African American artists of the 80s found themselves in a bind that artists of previous decades never faced. In each decade from the 40s to the 70s, there were at least two genres of urban music from which to choose. From the late 70s industry moguls had imported Euro-disco (George 154), and “crossover” music became the popular trend. By the middle 80s soul, funk and R & B had declined, so the artists either had to crossover or become rappers.
Although singers such as Luther Vandross, Patti Labelle, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan did relatively well during the decade, compared to previous decades, the 80s was a down period for black singers. As hip-hop artists became prominent, however, new singers and writers emulated their attitudes. Rappers maintained that their music reflected their reality, which meant that they did not specifically try to appeal to a mainstream audience.
New Jack Swing
The refusal of rappers to deliberately mainstream their music led the new singers and writers to create an uncompromising genre that reflected urban lifestyles – new jack swing. It is somewhat funky and smooth dance music that is more down to earth than disco but as sophisticated as the group “Chic.”
Although singer/producer Teddy Riley probably created new jack swing, Bobby Brown made it extremely popular. He incorporated the rawness of the rappers with the elegance of well-dressed people dancing in very nice clubs. One could argue that new jack swing is a combination of R & B, funk and disco.
With the exception of Anita Baker, Luther Vandross and a few others, the quality of R & B dropped during the latter 80s. New producers and writers listening to it probably determined that producing R & B songs would not generate a following similar to that of hip-hop and new jack swing. Therefore, producers, led by Andre Harrell, came up with the idea to use a soulful voice over the combination of hip-hop beats and R & B rhythms, which created hip-hop soul.
During the early 1990s, Mary J. Blige became the first popular hip-hop soul singer. With her Mavis Staples influenced voice, she puts soul over hard, banging hip-hop beats laced with R & B rhythms. She, like Bobby Brown, became tremendously successful singing music not specifically intended to appeal to a mainstream audience. Lauryn Hill is also a hip-hop soul artist who gained notoriety from her songs.
A trend started where new jack swing artists like Keith Sweat remade slow R & B songs. Mary J. Blige covered Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down.” In addition, baby-boomers and others began listening to “classic soul” as some black-owned radio stations featured it in their programming.
The move to slow and medium tempo music helped to create “neo-soul” of the 2000s. Although neo-soul artists may not come from the black church, they are excellent singers who are able to move their listeners. Neo-soul does not exactly sound like classic soul because it lacks the doo-wop influence, but it is just as powerful. India Arie, Lizz Wright, Jill Scott, Musiq, Conya Doss, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Anthony Hamilton and Leela James are excellent examples of the new soul singers.
Classic Soul and Today’s Soul
Soul music developed from the combination of street-corner doo-wop singers, gospel rhythms with secular lyrics and “the falsetto voice in gospel music” (Fox 234). According to LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), soul music represents a “social aggression” in terms of African Americans’ reaction to social and political injustice (219). Ray Charles gets credit for popularizing the trend of gospel singers turning to soul after he made his church feel, secular content hit, “What’d I Say?” in 1959 (George 70).
The Motown Sound and Soul Music
Soul music’s “classic era” occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s. It featured Motown artists such as the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Marvin and Tammi, Smokey Robinson, Brenda Holloway, the Marvelettes and others. Although many say that Motown modified its soul to appeal to a mainstream audience, the strong doo-wop influence and raw gospel sound is evident in Motown’s music.
During the classic soul period, Aretha Franklin was the queen and James Brown was the king. Other artists like Barbara Mason, Linda Jones, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Oscar Brown, Jr., the Whispers, Sam and Dave, Blue Magic, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Five Stairsteps, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Gladys Knight, the Voices of East Harlem and many more added to the rich and diverse sounds of soul.
Since the music originated both in the street and in the church, the singers emphasize feelings and voice quality. They sing with so much emotion that they touch listeners much in the same way that God touches people in church with His spirit. A person is not a soul singer if he/she is unable to move the listener, emotionally, in some way.
The Emergence of Disco Music and the Decline of Soul
Disco music started in the 1970s as soul-based dance music, but for various reasons, changed to a mainstream, gimmick-oriented, upbeat sound that dominated the 1980s. Disco attempts to move people with its repetitive beats, so it excluded the emotionally captivating voice so essential to soul music. Consequently, there was no standard of quality for its singers. Many below average singers “made it” by using musical gimmicks.
The low-level quality singing from the disco scene crept into the R & B ranks, which, coupled with the fast-paced beats, caused soul to decline drastically. Although there were some excellent soul singers during the 1980s and early 1990s like Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle, Stephanie Mills, Chaka Khan, Force M.D.’s, Klymaxx, Levert, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Baker, Tracy Chapman and Keith Washington, the number of quality singers had diminished tremendously
Soul Music Today
Since the late 90s and early 200s, “neo-soul” has emerged. It probably started with hip-hop soul’s Mary J. Blige accented by Lauryn Hill. Singers such as Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Leela James, John Legend, Macy Gray, Joe, Anthony Hamilton, India Arie, Musiq, Erykah Badu, Fantasia, Urban Mystic, Kindred Soul, Kem, Terisa Griffin, Lizz Wright, Ledisi, Lina, Angie Stone, Liv Warfield, Lalah Hathaway and others are creating their own new and exciting soul period.
Soul music has exploded around the world. International soul artists such as Corinne Bailey Rae, Rhian Benson, Joss Stone, Abenaa, Amy Winehouse, Omar, Floetry, Les Nubians and Somi are extraordinary singers. Soul artists today are comparable to the classic era artists in terms of quality singing because they move the listener. However, the soul explosion is difficult realize because the music media does not give enough exposure to these talented artists.