Music is indeed a universal language, one spoken in a number of dialects. And for years now, some would say for generations, the rhythmic voice of African Americans has been translated into hit records for artists not born of the urban tongue. Their influential speech patterns are heard clearly throughout Top 40 Pop music.
As reluctant as hip-hop star Eminem was to accept his status among pop’s most famous, he regularly praises pioneering producer Dr. Dre, who helmed Gwen Stefani’s pop hit “Rich Girl,” for the role he’s played in the Detroit native’s success. On his Dre-produced Top 40 hit “Without Me,” Eminem rhymes sarcastically, “Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worse thing since Elvis Presley/to do black music so selfishly, and use it to get myself wealthy.” While comical in nature, the content of the rhyme is valid.
Depending on what source you believe to be the most accurate and reliable, the late “King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis Presley, had between 38 and 40 Top 10 hits, each of those heavily rotated on the equivalent of today’s Top 40 radio. When interviewed by the media in the late 1950s and ‘60s, Presley admitted his music was influenced by African American R&B and blues artists like Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter, and B.B. King, each one among the many who originated the style he’d become famous for employing.
Teddy Riley’s decision to experiment with pop was unpopular with his associates. He told SoulTrain.com he sang lead on “No Diggity” because no one initially believed in the record. Not only did it become a crossover hit, influencing a sound used by the likes of Top 40 pop stars John Mayer and Ed Sheeran, it found its way into the 2012 a cappella film Pitch Perfect, whose soundtrack reached #3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, selling 1.2 million copies.
Pop artists Britney Spears, N’Sync, and Backstreet Boys sold 10 million records a piece at the height of their popularity during the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Full Force’s Bowlegged Lou told SoulTrain.com about the perfect pitch behind their Top 40 pop success. “People were shocked to know Full Force was the fuse behind their music; we were the chocolate in their milk,” says the multi-million-selling writer/producer. “We wrote and produced one of The Backstreet Boys’ biggest records, ‘All I Have to Give’.”
African Americans continue to give their all to popular music today. Hit-making artists such as Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and One Direction consistently work with the best African American writers and producers in the business. Artists like Rihanna, Usher, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Chris Brown, all Top 40 pop regulars as well, collaborate with the elite white music makers. The rhythmic voice remains influential. They’re speaking the same language, translated from the same dialect.
—Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker is an urban and pop culture enthusiast. Known as “The Word Heavyweight Champion”, the biographer, author, entertainment and celebrity journalist, and columnist is currently a senior writer for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and writer of weekly classic hip-hop reviews for Concrete Magazine’s Concrete615.com. Also co-creator of TheGrooveSpot.com, Walker’s acclaimed, award-winning work has been published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. He is also working on a book project with Liquid Arts & Entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit his blog MrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.