top of page
"Cuff It" Is a Celebration of 1980s Soul Radio
I LOVE BEYONCE'S song "Cuff It." And not just because it is a good song, but because that song confirms to me that Beyonce spent many of her childhood hours the same way I did: listening to R&B/Soul radio stations in 1980s Texas (me in Carrollton, she in Houston). Listening to "Cuff It" takes me back to those days, because the song is a tribute to great soul songs of that time.
In "Cuff It," the beat is an homage to the 1979 Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards–written song "He's the Greatest Dancer" by Sister Sledge. This makes sense because Rodgers actually plays guitar on "Cuff It" and critics have praised the song for his work on it. Beyonce must have been listening to "He's the Greatest Dancer" when she was figuring out how to open up "Cuff It." Listen to the first ten seconds of the Sister Sledge classic:
Now listen to the opening of Beyonce's Grammy-winner (starting at :06):
The foundational beat of the song is really a tribute to Rodgers as well as to Edwards' inimitable rolling bass, the sound which really made their band, Chic, the soundtrack of the best disco of the 1970s.
But "Cuff It" is an homage to all of soul radio, not just one band. And I say "soul radio" because, due to the history of the music industry's relationship with broadcast radio, early radio stations were divided by race. First, there were records, and then there were "race" records. This was the case even when the music played on black and white radio stations was indistinguishable, as was the case with the evolution of rock and roll, which was a sped-up derivative of American blues. Much of this was veiled under the veneer of advertiser dollars -- the belief that black and white people had to be marketed to differently. As Tanner Colby explores in his book Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, it is true that many midcentury advertisers did not believe that the same commercials, for instance, would "work" with both groups.
After every verse of "Cuff It," Beyonce drops a bouncy five-note flourish, played with synthesizer but designed to sound like a flute. The Flourish consists of three eighth notes that ascend in pitch, a sixteenth that continues the ascent, and then an eighth that falls back down to the pitch of the first note. I took special note of this because Prince put a similar flourish at the end of every other verse of his soul burner "Lady Cabdriver" forty years ago. Start listening at 1:04. Prince, in his genius, does not start his song off with the Flourish, but only gives it to us after the first line of the chorus. Thereafter, the Flourish comes after every other line of verse.
But "Cuff It" is a celebration of the Flourish. The Flourish bounces all over Beyonce's masterpiece, bopping and flitting through her many musical tributes. If you identified as black in the South in the 1980s, you listened to one of a few radio stations, you knew their deejays, you knew their promotions, and you were benumbed by their playlists. And if you listened to one of those radio stations in the 1980s, you had become benumbed by "Lady Cabdriver" because radio stations were most definitely bumping 1999 in 1983. If you identified as white, there was a whole (n)other and much larger catalog of stations from which you could choose, and different genres based on age. I learned this later upon moving to a new middle school and going to a birthday party where my friend played me Def Leppard. I had no idea how he had heard this band. My mom listened to Adult Contemporary Radio. And although the musical genre on her station was virtually indistinguishable from R&B, I could tell from the vocal inflections of the deejays that they did not identify as black. I was only to learn later that this station was for older white people, most of whom had grown up on doowop.
Another '80s motif Beyonce employs is what I like to call the Haunting Black People Chorus, which she uses at :53 when she tells us that we are getting fucked up tonight.
The Haunting Black People Chorus sounds like how you think black people would sound if they were ghosts and haunted a house. Like, we probably would not just moan and wail, but we would probably find a way to party or shout or act a fool like P-Funk does in 1975's "Give Up the Funk" from 1:14 till about 1:30.
This motif was perfected by Parliament Funkadelic but was also practiced masterfully by the Time ("Get It Off") and Brothers Johnson ("I'll Be Good to You," "Stomp"). This was not really P-Funk, though. This was George Clinton. He perfected this plaintive wail of lost souls in 1982's "Atomic Dog," from 1:45 straight through to 2:30.
