Temptations. Four Tops. Chi-Lites. Spinners. O’Jays. Earth, Wind & Fire. Isley Brothers. The names of great rhythm and blues groups of the past echo like God’s soundtrack to our lives. You may not know the names but you know the music: “My Girl,” “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,” “Have You Seen Her,” “I’ll Be Around,” “For the Love of Money,” “Shining Star,” “Between the Sheets.” Your first slow dance, your second kiss, that beautiful, sweet girl in the sundress you met that summer. These groups created memories. They had heart and showmanship, and made hits that lasted for generations. Yet today, very few of the survivors of these groups have record deals. And the current scene for R&B groups is, well, either stagnant or nonexistent, depending on your perspective.
What went wrong? What happened to the spirit that propelled dynamos like the Stylistics, the Dramatics and the Dells? How did the art form get whittled down to the few unambitious cats who do manage to form a group and the blood-sucking labels who sign them? As is often the case with the music biz, the real situation runs deeper than most think. A whole infrastructure has collapsed. If you miss powerful vocals, thoughtful lyrics, angelic harmonies, flawless choreography and musical arrangements that are nearly classical in scope, you are not alone. Let’s take a ride into history.
1. The Fall of the Black Church
I told you it was deep. You know the story: blacks were enslaved, the slaves turned to God for hope, God favored churches, churches became outposts for all events in the black community. In these environments, children learned harmony, redemption, grace, presentation -- all the things that make a group great. But now we’re in a generation with crack babies, crack mothers and AIDS patients; in a country where people don’t see the correlation between the banning of school prayer and the rise in school shootings. In many respects, we’ve factored God out of the equation entirely. He got a couple of shout outs with 9/11 and The Passion of Christ, but that was about it. And how can you expect to make soul music if you don’t have a soul?
2. The Rise of Rap
Rap and R&B have always been uneasy bedfellows. Countless rap careers have been ended by appearing in the wrong R&B chick’s video at the wrong time. More flagrant infractions are committed by these so-called “R&B thugs,” guys whose apparent appeal lies in their ability to sing falsetto and rob a 7-11 with equal aplomb. But just like the rappers whose grittiness they desire, it is all for show. Any good gangster movie will confirm that real thugs don’t look like thugs. For proof, I offer the late, great David Ruffin: a cocaine abusing, girlfriend-beating, ego-tripping soul star who wore clean, dapper suits to every Temptations concert he sang at. Now that’s hard.
Since many popular MCs can sing (Mos Def), do sing (Andre 3000) or rap in a way that sounds like they are singing (Mase, Nelly, most of them Southern cats), understand that there’s very little motivation for kids raised in hip-hop to go buy an album where someone is just singing. It should also be noted that at least four of the most admired songs in hip-hop history (“Rapper’s Delight,” “Sucker MCs,” “Children’s Story,” and “Paul Revere”) don’t even have a friggin’ chorus. Now that’s hard.
3. We .vs. Me
A true cliché: necessity is the mother of invention. And when a race of people had been kidnapped, sold, tortured, raped, murdered, uneducated, jailed, intimidated and indicted, traveling in groups became the mother of necessity. It has been fifty years since segregation ended and the truth is that much of the black community’s harmony came as a matter of circumstance. But once laws were passed, hurdles were overcome and we were given options, we took them. Folks went suburban, started going to private schools and isolated themselves. Not that these were horrible ideas, but there have been consequences. Racism is alive and well but green has proven to be the color most respected by all. And while green can be split nicely across four or five hands, it is split most evenly among one. It is harder to manage the egos, conflicts and concerns of a group as opposed to an individual. With the loss of community went the loss of unconditional brotherhood. It's all about the Benjamins, baby.
Next time: The dying vision of the producer, fear as a business strategy and the greatest commandment.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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10.22.04 @ 1:20a
BET will be honoring yet another fine star, Smokey Robinson, (of the Miracles), sometime next week. Watching the preview, you see faces like Brian McKnight (fabulous), Usher (has his moments) and...
Destiny's Child is such a carbon copy of the Supremes, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Rockwell is bedding Beyonce. (Follow that train to the station, music fans!) And I don't consider them to be R&B. The Supremes, technically, weren't either, but much more than the Emotions ever were. But En Vogue? Gone. Patti LaBelle is hawking diabetes protein shakes, and heaven forbid, Aretha can't pay her department store bills.
It's a damn shame.
I had a wonderful experience in a Southside Chicago pizzeria a couple of years ago. I, a 30-ish white chick, sat devouring a deep dish, and at the next table was a 40+ black woman with her young daughter, maybe 8, maybe 10. The joint was playing a wonderful medley of Motown R&B...
...and all 3 of us were singing every-single-line, to every-single-song. Every so often, we'd look at each other and laugh.
That's the power of what R&B was, and what almost all rap isn't.
10.22.04 @ 8:29p
Aww man, I wrote a lil som'n on the critique section thinking it would show up. To summarize, I just said that I felt your words and agree. I miss the live instruments of the old days. R&B united all kinds of people. And I have to agree with M(r)s. Kelley's comments as well. We'll probably never have another EW&F, Outkast is the closest thing. Much love brother, Shard.
10.23.04 @ 1:58p
Rapper's Delight doesn't have a chorus? What's that "hip hip hop and you don't stop rockin'" part? Just part of the verse?
10.23.04 @ 3:08p
Isn't "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch" actually titled "I Can't Help Myself"?
The best R&B transcended race and pretty much any other demographic, unless you were so close-minded as to avoid hearing the stuff altogether.
And Jael, when I went last week to pick up Dan at his hotel, when I saw the sign, I couldn't help but chant, "Everybody go hotel, motel, Holiday Inn..."
10.23.04 @ 3:49p
Oh, yeah, I hear ya. It's a classic.
10.23.04 @ 4:29p
Russ, you're right about the Four Tops title. It felt weird saying it when I typed it, but I typed it anyway. I stand corrected.
10.24.04 @ 10:32a
They can't be too elitist or snobby, or they wouldn't have welcomed this Wolfpack alum into the midst of all these Chapel Hill folks.
10.24.04 @ 9:18p
Funny how people can think/say one thing and yet beg for attention anyway.
I think that's what I dislike about the majority rap these days. It's all "I got the bling bling and the Bentley and the bitches" and yet there's no substance to most of the rhymes. Not that pop R&B had a complex structure, but it wasn't as destructive like most of rap is these days.
R&B came at at time when society and culture needed to be examined, yet there was always something to sing about. That's powerful.
I have a hard time with anyone who bleeds unfounded negativity, yet blames everyone else for either not noticing or blames another group for keeping them "down." If you can't change your own life, don't blame me. If you don't like the atmosphere, then move.
10.25.04 @ 12:44p
Not sure where Eminem fits into the whole destructive rap picture, but I cannot get his new song out of my frickin' head. Don't you have to love something/someone that samples Pee-Wee Herman?
I think there's been a big shift in music, not just rap, to have more of an It's The Me Show Starring Me vibe. The Gwen Stefani song I heard/saw on VH1 this AM seems to be an entirely self-indulgent thing where she tells herself to just go ahead and write a song already: "You've got a million-dollar contract/And they're all waiting for your hot track." Catchy, but masturbatory.
10.25.04 @ 4:51p
Yep. But it's a hot dance track, and thus, will generate a lot of money.
I'm much more appreciative of No Doubt where Tony Kanal is concerned, not so much with Gwen.
8.14.05 @ 5:13p
Obviously a real music listener. Somebody has it right at last. Couldn't agree more.. Don't forget TAVARES