With an intensely soulful style that summons both a velvet touch of classic R&B and the intense call of rock, Mic Murphy has struck a chord with fans of the groove and the arena. His pioneering presence as a founding member of The System - the trailblazing, electro-soul duo that pedaled high up the radio and club charts with classics like “You Are in My System,” “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” “This Is for You,” and “Midnight Special” - laid the foundation for a prosperous career in a very fickle industry. Sprinkle on top of that an impressive production clientele spanning the likes of Angela Bofill, Chaka Khan, Nona Hendryx, and Madonna, and his accomplishments become even more apparent.
Those achievements, however, are only highlights of an ever-growing resume, to which the latest addition is a fresh collaboration with another pioneer, hip-hop great Grandmaster Mele Mel. Entitled “Electro Soul Satisfaction,” this killer new single release on Electro Avenue Records hearkens back to the glory of The System’s defining moments while paving the way for a new bond between today’s rap and authentic R&B music. This impressive meshing of styles is fitting, considering Murphy’s and Mel’s history. “I was a road member for [rap record label] Sugarhill back in the early 80’s,” Mic recalls. “Basically, the job was to be a sound man, but I set up all the gear, too. It was one of those yellow school bus tours. That’s how I met Mele Mel, and then we did ‘Beat Street’ together a few years later.” Although the two kept in touch sporadically, it was a “very persistent fan” who was responsible for finally uniting the two on wax recently. Producer Lloyd da Zoid, says Mic, was “single handedly responsible for putting the pieces together for ‘Electro Soul Satisfaction.’ His enthusiasm is pervasive.”
Lloyd da Zoid sent several tracks to Mic before really grabbing his attention. “I get a lot of requests like that and usually when they send the music, I don’t hear anything that I’d be interested in doing.” When the track for “Electro Soul Satisfaction” arrived in his inbox, Mic decided he’d write something over it if time allowed. “Lloyd kept e-mailing me like, ‘When am I gonna get it?’ He didn’t stop. Then, he told me he’d be in New York on May 11th. On the 8th, he was like, ‘Would you just come to the studio and record it?’ So, I wrote it the day before, then went down and recorded it, and it sounded really good. His mission is keeping electro alive and furthering it.”
Furthering the life and prosperity of electro-soul is a notion that hits home with R&B and funk fans who were born or grown during the 80’s heyday of The System. While early critics dismissed the style as artificial and lacking substance, they failed to take into account the expert levels of assimilation, precision, and nuance required to perfect it. Mic says of the approach, “It really started out as a way to record without having to have a whole band. You could control all the dimensions of the record, make the decisions and finish it right then and there. [The early 80’s] was the first time it was a possibility in recorded music. The UK was doing it, but it wasn’t so widespread in America. The technology was difficult in terms of synching everything, because you had these little Roland boxes and you had to use a synchronizer. It was complicated -- not as easy as it is now. There were people who were using basic Roland 909 beats and maybe a little bassline, but they didn’t have all the levels of the chords, counterpoint, and sequence. We kind of put all that stuff together, and added a vocal style that was what R&B was doing -- but more syncopated.”
Aside from working on tours for Sugarhill, Mic also honed his professional chops in those early days as a road manager for Kleeer - a gig which, unbeknownst to Mic, would land him his musical partner-in-crime for the next decade. “I went to see a Sinatra-styled singer at a club on the Upper East side, and David Frank was the keyboard player. Even though it was a different style, I could tell he was really good, so I asked if he wanted to come on the road with Kleeer. He heard me singing while we were touring, and mentioned that he had a song he’d like to try.”
The song that Mic speaks of was originally demo’d by another then-aspiring young vocalist by the name of Madonna, but ended up evolving into an altogether different tune that resulted in The System getting a record deal literally within hours. Mic explains, “Madonna and David rehearsed in the same music building. At the time, she had a room with drummer Steve Bray, who was her principal producer. David had written a track and given it to them. I think she just came up with the title [‘Crimes of Passion’], but they immediately wanted to change it from a really electronic sound to a more typical one with guitars - the ‘Holiday’ generation of stuff. David, though, felt really strongly about what he had.” When Mic ventured over to David’s loft to work on the track, he retweaked the melody and lyrics, and thus was born “It’s Passion.” He recalls, “We did it in one day. We met, I wrote the lyric, and went to the studio in Long Island and recorded it that day. We mixed it that night. Because of my relationship with Kleeer and [publishing company] Little Macho Music, I knew a couple of record company people - Bob Caviano, who had RFC; and Jim Delehant, who worked for Jerry Greenberg [president of Mirage Records]. So, the next day, I had three test pressings made by Dennis King, and I took one to each of them. I told each that the other wanted to sign it, and Jerry signed it that same day! So, we had a deal in a 24-hour period.”
