Storm Clouds

Having young parents frequently means getting taken along for the ride when it comes to their young friends’ get-togethers. On those nights, I played with the kids of their friends until Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show monologue while the grown-ups played backgammon with Mandrill and Cymande vinyl spinning all night long. On the ride home, Dad would tune the car stereo to New York City’s WBLS (the Black Listening Station). The romantic, slow-jam playlists of the after-midnight DJs lulled me to sleep every time.

1975’s “Quiet Storm” was Smokey Robinson’s reaction to the funk and disco rhythms that were making his Motown Sound seem antiquated. Little did he know his smooth, jazzy ballad would set off a radio-format movement. In 1976, Howard University undergrads Melvin Lindsey and Jack Shuler launched a radio show on Washington, D.C.’s WHUR after the station manager was impressed by their laid-back, easy-flowing R&B mix. They called their four-hour nightly show The Quiet Storm.

The formula caught on nationwide, perfect for leaving on in the background for late-night lovemaking. I knew the version created on the WBLS graveyard shift by DJ Vaughn Harper, whose favorites included stuff like Roberta Flack’s “The Closer I Get to You,” Natalie Cole’s “Inseparable” and Stephanie Mills’ “Feel the Fire.”

Quiet Storm shows around the country were the perfect launch pad for Luther Vandross—a former backup singer for Donny Hathaway and Sister Sledge, whose voice was also familiar from commercial jingles for Juicy Fruit and Mountain Dew. After a brief stint fronting a studio-concocted group called Change, the 30-year-old singer dropped 1981’s double-platinum Never Too Much, instantly becoming a bridge between ’70s and ’80s R&B. Songs like “The Glow of Love” and “Searching” were dance-oriented but not straight-up disco. Vandross’ Quiet Stormy covers of Dionne Warwick’s “A House Is Not a Home” and Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” became standards of the format. His ardent fanbase adored his rich tenor—Vandross was nicknamed “The Velvet Voice”—and made-for-talk-shows sense of humor.

Purple Power and the Rise of Rap

Someone should flesh out a “six degrees of separation”-style map of all the ways Prince influenced the course of modern-day R&B. Debuting in 1978 playing every instrument on his self-produced For You, he inspired critical comparisons to Stevie Wonder (for his singer/songwriter/one-man-band prowess) and Smokey Robinson (for his falsetto).

But Prince was also the first major post-Stevie upstart to carry forth the commitment to ’70s musicianship and songcraft that would pave the way for the neo-soul movement of the mid-’90s, not to mention the “alternative” R&B of Frank Ocean, H.E.R. and others. He also wrote the song that would usher in a whole subgenre of R&B and hip-hop.

In 2002 the Grammys started giving out awards for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, a category that owes everything to Chaka Khan’s 1984 cover of Prince’s “I Feel for You” featuring Melle Mel. Given the newness of rap, however, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five vocalist/songwriter Mel’s credit did not appear on the sleeve to Khan’s Grammy-winning single; the record company likely would not have considered name-checking him a sales draw. So the first credited union of singer and rapper ended up being 1989’s “Friends,” by former Soul Train dancer and Shalamar lead Jody Watley and Rakim. As it turns out, “Friends” was written and produced by André Cymone—the Minneapolis-made singer-songwriter who’d befriended Prince as a teenager and played bass in his live band during the days of Dirty Mind. So without Prince, no “I Feel for You” and possibly, no “Friends.”

Just as Little Richard and Chuck Berry built on the foundation of Louis Jordan, just as Philly International built on Motown’s example, so did a young Prince Rogers Nelson distill Stevie, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown into a manifestation of his own version of Black popular music. Prince emerged from Minneapolis to conceive a form of R&B that spilled into rock music (indeed, he would eventually be acknowledged as one of the hottest rock guitarists of all time). Hardcore fans consider the music of Prince its own genre.

Black radio launched Prince with “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (1979), “Controversy” (1981) and “Do Me, Baby” (1981). Five albums into his career, MTV and rock radio played “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.” Purple Rain owned the #1 spot on the album chart for three straight months, challenging Thriller-era Michael Jackson’s pop-cultural dominance with a rude-boy polar opposite.