That forty-five seconds is a haunting. That forty-five seconds is what a bunch of black people haunting a house would sound like. I do not know how he did it. Godfather George somehow created an atmosphere of a basement house party where everybody is singing that one part of the song they know -- and errybody can sing. Listen to it again. Men, women, and children are singing; I even think I hear a dog howling in there. I don't know how George does it. But Beyonce does it too because she is Beyonce. And to be sure, it is a distinct keenness of the ear that dance divas have, this ability to create and riff off of music from the music that they like to dance to. Madonna was the mistress of this form. People like Ce Ce Peniston, Robin S., Crystal Waters, Lady Miss Kier, Lady Gaga, RuPaul, and Big Freedia are her daughters and heirs. Beyonce is her heir apparent.
Beyonce also drops a motif I like to call the Cyborg Choir Breakdown at 3:07, epitomized by the early 1980s obsession with science fiction, the future, space, and robots. That obsession is where the dance "the Robot" came from, most eloquently reticulated by Michael Jackson in this video at 1:03:
In the late 1970s, Black people, like all people, were obsessed with what the future was going to look like. We didn't know, but we knew it had robots. The obsession with the robotic-like cadence and sound of this motif spawned Afrika Bambaata's "Planet Rock" (1986) and the entire Roger Troutman and Zapp canon. Beyonce was probably listening to Donna Summer's "Finger on the Trigger" though when she dropped her Cyborg Choir Breakdown. Summer displayed her fascination with the robotic sound by employing a vocoder on her 1982 single, an instrument she did not normally employ during her disco-club diva career. But Lady Ms. Summer does not reserve this motif for a breakdown, her Cyborg Choir is the bass line of the song's chorus, underscored by a bass synthesizer that echoes the robotic voice and makes it sound deeper. The use of the motif in "Finger on the Trigger" rhythmically echoes Queen's Bey's use of it in that the vocal takes up the first two to three beats of each measure, and then goes silent for the last beat, which is replaced by a handclap. Since it is a robot voice, there is no melismatic sliding into the rest of the measure, as the divas do in their glissandos (or as did the masterful Troutman, may he RIP). Donna Summer's version is most evident at :43:
I believe Beyonce was also listening to 1984's "She's Strange" when underlying the rhythm of her Cyborg Choir. The bass line of the Cameo stunner is the backbeat to Beyonce's breakdown. You could actually sing Beyonce's breakdown in the same beat and time as Cameo's song.
And the chord progressions evoke R&B supergroup Troop's transcendent 1989 classic "Spread My Wings." The tempo is not the same, but the chord progressions are the same as those of the chorus to "Spread my Wings" in double time, as you can hear at :58:
The Cyborg Choir Breakdown is the second-best part of "Cuff It," but it is also a specially unique and autonomously created work of art. This is also the case with the best part of the song, a part that has no precedent: the chorus part where Beyonce tells us how much faith she has in us. She believes we'll see stars, that we'll go far, that we will elevate. It is all very inspirational and true when she tells us these things. Because she is saying them not in a jealous way, but in that way that she has always been telling us that she believes in us, even after everything that we have been through. This is the time in our lives when all the hard work we have been putting in is finally paying off; people are finally starting to recognize our hard work. And Beyonce is here to tell us like See, I told you. It's like I been telling you this whole time. Those people don't even know. And now look what you’re gonna. do. Now, it's going to happen. That special part of you, that God-self, is about to erupt on this planet.
All people dance to that part of the song because we all know these things will happen, because Beyonce has said so. Yes Mrs. Carter, you are a younger person than I am but you have a firm grasp of your artistic gift and you have leveraged it masterfully in this reality. I am not sure why you keep asking to sit on top of me, but yes, I suppose that would be alright if you could just make sure that there is no funny business going on down there. And that means no squirming. We are just here to listen to music.
Please subscribe to get updates on new features, blog posts, and additions to the site
I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from UCLA, a Master of Arts in History from Cal State University--Los Angeles, and a Doctor of Philosophy in African Diaspora History from Indiana University. I spent nine years as a public school teacher first in East New York, Brooklyn, and then in South and East Los Angeles.
My dissertation topic was on slave resistance, as well as the construction of race. Although I am considered a resistance scholar, I am primarily interested in creating community dedicated to effecting global change through the promotion of justice and freedom for all living things. So I consider myself a "freedom scholar."
I am originally from Queens, New York, but I currently reside in Jacksonville, Florida, where I am the Assistant Professor of History at Edward Waters College, Florida's first HBCU.
Profile Pic: Kate Hallock
All other photos by: Ronnda Cargile Jamison
bottom of page