Mirage Records quickly released the newborn System’s “It’s Passion” as the two-man band’s first single, promptly becoming a monster dancefloor hit throughout New York and nationally charting at #23 on Billboard’s Club Play chart. It was a nice warm-up to the much bigger heat that would occur a few months later in early 1983 -- when Mic and David followed up with the wickedly addictive “You Are in My System.” Quickly taking form as the duo’s foundation, “System” not only surpassed its predecessor’s club success, but also crossed over to the mainstream R&B chart in a big way, reaching #10 stateside and making a sizable mark internationally. British blue-eyed soulster Robert Palmer covered the song for his ‘Pride’ LP within months. Mic and David took part in this recording, in addition to their own Spanish-language recording of the track, “Tu Estas En Mi Systema.” After filming a distinctive music video for the original, they released their full-length debut album, ‘Sweat,’ which landed them a number of high-profile appearances including TV’s ‘Soul Train.’
As a result of “record companies thinking we had the next direction the world was gonna go into,” Mic recalls, production, session, and writing work for choice artists started coming their way -- Angela Bofill, Chaka Khan, Mtume, Howard Johnson, and Nona Hendryx were among their first clients. “A lot of people took a chance with us, particularly in R&B. There were still a lot of drummers, bass players, and guitarists making recordings. Maybe drum machines were being used, but there was still overdubbing.” He describes Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” as one of the most memorable accomplishments from this time. “To me, that was the best use of the combination of what was going on in R&B and the production [style we had].”
The marriage of R&B with electro-soul blossomed further on The System’s sophomore outing, ‘X-Periment,’ which Mic thinks of as “our best sounding record ever. Michael Brauer engineered that phenomenally, and it was really adventurous in terms of the songs.” Highlights included the striking singles “Promises Can Break” and “I Wanna Make You Feel Good”; but it was with 1985’s ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ that The System hit the airwaves in a big way once again with the pensive uptempo number, “This Is for You.” The melodically driven synth-groove hinted at the unique “beat ballad” sub-genre that the duo would mold on its next outing,1987’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove.” The alluringly soulful slow-jam speedily became a defining moment for Mic and David as it rose to #1 on the R&B charts, while simultaneously breaking into the Pop Top 5. The same-titled album also became their biggest-selling full-length, being further boosted by another top-5 ballad, “Nighttime Lover.”
While Mic first tried his hand at a solo singing career in the early 90’s, it’s with his recent efforts and collaborations that he’s truly started to tap into his own element again. Lyrically speaking, “Electro Soul Satisfaction,” he remarks, “is where I’m coming from.” His first line in the tune, “I don’t want dope/I don’t want wee/Your dose of love is all I need,” is further powered by his proclamation, “It takes a strong man to lose control/Come satisfy my electro soul” - peppered by a few subtle 80’s references: “Lights are flashin’/Screams of passion/My self-control is losing traction.” He notes, “I really am inclined politically, but it’s particularly hard in R&B to do something that has those undertones without sounding preachy. Marvin Gaye did it fantastically with ‘What’s Goin’ On,” but there’s not been many others that’ve had any impact other than ‘We Are the World.’ You really have to have a moment when the whole world is focused on a particular event.”
While ESS is his first recording to be released in a hot minute, it’s not for lack of inspiration. “I always have ideas, but now, it’s more the reason to finish it -- ‘What am I finishing this for? Is somebody gonna hear it?’ I have lots of stuff done, but it’s hard to find somebody willing to take it to the next step of promotion.” Those obstacles have not hindered Mic from being prolific these last few months. “I’ve been working on some stuff with David. We have a few songs. If we can get the two or three to define the direction, then the rest of it is easy. Hopefully in the next month or so, we’ll have them all sussed out. I’m also producing for Chris Jackson from the Broadway show, ‘In the Heights,’ and a girl from Miami called La V.”
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.