Much like The Funk Brothers and Holland-Dozier-Holland before him, Prince underpinned the output of multiple artists, in the 1980s determining the sound of R&B hits by The Time, Sheila E., Vanity 6, The Family, Mazarati and Madhouse. These shared airtime with Prince-penned songs performed by Stephanie Mills, Meli’sa Morgan and Nona Hendryx. His Oberheim synthesizer and LinnDrum beat machine influenced rivals like Rick James and Jesse Johnson, soundalikes like Ready for the World and The Jets and former protégés like production duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (not to mention everyone they produced—i.e., Janet Jackson, New Edition, Alexander O’Neal, etc.) His Minneapolis Sound ruled, sharing the airwaves with another brand-new sound: rap.

Due in large part to the excising of music programs from inner-city schools nationwide in the 1970s, recasting pre-existing discographies became its own art form in the hands of Bronx DJs like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. In 1979, there came the first hip-hop radio hit, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” built on the bed of Chic’s #1 R&B smash “Good Times,” released a mere three months earlier.

As the decade advanced, rap slowly started encroaching upon R&B. Rapper Kurtis Blow had sung on his 1982 single “Daydreamin’” (decades before the advent of Lauryn Hill, Drake or Anderson .Paak). But that was back in the days when older listeners (read: parents) and stodgy record execs assumed rap was a passing fad; the thinking was that MCs like Blow better get to crooning. Then Mel’s interlude on Khan’s “I Feel for You” paved a new pathway for R&B singers looking to attract the younger demo in love with hip-hop. Singers who already commanded a young audience, meanwhile, could prove their cool by hosting rappers on remix singles: Al B. Sure! with Slick Rick on “If I’m Not Your Lover,” Rick James with Roxanne Shanté on “Loosey’s Rap.”

Next came the inevitable: Singers rapping.

Prerogatives: Bobby, Teddy, Babyface

Bobby Brown pronounced himself King of Stage with his 1986 debut album, harking back to R&B monikers like Sam Cooke’s King of Soul. By that point, Brown had bad-boyed himself out of New Edition—the Boston quintet that reinvented the Jackson 5 formula for the screaming teenage girls of soon-to-be Generation X with “Candy Girl,” “Popcorn Love,” “Cool It Now” and “Mr. Telephone Man.” His career apex, 1988’s septuple-platinum #1, Don’t Be Cruel, rewrote the rules of R&B when 19-year-old Brown added rhymes to the #1 “My Prerogative” and other remixed singles.

In those days, R&B singers didn’t brandish the bravado of rap stars; upwardly mobile, lover-man suavity was the order of the day—exemplified by Freddie Jackson, Gregory Abbott and Jeffrey Osborne. Brown had the foresight to decide that being true to himself, a late-’80s teenager, meant embracing the influence of Big Daddy Kane as much as that of Marvin Gaye. He wore Dapper Dan leather ensembles and gold chains, dropped rhymes in the middle of “Every Little Step” and unabashedly chased after Janet Jackson like every cishet guy his age wished he could. His influence on Mary J. Blige, D’Angelo, Chris Brown and every R&B star incorporating hip-hop into their music since then (in other words, nearly all of them)—as well as on rappers integrating R&B into their music (see: Future, Travis Scott)—is unparalleled.

Brown’s idea was an extension of who he was, but he didn’t do it alone. Before producing “My Prerogative” for him, Harlem-born Teddy Riley had minted a harder-edged style of R&B first called “new jack swing” by Barry Michael Cooper (screenwriter of the “Harlem Trilogy,” 1991’s New Jack City and 1994’s Sugar Hill and Above the Rim). Whereas R&B itself was an amalgam of blues, gospel and soul, Riley added hip-hop to that combo. He spread new jack swing to R&B singers (Keith Sweat, Johnny Kemp, even Michael Jackson) and rap artists (Wreckx-N-Effect, Doug E. Fresh). Teddy Riley’s sound dominated radio, but the one-man Motown to his Stax birthed a sound that was just as prominent.

Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds produced the lion’s share of Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel, responsible (with partner L.A. Reid) for “Roni,” “Rock Wit’cha” and more. My college cafeteria jukebox exposed me to my first Babyface production at breakfast, lunch and dinner: “Two Occasions” by The Deele, a Top 5 single by Babyface’s short-lived group with Reid on drums. But in 1988, the omnipresence of his sound was just developing as he delivered silky ballads and percussive, up-tempo singles to Pebbles (“Mercedes Boy”), Johnny Gill (“My My My”), Karyn White (“Love Saw It”) and The Whispers (“Rock Steady”). He would quickly become the most sought-after name in R&B production and by the 1990s, his handiwork for stars like Khan, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and yes, Michael Jackson was regularly climbing the charts.

