Soul Train creator and longtime host Don Cornelius famously expressed his dislike of and inability to understand the appeal of rap music. Indeed, R&B and hip-hop are black music’s most popular genres and were regularly featured on the show. But now days a quick listen of any “urban” radio station reveals little differentiating the two. Both have moved their sound toward urbantronica, and prior to that, performers from each style embraced the same grimy street beats and little inhibition when it came to cursing up a storm. As time progressed, hip-hop rode the coattails of R&B to break into the mainstream, but R&B has struggled to keep up and is now paying the ultimate price.
Arguments can be made about when exactly hip-hop and R&B began to commercially cross-pollinate, but the Sugarhill Gang’s beat-borrowing of Chic’s disco-flavored “Good Times” and the early ’80s R&B “boogie” songs that utilized electro and break-dancing beats come to mind. R&B and hip-hop very publicly started to court in the mid-to-late ’80s. That was the era of Janet Jackson’s Control, produced by innovators Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, and the new jack swing era made famous by the likes of Teddy Riley, Guy, Keith Sweat, Babyface, L.A. Reid, Bobby Brown and others. Like any budding relationship, it was at first innocent and exciting. The brand-new sound melded the rhythms of hip-hop with the soul-sung vocals of contemporary singers. R&B and pop artists alike included new jack tracks on their albums, sometimes even inviting rappers to add a few bars during the break. While several acts were exclusively new jack, R&B still maintained its diversity, welcoming traditionally sung tunes as well as this new hybrid, and rap was still separate and hungry for acceptance.
Hip-hop soul saw the genres’ flirtation turn to marriage and consummation. Thanks to the likes of Diddy, who was influential in its creation as well as involved in the production of two of its seminal albums — Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411? and Jodeci’s Forever My Lady — R&B became more aggressive, adopting much of rap’s sound, expletive-filled language and sexually charged lyrics. R&B artists became stylized and/or deemed it necessary to be “street” in order to seem authentic, punctuating this by having the hottest rapper of the moment on released singles, and being rewarded with R&B and pop chart success. Still, mainstream R&B — simple singing, without a rap verse or club-worthy beat — could score hits and get played on urban and pop radio.
This would change in the mid-’90s, as hip-hop started falling out of love with R&B mainstays such as Freddie Jackson and Regina Belle. They were getting pushed out and in their places were hip-hop-savvy artists, such as TLC and Montell Jordan, or those who evolved with the undeniably popular hip-hop sound, such as the Isley Brothers, who saw their careers re-ignited thanks to R. Kelly. The number of black-owned radio stations also began to decline, with ownership going to corporations who programmed black-targeted R&B stations to now serve urban multicultural audiences who liked rap music. Additionally, Billboard magazine reflected the shift toward rap by transforming what had exclusively been the R&B singles chart to a fusion of the hottest R&B and hip-hop songs, with the latter genre soon dominating the top positions.
True R&B stations still exist, though most are geared towards adults and only exist for those lucky enough to live in areas with large black populations. The efforts of artists such as Ledisi, Maxwell and Jill Scott are so rarely heard compared to what seems like inescapable rotations of the latest hits from Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj.
With radio appealing to the so-called masses (or what some may say is the lowest common denominator), hip-hop is now forced down our throats. As such, the assumption is made that all young people of color only desire to listen to rap and don’t appreciate soul, jazz, gospel, or other forms of black music. This encourages singers to look for the hottest instrumentals and rappers, and denies them the chance to explore their artistry within singing and songwriting. If they decide to do so, they tend to get boxed into the neo soul category, which has become a catch-all for any R&B artists who play an instrument, embrace a more organic sound, or, sadly, indirectly want to be overshadowed by their hip-hop-influenced peers.
Rather than being integrated with contemporary tunes on the radio, classic R&B songs are now becoming just a source for hooks or refrains for the of-the-moment rapper’s latest hit (Kanye and Jay-Z’s “Otis,” anyone?). Soul song topics have been gearing themselves toward materialism and sexual conquests rather than racial uplift and romance. Because of R&B’s seeming lack of airplay, black culture’s dominant face is that of hip-hop.
Is this to say that all hip-hop is bad or that it should apologize for its success? Most definitely not, but let’s recognize the major problem: R&B is a dying art, not only because it’s getting pushed off black-focused radio and video, but because the elements that make it unique are being masked to make it sound exactly like its hip-hop cousin. While the hybrid of the two was initially loved and innovative, as time progressed, hip-hop has grown to overshadow R&B and is robbing black music lovers of a critical foundation of black music culture. While hip-hop thrives today and finds mainstream success, R&B is barely hanging by a thread, relegated to an almost alternative form of music. If it does not divorce itself from the mentality and methods of hip-hop, it runs the risk of being buried and forgotten.
Joel Lyons is a New York City-based aficionado of Dance, Pop and R&B. Experience his appreciation at www.ThatsMyJam.net and on Twitter @onlyONscripting.