R&B’s Doo-Wop Revival

During the second installment of The New Edition Story mini-series, one of the characters makes a derisive comment about the group’s doo-wop misadventure, Under the Blue Moon. The album is so poorly regarded that the one-sentence dismissal is all the coverage it gets.

It’s easy to set aside New Edition’s misguided and overly saccharine attempt at reaching the same oldies-loving audience that turned Dirty Dancing into the biggest summer hit of 1986. But Under the Blue Moon was also part of a oft-forgotten movement that flourished throughout the 80s and into the 90s. While R&B never experienced a full-scale old-school doo-wop revival, it lasted as a minor trend, thanks to Force M.D.’s, Take 6, and New Edition’s greatest protégés, Boyz II Men.

Below is a short post and playlist on the subject I wrote for Rhapsody.com in 2013.

It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment: The emergence of doo-wop in modern-day R&B. Actually, it wasn’t all that brief. The pioneering Staten Island group Force M.D.’s used doo-wop harmonies on their 1984 hit “Tears,” and New Edition nearly made it an official trend with their 1986 album Under the Blue Moon, a collection of doo-wop covers on which they generously invited Little Anthony of the Imperials to guest on “Tears on My Pillow.” And when Christian vocal jazz quintet Take 6 landed a surprise hit with their 1988 self-titled debut and “Spread Love,” it seemed like numerous groups absorbed their remarkable a cappella melodies, including Troop, who added a Take 6-like “Spread!” to “Spread My Wings.” Bobby McFerrin was a vocal jazz artist, too, but his Grammy-winning Simple Pleasures captured the mood as well.

So it was one of those inspirations that persisted for several years until around 1991 and the arrival of Jodeci, whose rough harmonies on Forever My Lady were decidedly more hip-hop than the angelic sounds of doo-wop. While doo-wop was easy to miss amidst other trends like New Jack, gospel, hip-house, and freestyle, the evidence is there, including After 7’s vocal interplay on “Can’t Stop,” Color Me Badd’s “la-la-la-la” bridge near the end of “I Wanna Sex You Up,” Boyz II Men’s cover of the Five Satins’ “In The Still Of the Night,” and finally, Shai’s 1992 a capella smash “If I Ever Fall In Love,” which closed the chapter on this wonderfully underrated period in soul music.

Recommended:

  • Take 6, “Spread Love”
  • Force M.D.’s, “Tears”
  • New Edition, “Earth Angel”
  • Force M.D.’s, “Tender Love”
  • New Edition, “Tears on My Pillow”
  • Troop, “Spread My Wings”
  • Special Generation, “Love Me Just For Me”
  • Troop, “All I Do is Think Of You”
  • Miles Davis, “The Doo Bop Song”
  • Bobby McFerrin, “Good Lovin'”
  • After 7, “Can’t Stop”
  • Special Generation, “Spark of Love”
  • After 7, “Ready or Not”
  • Color Me Badd, “I Wanna Sex You Up”
  • Take 6, “I L-O-V-E You”
  • Boyz II Men, “Motownphilly”
  • Force One Network, “Spirit (Does Anybody Care?)”
  • Boyz II Men, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye To Yesterday”
  • Quincy Jones, “Septembro”
  • Boyz II Men, “In The Still of the Nite (I’ll Remember)”
  • Shai, “If I Ever Fall In Love”

(Rhapsody – May 8, 2013)

R&B Nostalgia

last-night

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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Hip-Hop & The Funky Drummer

paid-in-full

It has been twenty-five years since Eric B & Rakim released their debut, Paid in Full, on July 7, 1987, so it’s easy to forget what a significant achievement it was. That year, hip-hop producers like Rick Rubin, Marley Marl (MC Shan, Roxanne Shante), the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy) and Teddy Riley (Kool Moe Dee) had just begun to harness the essential elements of sampling. They used bits and pieces from classic soul, funk and rock, then hid them amidst hard, bludgeoning, TR-808 drum machine tracks – often referred to as the Def Beat – and noisy scratching. Paid In Full was the first album to not only appropriate old records like Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” and the JBs’ “Pass the Peas,” but to lift the swinging tempos, too. It marked a transition from the Def Beat era of omnipresent drum beats and towards a lighter, funkier rhythm. Eric B.’s beats on Paid in Full, particularly the classic single “I Know You Got Soul,” was the catalyst.

This brand new funk not only created the hip-hop’s first real golden age, but its ripple effects could also be felt in alternative-rock bands like R.E.M., Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Cure, and pop artists like Paula Abdul and Madonna. The golden era concurred with the rise of New Jack Swing in R&B, and the two paths are linked: Teddy Riley, the creator of New Jack Swing, established himself working with rappers like Kool Moe Dee’s (How You Like Me Now) and Heavy D. & the Boyz (Living Large). The difference is that Riley wanted to play funk using the latest synthesizer technology. Rap producers chopped and looped samples from the original records, creating something that sounded both timeless and new.

It was during this period that James Brown became one of the most sampled artists in history. With over 100 albums as a solo artist and producer and hundreds of 7-inch singles, and a catalog that spanned four decades of funky soul, Brown was fertile territory for a generation learning the art of crate digging, and finding the most arcane, obscure gems. But one Brown sound stood out from the others: “Funky Drummer,” a 7-inch single that featured a drum solo by then-JBs drummer Clyde Stubblefield. His drum break was used on nearly every major hip-hop album released from 1988 to 1990. (It wasn’t on Paid in Full, but it was on Eric B. & Rakim’s second album, Follow the Leader.) Most famously, the Bomb Squad used it for several tracks on Public Enemy’s seminal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. On “Security of the First World,” the crew didn’t even bother to add a melody or turntable scratching to the Funky Drummer break. They simply looped it so it snapped back and forth, like an eternal rhythm.

Brown himself was nonplussed by the attention. On the title track from his 1988 Full Force-produced comeback I’m Real, he snarled, “Stop sampling me on your records ‘til I’m paid in full.” But it wasn’t just a flood of lawsuits and copyright claims that snuffed out the golden age of rap. When hip-hop culture evolved into new trends, from the jazz-rap period of the early 90s to the luxury rap/”yacht rap” fad of today, the “Funky Drummer” break became a hallmark of a particular era that is now considered old-school.

Still, it’s worth remembering the momentous impact “Funky Drummer” has had. This cheat sheet only covers a sampling of the classic albums that incorporated the break; and an accompanying playlist spans some of the famous songs built around it. It includes a review of Above the Law’s Livin’ Like Hustlas as a tribute to rapper Kevin “KMG” Gulley, who passed in early July. Rest in peace.

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