Janet Takes Flyte

Janet Jackson’s chapter of R&B history is in a way a story of shadows: in particular, stepping out from those cast by others. By early 1986, 19-year-old Janet—the baby sister of the beloved Jackson clan—longed to come into her own in the public eye. Two early ’80s albums (Janet Jackson, Dream Street) had already failed on that front when she abandoned her father’s management and chose producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for a third project. Known collectively as Flyte Tyme, the duo had been successfully operating outside the sphere of their former employer, Prince, since he’d fired them from his protégé group The Time in 1983. Productions for the S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle, Cheryl Lynn and others enabled them to lay down their own synth-and-Roland 808 lane. But they had yet to craft a monster pop hit as Prince had done for Sinéad O’Connor, Sheena Easton and The Bangles.

Read Miles Marshall Lewis' assessment of the new Jam & Lewis album here.

It couldn’t have been easy being Michael Jackson’s kid sister. Thriller had made him a god of pop in 1983. But MTV short films, Paul McCartney duets and his performance on NBC’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever (featuring his first public moonwalk, in front of 34 million viewers) turned Jackson into a Beatles-level icon. Thriller producer Quincy Jones had known (and likely worked with) everyone who was anyone since the 1950s, from Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra to Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder. He’d released records like Body Heat and The Dude, songs from which were already in regular rotation on R&B stations. The magic wrought by MJ and Q resulted in an unprecedented eight Grammy wins for Thriller in 1984. Jackson’s influence was everywhere.

Janet is five years my senior. I’d known of her since her TV appearances on Good Times in the mid-’70s and like all the Black boys around my age, harbored a huge crush. Seeing a Black girl on television then was a rare occurrence; there was The Facts of Life’s Kim Fields—and Janet. My heart-eyed emojis surrounded her acting on Fame and Diff’rent Strokes and her singing of the Top 10 Dream Street single “Don’t Stand Another Chance” on American Bandstand. In the years that Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones chiseled away at Bad, the Thriller follow-up aimed way beyond the R&B market, Janet and Flyte Tyme devised her pitch-perfect coming-of-age statement.

1986’s Control would become a template for the careers of Beyoncé, Aaliyah, Jennifer Lopez, Ciara and Brandy, as well as Britney Spears, P!nk, Katy Perry and Christina Aguilera, to name but a few. It spawned a string of smashes: “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Nasty,” “Let’s Wait Awhile”—indeed, nearly all of Control’s nine songs found permanent placement on R&B radio, while their dance-heavy videos appeared on BET and MTV.

Bad arrived in August 1987. As with every other album released following Thriller, Bad couldn’t top it commercially (despite selling more than 35 million units worldwide). “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal” et al. redefined pop music for the Weeknds and Brunos of the world, as it did Justins Timberlake and Bieber, but I’m not alone in enjoying Michael’s post-Bad discography less than his sister’s catalog. With Control, she’d found her Quincy in Jam & Lewis, and Rhythm Nation 1814, janet. and The Velvet Rope afforded R&B as many late-millennial classics as MJ’s Dangerous or HIStory.

The Other Crossover

Mega-success in African-American music during the neon 1980s basically meant crossing over to white folks à la Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie. But in the keepin’-it-real 1990s—when Generation X came of age—young Black America forced white folks to cross over to us, on our terms. Black-owned and -operated record labels (LaFace, Uptown), an R&B golden age (En Vogue, Boyz II Men) and novel twists on tradition (Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo) all marked the ’90s as the decade of the reverse crossover.

How did performing unapologetic Blackness become the way to win?

By the 1990s—as the Reagan-lite era of George Bush was wrapping up and the liberally optimistic Clinton days were dawning—the young adulthood of the hip-hop generation was in full flower. As ’80s teenagers, Gen X was weaned on the materialism of Family Ties’ Alex P. Keaton, the gangster nihilism of Scarface and the “greed is good” yuppie ethos of Wall Street. Musically, albums like Keith Sweat’s 1987 Make It Last Forever and 1988’s In Effect Mode, by Al B. Sure!, and Guy (the eponymous debut of producer Teddy Riley’s own R&B trio) had impacted college-bound and street-hustling youth alike. The zeitgeist set the scene for the blunt lyricism and entrepreneurialism of the decade to come.

