R&B Nostalgia

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Surf the nooks and crannies of YouTube and SoundCloud, and you’ll find plenty of homage to vintage contemporary R&B – that golden period in the late 80s and 90s when the urban music industry embraced technology, struggled to escape hip-hop’s long shadow, and forged a sound of its own. Thanks to copyright issues, those viral covers usually don’t make it past the blogosphere. But a few examples of this nascent trend can be found on retail R&B releases, like Sebastian Mikael’s “Last Night” and its thinly-veiled homage to Al B Sure’s “Nite and Day,” Anthony Lewis’ version of Soul For Real’s “Candy Rain,” Trey Songz’ use of Teena Marie’s “Ooh La La La” chorus for “Na Na,” and Beyoncé’s construction of “1+1” around the opening medley of Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh.” Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” is a rap song, but its faithfulness to Janet Jackson’s movie and her “Any Time, Any Place” seems appropriate here. So does Netta Brielle’s swipe of the sung chorus from Oakland rap group 3 X Krazy’s “Keep It on the Real” for “3XKrazy.” All are evidence of a throwback movement that’s poised to grow in the years to come.

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Southern Underground

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When the indie-rap movement swept through hip-hop culture in the mid-to-late 90s, it seemed to completely skip over the South. Sure, there were subterranean groups in Atlanta like Mass Influence (formerly known as Y’all So Stupid) and Binkis Recs; Nashville’s Count Bass D; Houston’s K-Otix; and others. But they were like footnotes to the thriving scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York. It wasn’t until North Carolina’s Little Brother released its 2003 classic The Listening that the majority of rap fans realized that there were indie groups in the South similar to the ones they heard elsewhere.

In recent years, critics have argued that street rap artists that release their music independently deserve the “underground” label as much as artists whom fans perceive as more traditionally hip-hop or “conscious.” There is some truth to this, particularly in the South. Here, there is less separation between the “backpack” and “street” scenes. Artists like Big K.R.I.T. and Curren$y (the latter who was briefly signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money label) clearly value the South’s rich tradition of rap gangsters and funky bluesmen. The history of Southern hip-hop is very different from the two coasts, and its underground is a reflection of that legacy. You can trace a line from OutKast to G-Side, and from Three 6 Mafia to SpaceGhostPurpp.

Today, the Southern underground is more vibrant, and that’s entirely due to the fragmented nature of hip-hop in the aughts. Influences, and the music on your hard drive that inspires you, may be more important than your physical location. As a result, the artists on this cheat sheet can only be pigeonholed by the cities where they’re from, not their sounds. As Rakim once said, it ain’t where you from, it’s where you’re at.

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80s Black Pop Crossover

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As we continue to reflect over the death of Whitney Houston, it’s important to remember the time period when she emerged. The 1980s was not only a period when technology began to take over the music industry in the form of drum machines, synthesizers and sampling keyboards; but also a time of cultural conservatism. The baby-boomer generation of the 1950s and 1960s enjoyed broad yet waning influence in pop culture. We like to remember that electronic music, hip-hop and post-punk (which evolved into indie-rock) came of age back then. But we often forget that those new and exciting sounds were far removed from the corporate rock and adult contemporary mainstream.

The world of black music was no different. The charts were mostly dominated by artists who launched their careers during the 1960s. The music they produced was often incredible – indeed, this era is celebrated as the heyday of “boogie funk” and “post-disco,” a brief oasis for musicians increasingly threatened by the insurgent hip-hop horde. But it could also be very bland and safe. Much like their white counterparts, older black music fans were retreating to the safe comforts of the quiet storm, a programming term for classic soul, smooth jazz, and lots of ballads. (Nelson George writes lucidly about this period in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues.)

Black artists trying to break their audience’s stupor had an additional problem; the music industry in the 1980s was extremely segregated. We’ve all heard the story of how Columbia Records forced MTV to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” because the channel rarely programmed black songs in heavy rotation. Between 1981 and 1985, only three black artists reached number one on the album charts: Jackson, Prince and Lionel Richie. In 1981 and 1982, there were none. Pop radio was even worse: Only four songs by black artists reached number one during those two years. This is why Jackson is viewed as a pioneer. After black artists were consigned to the margins following the demise of disco, the groundbreaking popularity of Thriller made the industry recognize them again. But don’t assume that Jackson, Houston, and others were underground or alternative. Inexplicably, and even with major labels supporting them with vast financial resources, they often had trouble gaining wide acceptance.

As a result, Jackson, Prince and others who managed to break through the glass ceiling were called “crossover” stars, because they managed to cross over to the mainstream (re: white) audience. (Of course, this assumes that white people usually didn’t listen to black music, which is another falsehood.) They appealed to fans of hard rock (Tina Turner, Prince), adult contemporary (Anita Baker) and/or that strange mix of synthesized dance music that typified 80s pop (the Pointer Sisters, Whitney Houston). This list covers black artists who earned platinum or better sales between 1981 and 1986. (The sole outlier is the electro-funk band Midnight Star, which earned double-platinum with No Parking on the Dance Floor despite no pop radio support.)

Luckily, this “crossover” nonsense began to end when a generation of younger artists finally took over the pop charts in the late 1980s. They were led by artists like Janet Jackson, perhaps the last of the era to be saddled with the condescending “crossover” label. Appropriately, her breakthrough album was called Control.

