The System Hits Its ‘Groove’ With Top 10 Single

July 10, 1987|DENNIS HUNT | Times Staff Writer

Mic Murphy and David Frank cringed.

The leaders of the hot R&B duo the System seemed to be thinking: “Oh, no, here come those racial questions again.”

It’s times like this that lead singer Murphy, who’s black, and keyboardist Frank, who’s white, probably wish they weren’t–suddenly–the nation’s foremost biracial band.

Now that they’re touring with a Top 10 single, “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” and a fairly successful Atlantic Records album of the same title, the pair is attracting lots of media attention–which means a flood of those racial questions they both dread so much.

“I guess we’re a novelty,” said Murphy sarcastically. “A black guy and a white guy fronting a band–a successful band at that. Will wonders ever cease?”

Until those questions popped up, the East Coast duo had been savoring the warm afternoon breezes by the rooftop pool of their West Hollywood hotel. The interview had been low-key, centering on basics.

But following the introduction of the racial issue, Frank, initially in a mellow mood, tensed up. Murphy’s breezy cockiness dissolved into sarcasm and cynicism.

“What kind of problems could we have?” Murphy asked. “This is 1987. There aren’t any racial problems in this day and age, are there?”

Murphy and Frank are a model of racial harmony. Not only is the bond between them obviously iron-clad, they also treat racial issues jokingly.

“You should come on the road with us sometime,” Murphy joked. “You’d see a lot of interesting things, like cross burnings, race riots. . . . ”

Together since 1982, Murphy, 29, and Frank, 34, essentially are the System. They’ve had to hire accompanists to back them on the tour–their first since 1983.

For the last three years there has been no reason to tour. Though System singles like “You Are in My System” and “The Pleasure Seekers” got considerable airplay, neither was a hit. The duo’s first three albums, a mixture of commercial material and adventurous, multifaceted R&B, appealed mostly to musicians, cultists and R&B fans with eclectic tastes. But the current album, particularly the loping, sexy title song, has much more pop appeal.

When not recording or touring, they’ve done–separately and as a team–producing, writing and arranging for artists like Phil Collins, Chaka Khan, Sheena Easton and Nona Hendryx.

Downplaying the racial angle, they insisted that bigotry hasn’t been a problem. “Would we have been in the Top 10 before now if we were both black or both white?” Frank asked. “I don’t think so. We don’t know which element was missing before now, but it didn’t have anything to do with race.”

Getting progressively miffed by the racial discussion, Murphy snapped: “You could get crazy with that racial stuff. You could say we’re the first group to be in the Top 10 that’s exactly half black and half white. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t even care. Or maybe they’ll give us a Grammy for being the best biracial duo. Or maybe . . . ”

Frank interrupted him, adding: “We can’t really worry about this biracial thing. We put blinders on. We don’t focus on it. We leave that to the media.”

When Murphy was growing up in New York City, he wasn’t locked into the black experience. “In this one school I was the only black person,” he recalled. “My best friend was Jewish. I went to a lot of bar mitzvahs. Race wasn’t a big factor with me then and it’s not now.”

Frank, who is Jewish, noted that anti-Semitism is often a more relevant problem to him. “I remember sitting in a library next to some guys who didn’t know I’m Jewish,” he said. “They were saying they’re caddies at the Jewish country club in town and using words like \o7 kike. \f7 All of a sudden I’m aware for the first time in my life that people hate Jewish people. I’ve been reminded of that a lot since then.”

Frank, who’s from Boston, bypassed the details of how he first met Murphy in 1982.

“It’s not important how we met,” Frank said. “I had been in New York three years and I wanted to get something really good going musically. I had this (musical) track and I wanted to develop it. I called Mic and he came over and put words and melody to it. We recorded it the next day. Then he went and got us a record deal with Mirage (Records). I had done in one day what I’d been looking 10 years to do. It was instant chemistry.”

Their mutual admiration for black music helped bring them together and undoubtedly is something that helps keep them together.

“We’re into music,” Murphy observed. “I wouldn’t even say it’s black music–just music. Let’s talk about music. When you talk about race, you’re talking about differences and what keeps people apart. We don’t like to think about stuff like that.”