Krush Groove had already taught us all about Def Jam Recordings founder Russell Simmons back in 1985; like an Empire prototype, the thinly veiled biopic struck an entirely new concept of the record mogul for a younger generation. (Lest we forget, Def Jam had always released rap and R&B: Oran “Juice” Jones, Alyson Williams.) Enter brash, bird-chested Uptown Records intern Sean “Puffy” Combs. The one-time Howard University business major left his HBCU behind and began molding Uptown talent in his own image, with reverberations throughout the music industry. The suits-and-champagne slickness of R&B Romeos like Freddie Jackson and Luther Vandross got tossed. As a 21-year-old, ghetto-fabulous A&R man, Combs famously outfitted R&B bad boys Jodeci as a mirror of himself: Timberland boots, ski caps, baseball snapbacks and head-to-toe black bagginess.

On Jodeci’s 1991 Forever My Lady, the street style, tattoos and other hallmarks of hip-hop culture complemented the music itself. Combs worked the same magic for Yonkers-born chanteuse Mary J. Blige one year later on What’s the 411? and again on the 1994 classic My Life, creating a home for hip-hop soul on airwaves worldwide.

Building on Riley’s new jack swing and the “hip-hop smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal” of Bell Biv DeVoe, Combs became a producer. His “Come and Talk to Me” remix for Jodeci owed as much to EPMD’s “You’re a Customer” as BBD’s “Poison” did to the Kool G Rap original, a formula he repeated by sampling MC Lyte on Blige’s “Reminisce.” Today, the fusion of R&B and hip-hop is simply the air that we breathe, from Drake, Future and Nicki Minaj to Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake and K. Michelle. That started in the ’90s.

It was a decade of newly stamped icons. Mariah Carey was signed by Sony Music Topper Tommy Mottola as the company searched for a pop singer who could compete with multiplatinum Arista powerhouse Whitney Houston. (Carey married Mottola in 1993.) Playing up her multi-octave vocal range and biracial background, the label groomed Carey from her 1990 self-titled debut through a string of 18 #1 hits—including “Vision of Love,” “Hero,” “Emotions” and the Jackson 5 cover “I’ll Be There.” Carey’s winning streak was for a time so bulletproof that she ditched her polished pop image (and Mottola) in ’97 in favor of unlikely collaborations with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Q-Tip and Combs on her Butterfly album. And she still won.


Many superstars of the ’80s just weren’t made for these times. Gen X mandated authenticity as the order of the day. This is in part why dreadlocked Lenny Kravitz was embraced as the sexy Black rocker of choice over Prince, who may as well have temporarily retired when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in 1993; Kravitz’s retro-flavored albums—Mama Said (1991), Are You Gonna Go My Way (1993) and Circus (1995)—sounded more heartfelt than most of Prince’s entire ’90s catalog, and his Curtis Mayfield-shaded “It Ain’t Over til It’s Over” lived comfortably on R&B radio. After hits like “Scandalous,” “Diamonds and Pearls” and the saccharine “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” the Purple One took a commercial breather for most of the decade as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince—in no small part because he’d been blindsided by the hip-hop aesthetic.

Whitney Houston’s career peaked with The Bodyguard, its 18-times platinum 1992 soundtrack and her signature hit, a stratospheric rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” cementing her legend. Her next film/soundtrack combo, Waiting to Exhale, yielded the hits “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” and “Why Does It Hurt So Bad,” yet the period found her struggling somewhat to keep up with the times (of course Houston’s influence can nonetheless be heard to this day in the vocal runs and melismata of Beyoncé and Adele, among many others). By 1998’s My Love Is Your Love—her first full-length album since 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight—however, producers like Missy Elliott and Wyclef Jean seemed to have put her on firmer ground.

The primary exception to the superstars of the ’80s who just weren’t made for these times? Janet Jackson. With her 1993 release janet., sexual freedom never sounded so good. Though she’d famously bared her midriff in the Herb Ritts-directed video for Rhythm Nation 1814’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” on her fifth studio album, Miss Jackson went the full monty. Like Beyoncé on her own self-titled masterpiece, the 27-year-old had been liberated by sex—and was singing about it. Michael Jackson sold just as many copies (7 million) of 1991’s Dangerous, and the siblings’ sole duet, 1995’s “Scream,” was the event record of the decade. But the ’90s eschewed even the whiff of artifice and in 1997, the genuine quality of Janet’s The Velvet Rope easily overtook brother Michael’s remaining pre-millennial music (that year’s Blood on the Dance Floor in particular) as a result.