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Bay Area Mobb Music

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Ever since Oakland rapper Too Short slanged cassette albums like Players out of his car trunk in the early 1980s, the San Francisco Bay Area rap scene has been a source of curiosity and fascination. Centered on the city of San Francisco, East Bay cities like Oakland, Berkeley and Vallejo, and Peninsula cities like East Palo Alto, it is truly unlike any other. While other underground scenes in the South and the East Coast focus on mixtapes, the “Yay Area” (somewhat-fancifully nicknamed for the hustlers who slang coke or “yay yo”) produces hundreds of full-length albums a year from well-known to obscure artists that employ cryptic yet imaginative local slang. Vallejo artist E-40, perhaps the best known Bay Area rapper next to Too Short and 2Pac (who moved to Los Angeles before his 1996 death), even put out a dictionary of “slanguage,” and his coinage of terms like “D-boy” and “Captain Save a Hoe” have been adopted into the hip-hop lexicon.

Bay Area rap dates back to the 1980s, but its most crucial development took place during the 1990s. This was the golden age of West Coast hip-hop when G-funk pioneers like L.A.’s Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Coolio enjoyed a near-monopoly on the rap music charts. In the Bay, producers like Ant Banks, Studio Ton, Mike Mosley, E-A-Ski and Tone Capone developed what became known as mobb music. It was a slight derivation of G-funk’s emphasis on “funky worm” keyboard melodies and Zapp-like trunk-rattling bass, yet the bass seemed deeper, and the funk arrangements were less dependent on P-Funk samples and interpolations. Since most Bay Area artists like JT The Bigga Figga (“Game Recognize Game”) and RBL Posse (“Don’t Give Me No Bammer”) recorded for independent labels like In-A-Minute, Sick Wid’ It and C-Note, they created a hardcore sound rawer than L.A.’s slick, major label-funded gangsta rap.

The mobb music era roughly breaks down into three overlapping periods: the N.W.A.-like sampling of the early 1990s and hits like Too Short’s “Money in the Ghetto,” an Ant Banks production that culled from Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging”; the sluggishly monolithic trunk bass of Luniz and Tone Capone’s “I Got Five On It”; and the bouncy, wholly original funk of 3 X Krazy’s “Keep It On The Real.” The latter development, which picked up in the late 90s, came from a wave of area artists briefly signing to major labels; and was a response to “jiggy era” hits like Diddy’s No Way Out and its resulting influx of mainstream rap fans. This set the stage for the Bay Area hyphy movement of the 2000s.

Much like the Los Angeles scene that was permanently damaged by the East Coast-West Coast rivalry between Dr. Dre’s Death Row label and Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, Bay Area rap isn’t as popular as it once was. But the players who emerged during the mobb music era continue to thrive as regional stars. In the Bay, independent hustle is a must, and it’ll continue to pump out dope music for the streets whether the pop market pays attention or not.

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Notes On: Andre 3000

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Andre 3000, one of a handful of rappers who can legitimately claim to being one of the best ever, has delighted and flummoxed us for years. We can only speculate on the reasons why.

Every so often, Andre Three Stacks teases us with a handful of guest appearances on other artists’ songs. On the surface, that’s no big deal: When a rapper is hot, like Rick Ross and 2 Chainz, he can generate dozens of cameo appearances in less than a year. But when Andre blesses a track, it’s still a major event because OutKast has been silent since 2006’s uneven Idlewild soundtrack (and the inarguably bad movie it accompanied). They didn’t necessarily go out on top, but their string of classic albums matched only by Kanye West has left us hungry for fresh material, whether it’s a new Big Boi solo project like 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty, or an odd verse from ‘Dre.

It doesn’t hurt that Andre 3000’s guest appearances tend to be terrific in that casual, offhand manner that only he and his inimitable ATL drawl can manage. His verse made Devin the Dude’s “What a Job” one of the best Southern rap songs of the past decade. He gets on such a roll when he woos a girl during the bridge of John Legend’s “Green Light,” that he chuckles at his audaciousness, and makes us laugh, too. And he made rap fans actually listen to a Ke$ha song, “Sleazy 2.0 Get Sleazier” (though we really didn’t want to). There is Jay-Z’s “30 Something (Remix),” Beyonce’s “Party,” and Drake’s “The Real Her”… perhaps the only time another rapper out-shined Andre 3000 is on an “Interlude” from Lil Wayne’s The Carter IV, when Tech N9ne speed-rapped a burner verse. Even legends have their off-days.

In July, two more verses from Andre 3000 appeared. For Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter,” he remembers a woman who “had the kind of body that would probably intimidate/ Any of them that were un-Southern/ Not me cousin/ If models are made for modeling/ Thick girls are made for cuddling.” Rick Ross’ “Sixteen” finds him tortured over the concept of a 16-bar verse, and how he can’t fit what he has to say in such a short frame of time. Andre also plays guitar on both tracks, perhaps as a way of promoting his upcoming Jimi Hendrix biopic. On “Sixteen” in particular, he attempts a stilted, Hendrix-like solo with a few strummed notes and a little reverb. Such goofiness is to be expected from Andre Three Stacks – after all, this is the guy whose only solo album to date is a little-promoted children’s record, 2007’s Class of 3000. It’s what we love about him.

(Rhapsody – August 3, 2012)