Something Old, Something New
By Matt Hanks
AUGUST 17, 1998: If you havent heard Lois Lanes single Chinese Checkers either you dont get out much, you dont own a radio, or both. The song has been a staple on K-97 for close to a year now, but youre just as likely to hear it on the tape deck in an aerobics class, an office building, or a hair salon. Though it has received limited, tightly regional distribution, Chinese Checkers has climbed as high as #82 on the Billboard singles chart. It is, by even the most conservative reckoning, a bona fide local phenomenon. And its happening right before our very eyes.
Still, theres something about Chinese Checkers and the talent behind it that recalls the ghosts of Memphis musics past. The song borrows its title and principal riff from a classic side by Booker T. and the MGs. If thats not nostalgic enough for you, Chinese Checkers has even spawned its own dance craze.
Lanes ability to juggle currency with familiarity is probably her strongest asset, and in terms of pre-millennial trendspotting, its fashionable to the nines. In a city that tends to view its music in the past tense, revisionism is proving to be one of the few sure bets left. Just ask Puff Daddy. Like all of his hits, Chinese Checkers is the perfect elixir for a pop landscape straddled between a rich past and an uncertain future.
Lane is a native Memphian. She grew up singing in Mallory Heights Baptist Church and listening to Al Green and the Bar-Kays.
Ive always been into music, she recalls. Ive been singing anything and everything since I was a little kid. I think I was around 11 when I started rapping. At first I would just rap along to songs on the radio, but pretty soon I decided to try my hand at writing.
Fast forward 15 or so years to Bills Twilight nightclub on North Parkway Chinese Checkers ground zero.
A friend of mine, Mixmaster Lee, he told me about this dance people were doing there, and he wanted me to check it out. He asked me to come up with some lyrics and go into the studio to cut the track. We put it off for a couple of months, but we finally got it together.
Lane and Lee took their newly recorded version of Chinese Checkers back to Bills Twilight and the crowd loved it. Lee smelled a hit. He got in touch with his friend James Alexander (that would be the same James Alexander who helped found the Bar-Kays 32 years ago, and whose music Lane adored as a child).
Lee invited James out to [Bills Twilight] one night, Lane says. As soon as they put on Chinese Checkers everybody was just runnin to the [dance] floor.
Lane cracks a rare smile, James told Lee, Yeah, I think we can do something with this.
Alexander was so impressed that he founded his own imprint, JEA Music, to release the Chinese Checkers single, and began booking gigs for her throughout the South. Lanes life hasnt been the same since. She gave up her job as a telemarketer and began filling her days with radio spots, record-store appearances, and small-town touring.
You hear a lot of talk in the music biz about grass-roots promotional tactics, but Lane doesnt care much for semantics. She just wants to be successful, and shell supply her talent wherever theres a demand for it.
Lanes efforts are paying off handsomely. Alexander reports that the Chinese Checkers single has sold more than 15,000 copies just within the Memphis city limits, and though this month marks the first anniversary of its release, its still selling several hundred copies a week.
Theres plenty of gangsta rap in Memphis, Alexander says. But Lois does more dance-oriented music, and shes the only one in town that I can think of whos doing that. That type of music has the potential to appeal to everybody; young, old, black, white everybody.
In Lanes future, aside from continued touring, Alexander confirms there are plans for a Chinese Checkers instructional dance video, so that we can teach really lame people like me how to do it.
As for Lane, shes looking forward to getting back into the studio and exploring some of her other talents.
I dont just rap. I also sing, and Im working on a few things more in that direction. I want to be as versatile as possible. Im really anxious to take things to another level.
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