Sampling has been the lifeblood of the hip-hop generation since “Rapper’s Delight” borrowed from “Good Times.” In the ’90s, this generational instinct overflowed into R&B. But so-called neo-soul sampled the very spirit of Black music titans, including Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone, filtering it through the modern era and blessing us with the likes of D’Angelo, Maxwell, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. As the alternative R&B of its time, neo-soul birthed the contemporary wave that’s crested in Janelle Monáe, The Weeknd, Miguel and similarly gifted exemplars of the 21st century who first glimpsed their raison d’être in such masterpieces as 1995’s Brown Sugar, 1996’s Urban Hang Suite, 1997’s Baduizm and 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Quick—name a 2010s girl group! Odds are you can’t. Two decades back, though, En Vogue, Destiny’s Child, Xscape, SWV, Total, Zhané, TLC and many more flourished pretty much simultaneously. Pop acts like BTS, meanwhile, still mint money from the R&B boy-band formula of Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Dru Hill, Jagged Edge, 112 and others. But the Black male groups are all gone, too. As subsumed by EDM as R&B was in the 2010s, the ’90s marked an indisputable golden age of R&B.

Black music in the last decade of the century benefited from the convergence of a strong economy and inspired, innovative artists to go along with those financially flush times. Internet file-sharing—that is, free music—was launched with Napster in 1999, marking the beginning of the end of the retail-based record business. The iPod arrived two years later, and the shuffle culture of the modern age never looked back.

How has R&B fared in 21st century playlist culture? Stay tuned…


TAGS: Johnny Carson | Mandrill | Cymande | Melvin Lindsey | Jack Shuler | Vaughn Harper | Roberta Flack | Natalie Cole | Stephanie Mills | Luther Vandross | Donny Hathaway | Sister Sledge | Change Prince | Frank Ocean | H.E.R. | Melle Mel | Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five | Shalamar | Jody Watley | Rakim | Andre Cymone | The Time | Sheila E. | Vanity 6 | The Family | Mazarati | Madhouse | Meli’sa Morgan | Nona Hendryx. Rick James | Jesse Johnson Ready for the World | The Jets | Jimmy Jam | Terry Lewis | Janet Jackson | New Edition | Alexander O’Neal | Chaka Khan | Kool Herc | Afrika Bambaataa | Sugarhill Gang | Chic | Kurtis Blow | Lauryn Hill | Drake | Anderson .Paak | Al B. Sure! | Slick Rick | Roxanne Shanté | Bobby Brown | Freddie Jackson | Gregory Abbott | Jeffrey Osborne | Big Daddy Kane | Mary J. Blige | D’Angelo | Chris Brown | Future | Travis Scott | Bar-ry Michael Cooper | Keith Sweat | Johnny Kemp | Michael Jackson | Wreckx-N-Effect | Doug E. Fresh | Teddy Riley | Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds | L.A. Reid | The Deele | Pebbles | Johnny Gill | Karyn White | The Whispers | Diana Ross | Aretha Franklin | Janet Jackson | Flyte Tyme | S.O.S. Band | Cherrelle | Cheryl Lynn. Sinéad O’Connor | Sheena Easton | The Bangles | Paul McCartney | Beyoncé | Aaliyah | Jennifer Lopez | Ciara | Brandy | Britney Spears | P!nk | Katy Perry | Christina Aguilera | The Weeknd | Bruno Mars | Justin Timberlake | Justin Bieber | Quincy Jones | En Vogue | Boyz II Men | Lauryn Hill | D’Angelo | Ronald Reagan | George Bush | Russell Simmons | Oran “Juice” Jones | Alyson Williams | Sean “Puffy” Combs | Mary J. Blige | EPMD | MC Lyte | Nicki Minaj to Chris Brown | K. Michelle | Mariah Carey | Tommy Mottola | Whitney Houston | Ol’ Dirty Bastard | Q-Tip | Lenny Kravitz | Dolly Parton | Adele | Missy Elliott | Wyclef Jean | Herb Ritts | Billie Holiday | Marvin Gaye | Nina Simone | D’Angelo | Maxwell | Erykah Badu | Lauryn Hill | Janelle Monáe | Miguel | Destiny’s Child | Xscape | SWV | Total | Zhané | TLC | Tony! Toni! Toné! | Dru Hill | Jagged Edge | 112 | Napster | Miles Marshall Lewis
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