If you were a fan of dance music and/or pop music in the '90s, you are undoubtedly very familiar with Robin S.'s "Show Me Love," a top five crossover hit that celebrates the 20th anniversary of its single release this week. (This is not to be confused with Robyn's identically titled "Show Me Love," released a half-decade later.) Even if you weren't around for the initial release of the Robin S. song in 1993, however, chances are still pretty good you know and love the song, as it has not only endured as a club classic, but also popped up as a referenced text in later hits like Jason Derulo's "Don't Wanna Go Home," and been re-remixed seemingly every couple years to keep it current with new trends in dance music, perhaps most notably in 2008 by Swedish House Mafia member Steve Angello & Laidback Luke.
Maybe you don't remember the song in its entirety, but if you've heard it even once, I bet you remember at least one thing about it--that gorgeous, glorious riff. There might not be five hooks in the history of dance music--a genre that places a pretty high premium on attention-grabbing hooks--that are as unforgettable as the synth-organ line in "Show Me Love," a skeletal, echoing keyboard pattern that lasts virtually the whole song and creeps its way into the very fiber of your being before the end of the first chorus. It's far from the only great thing about the song--Robin S.'s bellowing caterwaul of loneliness and yearning earns her first-ballot entry into the Disco Diva Hall of Fame, even though she never had another hit--but it's the thing that ensures that 20 years from now, dance DJs will still be sampling, remixing, referencing and interpolating "Show Me Love" to death.
That's what makes it so shocking to discover that the trademark synth hook wasn't even originally a part of the song at all. Having loved the song for ages and ages, I only recently found out that the version that I and the rest of the world was familiar with--the version celebrating its two-decade anniversary--was actually a well-after-the-fact remix of a song originally recorded in 1990. The song's initial version (the "Montego Mix") did not include the hook or any semblance of its melody, and was in fact a totally different song--a much bubblier, sorta by-the-numbers diva house jam of the period, along the lines of Jomanda's "Got a Love For You" or D-Mob and Cathy Dennis' "C'mon and Get My Love," with a gentle piano hook, generously layered synth-strings, and even a wailing sax solo over some of the breaks.
The song never really went anywhere in its initial incarnation, and it wasn't until 1992 that "Show Me Love" morphed into the version we now know it as today--thanks to Swedish DJ StoneBridge, who was offered the chance by the song's licensing company to give it another spin. He recalls the process in the essay compilation The Remix Manual: The Art and Science of Dance Music Remixing with Logic:
They said they had this failed project with a great vocal. I got the tape and did three or four mixes that they didn't like at all. In frustration, I decided to go in and do one final mix. I stripped the track to just the kick drum and vocal, changed the bass sound I had used for the latest mix and it happened to be an organ...I then found a snare drum from a record, but it had a kick in it, so it got this heavy attack that worked perfectly with the massive kick. I then put on two string chords in the chorus and put a little distorted stab thing in the intro and it was done in a little bit over four hours.
Simple, but ultimately revelatory. Remarkably, StoneBridge says he had no clue what he had on his hands with the remix, saying he listened to it again a few days later and thought it was "pretty bad, but my girlfriend convinced me to send it off, and the rest was history." Sure enough.
Listening to the original version of the song gives you an even bigger appreciation for StoneBridge's remix, since it completely changes the feel of the song. The Montego Mix is an imminently acceptable dance-pop jam, and Robin S's massive vocal could carry just about any backing track, but it's not hard to see why it was initially lost in the sea of diva-led, house-rooted pop hits of the early '90s, since while pleasant enough, the track is kind of anonymous. By contrast, however, the remix is an instant attention-grabber, first with its lurching, austere intro, then with the introduction of that singular synth-organ hook, pierced by Robin's wordless cry. It didn't sound quite like anything on the radio in 1993, and still occupies a singular space in dance-pop history.
The interesting thing about the riff is the way it changes the tone of the entire song. It's so stark, so haunted-sounding, that it colors Robin's vocal--in the Montego Mix, her declarations of "So baby if you want me / You've got to show me love" sound optimistic and almost a little coy, like she's relieved that she's done with all the "heartbreaks and promises" and her new love is actually seeming pretty promising. With the StoneBridge mix, however, she still sounds shell-shocked and devastated, like she's pleading for her guy to show her love, because she just doesn't know if she can take another crushing disappointment. It's very dark, and could have been overwhelmingly dour, if not for the snare-and-hi-hate shuffle that keeps propelling the song forward, making sure that the song does not become an exercise in self-pity, but rather a chance to exorcise all your relationship demons on the dancefloor.
So, our thanks to StoneBridge for going back in for that final mix, and kudos to his girlfriend for convincing him that it was the classic it quickly ended up being. The original mix of "Show Me Love" is interesting and fun enough, but mostly just as a precursor to the famous mix, which 20 years later is as soul-and-body-moving as ever.