The controversy around “Ride On Time” now feels like a mixture of typical sharp practise and unusual naivety. Details are murky, but it seems production team Black Box had obtained sample clearance for Loleatta Holloway’s “Love Sensation” from her record label, but they hadn’t asked her about it, they hadn’t credited writer Dan Hartman, and they certainly had no compunction about hiring a model to lip-synch Holloway’s lines.
It’s this deception that became the focus for the trouble. It’s also what dates it to this late-80s frontier moment – when the potential of sampling to make a) terrific pop records and b) lots of money very fast was obvious, but ethics and practises around who gets credited for what hadn’t quite settled down. What rankled wasn’t just Holloway getting ripped off but the sense that Black Box were overclaiming their part in it: nowadays she’d get a “featuring” and Hartman’s writing credit would be in place from the off.
But here’s where the naivety comes in. What’s remarkable now isn’t that original work went uncredited – the ghosts of Robert Johnson, and many others, would have been nodding in recognition – but that Black Box got away with it for a good few weeks before the story broke. If you play “Love Sensation” after “Ride On Time” the sampling is beyond obvious, but back then mainstream listeners (and radio DJs, programmers, etc.) simply didn’t do that kind of thing. Of course any disco DJs would have recognised the lifts at once, and so would their audience, but the public were quite happy to accept that “Katrin” was belting out these (really obviously edited) vocal lines.
None of this mattered much even then – there was no Milli Vanilli style backlash, and Black Box records kept on selling. But the deception underlines the oddness of “Ride On Time”. This is a record which takes almost all its vocals, and its piano line, from an older song. But what Black Box do with them is to chop and shuffle them into a dance track with aspirations to being a completely new song. Even now this is unusual: mostly producers will take a line or two, and centre the new track on them, making the recognition part of the point. “Ride On Time” – from the phonetic title onwards – isn’t doing this: it’s almost at pains to disguise its origins.
Creatively, this is exactly the right move: it means “Ride On Time” is its own record, even when you know “Love Sensation” well (and like it better). The two songs have completely different virtues: on the original Holloway is exploring and expressing a feeling, trying to capture a lover’s qualities. On the Black Box track she’s less a voice than a force, a pure slug of diva power there purely to make the song rush harder. “Ride On Time” is a series of peaks, with the union of “Right on time!” and the piano riff the highest and most thrilling.
Anyway, Holloway isn’t doing all the work. The trappings of Italo house – light, sequenced keyboard lines, bouncy bass, endless hi-hat all working in unison to give that gorgeous piano its lift – seemed to be on a hundred hits that summer, and the vocal hooks made this the biggest. But listening to it now it’s the piano which draws me back in each time – to the point where I almost want Loleatta to get out of the way.