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Sep 18

BLAZIN’ SQUAD – “Crossroads”

Popular24 comments • 1,389 views

#934, 31st August 2002

If Blazin’ Squad had never existed, would it have been necessary to invent them? You suspect record labels would have given it a so-solid try: a hydra-headed rapping crew, but full of youthful good looks and free of nasty predelictions? Too good to resist, at least in this weird, early-00s phase where it’s equally clear that the public want to buy rap records (maybe even British ones!) and the labels don’t have much idea what will or won’t cross over.

In fact, before I did my research, I assumed Blazin’ Squad were ‘manufactured’. Now I’d prefer to call it ‘sculpted’ – from the marble of an eager bunch of North London schoolfriends somebody carved this hit cover. Why “Crossroads”, though? A proven earworm; a familiar chorus and a structure with plenty of space for voices to gather and mingle.

But the Blazin’ Squad cover is a poor relation of the Bone-Thugz-n-Harmony original. The rapping isn’t entirely the problem; the damage is done with a structural shift in the song. The original is an exercise in beautiful delay, holding off on the chorus for two minutes as the group trade stories of loss and pain, a range of voices overlapping, dipping, bouncing off one another, phrases emerging from the hubbub – “I miss my uncle George”; “I don’t wanna die”. When the chorus finally hits it’s an extraordinary, redemptive moment, a testimony that the singers don’t have to endure the hurt and fear life brings on their own – and an acknowledgement that this resolution might only be found in death. The image of the crossroads, in the context of Black American music, is a powerful, mythic one – a haunted place, where the walls between this world and the next are thin.

Blazin’ Squad’s effort loses that resonance. It gets the chorus out of the way quickly and returns to it often, where Bone-Thugz only use it twice. That numbs it through repetition, turning it from a glimpse of a better world into a kind of self-help mantra: the crossroads as a place where “things can turn around”, between fame and mundanity, not life and death. The rapping here is simply turn-taking, with the repeated “S-s-see you” lines filling out a lack of ideas.

That all makes the record sound awful, when it’s not – it’s just much worse than its template. Blazin’ Squad couldn’t take on the original’s thematic weight in any case – they’re too callow, and it’s better they sound enthusiastic than pretentious. Some of them have a yelping, bolshy charisma – “Hey you! Get off the train!” – and the sweetness of the song’s melody can’t be spoiled. The record’s marketing, at a time when the post-garage sounds of London were in such ferment, leaves a bad impression – an industry at its own crossroads, actively looking for a safer version of new music, like nothing much had changed since the 1950s. But the record itself is innocuous.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Lee Saunders on 6 Sep 2018 #

    Memory: This song seemed to be popular around the time of my friend’s birthday, as I have a memory of me, him and another friend singing the song on a car journey to or from the party

    Not too much to say about this. The cheapy music video where they walk on up to the end of an incomplete flyover, and then have the rest of the Squad look ‘mean’ while one of them leads the rap had left an impression on me at some point as its one of the first things I think of when I hear it. It almost looks like a parody, to be honest.

    The song itself…pleasant, with inevitably tinny production, but rather forgettable beyond the hook. (I say this unfamiliar with the original). 6

    I also remember Kenzie as the favourite to win – but ultimately losing to Bez – on Celebrity Big Brother from when I used to watch it with my mum (even though I was too young really).

  2. 2
    Ricardo on 6 Sep 2018 #

    This in the year of Original Pirate Material. That’s all there really is to say about this.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 6 Sep 2018 #

    I was completely unaware of this at the time but given the bland production and anonymous raps I might have forgotten it. The original version is far superior so I can at least I can thank da Squad for making me aware of it.

