Neneh Cherry and Judy Blame first met on a sweaty dance-floor in 1985. Fast forward thirty years and they’re both icons in their respective fields, firm friends and collaborators with a hell of a tale to tell! As we premiere the video for Neneh's latest single, Everything, we look back to i-D's 2012 interview with the dream team...
Neneh Cherry and Judy Blame have been collaborating since their first meeting on a “sweaty dance-floor” in London, 1985. Theirs is a partnership where music and fashion collide to form sounds and visuals that continually inspire new audiences; it’s a collaboration based on respect, creativity and love. It was the late Ray Petri, influential Scottish stylist and architect of London’s Buffalo fashion collective, who first brought Neneh, the up and coming singer from Sweden, and Judy, the stylist and jewellery designer, together professionally. Ray mentored both, and alongside their friends (including Mark Lebon, who shot this story, and a host of photographers, models, musicians, hair and make-up artists) they created a new family based on ideas, culture, respect and most importantly style.
Neneh’s 1988 hit single, Buffalo Stance, taken from her debut album Raw Like Sushi, is one of the defining records for an entire generation; its title referencing Ray’s Buffalo crew. Here was the perfect song, with the perfect visuals - who can forget Neneh bouncing around in a gold bomber jacket, a gold dollar sign swinging around her neck against a graphic tie-dye background - that spoke to a worldwide audience about what it meant to be young in London right now. For Judy and Neneh, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and an inspiring creative partnership that took them on global adventures and allowed them to express themselves to the world.
In the late 80s, early 90s, Neneh and Judy’s dynamic pop videos and album artwork really made the world stand up and stare. Judy’s almost revolutionary use of high fashion mixed with streetwear, together with Neneh’s attitude, beauty and talent turned the music video into something life affirming. Judy even made a cameo appearance in Manchild, dressed in a fez hat, gold chain and green eye shadow. For Neneh and Judy, it was the start of something wonderful and the two have remained firm friends ever since, working together, holidaying together and at one point even living together.
We meet in Judy’s studio in East London, over twenty years since their first project together. I’m here to discuss how they continue to be a massive source of inspiration to new generations of young artists, here’s the conversation that unfurled...
What advice would you pass on to the younger generation?
Judy: It turns out the work we did in the 80s, early 90s has inspired a lot of young creatives today. They were kids back then, buying Neneh’s records and watching her music videos. Now they’re all running the business and it seems they’ve ‘iconed’ us a bit, haven’t they Tom?
I’d say there’s a fair amount of creative 20/30-something fandom towards you two.
Neneh: Today I was actually remembering one of my and Judy’s first meetings in my kitchen in Willesden. It must have been just before Ray [Petri] died and Ray was like, ‘Look, I’m too ill, I can’t do this project right now but Judy’s definitely the guy for you.’ So we had this funny meeting and I remember you had a book with all these drawings in... and now, here we are today.
J: Back then we worked as such a tight unit. I’m not saying we ignored what other people said, or did, we just got on with what we were doing at the time.
N: We became a family. We had real group intuition, and really fed off each other’s creativity. We were always aware of how valuable that was but it was still funny when everything started rolling so fast.
Did you never have a definite vision or ‘career plan’ as such?
N: No, not at all.
J: It was all very organic, especially when it came to clothes and visuals. It wasn’t like it is today when a singer works a label or a look. I’d go out looking for things and think, ‘Oh, Neneh would love that.’ When Neneh performed her first hit record, Buffalo Stance, on Top of the Pops, she was seven months pregnant with her daughter and people were shocked at the pure vision of that, but to us it was totally normal. We were just getting on with our work, but people were really shocked to see a pregnant woman dancing around.
N: I felt like my pregnancy - with all that crazy stuff going on - definitely became a form of protection. At the time, there were a lot of stereotypes about women in the music business and a lot of clichés. Having ‘the bump’ was a way of feeling powerful in the face of those things. I never felt like it was just me on my own. Me, Judy, all of us, we were in a tribe and it was the teamwork that made it work and made it what it was.
This idea of family and being part of a tribe is key to your work.
N: Definitely. God, I remember going on crazy press tours across America and going back to our hotel room and sitting there breast-feeding after the show. Then we’d cook, get a trolley of Chardonnay or Cava and just chill. Basically exactly what we did back in my flat in Willesden!
J: We even made friends with the limo drivers and sent them out for nappies! It was quite roots in that way. It wasn’t ‘showbiz’ at all - and because we were a strong team and family, it made it easier for us to create something real. That’s what people really responded to. It was actually something quite grounded.
N: It was quite punk in that way too.
I can see the punk ethos in both of your careers. Your work’s massively influential yet you’ve never got caught up in celebrity. You’ve always stayed true to your identities, even with managers and agents demanding ‘more music, more fashion!’ That seems very punk to me.
J: Neneh even had the courage to take time out for a while, to concentrate on herself and raising her family.
