The Long Life of Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love’
Tom Tom Club posed a peculiar question on their 1981 debut album, then offered their answer: "What you gonna do when you get out of jail? I'm gonna have some fun."
Decades later, the bouncy, reggae-tinged riff and lulling female harmonies of "Genius of Love" can still be heard scattered throughout popular culture.
A side project created by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, Tom Tom Club was initially meant to keep the Talking Heads members busy while David Byrne and Jerry Harrison worked on solo endeavors. The husband-wife duo was, at first, at a loss when an accountant warned them that if they didn't work on something, their finances would suffer.
"Tina and I looked at each other," Frantz told Songfacts in 2014. "Neither of us were singers, at least at that time, and we thought, 'What kind of solo album could we do?'"
They eventually connected with Island Records head Chris Blackwell, a friend of Talking Heads' manager, who offered to produce a single for them at Compass Studios in the Bahamas. If it turned out well, an entire album might follow. "Wordy Rappinghood" was subsequently recorded and mixed in just three days then reached the Top 10 in a handful of countries. Next stop: a full LP.
Even greater success awaited Tom Tom Club, who were also loosely comprised of Weymouth sisters Lani and Laura, as well as guitarist Adrian Belew.
Listen to Tom Tom Club's 'Genius of Love'
Frantz had a title in mind for another song, "Genius of Love." Weymouth brought in the melody and most of the lyrics, which paid tribute to various Black musicians the pair admired, like Smokey Robinson, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, James Brown and Sly and Robbie. The result was funky and stylish, with just the right amount of weirdness, making for an instantly memorable tune.
"I would say it probably took two 16-hour days to complete, but once we had the bass and drums, we already knew we had a hit," Frantz told Songfacts. "Usually, you wouldn't say, 'This is a hit,' because you don't want to jinx it – but I think everybody in the room knew it."
They were correct. "Genuis of Love" shot to the top of the disco and R&B charts, transforming Tom Tom Club from a small side project to creators of one of the hottest songs of the early '80s.
"One of the most gratifying moments in my career: I was walking down [Lower Manhattan’s] Houston Street, turning [off] the corner of 6th Avenue where the basketball courts were,” Frantz told Vanity Fair in 2011. “There were a lot of kids playing basketball with their boomboxes out – and every boombox was turned to WBLS blasting ‘Genius of Love.’ It felt so good, I had to stop and just watch for a while.”
"Genius of Love" was especially attractive to emerging hip hop and R&B artists looking to add something snappy to the background of their songs. One of the first notable samples appeared in 1981's "Genius Rap" by Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five followed it up with 1982's "It's Nasty." Mariah Carey would later use parts of "Genius of Love" for her 1995 song "Fantasy," which held the No. 1 spot for eight weeks while sparking a new flow of revenue for Tom Tom Club.
"If we'd held out for what we deserved for that sample, we never would have gotten it," Weymouth said to the Hartford Courant in 2000. "As it was, having a tiny taste of eight million in sales goes a long way."
Listen to Tom Tom Club's 'Who Feelin' It'
Those funds would help produce the band's fifth album — and their first in eight years — The Good, the Bad and the Funky, on which a sort of sequel to "Genius of Love" appeared. "Who Feelin' It" employed more of that reggae rhythm and name-dropped even more musicians, like the Beastie Boys, Fela Kuti, Wu-Tang Clan, Al Green and Otis Redding.
"'Who Feelin' It' was written that way deliberately," Frantz told the Courant, "so it could bookend 'Genius of Love.'" The song was also used in the soundtrack to American Psycho.
More samples of "Genius of Love," as well as lyrics and melodies inspired by the original beat, have appeared in Busta Rhymes' "One," 50 Cent's "When I Get Out," Ice Cube's "Bop Gun (One Nation)," 2Pac and the Outlawz's "High Speed" and Warren G's "What's Love Got to Do With It," among others.
It's also appeared in films like Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Tower Heist, Shame, Lars and the Real Girl, The Family and Tschick, to name a few. More recently, "Genius of Love" became a regular presence on TikTok thanks to being sampled in Latto's Top 5 hit "Big Energy."
This lasting legacy has proved that Frantz and Weymouth's tentative solo expansion was well worth the risk, even if "Genius of Love" initially only reached No. 31.
“It’s beyond being an earworm,” Frantz told Vanity Fair. “We got lucky.”