  4. 4
    ThePensmith on 6 Sep 2018 #

    Not only because of their uniform awfulness (they literally looked interchangeable with any of the so called ‘hard nuts’ in my year at secondary school. I was just about to start Year 9 when this hit the top to put that in context), but Blazin’ Squad were always an odd proposition to me. Too streetwise for the mainstream of the pop audience their label were aiming them at (despite having an audience that was exclusively early teen girls), but not touched with a bargepole by the more credible, ‘urban’ end of the market they were presumably hoping to win over. It meant they sold singles modestly well, but shifted bugger all albums. Their first release, a white label garage track called ‘Standard Flow’ peaked just outside the top 75 a few weeks prior to the release of ‘Crossroads’.

    That they did get a number one with this was on virtue of doing so in a quiet release schedule – 52,000 copies on its first week was one of the lowest opening tallies for a number one single that year. Had they gone up against Sugababes the previous week or the next bunny the following week, they would have struggled for a top 3 in some cases. ‘Crossroads’ was, if nothing else, the last instance of a single that was a far bigger hit in the US reaching the top of the charts under a cover from a UK boyband after Blue’s ‘Too Close’ and Another Level’s ‘Freak Me’. The closest they got again after this was with ‘We Just Be Dreamin’ and ‘Flip Reverse’ in 2003, both of which challenged for number one midweek but ultimately succumbed to lower top 3 berths as the week faded along with their (frontloaded) sales appeal.

    But it definitely didn’t work for everyone. A week or so after this, 3SL, the somewhat incestuous product of the Scott-Lee pop dynasty spearheaded by their sister, Lisa from Steps, tried to pull off the same trick with a dreadful cover of Case’s ‘Touch Me Tease Me’ (with a guest rap from a future 2008 bunny holder), and were rewarded with a #16 flop and being shown the door by their record label. 2002-3 really was the zenith of that self consciously cool, watered down ‘urban’ chasing pop in the mould of Blue, Liberty X etc, and like them, the twelve hundred members of Blazin’ Squad became constant staples of reality TV in the years following. Kenzie got to the final of Celebrity Big Brother in 2005, and Marcel (Platinum B) put in a frankly embarassing turn on Love Island last year.

    It’s a shame really that we don’t meet Friday Hill, the brief three piece spin off consisting of James (Flava), Mus (Strider) and Kenzie, as their two singles ‘Baby Goodbye’ (top 5 in September 2005) and ‘One More Night Alone’ (top 20 in February 2006) were actually a far more enjoyable proposition than anything their trackie clad past had produced. But then, considering how Estuary this sounds for a cover of a US R&B song from the 90s, I’m not sure I’m that bothered.

    For that, and also for the fact we are prevented from talking about Truth Hurts and Rakim ‘Addictive’ (one of my favourite 00s one hit wonders) that was the second highest new entry at #3 that week, a 2 is all I can muster for this.

  5. 5
    James BC on 7 Sep 2018 #

    What a fair-minded, generous-hearted review. This is why we love Popular!

  6. 6
    23 Daves on 7 Sep 2018 #

    I remember watching Blazin Squad on TOTP when this was number one, and being utterly baffled and amused by their whole routine – it just seemed as if a bunch of stage school kids had been dressed up as tough kids (though only in the newest of clothes and the most blinding of gleaming white trainers, naturally, untouched by London fumes or grit). It all felt so contrived and faintly weedy that I’m actually surprised to now find out they weren’t an entirely manufactured band. I had them filed alongside Vanilla Ice in my mind.

    Notable also in my family for the fact that one member was an ex-alumni of my niece’s school, a fact she trotted out every time she got an opportunity as if she had somehow contributed to the group’s story. Yeah, we can ALL play that game, kid – without me having gone to the same school as them, Talk Talk wouldn’t have written “Spirit of Eden”, and without my wife’s background presence two years below her, Alanis Morissette would never have come up with the inspiration for “Ironic”. (For lo, it was in the school canteen that my wife barked “There’s about two thousand spoons here and I just want ONE bloody knife!”)

    This cover version is passable but nothing more. “4” seems fair.

