I’ve always though the ’80s was the golden age for funk. A small handful of acts dominated the genre in the ’70s but by the ’80s it had spilled over into new wave and pop and even rock. While the horn laced funk of the ’70s had its day, artist like James Brown and Earth Wind and Fire were having difficulty translating their past success to the new electronic age. One of the few funk acts from the age of the Pinto to really thrive in such a new environment was Cameo.
Cameo was led by its charismatic founder Larry Blackman. By the mid ’80s he had managed to mix new wave, funk and emerging hip hop elements into a wildly popular formula. The height of this success came with Word Up, the band’s 12th album in 9 years.
From about the time of Alligator Woman (1982), Cameo had made the gradual transition from horn dominated funk to synths and drum machines. It’s fortunes rose with every release afterwards, while maintaining distinction from other funk acts.
Word Up! forged its own path that was a clear departure from George Clinton, Prince or Rick James. In doing so Cameo was able to distinguish itself from a dozen or so funk bands who with varying success, dominated the R&B charts and reaching as high as #8 on the Billboard Albums chart.
The album’s title song became a huge hit. It was inspired in part by rap terminology and in turn became a popular catch phrase in the hip hop community. By incorporating synths and zany sound samples (sometimes from Saturday morning cartoons), Cameo created a trademark playfulness that could only be attributed to them as on “Back and Forth”.
Other songs like “Candy” were boosted by an innovative music video featuring a ridiculous red cod piece Blackman wore that would later become his signature look. The song’s sparse up and down scaling melody (punctuated by rock guitar) was playful and infectious. Playful would describe the overall tone of Word Up!. The album’s only ballad “Don’t Be Lonely” is about the only place where they slow down to the point of almost sounding like a conventional R&B band.
Speaking of conventional, the only real weak spot could be the rap in “She’s Mine”, but given the silly approach to the subject matter, it somehow seemed fitting. Even with the cartoonish rap, Word Up! was fresh and cutting edge sounding in 1986 and much of it still holds up well today.
Word Up! marked the middle of a particularly productive (and profitable) period for Cameo. Like Ronald Isley would a decade later, Cameo was able to keep pace with the rapid pace of the changing music scene while keeping old fans who loved them during their “Rigor Mortis” and “I Just Want to Be” days.
As all peaks go, dives inevitably occur. With Cameo it would take a few releases, but by the early ’90s they had resorted to releasing greatest hits albums every other year. With a slightly altered line up featuring Larry Blackman, Tomi Jenkins from the ’80s line-up, Cameo released its last album Sexy Sweet Thing in 2000.