Monday, January 12, 2009

The Fresh Prince Meets Doo-Wop

Here's one that's probably for the hardcore collector's only, but it's kinda fun if you're willing to be seen walking out of the record store with this. "When the Radio Is On" is the single off of Paul Shaffer (yes, David Letterman's bandleader... that Paul Shaffer)'s debut album, Coast To Coast. It came out in 1989 and it's of interest because it features Ecstasy of Whodini and The Fresh Prince (who otherwise never dropped guest verses). The album was sort of a compilation, where Shaffer went around the world (or at least different parts of the US) and collaborated with all types of famous musicians; and because it was the 80's, of course his New York song had to be a rap song!

It's not that terrible, though, in a hodge-podge kind of way. It starts out like a doo-wop song, but Ecstasy quickly comes on to kick the first verse, and from then on it's a flat-out rap song with a sung chorus. The Fresh Prince rhymes second, and at first comes off as well as he was doing on his own records, but after a few lines the lyrics stop sounding like they were written by him (indeed, he doesn't get a writing credit; but then rappers often didn't get writing credit for their lyrics back in the 80's), when he says lines like, "my first romance, ooh we used to dance to the man with the blue suede shoes." So, a young Will Smith and his first girlfriend started out dancing to Carl Perkins is what you're asking us to believe? Perhaps that line was originally intended for Shaffer, who actually takes the final verse for himself. That he comes off as the weakest link should go without saying to anybody within a mile of this blog, especially since he shouts every single word of his verse, but at least he's energetic.

And the instrumental is listenable enough. It's co-produced by Whodini's producer Larry Smith, Shaffer of course (Smith and Shaffer both also play the keyboards here), and Russell Simmons. It's got a healthy dose of live instrumentation by genuinely talented musicians and vocalists like singer/songwriters Johnny Maestro, Jay Siegel, Dion, Carole King and Ellie Greenwich. And everyone just sounds so awfully damn enthusiastic singing about how much they enjoy listening to the radio.

Now, I'd actually been half-heartedly looking for this one for a while (not too hard, 'cause you know), but could never remember the title. I just remembered seeing this live on The David Letterman Show, when Paul Shaffer did a big production number to promote his new record (naturally), and it featured The Fresh Prince and Daddy-O of Stetsasonic. Daddy-O was performing because Ecstasy was unable to attend (I still remember Letterman joking that "Ecstasy is in agony"), and a couple of the other vocalists were swapped around, too. But I finally found this 12" in somebody's dollar stock (where it belongs), so I had to pick it up: "that's that's song!" Then, once I got it home and knew what the title was, I did an online search, and found the original Letterman clip is on Youtube (but minus the Ecstasy joke - I guess that came later in the episode).

Now, the 12" features five different mixes: The Big City Beat Mix, the Def & Dum Dub, The GoGo-A-GoGo Instrumental, Acappella and The Single. The one dubbed the single is the one from the album (I think it was also subtitled "The Single" there to showcase that it was, yaknow, the singlem which makes a little more sense). The Big City Beat Mix is an interesting alternative mix... it brings in some different musicians, most notably Jeff Lorber on keyboards (a lot of people with a lot of Grammys worked on this single!) , and goes for a less pop music-y vibe (though, of course, all variations of this song are inherently extremely poppy). The GoGo-A-GoGo instrumental is a bit different than the actual instrumentals to any of the other versions, but it's close to the Big City Beat Mix and features the same credits. The Acappella is self-explanatory.

Finally, there's the Def & Dum Dub, a version mixed by Larry Smith. Despite being called a dub version, it features full vocals; but most of the instruments are stripped away or turned into short sampled loops. This works to make it easily the most hip-hop sounding version of the song, though, in the case of a tune like this, I'm not sure if that's even preferable. Still, all told, the different mixes are varied enough that all five versions in a row hold together as an acceptable little listen when you're in the mood for something upbeat and goofy.


  1. Sometimes I hate you. You're always putting me on to records I never knew existed that I "need." I'm trying to STOP buying records, dammit!

  2. I have the LP album, too. Loved the video on YouTube for the song being performed on Letterman's show, especially when Paul Shaffer introduced Johnny Maestro ("16 Candles" "The Worst That Could Happen") as "...the greatest bel canto in doo wop and rock and roll." Maestro's the best!