  7. 7
    Shiny Dave on 7 Sep 2018 #

    This is a textbook example of a Popular review starting from the question “why this record?” – and, specifically, the question “why does this record exist?”. A softcore suburban So Solid Crew performing an inferior cover version of an American smash is maybe the most obviously “2002 UK” pop cultural object imaginable. (I actually argued yesterday on Twitter that the most 2002 pop-cultural object imaginable might be “Where My Heart Will Take Me,” the bombastic Warren-penned theme from Star Trek series Enterprise, but from a UK-specific standpoint this has to be up there, and certainly as a thing that couldn’t possibly exist in much of a window earlier or later!)

    My immediate thought was a comparison to Robson & Jerome – photogenic British men improbably shot to number one with covers of classic songs they’re nowhere near equipped for – but that might be too harsh. The better analogy is with Gareth Gates – British teenage dreamers taking on classic songs they’re nowhere near equipped for, doing it with a wide-eyed innocence that would surely play out better with more lighthearted material that carried a lighter load.

    And we’ve already seen that Gareth got that chance and took it. “Anyone of Us (Stupid Mistake)” is no classic, but it was never meant as one; its only job was to be a Gareth Gates song that actually fit Gareth Gates, and it did that job with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of boyishness. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say exactly the same about “Flip Reverse” and Blazin’ Squad, except it wasn’t actually their second single.

    At the time, I’m 99% sure I wrote off this lot as rubbish music for rubbish people. The early 2000s was the nadir of Toryism nationwide, but it was the zenith of my Toryism, and specifically of my classism – still precariously perched as an academic high achiever even coming off significant illness two years earlier, as regularly bullied as just about anyone in my secondary school, and out-and-out defining myself in opposition to the people who hurt me.

    Blazin’ Squad were all in Year 11 at Highams Park School, a few miles northeast of Walthamstow with an E4 postcode that makes it sound a lot more inner-city than it is. (An apt analogy for the Squad themselves?) I was in Year 11 at a school 150 miles away on the south coast.

    “Crossroads” seemingly got recorded on the extended post-GCSE summer break, and its release date was the Monday before GCSE results day. (Another meaning, perhaps, to this choice of cover?) I can vividly remember my results day; a boy in my tutor group, the most academically capable of my tormentors, asking me for my grades, me reeling them off (1 A*, 6 A, 1 B, 1 C, 1 D), and the one-word reply “bastard.” It was one of the happiest moments of my life at the time.

    The story of my political (over?-)correction in sixth form is one to save for a 2003 bunny. But in 2002, I was as casually classist and out-and-out nasty as I’ve ever been, and (I hope and expect) more than I ever will be again. Blazin’ Squad were standard-bearers for a white working class culture I flat-out defined myself in opposition to, and even though at least some of my tormentors (including, if memory serves, the one I quoted) were much keener on Iron Maiden (who also formed in north-east London!), those groups could quickly shrug off association with teenage dirtbags in my mind. Blazin’ Squad couldn’t.

    Probably because it honestly sounds like a souped-up school assembly performance. And not very souped-up at that, given how expensive the production isn’t. Could I have imagined a bunch of lads in my year group unleashing this at my school assembly and being praised to the rafters for it? Quite possibly, frankly.

    And the fact I can imagine this innocuous rap being praised like that even in 2002 might say a lot. These kids are younger than the ones “Turtle Power” got marketed to, and it was still not a given that the pop my age group made could be hip-hop?!?

  8. 8
    Ed on 8 Sep 2018 #

    Emulating US R&B is a great tradition – perhaps the greatest tradition – in British pop. Sad to see it sputtering to such an ignominious end here.

    Also, a pedant writes: The US original is by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, not Bone Thugz. Ardkore spelling was not such a big thing in the US as it was in Britain.

  9. 9
    Joey on 8 Sep 2018 #

    The funniest part to me is that even though they are not Bone Thugs, they still start the song “Bone bone bone bone, bone bone bone bone”

  10. 10
    IMG_4346 on 9 Sep 2018 #

    The thing that struck me when I heard it was how strong the Christian influence was–not something you heard a lot in pop at the time, at least not the chart-topping kind. It sounded like something a city church’s youth group would put together. School assembly sounds very right, too.

