Pop Essays #11: Deetah, ‘Relax’

Shining light on more lesser spotted gems from my personal back catalogue of music, it’s time once again for this week’s Pop Essays post. This week: the story of how one childhood musical memory begat another for 9 year old me…

  • Artist: Deetah
  • Song: Relax
  • Release Date: 14/09/1998
  • Writers: Mark Knopfler / Anders Bagge / Claudia Ogalde
  • Producers: Bag and Bloodshy / Mark ‘Spike’ Stent
  • Chart Run: 11 – 14 – 17 – 21 – 28 – 33 – 45 – 57

Something that I loved unequivocally about growing up in my family was the wide exposure I had to music from a young age and which is probably responsible for me subsequently building a passion for and career writing about it.

One of my strongest earliest memories of music on a big scale of any kind from my parents’ record collection was of a blank TDK-90 cassette that eventually went a bit wobbly sounding from constant replays on my mum’s kitchen stereo and the cassette function of our forever overheating family Peugeot estate; on one side was …But Seriously, the huge 1989 album by Phil Collins, and on the other, Brothers In Arms, the equally mega selling 1985 opus by Dire Straits.

As I’ve got older, I have fond affections for both albums and can recall the melodies on all of them if not recite the lyrics word for word like the total boss I am. It was my knowledge of them that stood me in particularly good stead during the autumn of 1998, for reasons that’ll become clear as we progress on this essay. The key track on that Phil Collins album was of course ‘Another Day In Paradise’, a track which the headteacher of my primary school at the time elected to play in an assembly about homelessness.

Around about the same time, ‘Why Worry’ from the Dire Straits album, a haunting yet comforting 8 minute ode to a friend in pain with an iconic blues guitar riff by Mark Knopfler (and which for sentimental reasons is liable to make me weep at the drop of a hat), was about to be used in an altogether different but rather brilliant way than the one 9 year old me was familiar with. Which leads me onto another key player in my early musical history: that of the hallowed ground that was the Woolworths‘ ex-chart singles counter, or ‘Bargain Bin’ as some readers may also know it.

It is hard to explain this phenomenon to anyone born after 1995, but hear me out. The ex-chart singles counter was a bit like a slightly more glamorous and poptastic ‘reduced to clear’ aisle in a supermarket, where singles that had recently left the chart were remaindered down to half or even 75% of their retail price. Sometimes it was to clear stores’ last remaining stock of a huge selling hit which had, to that point, still been full price (oh the happy day when I found the cassettes of both ‘Goodbye’ by Spice Girls and ‘Honey to the Bee’ by Billie Piper on the counter for a snip at 50p), but more often than not it was to shift singles that were predicted for much bigger things and which they thus overzealously did a huge pre-order on that never translated back into actual units.

I’ve got plenty more songs that were the victim – some might say deservedly so – of such a circumstance to cover in future essays, but a cassette of the debut single from the Chilean born, Sweden residing Claudia Ogalde – better known by her stage/rapper name of Deetah – is probably my earliest recollection of a discovery of this nature.

It still sits clear on my mind what else I obtained on that particular trawl; ‘Zorba’s Dance’ by LCD (‘The world’s first digital pop group’. Less said about that, the better), ‘The Grease Megamix’ by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John (school disco banger re-released for the film’s 20th anniversary), and ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ by The Groove Generation with Leo Sayer (sprightly 70s disco classic given a sort of N-Trance-esque make over, with the success you might expect of such a venture).

But Deetah was an altogether more exciting proposition – for starters, the single sleeve proudly wore its influence on it: it had a huge sticker on its sleeve reading “Featuring the Dire Straits sample ‘Why Worry’“. To my knowledge, record companies had always been a bit precious to that point about citing the whereabouts of a particular song if it was centred around a cover or a sample. So this was different, but it did have the advantage of making it an easy sell for both me and my mum and dad.

It cuts to the chase almost instantly: that familiar gentle guitar riff ushers in the first 15 seconds, before the beat kicks in as Deetah launches into a flow that’s like a slightly less aggrieved Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes from TLC, albeit one which almost bears little resemblance to the track’s main hook: ‘Lay back but don’t sleep on this track / My rhymes attack like face smack / Feel the facts blazin’ in your area / Copycats I’ll bury ya / Hilarious style ‘n’ original bag rides / You can’t fly with the Murlyn kings, if your wings are fakin’ it / You breakin’ in the wrong place, makin’ it hard to amaze / MCs livin’ in the real life / Survivin’ this game to the next level they stride’.

And then there’s the chorus, which again geniusly uses the guitar riff of ‘Why Worry’ but sets it against a totally different melody: ‘Relax and join this ride / Get ready to get down / Chill out and feel this sound / Rhymes with mad skills, I always keep it real / I will, yo, so I suggest you chill’. It does actually feel pretty chilled in its vibe still, but the offset of the slightly more brash raps make it a nice contrast to its source material.

Some of the raps work better on it than others though; whilst watching the video again on YouTube to research for this essay, one other UK based commenter made the observation that on the line ‘I’ll recover y’all better than the hospital’, she pronounces it in such a way that it has the unintended consequence of making her sound like Frank Spencer. But it’s one amusing stumble on an otherwise flawless introductory single.

And by all accounts, it performed respectably enough. Debuting and peaking at #11 that September, it stayed in the top 40 for six weeks. She subsequently tried to perform the same trick on her follow up single, ‘El Paraiso Rico’, in April 1999, which took the chorus melody of Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita’ as its reference point (it was acquired by me on a seperate ex-chart singles trawl), but it stuttered at #39 and thus saw to it that – until its digital issue a year or two ago – her debut album ‘Deadly Cha Cha’ never arrived on UK shores.

What ‘Relax’ perhaps got so right which its follow up didn’t was the faithful use of the sample to create an original and genius sounding pop moment. It fitted in with other sample heavy hits of the time – Pras Michel’s ‘Ghetto Supastar’, Will Smith’s ‘Gettin’ Jiggy With It’ and Sweetbox’s ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’, hello to you.

But it also still sounds surprisingly fresh nearly 23 years on from its first release, and I struggle to think of many other songs in the last two decades which have used a sample to quite the same respectable contemporary effect.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new Pop Essays playlist on Spotify, which includes all the songs we’ve written about. What are your memories of this week’s featured song or band? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or message us on our Instagram.

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