Rhythm and Bullshit?: The Slow Decline of R&B

Part One: Rhythm & Business Yeah, I’m nostalgic: When Mary J. Blige first uttered the opening lines to “You Remind Me” it was about making sure that hip-hop remembered that R&B came from the same streets where crackheads roamed and the same tenement vestibules where drama went down on the regular. But as I listen to Mario’s “Let Me Love You” for the 727th time, it is perhaps easy to suggest that R&B has lost its Soul, or that Clear Channel, Radio One (luv ya, Cathy!), AOL-Time Warner, and Viacom – a neo-plantation cabal if ever there was one – ripped its heart out. Hip-hop may have sold out, but at least it has sold out on its own terms. R&B, on the other hand, has sold out on somebody else’s, on a pop-chart paper chase. Truth be told, U(r)sher was nothing more than a soon-past-his-peak R&B singer before John Smith laced him with some crunk junk; Ray J could have sung the hook on “Yeah” and topped the pop charts. And now, ten million units later, we want to act like Mr. Raymond is the second coming of Michael Jackson? I ain’t willing to grant him the second coming of Bobby Brown. It’s not like we even knew Mr. Legend (in his mind) and Ms. Queen of Crunk n’ B were in the room until some hip-hop act sanctioned their presence. But what ails contemporary R&B is not just a matter of the commercial success of John Legend – and Amerie and Ciara and Mario. The current state of R&B comes not from a sudden decline but from a process more than 30 years in the making. This story begins in 1972 when a few enterprising master’s students at the Harvard Business School prepared a study, commissioned by one of Columbia’s execs, detailing how the Columbia Records Group could better integrate the then largely independent black music industry into the mix. The now infamous 2017 Harvard Report – officially known as A Study of the Soul Music Environment – has often been referred to as a sinister blueprint aimed at arming a litany of “culture bandits” with the theoretical tools to return black culture to a neo-colonial state. There’s no denying this is the situation we’re staring at now, but it has nothing to do with the Harvard Report. What those MBA students articulated was a no-brainer marketing plan, informed by the commercial success of Motown and the cynical (though not mistaken) view that the Civil Rights “revolution” likely had more to do with the realities that black folk had disposable income and white folk consumed a hell of a lot of black popular culture than anything to do with real structural change in American society. In response to those expecting more sinister designs in the Harvard Report, Professor David Sanjek rhetorically chimes in the 2006 edition of Rhythm and Business, “why did [Columbia] feel the need to document what they should have already known?”. Sanjek suggests that eventually, somebody in the music industry would have come up with their version of the Harvard Report – say, Clive Davis, who incidentally was a president at Columbia at the time the report was commissioned. The point is, with or without the Harvard Report, the takeover was well underway. Black music has always had a complicated relationship with big business. That this relationship has typically had little to do with actual music perhaps explains the often unbalanced quality of what we’ve come to call R&B. This complicated relationship also partly explains what exactly R&B is. The term R&B is essentially a shortened version of “Rhythm & Blues”, but as a novice might discern, that which is called R&B bears little resemblance to the musical landscape created by Ruth Brown, Louis Jordan, Laverne Baker, or Charles Brown and the Coasters. Perhaps that was the point. Musical innovations aside, R&B was a marketing ploy that gained a significant foothold during the late 1970s. R&B was born out of competing logics – record companies tried to negotiate the realities of black culture and identity within the history of race relations in America while trying at the same time to reach a wider audience of black consumers and white record buyers. As black radio needed mainstream advertisers to court the emerging black middle class (as much an ideology as a measurement of economic and social status) and mainstream record labels became fixated on crossing over black artists to white consumers, terms like Soul and Rhythm and Blues quickly became too black. The same terminology turnover occurred during the late 1970s when urban began to stand for radio stations that essentially programmed black music. As Nelson George explains, “Urban was supposedly a multicolored programming style tuned to the rhythms of America’s crossfertilized big cities. But more often, urban was black radio in disguise.” (The Death of Rhythm and Blues, 159). According to the “Harvard Report” black radio was strategically important to record companies because it provided “access to large and growing record buying public, namely, the Black consumer.” The report is oblivious to the fact that the very birth of what was called “race music” in the 1930s was premised on selling goods and services to a uniquely defined audience, namely African-Americans constrained by Jim Crow segregation-an audience that might even buy a record or two, in the process of