    But I was 13, in a middle-to-working-class comp on the other side of London with a strong Christian element, lots of youth-group church leaders invited in to school assemblies, so that might have been me. It’s not a great song.

  11. 11
    wwolfe on 11 Sep 2018 #

    Comparing the original to this re-make, the difference that strikes me is how the re-make rushes the tempo, while the original is confident enough to stay at a more relaxed pace. It’s not unlike the way that white bands in the British Invasion almost always speeded up the first generation songs by black American artists. I can’t say for sure, but I bet the same thing happened when Paul Whiteman’s band re-made songs originated by black jazz greats in the 1920s. Maybe adrenaline is the common substitute for a sense of swing?

  12. 12
    Joey again on 11 Sep 2018 #

    I don’t know much about Whiteman but considering that his stuff was about combining jazz idioms with classical orchestral music, I suspect he may have actually slowed it down.

  13. 13
    mark sinker on 12 Sep 2018 #

    Did Whiteman remake many (or any) songs that actually originated by black jazz greats? His MO was more to jazz up popular Broadway songs and Gershwin and such (“jazz up” for certain somewhat debatable values of jazz): this is a list of his actual cover versions, and assuming it’s complete and accurate the only 20s jazz great on the list is Armstrong, I think — and while Whiteman’s version *is* a little faster, “mutiny in the nursery” isn’t a 20s jazz classic, it’s a kitschy near-novelty song from a late-30s comedy that featured several strong black artists in more or less decorative roles. Ellington’s “Flamingo” is from the 40s — and also arguably more a pop song than a “jazz classic”, though of course with strong Ellingtonian elements (I couldn’t actually find Whiteman’s version to compare).

    What Whiteman did do — though it isn’t all he did* — was make pepped-up and syncopated jazz-esque dance music, some of it reasonably frenetic. Without precise cover versions to compare like-to-like, it’s hard to do an exact comparison on tempos though: there was plenty of frenetic actual real black jazz — the 20s was a frenetic time and this was the dance-music the punters were demanding.

    *He also did slow and sentimental, and — since one of his soloists was bix beiderbecke — fragile and melancholy.

  14. 14
    enitharmon on 12 Sep 2018 #

    Dixon House in the background unless I’m much mistaken. One of mine, back in the day. Are these guys yet more products of the Holland Park School music department?

  15. 15
    The King of Novaya Zemlya on 12 Sep 2018 #

    “Urban” for Lad Bible readers of 12 who think peak humour’s tweeting women’s football reports with “Can they pass their way into the kitchen and make me a sandwich?” Yer da says they’d struggle with a trip to Netto, never mind the ghetto.

    The original is powerful, uplifting, spiritual, and quite brilliant, and first time I heard it around midnight at Christmas 2000 on KISS TV it seemed to soothe all the angst I’d built up that sombre teenage angst/parents’ divorce year, so an extra point for that. 3.

    On a positive note, welcome back Tom! TBH I never doubted you, if you survived Blobby you can survive anything.

  16. 16
    flahr on 12 Sep 2018 #

    I’m distressed that this website evinces no record of Whiteman at Hammersmith Palais.

  17. 17
    Shiny Dave on 13 Sep 2018 #

    #14 – I was wondering about where the album cover was! By the looks of a quick Google Maps search, that will definitely have been taken from the Westway Sports Centre pitch.

    These lads were actually from Highams Park School in north-east London, in an area that inexplicably has an E4 postcode. E17 is directly between E4 and central London. I presume there is a good reason for this, but do not know what it is.

    Mind you, the NP postcode is centred around Newport, and most of Newport is split between (erm) NP19 and NP20, so maybe there really isn’t a logic.

