The little known history of the undercover brothers and sisters of Incognito, in this month’s Foundations by DEL.
FOUNDATIONS has focused a lot on the seminal days of dance music, particularly the period between the mid-’70s and mid-’80s. The group highlighted this month is similar and yet so different. For many, music that makes you move (not always defined as dancing) often begins with what we listen to in a car. It’s “our time” to groove, dream, smile, feel and yes move – safely, of course. I couldn’t help reflecting deeply and warmly as to how this band’s songs made me feel overall and move in my J&J company car back in the ’90s. Their music was the soundscape as I was dating the woman that would become my wife. I loved the way dancers smiled and sang when I played their songs in clubs. Even their smoother and chill vibes took me somewhere. This group was different – in a palpable way! In fact one might describe them as being a bit concealed; they seemed to not need the formal attention so they were a bit unacknowledged, and so nameless – in some sense. For those of you that nailed the verbal section of your SATs, you probably have realized that the previous sentence lists some of the definition and synonyms for the name of the group that I can’t wait to expose to you – Incognito!
A random quiz of the well-versed music heads would yield that Incognito was a band that was around from 1990 to maybe 2000. I will grade those quizzes with a big red “I” for incomplete! The answers wouldn’t be wrong – it’s just that the story of this illustrious band spans more than most than even most admirers realize.
You see, Incognito’s foundations are steeped in late ’70s through today as their fusion of jazz, pop, soul, acid, and funk is still alive. Consider this piece of data: by my count, there were fourteen “original” members and no less than 46 other musicians and vocalists that have played on the Incognito down-low!
Like many groups in the late 1970s, individual preferences, desires and needs often split or fractured the core band into other spin-offs, with varying success. Such was the case with a group called “Light of the World,” (originally called “Tower Block”) which was founded by Jean-Paul Maunick (let’s call him “Bluey”) and Paul Williams (“Tubbs” for short). But before this occurred, the group was getting some serious props for their brand of Jazz-Funk club hits. In fact, if you look closely at one of the Light of the World album covers you’ll spy a budding superstar named Sade!
I failed to mention that this was happening not in the US but the UK, which is not to say that the talented Bluey was not overwhelmingly influenced by our favs from the States. Marvin, Stevie, EWF, Kool & the Gang and Santana played the roles of inspiration to Bluey. Success began in small unassuming doses staying very true to the use of “incognito” as the group’s moniker.
One example was how their song “Parisienne Girl” was used as bridge/filler music on Radio 1. This song was a demo that they had been shopping around and it was all instrumental – a testament to the quality of their production and sound. The “incognito” approach to names was apparent with their first album they released waaaay back in ’81, Jazz Funk – of course it was, duh! But the “duh” in the name was eliminated by the “pow” of the quality especially with the inclusion of Hugh Masekela and other luminaries like Jamaican Vin Gordon.
Then, it happened again: band members split up to find their greener pastures. Bluey didn’t stop though. Like many of the legendary artists featured in Foundations, he had a vision. In fact, the break-up helped him hone his songwriting and allowed him the time to make connections such as George Duke and several other UK names you should know or get to know – Maxi Priest and Steve Harvey. He even discovered some new talent like Stephen Dante, who later had the 1986 hit “Give It Up for Love” and did “Real Thing” with Jellybean. Technology (e.g., sequencers) enabled his work to accelerate even more as the decade moved into the dance-rich ’90s. This is where a real intersection occurred with the more traditional dance scene and Incognito as it revitalized this incredible group.
The versatile and highly influential DJ Gilles Peterson also played a vital role with his two labels, the most critical label for this story being Talkin’ Loud. Gilles had linked-up legend Jocelyn Brown with Bluey for their come-back Inside Life album and specifically for the cover of “Always There.” A Southport Weekender performance followed and the result was great synergy and partnership between Incognito, key DJs and remixers (David Morales, Masters at Work, Roger S and many more) and the dance club world.
Besides Bluey, Incognito really leveraged the incredible talent of Baltimore’s own Maysa Leak on vocals. She was such a force and has had a great solo career as well. Icons have not only embraced the group by lent their touch like when Stevie Wonder added some of his harmonica work on a remix! Bluey has produced for heavyweights like George Benson and in recent years, Chaka Khan has worked with the group. Incognito’s connection at live events still draws massive acclaim. As Bluey has said, that’s how he really “communicates… making sure people get it.” I love his self-reflection that he sees himself as much more of a “healer” than an “entertainer.”
Bluey’s vision – conceptualized and executed flawlessly – created incredibly diverse, textured and just beautiful music. The desire to dance to that musical output was but one of the actions it achieved. I literally wore out some of their vinyl and had one of their CDs, Tribes, Vibes and Scribes melt in my car because I needed to always have it available. However, I wonder: how could they possibly be “incognito” to anyone that loves great music… well, maybe that’s the mysterious beauty of INCOGNITO!