One of the summer’s biggest club singles has been DJ Koze’s “Pick Up,” an immensely likable house record that reached Number One on the Beatport chart (which tracks online dance music sales) in May and remained in the chart’s upper reaches for several months.
“Pick Up” is built around a sample of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ 1972 song “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” her final single for Motown. This vocal has quietly become a go-to combustion engine for electronic producers in the last decade — the site WhoSampled lists 14 instances of its use since 2009. It turns out that a dire, here-comes-the-end soul ballad works wonders when transposed onto the world’s dancefloors.
It’s a surprising if not unwelcome fate for “Neither One of Us,” which was originally composed by former University-of-Mississippi-quarterback-turned-singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly. Weatherly’s version of the song sounds like it was tailor-made for country softie Glen Campbell, but it found its way to producer Joe Porter, who picked it up for Knight.
Porter helped coax “Neither One of Us” through its first transformation, surrounding the original’s acoustic core with deep-soul instrumentation: a prominent string section, a rush of backing vocals from the Pips, electric keyboards and feisty bass. Knight had one of the sandiest voices on the Motown roster, and she applied it liberally on a song that effectively served as a kiss-off to her longtime label — just a few months after the release, Knight and the Pips relocated to Buddah Records. Knight was arguably too effective at communicating her frustration, because “Neither One of Us” became a hit, climbing to Number Two on the Hot 100 and earning Motown a pile of money.
Though “Neither One of Us” has its fair share of admirers, it’s been largely overshadowed in cultural memory by another Weatherly-penned single, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (which oldies stations played 116 times last week, for instance, nearly four times as frequently as they spun “Neither One of Us”). Bob Luman took a version of “Neither One of Us” to Number Seven on the country charts in 1973; Angie Stone adapted the melody for her own “No More Rain (In This Cloud)” in 1999; Hall & Oates served up a straight forward cover in 2004.
At the end of the 2000s, however, the song underwent another mutation. English producer Sub Focus slipped a stuttering, pitch-shifted version of Knight’s vocals from “Neither One of Us” into a speedy drum-‘n’-bass record titled “Last Jungle” in 2009. Another English producer, Pangaea, also released a garage-learning track that year titled “Memories” which borrowed from the same song. The following year, Knight’s voice was grafted onto a house record, “Time for Tea,” by Australian producer Francis Inferno Orchestra.
Producers tend to favor the first half of “Neither One of Us,” probably because that’s where the biggest shift in energy occurs. Knight begins the song in a state of resignation (“it’s gotten to the point where we just can’t fake it”) before she begins to arc and strain her voice, attempting to imagine “what I’m gonna do without you.” She pauses before some words and rushes through others, shifting her relationship with the beat as she grapples with possible futures; she stretches the word “lie” over multiple measures, attenuating it and wearing it out, only to come roaring her way back as she comes to the title phrase.
Laying this mournful sequence from Knight over a thwacking kick drum only heightens its impact: House discovered long ago that tragic sentiments and ferocious rhythms are a potent combination. Knight was flipped by the producer Lane 8 in 2014; he was struck by “a certain melancholy to her vocal,” he tells Rolling Stone. He adds, “when you pair that with an uplifting beat, it is a recipe for a dance floor moment.”
As the Knight sample became more popular with producers, it also started to appear in more popular songs. 2016 brought Midland’s “Final Credits,” a marvelous nuevo-disco record which fused a pitch-shifted version of the same Knight vocal and a dynamite sample of chicken-scratch guitar. “Final Credits” was incendiary, and though Midland initially self-released it, the track was later picked up by the label Defected, which specializes in bringing club records to listeners who might not seek those singles on their own. “Final Credits” went on to spend two weeks in the Beatport top ten in February 2017.
This was topped, in turn, by DJ Koze’s “Pick Up,” which has been in the top ten for four months. The beat here is constant, full of the syncopated rhythmic latticework that reliably ignites dancefloors; the melody washes back and forth as it does in late Nineties house classics like Pete Heller’s “Big Love.” DJ Koze uses just a few snippets of Knight’s voice, mostly looping “it’s sad to think.” But sometimes he allows the singer to complete the full phrase — “it’s sad to think that neither one of us wants to be the first to say goodbye.” In these moments, “Pick Up” becomes a song about the relationship between the rhythm and the dancer: The connection has to end sometime, whether you want it to or not.