventually reggae music. She also moved into acting, with major roles in Conan the Destroyer (1984) and the 1985 James Bond film, A View to a Kill. In 1985, Jones returned to the recording studio to complete her final album with Island Records – Slave to the Rhythm.
Slave to the Rhythm is an incredible album which centers around the concept of exploring the same track in several different ways. The original version, written by Darrow and Woolley, was intended for Frankie Goes to Hollywood as a follow up for their hit single “Relax” but then given to Jones instead. Chris Blackwell of Island Records had loved the concept of a song entitled “Slave to the Rhythm” but encourage the Lipson and the other songwriters to reimagine it to a go-go rhythm. This was the first reinvention of the song, as Woolley laid down a demo with this new vision in mind.
“It’s like little bits of jewellery.”Stephen Lipson – Co-producer ‘Slave to The Rhythm’
Blackwell then booked the Power Station in New York for Lipson, Horn and Woolley to work with a band of musicians he had handpicked for the song. As the studio musicians began setting up, and warming up in the studio, Lipson stumbled upon the rhythm which would lay down the foundation for the entire track. While the guitarist was out of the room, the rhythm section laid down an incredible beat which Lipson caught on tape. Inspired by this new beat, they rewrote the entire song to go along with a two bar loop from this impromptu moment.
Sources conflict on who exactly played on the track (perhaps because of the complexity of the entire album, and all the different versions of the song that exist) but Lipson specifically remembers William Ju Ju House on drums and percussion. Together with the bass, the rhythm lays down a phenomenal groove for the song. The bass part was originally played by Lipson, but then they brought in Luís Jardim who largely echoed what Lipson had first laid down. The guitars were played by Lipson, J.J. Belle and Bruce Woolley – all through BSS (Brookes Siren System) DIs.
The guitars really showcase the impressive mix of performance talent and creative production editing that characterise the entire song. The players were all phenomenal and created individual pieces which could then be brought together, and rearranged to create an incredible track. Lipson recalls playing at Stratocaster with a Dyna Comp pedal, and probably a Boss CE2 for chorus and Boss HM2 pedal.
A huge part of the interest in the song comes from the constantly changing textures and colors in individual sections – keyboard sounds, a little flute, background vocals, etc.. These pieces of “musical jewelry” (as Lispon calls them) make each verse and chorus have its own unique colors and expressions. In addition to all of these little bits and pieces, Richard Niles created a complex and interesting orchestral arrangement. While they didn’t end up using all of his arrangement, what made it into the track is incredibly memorable. The horns in particular add such memorable details to the song’s arrangement. The lush orchestral part even inspired that iconic moment towards the end of the song when Grace Jones announces herself. Also adding to that celebratory spirit that you hear with the orchestra and horns in the track is little details like the applause effects, which they had just pulled from a sound library.
Grace’s vocals were likely recorded at Maison Rouge studios. They showcase her incredible talent and artistry. Lipson doesn’t remember the exact microphones but he does recall relying on his usual practice of high levels of compression on the vocals.
The song was essentially recorded in one day at the Power Station, with most of the mixing and editing done later at Sarm East studios. They also made some interesting additions in the final stages, including the low sound which immediately follows Ian McShane’s introduction of the song. While the single did not take long to make, they actually abandoned it for a while and created a whole album of different versions of the song. This is one of the most fascinating things about the Slave to the Rhythm album. It is essentially a concept album of incredibly different arrangements of the same title song.
Lipson recalled that it was likely mixed in about a day at Sarm East. “Slave to the Rhythm” was released in October of 1985 and became one of Jones’ most commercially successful tracks (hitting number 12 in the UK) and certainly one of her signature songs. It also made the top 10 internationally, including in Belgium, New Zealand, Italy, and Austria. In the US it hit number one on the Billboard Dance Club songs. Although it never hit the Hot 100 in the US, it still remained an important song for the dance music world and for musical artists who have repeatedly turned to it as a model of incredible performance and production. And it has maintained longevity – in 2012, Jones was invited to perform it at Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration in which she hula-hooped while singing for the entire performance.