I still remember that day clearly. It was 1994. I was driving by Kuen Cheng School.
I popped in a demo tape I received from my friend Rizal. And what I heard nearly made me stop the car in the middle of Federal Highway.
I reached out frantically to look at the tape sleeve…
There was nothing written.
I was excited. I have never heard harmonies produced this smooth on this side of the planet. The blend was perfect. The phrasing was as one. And it was a freakin’ demo.
I had to meet these guys.
I called Rizal. “Dude, where did you get this??”
Rizal laughed over the phone. “Bro. Call Niko. Here’s the number. Niko’s my friend. He’s in this vocal group.”
I called Niko.
A voice came on the line. “Hello.”
I quivered. “Hi. Yes. I just heard your demo tape. I’m with a label. Can I see you guys?”
Niko then said, “Hey. We will be at Hard Rock Cafe KL in a bit. Come by.”
I parked, straightened myself, tried not to look nervous, and headed towards Hard Rock. I knew I had to do something, anything with these guys
I clicked my Motorola phone shut and cut into the exit heading towards KL’s Golden Triangle. I needed to meet the guys responsible for that incredible demo.
Soon I reached Hard Rock.
I parked, straightened myself, tried not to look nervous, and headed towards Hard Rock. I knew I had to do something, anything with these guys. It’s not every day you come across talent like that.
At the tender age of 24, I had to show composure.
I walked into Hard Rock.
I looked around. Trying to look “cool”.
A voice rang out from the crowd. “Izham?”
A guy walked up, extended his hand and said “Niko.”
I smiled and said “Great demo.”
“Thanks! Oh, let me introduce you to this guy.”
One guy turned around. I stared. He had the aura of a star.
He looked at me with a wary smile. Like he’s seen all these “label people” before.
I caught myself standing nervously, tapping my foot on the wooden floor, trying to maintain eye contact with some semblance of confidence.
He finally extended his hand.
“Reymee. Love that demo you guys did. I, well, I like your sound. Can I see you guys sing?”
Reymee sized me up slowly and said, “We’re practising at my house this weekend.”
He gave me details and left.
And that was it.
So one fateful weekend, I went to Reymee’s house…
I was introduced to the five of them.
Reymee. Pot. Taj. Niko. And Jeff.
And this wasn’t actually their original line-up, with people coming and going.
There was a piano and so we all jammed.
There wasn’t any talk of signing to Positive Tone, my label.
I was just excited to play with really good voices. They taught me a lot too, introducing me to harder R&B stuff. Dru Hill, Jodeci, Silk, I absorbed them all.
Even though I studied music, they worked out intricate harmonies on their own. I was impressed.
And then Sam joined…
When Sam joined the group, it was just four of them. Reymee, Pot, Taj and Sam. And it was like the stars aligned in a once-in-a-lifetime musical cosmic event.
I didn’t know what to expect when I heard from Reymee that a guy called Sam was going to join the group and that Jeff and Niko decided to leave.
What I didn’t expect was the gut-wrenching, soulful and rich voice I heard when he first sang right in front of me. I remembered thinking, “No. Freakin’. Way.”
And just like that, the group felt complete.
I remember one US singer shouting at the top of her voice when she heard Sam sing, “Montell’s in the house!”
We spent more months together, the group doing some functions and events, getting through all the teething problems all new groups have, tweaking their style, sound, songlist, look and feel. And most importantly, realising what each brought to the table and how together, they were inimitable.
It was already nearly a year after I met them, and we were still working in Reymee’s house, going through harmonies, trying out new songs. Well, I wouldn’t call it work as I was not only having a great time with an incredible talent, but I was absorbing the music I was exposed to. Understanding the nuances, the feel and the reason for it’s being.
Innuendo was becoming a distinct sound.
Reymee was the musical leader. With an incredible ear for harmonies, he provided the silky top notes. And he knew the most intricate harmonies to try for any occasion.
Pot had a welcoming tenor. He always had the perfect nuance and phrasing for melodies. And he could write the most memorable melodies. He would sing it to me and I’d be scrambling trying to figure out the chords in his head.
Taj provided a solid baritone voice. His timber the richest of the four, with an innate sense of harmony.
And Sam. The power voice. I remember one US singer shouting at the top of her voice when she heard him sing, “Montell’s in the house!”
It wasn’t that each member in Innuendo had a great voice…
It was the perfect blend.
Four different voices, with different textures, but when sung together was a blend that was once-in-lifetime.
To be able to sit below them as they huddled and sang Boyz II Men’s version of ‘Yesterday’, facing each other, was always my magical memory.
The group everyone now knows as Innuendo, was finally ready to meet the world.
Now the truth was we were struggling to find material. We looked around but most songwriters that had an inkling to R&B were still producing very pop-jazz sounding music. We needed something different.
It came very naturally. The guitar part that you heard, really just came out just like that. (It was actually a keyboard, haha). I gave the guys my arrangement. Expecting to then arrange the vocals with them.
Soon after, they came to the studio (at this time they were already signed to Positive Tone), and told me to listen.
Then, in front of me, they sang their harmonies for ‘Belaian Jiwa’.
I sat down, overwhelmed. They worked out the intricate harmonies on their own. And it sounded magical. I couldn’t believe it. These guys were on another level.
We decided to record straight away. It went very smooth. We added some nice unique harmonies (some flat 9s and sub 5s for you music nerds) to just get those harmonies to a whole new level.
The end result is what you now know and recognise as ‘Belaian Jiwa’.
With that one in hand, we reached out still to more songwriters for more material and in the end we got a really good song from Azlan Abu Hassan, Rizal Kamaruzzaman and Cahaya Pena called ‘Selamanya’. Azlan provided the music and we recorded the vocals in our studio.
We still couldn’t get materials that we wanted to get that R&B Soul sound in the album.
In the end, we turned to ourselves. We started writing the rest of the album. And I was surprised to discover the guys were pretty good songwriters as well. We even got a song from one of our engineers, Illegal, to round up the album.
We went crazy. Hard-core R&B. Just as hard as it could come. Layered with the latest sounds and of course, Innuendo’s incredible harmonies. There were layers and layers of vocals.
Paul Moss, who did an incredible job with the mix (he also co-produced ‘Belaian Jiwa’), managed to sieve through the mountainous layers of vocals and instilled that signature sound for the album.
We finally completed it.
It took a while, but we did it. We produced the album we wanted, the look we wanted, the sound we wanted, and introduced R&B Soul to an audience who never knew this music was going to come to them from Malaysia.
I don’t think we can ever recreate that album if we tried. It just came together perfectly at that time. With the four guys and their own trials and tribulations, the readiness of the people to listen to something absolutely new and different, it all fell together at the right time, at the right place, with the right people.
And in doing so, out came an album that will forever be a definitive part of Malaysian musical history.
It will be a memory I shall forever cherish.
Ahmad Izham Omar is an award-winning music producer who occasionally runs music quizzes on his Twitter page @ahmadizhamomar