A house act that helped bring the music of the ’80s NYC gay club scene to mainstream attention, Dee-Lite came to represent the positive, change-the-world vibe that infected pop and rock music in the early 1990s. But like most of the dreams of the nineties, they didn’t last.
Deee-Lite’s biggest hit was “Groove is in the Heart,” recently named the Avocado’s top One-Hit Wonder. You may recall this track’s infectious groove, its funky bass, its incredible video, and its all-star guest appearances, including Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and a trio of P-Funk regulars who also used to back up James Brown: Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker, and Fred Wesley.
And that’s all anyone knew about this enigmatic band. Until now.
Deee-Lite got its start in 1986, when budding fashion designer/waitress/go-go dancer Lady Miss Kier met the Ukrainian immigrant DJ Dmitry Brill after making him some silver platform boots and a glittery, blue spacesuit (as one does[?]) for his band, the aptly(?) named Shazork. Here they are with Wigstock co-founder Lady Bunny on vocals.
Brill and Kier (real name: Kierin Kirby) hooked up and started making music together. Soon after, they brought in another DJ, Towa Tei, who was born in Japan and raised in Korea. This set of international house music aficionados played the club kid circuit for a few years before being signed to a seven-album contract by Elektra Records.
What?! A seven-record deal? This little factoid, true or not, is on Wikipedia with no source, and therefore almost impossible to confirm, since it’s been reposted all over the Internet. At any rate, their first album was World Clique, which included “Groove” and several other potential dance-pop classics, like the Crystal Waters-eque “Good Beat” and the spacey “Deep Ending,” as well as outliers like the sample-heavy “E.S.P.” Kier raps on that one.
Overall, the record is more clubby than funky, “Groove” notwithstanding. Thanks to that massive hit single, the record was a breakthrough, at a time when Billboard’s Dance Club Music charts were filled with pop and R&B songs masquerading as dance music, like Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” Exposé’s “Tell Me Why,” and, incredibly, De La Soul’s “Me, Myself, and I,” which hit No. 1. Deee-Lite, along with a few other artists, brought music that originated in the dance clubs into the ’90s pop scene, as opposed to the other way around.
After the mega-success of World Clique, the band decided to get more overtly political on 1992’s Infinity Within. Let us count the ways:
* The phrase “Let’s face it, it’s a pro-choice album” appears on the cover
* It was the first CD released in an Eco-pak, an early attempt to replace the old long box (superseded by jewel cases and eventually digital downloads)
* Songs referenced political activism and global issues, like “Vote, Baby, Vote” and “I Fell Through A Hole in the Ozone Layer”
* A portion of the record’s profits went to Greenpeace
* Noted lefty musicians Arrested Development and Michael Franti made guest appearances
Looking back now, this all seems a bit over-the-top. But remember the times: ever since the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, pop music was infected with upbeat, politically motivated hits, on a variety of topics, like Jesus Jones’s “Right Here, Right Now,” Van Halen’s “Right Now,” Hammer’s “Pray,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away,” Seal’s “Crazy,” and Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.” Michael Stipe wore ten different t-shirts to the 1991 VMAs, each one emblazoned with a different activist slogan, from “Alternative Energy Now” to “Handgun Control.” And remember these little guys?
I meant the red ribbons. They were everywhere back then, for AIDS awareness and solidarity.
So the point is, in 1992, preachy, feel-good pop music fit right in. But Infinity Within was not destined for greatness. None of its singles charted on the Hot 100, though “Runaway” hit No. 1 on the dance charts. The video was directed by Gus Van Sant.
This album has more of a head-nodding vibe. I’m not jumping onto the dance floor when I listen to it. And honestly, a lot of these songs sound a lot like other dance songs from this era, for instance most of the aforementioned Crystal Waters’s output, or CeCe Peniston’s “Finally”. I did like a couple standouts.
On the band’s third and final album, the global activism was dropped in favor of a personal approach to positivity. Allegedly inspired by Lady Kier’s trips to the Painted Desert and Yucatan pyramids, and DJ Dmitry’s visit to Joshua Tree, the album also featured 19-year-old rave DJ On-E replacing Towa Tei, who was going his own way with a return to Japan and a solo record in the works.
Like its predecessor, Dewdrops in the Garden was not a commercial smash. It peaked at 127 on the 1994 album charts and did not have a charting single. Remixes of two songs, “Bring Me Your Love” and “Call Me,” topped the dance chart – giving the band six No. 1 dance hits.
“Somebody” is an outlier on this record; it’s a little more modern in its sound, upgrading the group’s previously sample-reliant sound by creating some of their own beats on an 808 or something like it (I assume). On the flip side, “When You Told Me You Loved Me,” below, is a funky, sample-heavy track that feels like the spiritual follow-up to “Groove,” arriving four years too late. “Bring Me Your Love” and “Sampladelic” are almost Paul’s Boutique-esque in their use of samples. “Apple Juice Kissing,” below, is a reggae-tinged, summer afternoon tune, Kier practically whispering the verses between Dmitry’s cuts and scratches. And yes, the main sample is boldly taken from The Clash’s “London Calling” B-side, “Armagideon Time.”
Did I mention Kier and Dmitry were married? They were. They broke up after touring this record, as did the band. Everyone involved with Deee-Lite went their separate ways, and they have pretty much avoided any discussion of a reunion. Here’s a rundown on their activities:
* Lady Miss Kier has always been described as a “fashion icon” in articles and promotional copy. Turns out this is actually somewhat correct. Shoe designer John Fluevog credits her wearing his “Munster” platform shoes on the cover of World Clique with driving their popularity in the ’90s. Madonna wearing them in Madonna: Truth or Dare a year later must have helped, too. Kier also appeared on the cover of Vogue Italy and was named among the 25 “Most Influential Music Style Icons” by Glamour UK.
More to the point of this Spotlight, she started working as a DJ after leaving the band, and booked gigs everywhere from Paris Fashion Week to Coachella. She’s also continued singing, appearing on tracks by artists like Bootsy Collins, Dave Stewart, German electro star Mignon, and drum-n-bass producer Jonny L.
* Super DJ Dmitry has continued working as a DJ, often in Europe as he is now based in Berlin. He was named a DJ of the Year at the 1998 DJ Awards in Ibiza. He’s released a solo record and produced an album by singer Julee Cruise, perhaps best known for performing several songs on the Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks soundtracks.
* Towa Tei is an electronic musician and producer in Japan. His subgenre is called Shibuya-kei, which is the jazzy, lounge-inspired electronic music that Pizzicato Five used to do. He’s released more than a dozen records, featuring collaborations with an international murderer’s row of musicians, among them Ryuichi Sakamoto, Mos Def, Bebel Gilberto, Biz Markie, Kylie Minogue, Les Nubians, and (according to his record label) about half of Japan’s music industry. He’s also a member of the Japanese supergroup Metafive, with electro pioneer Yukihiro Takahashi and DJ/producer Cornelius.
* Late addition DJ On-E, a.k.a. Ani Quinn, still works as a DJ, playing big venues and New Year’s Eve parties. According to his website, he is Justin Timberlake’s house DJ, meaning he plays Timberlake’s fashion shows and whatnot.
So there you have it. I couldn’t ask for another!
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