Deee-Lite struck the dance-music scene in 1990 like a lightening bolt. The group’s extravagantly campy look and irresistibly funky, upbeat songs were a marked contrast to the generally introverted cool of most hip-hop, and the distinctive vocals of lead singer Lady Miss Kier—whose 1970s-inspired wardrobe made her an instant fashion icon—helped set the group apart from the droves of diva-meets-dancemachine records dominating the club scene. Part of the appeal of Deee-Lite’s music has been its inclusiveness—Christian Logan Wright wrote in Mademoiselle that “as a group, they’re a festival of individuality; as a band, they’re a party anyone can attend.” With their first hit single, “Groove Is in the Heart,” from their gold debut album, World Clique, they injected the feel-good bounce of 1970s “P-Funk” into house music and created a sensation. Then 1992’s Infinity Within made the group’s political agenda a more literal part of the music.
The seeds of the group were sown in 1982 when Miss Kier—born Kier Kirby—met a Russian emigré musician
Members include Lady Miss Kier (also known as Miss Kier Kirby; born Kier Kirby c. 1960s, in Pittsburgh, PA), vocals; Jungle DJ “Towa” Towa (born Towa Tei in Japan), keyboards, bass, drum programming, sampling; and Super DJ Dmitry (born in 1965 in the U.S.S.R.), guitar, bass, keyboards, drum programming. Kier and Dmitry married, 1991.
Recording and performing group, 1987—. Group formed, 1986; signed with Elektra Records, c. 1989; released debut album, World Clique, 1990.
Awards: Gold records for World Clique and single “Groove Is in the Heart.”
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019; 345 North Maple Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Fan club—DeLovely Fan Club, 528 Cedar Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20012-1934.
named Dmitry Brill in New York City’s Washington Square Park. Brill, who was raised in the Ukraine, had played in a rock cover band in the Soviet Union and arrived in New York City expecting an atmosphere of lavish excitement. The city and its prospects initially disappointed him, but he discovered the joys of funk music, particularly the P-Funk, or pure funk sound of George Clinton’s groups, Parliament and Funkadelic. Meanwhile Brill deejayed in some large dance clubs where he soon found a soulmate in Kier. A native of Pittsburgh, Kier grew up attending political rallies with her activist mother. Later she worked a variety of jobs, including textile designer, waitress, and coat check attendant. In 1986 Kier and Brill decided to form a group; after writing songs together for a while, the twosome made their first appearance at Siberia, a local club.
Shortly afterward Brill and Kier received a demo tape from a Japanese computer whiz named Towa Tei, who had just arrived in the United States. He became the band’s “DJ,” mostly producing sounds via computer. Like Brill, Towa had escaped a cultural climate he considered stultifying: “When I was in high school, everyone listened to [commercial hard rockers] Whitesnake, or Japanese versions of Whitesnake,” he related in Rolling Stone. The group continued playing gigs and soon began presenting a homemade demo tape to record labels. An article in Details noted that apart from vague rejections, the group received only one formal reply: “Sorry, we can’t use your stuff. It’s completely unoriginal.” Nonetheless the group began gathering crowds as a live act, drawing a cross section of the various dance scenes of New York City. As Jeff Giles described in Rolling Stone, “They were drawing vivid, multiracial, pan-sexual crowds that were often a thousand strong, and Kier was throwing daisies from the stage.”
Soon several record companies were courting Deee-Lite. “We turned down a lot of offers waiting for someone who understood our art,” Kier told Giles. “At a lot of the labels, the only people in power were white men. There were no minorities working in high positions. And you could see what was coming. You could smell it. They’d say: ’You’re a Top Forty band. You could be the next.... ’And we’d say, ’Sorry, but you miss what we’re about.’” If nothing else, the band was about the sense of freedom and diversity their audience embodied: politically progressive as well as stylish, convinced that the groove of Deee-Lite was the sound of liberation on several levels.
In 1989 Brill, who by then was becoming better known as Dmitry, and Towa did production work with a number of up-and-coming artists, including Sinead O’Connor, the Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest. These projects were, for the members of Deee-Lite, part of the process of defining the “Sampledelic” sound—a fusion of P-Funk groove and the eclectic sampling instincts of rap’s bohemian fringe.
After signing a deal with Elektra Records in 1990, Deee-Lite released their debut album, World Clique. The single “Groove Is in the Heart” was a huge hit, dominating dance-oriented radio and the clubs. Several subsequent singles also fared well. People’s Craig Tomashoff, admittedly not usually a fan of dance music, suggested that “Deee-Lite is the aspirin of dance music. Maybe because this trio of New York Citybased hipsters has a sense of humor. Maybe it’s because they actually use some real instruments and real musicians, instead of just sampling them. Whatever the reason, World Clique bubbles with energy.” Entertainment Weekly referred to the album as “one of the major musical happenings of 1990.” In Kier’s own words, as cited by Wright in Mademoiselle, “It’s funk, soul, curly, wiggly music.” As proof the group enlisted bassist-guitarist-vocalist Bootsy Collins along with several other Parliament-Funkadelic alumni to play on some tracks, cementing Deee-Lite’s connection with the legacy of 1970s funk.