buying furniture, cleaning supplies and an insurance policy. Nevertheless, the report is cognizant of the growth of an emerging black middle class, one that would prove attractive not just to record companies but also advertisers eager to fuel black desires to consume the fetishes of a post-Civil Rights world. In the aftermath of centuries of struggle, exploitation and violence, some members of the black middle class often viewed their ability to consume widely throughout mainstream society as an emblem of the “freedoms” won during the Civil Rights struggle. To get a sense of what this urbane blackness would look and feel like, think of the immensely popular early 1980s Colt 45 commercials featuring Billy Dee Williams. Twenty years later, no one really blinked an eye when poet Sonia Sanchez and Eric Benet used “smooth” R&B to hawk for an automobile maker. As R&B began to be viewed as the quintessence of upscale blackness, the more gritter aspects of black popular music –that which was, as Houston Baker Jr. describes it, “too blackly public” (as in embarrassing, like black folk eating watermelon in public) — began to disappear from the program list of some urban radio outlets in the late 1970s. So-called Southern Soul — the ZZ Hills, Denise LaSalles and Betty Wrights of the world — was an example of the kind of music that vanished from urban radio. Though Southern Soul didn’t disappear — labels like Malaco and Ichiban continue to promote Southern Soul artists to this day — the more bluesier aspects of its sound and its references to black southern culture were the very antithesis of the post-Civil Rights worldviews of many African-Americans. The popped-over P-Funk of Rick James — one of the best selling black artists at the beginning of the post-Soul era –was emblematic of the brave new world of R&B. The challenge for record labels at this point was to come up with product to feed the R&B machine. The Harvard Report was adamant that the Columbia Records Group should not attempt to purchase any of the prominent Soul labels (Motown, Atlantic, Stax) or poach from them any of their established artists. (CRG eventually purchased Stax, but only after the label was in serious decline.) What the report did advise was that CRG cultivate relationships with small independent labels, as was the case when CRG began a relationship with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The product was Philadelphia International Records (PIR), and the impact of this groundbreaking relationship continues to reverberate 33 years later. As some critics — notably John A. Jackson in A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul — have observed, many of the Harvard Report’s suggestions were already in play at Columbia, and the relationship with PIR is one such example. This brings us back to Clive Davis, the point-person on both the PIR and Stax deals. Dismissed from Columbia is 1973 for financial irregularities (some have linked his dismissal to our jumble word for the day: alopya), Davis had nonetheless instigated the distribution and creative-resource relationship with PIR that would become the defining model for relationships between large corporate labels and black music, making Davis himself arguably the most prominent figure in the story of R&B. The language that the Harvard Report uses to describe the value of indie Soul labels is undisputable: “These small independents could provide a source of product, in the form of ‘hot masters;’ talent which could have national potential; experienced personnel in the areas of promotion and production; and serve as a source of captive independent producers.” Davis has claimed that he never read the Harvard Report, though it’s clear that he would have been one of key figures that the authors of the report would have interviewed, and Davis may well have provided them with substantive info regarding the importance of indie labels. Regardless of the source, what the report details is the blueprint for the black boutique label — essentially based on a model of neo-colonialism, where an imperialist power exploits the raw materials and talents of its satellites under the pretense that such satellites are autonomous. As Norman Kelley observes, “In classic colonialism, products were produced in raw periphery and sent back to the imperial motherland to be manufactured into commodities, then sold in metropolitan centers or back to the colonies. The outcome for the colony was stunted economic growth, as it was stripped of its ability to manufacture products for its own needs” (Rhythm and Business, 10). Looked at within the context of artistic production, the colonial model creates a context where black artistic production is mediated by a commodity culture more interested in “moving product” than cultivating art or developing artists, and then sold back to the masses as “art”, in the process stunting creative development. The irony is that which could be defined as organic artistic expression is seen illegitimate by the masses, who have been programmed to accept corporate packaging as the real. Clive Davis is probably less a sinister figure in the rise and fall of R&B and more the embodiment of the corporate hustler. But there’s no denying that the very blueprint he outlined at Columbia became the