Rhythm and Bullshit?: The Slow Decline of R&B, Part Two: New Jack Swing, Mary J. Blige and the Comin

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Epilogue

As ubiquitous as it is today, as recently as 15 years ago hip-hop faced a real battle just to be heard on urban radio. Like Soul and Rhythm and Blues before it, hip-hop was too publicly black for advertisers, and when it found its way on the playlists of big market urban radio it was often after-hours on the weekend. There were a few exceptions — Whodini, for example, doesn’t get enough credit for their melding of hip-hop and R&B (courtesy of Larry Smith) on tracks like “Friends”, “Funky Beat” and in particular “One Love”, a strategy that Heavy D and the Boyz later exploited to become a radio-friendly favorite. The success of Jody Whatley’s collaboration with Rakim, “Friends” (1989), made some R&B artists and labels more willing to rent-a-rapper for some street credibility, but at the same time, it was still common practice for labels to deliver to radio versions of R&B singles in “rap” and “no rap” mixes to maximize radio airplay. Ultimately it took the sound christened the “new jack swing” to bring record labels and urban radio on board with the changing dynamics of R&B.

Teddy Riley is generally recognized as the genius behind new jack swing, a sound that married the old-school harmonies of the black church with a hard rhythmic edge. Riley’s group Guy (originally featuring Aaron Hall and Timmy Gatling) was the primary vehicle for his production, but he also produced Johnny Kemp (“Just Got Paid”), Keith Sweat (“I Want Her”), James Ingram (“I’m Real”), Boy George (“Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip”), the Winans (“It’s Time”) and Michael Jackson (“Remember the Time”). The range of artists that Riley worked with gives some indication of new jack swing’s impact on the recording industry.

Riley might have been the true innovator of the swing, but Bobby Brown gave it its public face. Bobby Brown was the first true embodiment of hip-hop in the R&B world, even daring to drop a rhyme or two himself, like a low-rent LL Cool J. Many folk looked askance a few years ago when Whitney Houston referred to her husband as the “king of R&B”, but the reality is that Brown’s breakthrough recording, 1988’s Don’t Be Cruel, is singularly responsible for the trajectory of R&B well into the 1990s. It is virtually impossible to imagine the careers of R. Kelly, Dave Hollister, Jaheim, Joe, Avant, Usher and Justin Timberlake without the success of Don’t Be Cruel, which produced five bonafide R&B and pop hits, including “Every Little Step”, “Rock Wit’cha” and, of course, “My Prerogative”, produced by Riley.

In a 1988 New York Times feature on Brown, Peter Watrous was prophetic when he suggested that Brown’s “success could have important implications…. If [his] achievement is followed by the deserved success of others, then perhaps the wall, kept sturdy by radio, press and record companies, that has historically divided black and white music worlds will begin to crumble.” Behind Watrous’s prescient observation was the realization among the major labels that hip-hop possessed real commercial potential beyond urban audiences. The popular view is that the majors got involved with hip-hop in the aftermath of successful crossover releases by Run-DMC (Raising Hell) and the Beastie Boys (License to Ill) and the strong response to MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps (1988). While this view may indeed be correct, a more cynical view is that major labels adopted hip-hop once the independent labels that supported it throughout the 1980s became a threat to their hegemony in the field of black music. What was most important was maintaining complete control over the urban contemporary market. If hip-hop happened to crossover — so the thinking was in the late 1980s — it would be simply gravy.

By the mid-1990s hip-hop would of course do so much more, eventually becoming one of popular music’s dominant genres. But the germ of that success came years earlier via a small boutique label distributed by MCA, the label Brown recorded for. Sean Combs gets much of the credit for carrying hip-hop over the crossover hump, but before Bad Boy Entertainment there was Uptown, the brain-child of former Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde frontman Andre Harrell. In the early 1980s Jekyll and Hyde (‘Genius Rap”) were known for the business attire they wore on stage while rapping, a look that captured the very aesthetic that Harrell hoped to cultivate with the Uptown label, a style he would call “High Negro”, which melded the upscale blackness of R&B (and the yellow-power-tie/Reagan-era generation of niggeratti strivers) with the street. Harrell was not necessarily an innovator; groups like Full Force (“Alice, I Want You Just for Me”) and The Force MDs (“Let Me Love You”) were already charting this territory. But Harrell had the genius to mass market this sound. Not surprisingly, Heavy D and the Boyz were one of the label’s first successes, the group’s “We Got Our Own Thing”, produced by Riley in 1989, became an anthem for the era of asymmetrical high-top fades, Africa medallions and pastel colors. But Uptown’s two signature acts, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, defined the Uptown sound and the possibilities of a true hip-hop and R&B hybrid.