During 1990, as Dmitry and Towa continued producing for various artists—including post-production work and remixing on a track by labelmates They Might Be Giants—Kier became a familiar face on the international fashion scene, sharing the spotlight with designers like Thierry Mugler. She used the spotlight for a number of causes, from helping to raise money for AIDS relief, to filming a pro-choice public service announcement with other women musicians, to protesting the war in the Persian Gulf between the United States and Iraq. Deee-Lite wrote an anti-war song, “Riding on Through,” but it ended up backing a single rather than appearing on World Clique. Kier continually spoke out during the war, but was frustrated to find her comments excised from published profiles. “We were censored by the media cowards,” she assessed in Details. Indeed, many journalists appeared baffled by Deee-Lite’s mixture of fashion consciousness and political awareness. Kier appraised the situation in her interview with Giles of Rolling Stone: “People think that to make a political statement you have to wear a poncho and Birkenstocks [German-made sandals] and, like, love beads. And that’s an anachronism. It’s twenty, twenty-five years old, and it’s really ridiculous.”
Taking their politics out on the road, Deee-Lite toured to support World Clique with a nine-piece band that included Collins; Towa had chosen to co-produce an album by Japanese artist Hajime Tachibana instead. The tour highlight was an appearance at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival where Deee-Lite was invited to share the stage with P-Funk pioneer George Clinton for a rendition of the Funkadelic hit “(Not Just) Knee Deep.” The band’s press biography later quoted Kier as commenting, “Playing live is in the true spirit of techno soul.”
Deee-Lite released “Good Beat,” the last single from World Clique, in 1991. Kier and Dmitry got married, and by the following year Deee-Lite had a new album to promote. For its 1992 effort, Infinity Within, Deee-Lite developed a number of its political concerns, giving some of their ideas practical form. For starters, the CD was released in a format called “Eco-Pak” rather than the traditional—and, according to most environmentalists, very wasteful—longbox. “The Eco-Pak’s overall package has no disposable parts, uses 33% less plastic than conventional [plastic CD] jewel boxes and 15% less paper than current longboxes,” an Elektra press release stated. Deee-Lite had finally created the appropriate context for its environmental ode “I Had a Dream I Was Falling Through a Hole in the Ozone Layer.” Infinity also contained “Rubber Lover,” a track featuring vocals by Collins that advised the use of condoms, and a brief ditty called “Vote, Baby, Vote” in support of Kier’s sentiments towards voting privileges. She maintained in an interview with Reflex, “[I’d] like to see a law: as soon as you get a social security number, as soon as you turn 18, you’re automatically registered to vote.” Lastly, Deee-Lite pledged a portion of the profits from the album to the environmentalist group Greenpeace.
At first this heightened political emphasis alienated some critics. Yet for the most part, reviewers found the dance beat of the second album—augmented by the inclusion of P. Funk’s legendary “Horny Horns” duo, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, who joined several of their former bandmates on the album—just as irresistible as that of the first. Infinity Within yielded a houseinfluenced single called “Runaway,” and offered songs with guest raps by celebrated newcomers Arrested Development and Michael Franti of The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
“Deee-Lite, those neo-disco darlings, have succumbed to the fashion for politically correct dance music,” observed Jeremy Hellingar of People. “The irony is that this bandwagon-esque approach provides some of the album’s best musical moments.” Time’s reviewer concluded, “The deee-lightful result: good message, great dance beat.” Entertainment Weekly’s Greg Sandow objected, however, to the “mundane specificity” of the political sentiment. “Your [Deee-Lite’s] politics worked better two years ago when you made the words vague, and let your music tell the story.” Despite issuing that mild rebuke, Sandow gave the album a “B.”
But Kier insisted in Reflex that the emphasis of the album was a progression, not a departure. “The reason why we titled this new album Infinity Within —to balance out [World Clique’s ] idea of looking outward and thinking about unity—is if you look outward, you should look inward to see what you’re doing as an individual. Because people seem to be so passive—I’d like to see people turn their TV sets off and start protesting.”
Deee-Lite’s mixture of funk, soul, disco, house, and rap brought together a huge, varied listenership; their mixture of style and political substance helped make them one of the most influential forces in dance music in the early 1990s. Lady Miss Kier, Dmitry, and Towa have all expressed the hope that their music will contribute to positive global change and Kier has remained philosophical about her group’s impact. “Deee-Lite is not guiding anything,” she insisted in Details. “We’re reflecting it. But I can feel something happening right now. It’s like when animals know that there’s an earthquake coming and they all start running out of the forest.”
On Elektra Records
World Clique (includes “Groove Is in the Heart”), 1990.
“Good BeatTE.S.P.” and “Riding on Through,” (singles), 1991. Infinity Within (includes “I Had a Dream I Was Falling Through a Hole in the Ozone Layer,” “Rubber Lover,” “Runaway,” and “Vote, Baby, Vote”), 1992.
Details, July 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, June 26, 1992.
Mademoiselle, December 1990.
Musician, August 1992.
Newsweek, March 18, 1991.
People, July 29, 1991; July 13, 1992.
Reflex, June 23, 1992.
Rolling Stone, July 9, 1992; September 17, 1992.
Time, June 29, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Elektra Records press releases, 1992.
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