Next month, bonafide legend Neneh Cherry will pick up the Icon Award at the BandLab NME Awards 2022, following on from previous winners Courtney Love and Garbage’s Shirley Manson. From her DIY punk beginnings to a deep-rooted connection with Bristol’s underground scene, Cherry has been a hugely influential force in music since the 1980s, giving us global smash hits such as ‘Buffalo Stance’ and intensely personal records like 2014’s ‘Blank Project’ along the way.
“Life is a series of ups and downs – along the way I’ve tried to get better at loving myself but ultimately it’s the love from others given then received that makes that possible,” Neneh said of her NME win. “I’ve just tried to hold my corner and serve with truth, all made possible by the great visionaries I’ve come up and collaborated with along the way – you know what they say… it takes a village. To wake up one day to hear I’m being given an Icon Award seems crazy, but I’ll take it with great honour, so thank you NME.”
There are a multitude of reasons why Cherry is worthy of one of the most iconic gongs out there. Here are just a handful of highlights from her incredible journey.
She got her cool credentials in early
Neneh’s stepfather is the late American jazz trumpeter Don Cherry – a pioneering figure on the free jazz scene who drew on traditional African, Middle-Eastern sounds and North Indian classical music, as well as collaborating heavily with Ornette Coleman. One of Neneh Cherry’s first memories is sitting on jazz legend Miles Davis’ knee at a gig in Paris, and while hanging out at Coleman’s apartment block, she’d listen to none other than John Coltrane practising upstairs.
And soon bottled punk spirit
On the road in the UK, Don Cherry was invited to tour with punk band The Slits, and Neneh ended up befriending Slits members Tessa Pollitt, Viv Albertine and Ari Up. Soon, she dropped out of school aged 15 to live in a Battersea squat with Ari. London felt like home for Stockholm-born Cherry, and she quickly set down roots there.
As well as singing additional vocals on The Slits’ wildly influential post-punk record ‘Cut’, Cherry DJ’d on Dread Broadcasting Corporation – the UK’s first Black-owned radio station – and joined a series of other bands over in the capital, including punk outfit The Cherries, the dub collective New Age Steppers and the jazz-influenced post-punkers Rip Rig + Panic. Named after a record by jazz instrumentalist Roland Kirk, the latter band drew on jazz and funk. NME praised their freewheeling 1981 debut album as “an act of faith in tumult.”
She helped to create trip-hop
Several of Cherry’s Rip Rig and Panic bandmates used to be in a Bristol-based band called The Pop Group – she married drummer Bruce Smith, and the pair had a child together. Though they later separated, the two remained “great friends until this day”, and Smith’s strong links to Bristol introduced Cherry to a whole new circle of creatives. She soon got to know various members of Bristol soundsystem collective Wild Bunch. Future Massive Attack members Mushroom, Daddy G, Tricky and 3D were all members, and Cherry saw potential in the early material they’d made together.
“It was Neneh who kicked our asses and got us in the studio,” Daddy G told The Observer of Massive Attack’s 1991 debut album ‘Blue Lines’. “We recorded a lot at her house, in her baby’s room. It stank for months and eventually we found a dirty nappy behind a radiator. I was still DJing, but what we were trying to do was create dance music for the head, rather than the feet. I think it’s our freshest album, we were at our strongest then.”
Cherry’s husband Cameron McVey also contributed. Though its creation took some time, the result was epic. ‘Blue Lines’ is now remembered as one of the first-ever trip-hop records, and a classic of the genre. NME’s own late and great critic Dele Fadele called it “the sleekest, deadliest, most urbane, most confounding LP 1991 has yet seen”.
Her solo breakthrough was massive
Ahead of releasing ‘Blue Lines’, various members of Massive Attack also contributed to Cherry’s own 1989 solo record ‘Raw Like Sushi’ – 3D was a co-writer on the sweeping, hip-hop-influenced ‘Manchild’ while Mushroom appears on ‘Kisses in The Wind’, ‘The Next Generation’ and ‘So Here I Come’. The album’s biggest hit stems from an early collaboration between Cherry and her husband McVey, which began right after they met for the first time. His former band Morgan-McVey’s B-Side ‘Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch’ featured Cherry rapping, and was too great to leave behind. The pair repurposed the early recording, and turned it into the genius ‘Buffalo Stance’ – a swaggering cut laden with crisp drum machines, vinyl scratches and a soaring pop chorus.
…As was that infamous Top of the Pops performance
The runaway success of ‘Buffalo Stance’ took Neneh Cherry to Top of The Pops – at the time of the performance, she was heavily pregnant, which caused a huge ruckus and press outrage. The whole episode was ridiculous, and Cherry saw it as a chance to challenge. “I remember some doctor saying that what Neneh Cherry’s doing could cause her child harm, that sort of bollocks,” she later told The Guardian. “But I feel really proud of having done that. I didn’t feel being pregnant took anything away from my sexuality, who I am, the woman. It felt like a positive thing to celebrate it.”
When she held her own with Gordon F*cking Ramsey
OK, so is less serious than the other points, but it’s still iconic. Remarkably, Cherry even managed to fit an appearance on Gordon Ramsey’s The F Word into her storied career. “It was a weird experience,” she said after escaping the sweary chef’s wrath unscathed. “I mean, I love to cook. Yet when you are in a professional kitchen, the kind of experience of cooking is another dimension. Forget about slowly chopping away in your kitchen and thinking about what you are going to do later. I learned a lot, and he didn’t scream at me, so thank you for that, Gordon.“ That’s because he wouldn’t dare, Neneh!
Her collaborations create magic
Alongside Cherry’s five solo albums – most recently,2018’s ‘Broken Politics’ – the spirit of collaboration has stuck around, too. Over the years, she’s linked up with everyone from Robyn (on ‘Out of the Black’) and Jamie xx and The Avalanches (on ‘Wherever You Go’) to singing guest vocals on Gorillaz’ classic ‘Demon Days’ track ‘Kids With Guns’. After releasing her debut, Cherry took ‘Buddy X’ into the studio with hip-hop legend The Notorious B.I.G; his reworking of the track is now considered one of his greatest rarities. Way back in 1992, she recruited R.E.M’s Michael Stipe and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow for her album ‘Homebrew’.
In 2011, meanwhile, she teamed up with the experimental jazz band The Thing for ‘The Cherry Thing’, covering an eclectic range of songs, spanning from The Stooges and MF Doom to her own step-father Don Cherry.
And the classics just keep coming
After bagging a second Grammy nomination for ‘7 Seconds’ – a track from her 1996 solo album ‘Man’ – Cherry focused on collaboration, only returning again as a fully fledged solo album artist in 2014. She came back with the intensely personal ‘Blank Project’, produced by Four Tet, and inspired by her mother’s death. Four years later, she reunited with Kieran Hebden for the equally inspired ‘Broken Politics’. “In many ways, this album is a diary entry, a fascinating insight into the inner-workings of a true one-off,” read the NME review, which hailed Cherry as an “icon”. Time to make the title official.