N: I did. I don’t see the point in going through the motions for the sake of it. I don’t think that’s when I shine, if I shine. I have to genuinely feel like I’m there. I’m in it because it brings me to life when I’m doing it. I took time out after the Man album. The whole music industry was changing so much during that time, it was becoming so mega.
This year we’ve seen the release of your first solo album in 18 years Blank Project...
N: Yes, right now I feel in the moment. I definitely feel charged. And, of course, when I start recording again automatically I thought of Judy and our relationship re-emerges. I really can’t think of anyone else who I’d rather go through this with. It’s that full circle thing.
J: I don’t feel particularly wise because I’m quite instinctive as a person and I’m all about the moment.
N: So am I.
J: I’ve been racking my brains thinking, ‘What does it mean to be wise?’ Then I realised experience is our wisdom, Neneh.
N: You’re right. What I feel really conscious of now, is that I’m a lot more aware of my own choices. In the past I let things happen to me. I never made actual decisions about what I really wanted to do or not.
J: Whereas today you prioritise what you want from life.
J: There’s a terrible conformity about at the moment that is based on greed - greed, debt and selfishness. Whereas you should be allowed to misbehave, make mistakes and be a real troublemaker - especially when you’re young. You shouldn’t be forced into a blue suit and a tie. I’ve always been a troublemaker and I always will!
N: Yours is a positive rage.
J: Yes, it’s attitude, which Neneh and I both have a lot of!
Let’s go back in time for a second - do you remember meeting each other for the first time?
J: I think we first met in 1985 at a mad New Year’s Eve party. It was when ecstasy first came into town, so I’d thrown one of those down my neck. I remember I went up to you and we danced all night. Just dancing, dancing together with the right records coming on.
N: I’ve met a lot of the loves of my life with the right tunes on a sweaty dance-floor.
J: Haha! Back then you see, London was really mixed up. It was much less divided culture-wise then it is now. Everyone was swapping ideas. We were taking imagery from hip hop and mixing it with punk. I’d go and nick a jacket from Azzedine Alaïa and throw it together with a pair of cycling shorts. The way people were thinking and visualising was very eclectic.
What happened after you grew tired of dancing on a sweaty dance floor all night?
N: By that point everybody knew everybody. We were all interconnected. I remember you, Judy, were hanging out with Chris Nemeth and Mark Lebon a lot at the time. I really wanted one of Chris’ postbag jackets so I was always asking you about it. Do you remember?
J: Of course. It was around the time of Ray Petri and Buffalo, which we were all involved in. I got a call asking if I could help you out on some photos for The Face. So we worked on that with our mate Eddie [Monsoon] and then there was another shoot, and then another.... And before we knew it, it all started snowballing.
When you look back on your adventures together, is there one moment that sticks in your mind - a mental snapshot of your relationship?
N: There are so so many. I have some real classic memories like Judy and me going to get my wedding dress from Azzedine Alaïa in Paris. I remember thinking we were just going to you know, go and pick up a dress, choose one. But Azzedine was like, ‘Oh no, no, no. I have to make the dress!’ So we stayed the night in Paris. That was a fantastically funny adventure!
J: Azzedine called up Mr. Lesage to do the embroidery and I was like, ‘Oh my god, Neneh! He’s calling up Lesage!’ Neneh was like, ‘Who?!’ Haha.
What have been your career highs?
J: Without a doubt, the video for I’ve Got You Under My Skin [Neneh Cherry’s contribution to the AIDS benefit, directed by Jean Baptiste Mondino] is one of my favourite pieces of work I’ve ever done. For me, it was another example of friends and family coming together. It was serious. It wasn’t about money. We were doing it for AIDS awareness. We were really focused and I think it still looks amazing to this day.
N: I agree. It was deep, tough, beautiful and incredibly rewarding. We’d all lost people to AIDS and it felt like we had to speak out. There was a lot of emotion in that video. My recent collaboration with The Thing has also been a real revelation for me. This feeling where you’re like, ‘Yes! This is exactly what I should be doing right now’. It’s been very instinctual.
If you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
N: There are things that I look back on that didn’t work out so well. Like when we went to America and did this ridiculous video for Heart  with David Fincher. We were totally convinced into doing it by the record company and I remember feeling in my belly, ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we here? Why are we living in this stupid hotel in Beverly Hills?’ It just wasn’t us at all. We just took that video out and killed it.
J: I’ve still got a copy somewhere!
N: Haha! That’s an example of something happening that never should have, when everything inside of you is saying ‘No, no, no...’ Therefore I’d tell my younger self to really listen to my inner voice and trust it a bit more. It’s tricky, it’s all too easy to wake up in the middle of the night and go down that regretful lane but it’s a useless, pointless journey because you can’t change what’s been.
What about you Judy, do you believe in regrets?
J: Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Professionally, I think you should be allowed to make mistakes.
N: You have to.
J: Like everyone I’ve had things happen to me that I don’t necessarily regret but that I wish hadn’t happened. But if you start going down the path, then that’s all you start thinking about. Thankfully creativity has always come back to save me. It’s been my guardian angel. So I’m with Edith on this one, ‘Je ne regrette rien.’