Cameo's Got The Word

'80s R&B hit "Word Up!" in this week's Forgotten Videos
  • Larry Blackmon in Cameo's "Word Up!"
September 28, 2011 -- 10:02 am PDT
GRAMMY.com

Welcome to Forgotten Videos. For some, these videos are forgotten, for others just filed away, and for others still, a totally brand-new discovery. Whichever category you fall into, each week we'll feature a video that's possibly been collecting dust when what it really deserves is a fresh look. Or vice-versa…. We're not here to judge, we just want to take you on a little trip down memory lane. Yep, you'll remember when hair was really that big, when drums were that up front in the mix, when video was young(er) and so were you.

Cameo
"Word Up!"
1986

In 1986 Larry Blackmon — the longtime leader of New York-bred Cameo, who came of R&B age during the disco boom but was obviously an astute trend-watcher — and partner Tomi Jenkins got out the keytars, appropriated some jailhouse/hip-hop slang, and created a smash R&B hit in "Word Up!" Blackmon's nasal, half-sung, half-rapped vocals and a keyboard line that echoed part of Italian composer Ennio Morricone's famed theme to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly became radio staples that year, leading to Cameo's biggest hit of their career and a video that, like so many of its time, defies linear explanation.

Then again, the song's message isn't especially linear either. Here's what we know about the Word:

Word up/Everybody say/When you hear the call, you've got to get it underway/Word up/It's the code word/No matter where you say it, you know that you'll be heard

So, Word Up is the code word, and judging by the video, we're guessing it's code for sex. Which may come as a little shock to Bible readers who thought the Word was God.

The video opens with soon-to-be "Star Trek: The Next Generation" star LeVar Burton playing a police detective ordering Cameo to "come out with your hands up." Clearly, Cameo is doing something, well, "wrong." Next thing we know, Blackmon, with his trademark bright red codpiece, is singing "Yo pretty ladies around the world/Got a weird thing to show you." Umm…uh-huh.

The group escapes the police sting on motorcycles to the seedy underbelly where Blackmon quickly disses hip-hop culture ("All you sucker DJs who think you're fly…you're acting like fools"), and proclaims the need to dance. Quickly cutting to a club, the rhythm of the music entices Burton's cops onto the dance floor while the group escapes arrest. Victory goes to Cameo.

"Word Up!" made No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the album of the same name peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard 200; both represented the height of the group's fame. Cameo's most recent album was 2007's Nasty, Live & Funky. In 1997 Blackmon joined Will Smith for a rap variation of the Cameo hit "Candy," and a number of Cameo songs have been sampled by rappers such as Heavy D.

As enigmatic as the song may have been, rock band Korn seemed to understand the body rocking message years later when they covered the song and shot a video that portrayed the band as dogs in heat.

Still, greatness isn't always recognized in its time. "When we created 'Word Up!' these cats didn't want to release that record," Jenkins told the website SoulTracks in 2009. "They said it wasn't good, it's not going to sell, it's too different, and this English guy in London said, 'This record is a smash. If you guys don't release this song, you're crazy.' They did. Of course, the rest is history."

Word up? Got any Forgotten Video recommendations? Leave us a comment.

Last week's Forgotten Video
 

Email Newsletter