    In any case, the idea of doing a photoshoot against the backdrop of a Brutalist estate that’s nowhere remotely close to their own bit of London sums up a lot about how much the Squad were presented as this weird manufactured group of tough-but-not-too-tough rap dudes. It might have seemed insulting at the time, but what makes it really insulting in 2018 is just about visible on the left of the shot. If that’s the building I think it is, it’s in Popular’s far future… :(

  18. 18
    Ed on 13 Sep 2018 #

    @17 Wikipedia says the London postcode districts are broken down into numbered areas in alphabetical order, not by distance from the centre. So Enfield, E4, gets a lower number than Waltham Forest, E17.

    The reason the numbers go up so high is because the E code absorbed the old NE code in 1866, in a restructuring recommended by the novelist Anthony Trollope, fact fans.

    (He was working for the Post Office at the time, BTW. They didn’t just get hold of random novelists and ask them how to streamline mail delivery in London.)

  19. 19
    Mark G on 13 Sep 2018 #

    It’s funny how NW, SE are London codes, whereas NE is Newcastle, and SW is Swindon.

  20. 20
    Shiny Dave on 13 Sep 2018 #

    SW is definitely South-West London, hence Wimbledon SW19. (Swindon has SN.)

    However, besides NE there’s also S not allocated to London; Sheffield gets that.

    I’m still amused that the fictional E20 of Albert Square got co-opted by the Olympic Park when E19 was available. The E postcode area isn’t remotely the largest in scope either – that would be BT, for Belfast, which covers the entirety of Northern Ireland.

    E4 is specifically E4 because it’s Chingford (Enfield is in its own EN district), apparently. It probably doesn’t help that E2 and E3 are both inner-city districts (Bethnal Green, Bow), which makes E4 seem even more incongruous a label for a deeply suburban area.

  21. 21
    chelovek na lune on 13 Sep 2018 #

    NE and S did used to be in London – there are still a very few street signs (around Clapton, mostly, I think) with “NE” on.

    As for the rationale behind the numbering (part of E4 even crossing the boundary of Greater London into Essex – although it must be said that many of the E postcodes were in Essex before 1965, as Newham was then the Essex County Boroughs of East Ham and West Ham), with some exceptions (NW11, SE28, both of which were added later, as they were all fields and countryside when the system was devised, and both are the highest-numbered codes in their sector, and there are two sequences in the SW and SE I think), the “1” in each sector is the most central district, and then they proceed alphabetically by the name of the district (so SE2, Abbey Wood, is if anything more suburban than E4, likewise N2 for Church End, Finchley, while NW2, Cricklewood, is also barely inner-city…).

    All of which is a bit more interesting than this record…. I liked the original greatly, but this version seemed to combine both trying too hard (all that enthuisasm) and not hard enough (not paying any attention whatsoever to what the song was about)

  22. 22
    mark sinker on 13 Sep 2018 #

    these are all near where i live!

  23. 23
    wichitalineman on 14 Sep 2018 #

    BS were just a name I’d heard in the same breath as So Solid Crew, I was imagining something a lot more substantial. So Crossroads’ bible blub was a real shock to me and not in a good way, something as substantial as the Foundations covering Oh Happy Day, or Adam Faith doing There’ll Be Peace In The Valley.

    The “NE” on London street signs predates post codes which I (and I suspect Mark) can remember as a brand new thing in the 70s. Not sure why Sheffield and Newcastle got first dibs on S and NE. I used to live in N2 which is East Finchley, even less urban and grimy than Chingford.

    Paul Whiteman was also one of the first, if not the first, person to envisage jazz played in concert halls. His orchestra played the premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. Which makes Whiteman one of the first people to see popular music as something to be taken as seriously as ‘serious music’. He also brought some real jazz groundbreakers through his ranks (Bix, Bunny Berigan, Bing Crosby). He gets a fair deal in Elijah Wald’s confusingly named How The Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll), but he adds up to a little more than Blazin’ Squad.

  24. 24
    wwolfe on 19 Sep 2018 #

    Thanks to #13 and #23 for the information. That’s a lot more than I ever knew about Paul Whiteman! And thanks to #16 for the inspired pun.

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