En Vogue began their career in the new jack swing era, which meant that the rhythm tracks on their records were created with the use of samplers (such as the ubiquitous Roland TR-808). The typical new jack swing drum track combined layers of elements so heavily syncopated that the overall track would have been all but unplayable by a single human drummer. The aethetic of new jack swing – sonically and visually – was brash and loud, and these hyped-up, super-complex 808 tracks were a key element. They were not intended to be an undetectable replacement for a live track; the mechanistic quality was the point.
New jack swing’s moment passed quickly (by the time Michael Jackson released the NJS-influenced Dangerous, it was already becoming old hat), superseded by the more classic-sounding hip-hop soul of Mary J Blige, which relied heavily on samples from classic soul records, giving a less frenetic feel to the backing tracks and making new jack swing seem gauche in its raw energy. Hi-top fades quickly went out of style, as did the primary-colour wardrobe of NJS. Watch an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to remind yourself of the eye-popping NJS aesthetic. This was a time when grown men and women wore dungarees and romper suits
When En Vogue released their last single with Dawn Robinson on lead vocals, Don’t Let Go (from Set It Off), they were worlds away from their early sound and look: in was a piano line out of a James Bond theme and what sounded for all the world like a live rhythm section; the only holdover from their early sound was a wah-wah guitar, of which the group and their producers had apparently always been fond. The street feel of NJS had gone: the girls’ new image looked expensive, and their new song sounded expensive. There’s even an orchestral tympani.
That rhythm track was, indeed, live, played by bassist Preston Crump (with an earth-shakin’ tone) and drummer Lil John Roberts, who’s also played for Jill Scott, Monica and Janet Jackson. From the opening snare flam of his first whole-kit fill, Roberts’s performance is a monster, entirely suited to what is effectively an R&B power ballad. The groove is one of the the simplest possible: kick on one, snare on two, kick on three (played on both the fifth and sixth eighth notes in the bar) and snare on four. He gives his high-tuned snare quite a thumping, playing the whole track with rimshots, to choke the snare’s low end and create more volume and cut, but there’s lovely little details in the right hand, extra sixteenth notes and dotted notes, creating a subtle swing feel that subliminally links the song back to the group’s early hits, even as its arrangement is vastly different.