Thirty years have passed since “I Can’t Wait” sprung from the radio airwaves to charm listeners and climb the charts. More importantly, the song was a piece of a larger paradigm shift in popular music in the mid-1980s. At this time, the stated decade was shrugging off the effects of the post-disco cultural cold war between black and white music audiences.
The duo behind “I Can’t Wait” was Valerie Day and John Smith, better known as Nu Shooz.
Day, an Oregonite vocalist / percussionist, met guitarist / arranger and former Los Angelino John Smith in 1975 as he was traveling through Day’s home state. The two sparked an immediate friendship over their love of music, their tastes ranging from pop, classic R&B, Latin, and jazz fusion. The latter sub-genre found them sharing a mutual love for the Mahavishnu Orchestra (home to eventual super producer Narada Michael Walden). Smith decided to stay in Oregon and pursue music alongside Day. A professional career and romance blossomed with the birth of Nu Shooz in 1979.
Between 1982 and 2016, Nu Shooz recorded six LPs and an EP; their most recent effort, Bagtown, is the culmination of much musical study in understanding the distance and intimacy between pop and R&B.
Both Day and Smith sat down with me to discuss the journey of Nu Shooz, before and after “I Can’t Wait,” and what it means to be pop-jazz pioneers who’ve forged their own path by embracing their biggest success without being defined by it.
Both of you have been writing, recording and performing for over three decades, but the Nu Shooz discography is lean. The leanness seems to come out of your commitment to quality over quantity. How has that ideal shaped you both as artists?
JS: Well, we took a break from Nu Shooz. We started in ’79 and in ’92 we stopped and did other things. I did music for commercials and indie movies. There might have been more albums had we just done Nu Shooz, but we had a lot of other projects we did.
VD: Up until two years ago, before we started going back out on the road, I taught for 20 years. I taught voice, privately, for most of those years, but then I ended up at Portland State University. There, I taught a class on becoming a contemporary vocalist. We’d probably make a record every couple of years, but it costs a lot of money to put it out there. With Atlantic (Records), the last record we made with them (Eat and Run) took four years to make and they didn’t release it. We, I think, wrote how many songs for that record?
JS: Oh, so many, a 100…!
VD: Yes, 100 or so songs for that record. But there’s a certain thing that happens when you’re creating. For the last record (Bagtown) we said we were going to make it as fast as we could. We wanted to get it out two years after the songwriting process started ―
JS: Year and a half.
VD: Year and a half after the songwriting process started and then John wrote, what, 20, 30 songs?
JS: 33 tracks.
VD: And nine of them made it on the record, so there’s definitely a process of elimination. Some things start out looking like they’re going to be “the bomb” and then, they bomb ha, ha!
JS: Or they don’t get finished, you know?
VD: Yeah, they don’t see the light of day.
You mentioned Eat and Run ― your fourth long player that your label Atlantic shelved in the early 1990s ― did you two rescue material from that for the independently issued fifth Nu Shooz record, Kung Pao Kitchen (2012, NSO Music)?
VD: Yeah, we remixed and recorded a bit on some demos we had in the vaults. But we wanted to really keep that ’80s sensibility or vibe going, so even when we re-recorded stuff, we ―
JS: We took out more than we put in actually – stripped it out.
VD: And it was a great opportunity for John to be a producer for his former self!
JS: I got to go back and produce my younger self; I think we all fantasize about if we could go back into the past and tell your younger self it will be okay.
VD: Just give him some good advice?
JS: Yeah! Like this song doesn’t need four tambourine parts, ha, ha!
You both share a mutual love of jazz and Latin music; in particular you both favor a group that not too many white audiences know of, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Additionally, it seems that Nu Shooz has grafted the jazz idioms of improvisation onto the dance-pop / urban-pop that Nu Shooz is typically known for. It’s fair to say that your love of jazz has impacted Nu Shooz?
JS: First of all, when I met Valerie and she knew about Mahavishnu Orchestra, I knew she was the one! But, that [Mahavishnu Orchestra] was more of a gateway drug into other kinds of jazz, specifically like [John] Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Then, when we started playing music in the mid-’70s, we ended up in Latin bands which is where the horns came from. After that, I had to have horns and so, that was sort of the route [to Nu Shooz]. It was jazz fusion and then real jazz and then Latin jazz.
VD: So, there was definitely an influence there, but it wasn’t overt. It was just like our preferences building up over time and then coming out in different ways as we got to be better at writing and recording.
JS: We had a predilection for spiciness and tonality, you know? Like complex sounds.
VD: And a deeper level of harmonic interest is what keeps us interested [musically]. In this last record, Bagtown, John was listening to a lot of, besides the funk stuff, he was listening to Steely Dan and Take 6 ―
JS: The Four Freshmen who influenced the Beach Boys a lot, Manhattan Transfer.
Prior to your Grammy-nominated second album Poolside (1986), Nu Shooz recorded and released an album and an EP ― Can’t Turn It Off (1981, Nebula) and Tha’s Right (1985, Poolside). The latter was the home to the original version of “I Can’t Wait.” Could you two talk about these efforts and how they shaped Nu Shooz preceding your commercial breakout?
JS: That first album, Can’t Turn It Off, was us trying so hard to be like Steely Dan and not really understanding, lyrically, what they were up to. And I think that if you go up through Tha’s Right, we were just a horn band. A lot of people think we were an electronic band; we weren’t at all. We were a soul band with horns. I think that Bagtown is really great because it doubles back to what were originally doing in 1981; it’s almost going through the same thing with 36 more years [of] experience.
VD: It’s not our favorite record, but people are so curious about it, of course! Nu Shooz fans want to know where we come from.
JS: It’s charming in its way and it was a great version of our band then.
Please see “Can’t Turn It Off: The Nu Shooz Interview, Part 2″ for the final part of the Nu Shooz story where the duo details the cultural impact of “I Can’t Wait,” their “jazz pop cinema” LP from 2010 and their most recent effort, 2016’s Bagtown.
Follow Nu Shooz on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of Nu Shooz.