Jodeci was comprised of two sets of brothers from North Carolina, Dalvin and Devante Degrate and K.C. and Jo Jo Hailey, who were the group’s primary vocalists. In many ways Jodeci was like a quartet of Bobby Browns, though none in the group possessed Brown’s charisma. Their deft command of harmonies was a throwback to the classic Soul-man era, with K.C. Hailey often doing his best imitation of Bobby Womack. Their debut, Forever My Lady (1991) featured popular hits such as “Stay”, “Come and Talk to Me” and the title track. What caught the attention of urban audiences was their gear — thugged out in baggy jeans and Timbaland boots (courtesy of budding fashion designer Sean Combs) — which helped Jodeci pioneer a sub-genre that I like to refer to as Thug Soul (Dave Hollister and Jaheim are the most successful converts). Though the group never achieved real mainstream appeal, Jodeci became the perfect counterweight to the popfectionary R&B of Boyz II Men during most of the 1990s.

It would be Jodeci’s female counterpart at Uptown, though, who would ultimately change the game, at once representing the best of R&B and facilitating its demise. Andre Harrell heard a demo of Mary J. Blige singing an Anita Baker tune, but was at a loss as to how to promote her. Blige’s big opportunity came when she recorded a song for Uptown’s soundtrack for the 1991 film Strictly Business. Though it was not released as a single, “You Remind Me” caught the attention of hip-hop DJs and soon found its way on the playlists of urban-radio programmers. With a hit record in hand, Uptown forged ahead with Blige’s debut What’s the 411? The success of the recording pivoted on the lead single, “Real Love”. Built around the rhythm track of Audio Two’s 1987 hip-hop classic “Top Billin'”, “Real Love” was the blueprint for what Combs would dub “hip-hop soul” — essentially the marriage of R&B vocals with hip-hop beats and samples, which by the end of the decade became the standard form of R&B production.

What separated Blige from her peers was that she tapped into the emotional core of a generation of music fans for whom loss and betrayal were always the first and foremost expectations, whether in love or public policy. Hence a song like “Real Love” resonated very powerfully, because it captured the hip-hop generation’s utter fixation with delineating “the real”, its existential quest for authenticity. Unlike the civil rights generation, which was often consumed with defending its legitimacy in the face of an all-too-present white gaze, the hip-hop generation rejected the significance of the white gaze, defining the real within the context of black community instead. What is at stake in this quest for the real is the very real possibility of rejection and censure from the community. It’s a product of the apprehensions and ambivalences associated with coming of age in an era where you are free to be whatever. And it was Blige’s vocals — ragged, displaced and aching — that summoned all of these emotions, as she struggled with the demons of betrayal and abuse in her own life. Blige quickly became known as hip-hop’s Aretha Franklin, not so much for her technical proficiency but her ability to speak for a generation, much the way Franklin spoke for the civil rights generation.

What hip-hop soul did was bring the production values of hip-hop to the R&B world. Combs is notable if only because he was best positioned to exploit this marriage. By the end of the 1990s others were doing it much more consistently: Timbaland (in his work with Aaliyah and Ginuwine), Chucky Thompson, Jermaine Dupri and even Dr. Dre, who produced one of Blige’s biggest hit singles, “Family Affair” (2001). The use of hip-hop production in R&B created a wider audience for hip-hop itself, something Combs quickly took advantage of with Craig Mack, the Notorious B.I.G. and Mase. While there were artists who had crossed over to the pop mainstream — Run-DMC, the Beasties, NWA and Hammer being the most notable — only after the success of hip-hop soul were popular hip-hop artists routinely expected to cross-over as well, as has been the case with Jay Z, Nas, DMX, Ja Rule, Eminem, Nelly, Ludacris, and the rest. Telling in this regard is the fact that R&B vocalist Ashanti’s breakthrough onto the upper tier of the pop charts, “Foolish”, featured a sample of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance (remix)” (itself built on a sample of DeBarge’s “Stay with Me”).

Despite the success of hip-hop soul and purveyors like Blige, Faith Evans and later Ashanti, the R&B world of the mid-1990s still allowed for the relatively old-school stylings of Gerald Levert, Brian McKnight, Keith Sweat and the so-called neo-soul movement, which was essentially R&B packaged in opposition to hip-hop soul and marketed to traditional R&B audiences tiring of hip-hop’s urban-radio hegemony. Ironically many neo-soul artists also relied on the sample-based production that hip-hop initially popularized (listen to Angie Stone’s “Sunshine” and D’Angelo’s “Send It On”, which sample Gladys Knight & the Pips and Kool & the Gang respectively). This moment in R&B would be short lived, as the massive consolidation within the music and radio industries would create the context where virtually all forms of urban music would began the pop-chart paper-chase in pursuit of the new queen: hip-hop.

* * *

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers