702 – Steelo
Ah, pop in the 90s: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It gave us introductions to new divas Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and, um, Jessica Simpson – but it was also the decade where every boy band had at least one member with frosted tips. It’s no surprise then that I have conflicting feelings about the decade.
Where 80s pop had often merged music genres, the 90s showed distinct musical movements. Plenty has been written about Britpop, club music, grunge, gangsta rap and the raft of teen boybands and solo female singers, but far less celebrated is the fact that the 90s were also a golden age for American all-female R&B groups.
Not since the 1960s had pop music been so full of incredibly talented female vocal ensembles. Everyone remembers TLC (amazing), En Vogue (peerless), and a little later, Destiny’s Child (I’ve had to have a little lie down just thinking about them), but let’s not forget Jade, SWV, Brownstone, and, of course, 702, who I will get onto in a bit. The UK also contributed, with All Saints, Eternal, Honeyz and at the turn of the millennium Sugababes (who, just like 702, were still in their teens at the time of their debut).
Hailing from Las Vegas (their name came from the area code of their hometown), 702 (pronounced “seven-oh-two”) were comprised of sisters LeMisha and Irish Grinstead, and lead vocalist Kameelah Williams. Amongst the crowded field of girl groups they stood out for me, as firstly they incorporated electro pop influences into their sound, long before it became popular, and secondly, their songs always put the girls in control. They were young, independent women and in an increasingly sexualised market, this made them somewhat unique.
Released in 1996, Steelo was the first single from their debut album No Doubt. The song was written by and features a rap from Missy Elliott (702 repaid the favour and appeared on her Beep Me 911 song and video two years later). Now I know it’s hard to believe, but I haven’t always been this street savvy, urbanista you see before you today, and as a result I didn’t really know what Steelo meant. There was no Google back in 96, but a slow trawl of the internet on a dial up modem (via Ask Jeeves probably), eventually confirmed it meant style/swagger. But you already knew that, right?
The song itself is rather wonderful. Subtly using a sample of The Police’s Voices Inside My Head, the beat still sounds phenomenal today and it was a precursor to the experimental electro R&B sound that would become so popular later in the decade. Not exactly mid-tempo, it has a strange pacing which makes it sound as unique now as it did back in the 90s. As was the case with almost all US female groups at the time, the vocals are incredible, and their harmonies AMAZING.
About half way through the song, Kameelah ad libs thrillingly against the smooth, but increasingly intense backing vocals, culminating in all three singing “Kiss me, oh, hold me / I say squeeze me, whoa kiss me” — it’s all rather heady and breathless and creates one of those indelible, euphoric pop moments.
Just as terrific – and rather daringly – for almost the final minute of the song the lead vocal ends, with just some spoken word sections from Irish, which eventually lead into a great fadeout. So many songs these days just have an abrupt ending, but there is something thrilling about a fade-out, the best of which grab the listener’s attention just before all goes silent: I like to think that the groove of Steelo just keeps going on for eternity.
Now, it would be remiss of me not to mention the video. Aside from the girls giving it 100% with their lip acting, it’s the backing dancers who never cease to amaze me. Now, everybody was doing that head nod thing in the mid 90s, but just look at those ninja moves in their oversized waterproofs. It’s brilliantly nonsensical and could well be my favourite dancing in any music video, ever.
Despite all of these attributes, the song was a little too unusual and too early in the girl group R&B cycle to be a hit in the UK, and it peaked at number 41. In fact they only cracked the UK top 40 twice (with the admittedly fantastic Where My Girls At and You Don’t Know). In the US 702 went on to have a string of hits over the course of three albums (the last of which deserved to have been a huge hit – check out the Pharrell produced single Star and album tracks Trouble and Stringing Me Along), but they eventually called it quits in 2006, with only Kameelah continuing to perform music to this day. The age of female R&B girl groups would sadly appear to be over, but I still hope 702 will reform one day. We need them back together.
Entered chart: 14/12/1996
Chart peak: 41
Weeks on chart: 2
Who could sing this today and have a hit? If they ever get their finger out and release an album, Mutya Keisha Siobhan obvs.