This M People article was written by Jessica Otterwell, a GIGsoup contributor
In 1994 the Mercury Music Prize did something no one expected, it award the prize to M People. The chart friendly dance act were put together by former Haçienda DJ Mike Pickering, ex member of Orange Juice, Paul Heard and fronted by Heather Small, whose heavy soul vocals have been as lauded as they have lampooned. It was a curve ball not least because the short list was so diverse. This was the year that included Paul Weller, Pulp, Blur, The Prodigy and seminal Northern Irish metal band Therapy? alongside boyband super stars Take That.
There was so much talent here; indeed, many of the short list have since gone on to become classics (Parklife, His n Hers, Troublegum, Music for the Jilted Generation), heralded as turning points, the place to discover each artist or they include a stand out song that any music fan remembers.
So, why was M People’s Elegant Slumming the winner? There are a number of factors at work here; firstly it was a hugely successful, there was a time when you couldn’t switch on a commercial radio station without hearing Moving On Up or go into a shop without it being blasted in your ears, then it was featured on any TV advert going, in fact it got to the point where you weren’t even sure Moving on Up wasn’t emanating from you rather than your surroundings.
Also, the dance scene was having its moment in the late 1980s and early 1990s and for it to cross over into mainstream chart success was to Elegant Slumming’s credit. Even people who did frequent clubs and raves and were not part of that scene (for whatever reason) were being exposed to it. Elegant Slumming encapsulates the essence of the early 90s dance-pop scene, with its bouncy keyboards and throbbing basslines. It has a mindless gloss, a hollow sheen. The lyrics are throw away, the beats are basic but M People’s win and Take That’s shortlisting set a president for the Mercury Music Prize. In 1994 it was only in its third year, yet it has continued to go against the grain ever since. People may have expected one of the ‘serious’ albums to triumph but the panel clearly felt M People and Take That could hold their own against these contenders.
Notably, the 70s throwback disco vibe is hard at work here and this retro feel works well on Renaissance, then a cover of You Just Have to Be There, involves a flute and may as well have been recorded by Lisa Stansfield. Yet almost everyone from D: Ream, Black Box and even Ace of Base were playing this style, with differing amounts of cheese. Elegant Slumming is a dated listen but it was a product of its time and encapsulates an era when dance pop was having its moment. Is Heather Small a physicist yet?