I have a playlist of songs I have deemed to be perfect. There’s only six songs so far, but they are cinematic, transportive, and make me feel bigger or better or cooler or lovelier than I think I am. One of these tracks is the gleaming, enthralling, nearly eight-minute “Runaway” by the house duo known as Nuyorican Soul, with vocals by La India.
The song is a testament to nerve, willpower, survival and joy. It offers the listener a single command: no regrets.
I stumbled across “Runaway,” like many good things, by way of Janet Jackson. I must have been in some wistful emotionally constipated funk a couple years ago and had been listening to “Together Again” obsessively, almost crying but never actually crying. Jackson said “Together Again” was partly inspired by “Runaway,” which reminded her of being 10 years old in Studio 54 (a somewhat sobering thought). “That song gave me this kind of New York feel of disco and I wanted to do something that made me feel like that inside,” she said in a 1997 MTV interview.
I enjoyed “Runaway” on first listen, but didn’t think too much about it. Then, in Flatiron one day, I caught myself walking to the beat with an unusual sense of purpose. I was hooked.
Nuyorican Soul was a project of Masters at Work, the garage house duo of Little Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, two pioneers of ’90s house music. Under the name Nuyorican Soul, the duo tried something new: they started working with live studio musicians instead of relying on samples pulled from record stacks. Their self-titled debut album featured heavy hitters like George Benson, Roy Ayers and Tito Puente.
“Runaway” is also a triumph of legacy, of homage. “Runaway” is a cover of a 1977 track by the Philadelphia soul group Salsoul Orchestra. Loleatta Holloway, who sang the electric vocals on the original version of “Runaway,” later became a huge voice in dance music as a solo artist. Members of Salsoul Orchestra even appear on Nuyorican Soul’s cover of their own track.
The song is unapologetically triumphant. And it would never have reached that summit without the instantly iconic vocals of La India, the Puerto Rico-born, Bronx-bred princess of salsa, house and Latin pop. The song’s sweeping strings are matched by a meandering bass and grounded by a task force of percussion — including a nearly minute-long vibraphone solo — that propels everything forward. Gliding above it all is La India, whose vocals are both powerful and effortlessly agile, like a Simone Biles floor routine. When she sings, in English and then in Spanish, that we all “deserve a little happiness,” it sounds less like a casual comment than a royal decree.
Not a moment is lost in this song. “Runaway” isn’t just a rich and ambitious celebration of its own musical heritage; it’s a declaration of its own destiny. It’s also just a really good dance song. “Runaway” was made for dancing to, which I did a lot by myself. It was made for cooking to, which I did for and with my loved ones. It was made for secretly promising yourself things, which I did endlessly on the subway. It was made for strutting down Broadway to, which I did every Tuesday on my way to therapy. It was definitely made for packing up and driving across the country during a pandemic.
La India wants us to know she’s a liberated woman. “I’ll never settle down ‘cause I’m just not the settling kind,” she sings defiantly, before offering us settling-down schmucks some benevolence. “Love’s good for those who want it, I should know, I’ve done it,” she sings without a trace of regret. Janet Jackson asks the listener to “dream about us together again.” La India told me to never look back.
Previous Monday Songs:
Sodom, South Georgia
The Christian Life
I Feel 4 U