most bankable strategy for R&B especially as he ascended to the leadership of Arista. For example, the most significant and successful black “boutique” labels of the 1990s, LaFace and Bad Boy Entertainment, were developed in Clive Davis’s house. Despite the negative impact that the corporate co-opting of black culture has on black creativity, we’re still left with the brilliance of the boutique model, as witnessed by the success of PIR. It all began with the production: the simple elegance of Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” or Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” or the glossy funk of The O’Jay’s “I Love Music”. The “Philly sound” (include Thom Bell and Mighty Three Publishing in this mix) became the soundtrack for an upscale blackness as far removed from the plantations of the South as it was from the factories of the Midwest. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were the real deal, and although they were not the sole innovators of this sound — think of the symphonic landscapes of Gene Page or the string arrangements of Paul Riser — the promotional and distribution muscle of Columbia allowed the duo to nationalize what was essentially a regional sound. By the end of the 1970s strains of the PIR could be heard in virtually every popular R&B song. The boutique model was not necessarily about crossing R&B over to the mainstream, but rather positioning the larger corporate labels to better control the R&B market. As such, R&B artists were less compelled to compete with so-called pop artists. Although this meant that R&B artists had less access to resources — particularly as the record industry went through a financial slump in the late 1970s — it also created conditions where the R&B sound could develop without the additional pressure of attracting a wider audience. Very few soul artists made the transition to the R&B world. Notable examples are figures like Bobby Womack, whose Poet (1981) and Poet II (1984) represented the best work of his career and Diana Ross, whose Diana (1980), produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, represents the apex of her solo career. And then there’s the case of Michael Jackson, who remade himself into an R&B artist on his groundbreaking Off the Wall (1979), three years after he sat at the feet of Gamble and Huff, who produced the Jackson’s first CRG album after the Jackson 5’s departure from Motown in 1975. Often lost in conversations about Jackson’s emergence as the “King of Pop” is that he was cultivated in the R&B world — along with such other singular black pop crossovers of the 1980s as Whitney Houston and Lionel Ritchie. If there was one figure who defined the genius of R&B it was Luther Vandross, who with the release of his eponymous debut in 1981 became the genre’s dominant artist. By coyly distancing himself from the black gospel vocal tradition, which grounded so much of the soul music of the 1960s and 1970s, Vandross cemented his appeal as the quintessential R&B singer. Specifically Vandross was trying to distinguish himself from generations of “shouters” such as gospel artists Joe Ligon (lead vocalist of the Mighty Clouds of Joy) and the late Archie Brownlee (of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) or soul vocalists like Wilson Pickett, the late Otis Redding and James Brown. As Jason King and others have suggested, Vandross was a student of various music traditions, notably black female vocalists of the 1960s (Dionne Warwick, The Bluebelles, Aretha Franklin), the Burt Bacharach and Hal David songbook, and the background-vocal stylings of the Sweet Inspirations. In addition, the lush orchestrations that figured so prominently in Vandross ballads — he is the definitive balladeer of the last generation of popular singers — suggested that he too was a fan of Gamble and Huff and Gene Page. Still others such as Stephanie Mills, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Baker, Peobo Bryson, Atlantic Starr, Kashif, Loose Ends, Alexander O’Neal, The Whispers, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, and Chaka Khan (post Rufus) helped give R&B a cohesive sound in the early 1980s. As R&B was about attracting upscale “urban” audiences — whether legitimate members of the black middle class or working class strivers — it was by definition a genre targeted to mature audiences. As the 1980s progressed R&B was increasingly out of touch with a generation of black youth consumers, who felt little need to distance themselves from the realities of the Jim Crow era, especially as they faced down the venomous edge of the Reagan era. In real terms the R&B world was being challenged by the embryonic sounds of hip-hop for the attention (and disposable income) of “urban” audiences. A telling sign was the success of Chaka Khan’s remake of Prince’s “I Feel for You” (1984), which featured an opening rap by Melle Mel (technically the first hip-hop and R&B collaboration, though in my mind Jody Whatley’s “Friends”, which was blessed by Rakim, is more significant.) The song remains Khan’s best-selling single. Khan’s version of “I Feel for You” began a tenuous relationship between R&B and hip-hop, one which would finally earn hip-hop validation from the black mainstream and ultimately render R&B irrelevant.