Mourning the Demise of African-American Music

For quite a few years, I've been promising diary readers an essay on the decline of African-American Music.  It's something that genuinely bothers me, as I grew up listening to 70's/80's soul, R & B, and funk.  That music was rooted in solid musicianship, beautiful voices, and genuine soul.  Whether it was Marvin Gaye singing meaningful and soulful songs like "What's Going On?," Funkadelic's hardcore funk of "One Nation Under a Groove," or Michael Jackson's contagious dance-pop masterpiece "Billie Jean," you could be sure that behind African-American music, there were people who were genuinely talented musicians, arrangers, and creative geniuses. From the borrowed sounds of Elvis Presley, to the global mania of Michael Jackson, to the expansion of local, indigenous non-English rap in places as unlikely as Algeria, Japan, and Australia---the world has always loved the American Jazz/Blues/Soul tradition.

But something happened. On today's radio, kids aren't going to hear the talented bass lines of someone like Bootsy Collins (Parliament-Funkadelic) or Bernard Edwards (Chic).  There's no great, innovative soul guitarists like Nile Rodgers (Chic), or great live bands like Earth, Wind, and Fire or Kool & the Gang.  (White) KC & the Sunshine Band has ten times as much soul as anything on the radio today.  Neither do we see artists like Prince that can play over 30 instruments and who has the greatest male vocal range of any singer in rock n' roll (his lowest notes are deeply resonant and full and his high notes are Mariah Carey level).  Prince always ran a tight live band with high demands as does Sting---much more so than any R & B/Hip-Hop artists out there in the last 20 years.  And the beauty of the male African-American voice as exemplified by the harmonies of the Temptations, The Spinners, the Four Tops and others is just completely gone.  Even Roger Korman and Zapp ("Computer Love") surrounded themselves with beautiful male African-American voices and solid musicians and that was in the early 80's.

What happened?  Computers happened and Rap happened.  Computers enabled producers to become the primary drivers in music.  No longer did one need to hire talented session musicians, now the studio could produce the bass, the drums, and even make tone deaf people sound like they can sing--See Britney Spears and a whole host of others.  It saves money and you can rely on one guy.  The problem is that you can hear it!  The drums don't have the same pop as if Tony Thompson were behind the drums.  The male voices are not as resonant anymore.  The guitars are a virtual non-factor.

Sadly, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones started us down this road.  Jackson, petrified of not being able to top "Thriller" made "Bad" an overproduced, space age sounding album that had far less soul and funk than Thriller which relied more heavily on real musicians.  Compare how you feel when listening to "Off the Wall" or the Jackson's brilliant "Triumph" album with how you feel listening to a song like "Speed Demon" on Bad.  You can feel the computers winning the battle for the soul of African-American Music.  "Bad" sold very well, but not as well as "Thriller."  His next album "Dangerous" took the musicianship to new lows.  A song like "Keep it in the Closet" (See below) could just not get anymore soulless or hollow if it tried.

It was around this time that Rap really broke open.  Rap of course had been around in the late 70's with the Sugarhill Gang's "Rappers Delight," Grandmaster Flash, and Kurtis Blow.  But even this early rap was based on samples of music by bands like Chic or James Brown.  The rappers used the unbelievably catchy guitar hooks of songs like "Sex Machine" or the bass lines of "Good Times."  The soul throbbed and the rappers rapped over that soul.  Rap played upon the value of oral tradition/storytelling, which is part of the African and African-American experience, and gave it a fresh outlet.  There is value in that by itself.  But rap would be dependent on the samples of other people's great musicianship.

When rap went mainstream with Run DMC's "Walk This Way" and the Beastie Boys "Fight For your Right (to Party)," rap began to really take off.  By the early 90's, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, L.L. Cool J. and Snoop Doggy Dogg ushered in the so-called "Golden Age of Rap."  But all of this meant more sampling, more studio production, and less live musicians.  But even the Beastie Boys (white Jews from Manhattan) valued classic soul as evidenced by their brilliant 2nd album "Paul's Boutique" and they even learned to play instruments.  Their songs on "Ill Communication" are more funky and pay more tribute to 70's African-American music than any other African American artist out there was doing at the time or since!

Hip-Hop (New Jack Swing) really took off with Bobby Brown's "Don't Be Cruel" album which was produced by BabyFace (a guy with a great voice himself) really seemed to open pandoras box as far the over-produced soul album was concerned.  Paula Abdul's smash album continued it, as did Janet Jackson's music (although she worked closely with the wonderful live bands formed by producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of  The Time).  After that, it gets increasingly hard to find good soul music.  Terence Trent D'Arby (my favorite soul artist) released his masterpiece "Symphony or Damn" in 1993 to little fanfare.  Yet D'Arby has more musical talent and soul in his little finger than the entire R & B top 10 artists today.  D'Arby was snuffed out by the new studio produced African-American music, the sample-reliant Rap format, and by the threatened artist Michael Jackson who always felt D'Arby was the one who could truly knock the King of Pop off his throne.  Jackson's insistence that he be called "the King of Pop" (emphasis on the word "Pop") shows how carelessly he treated his soul R & B heritage:  And this from a guy who grew up in the Motown family!

It was over by 1989.  By the early 90's, Rap was the biggest form of music selling in the world.  It is only now being displaced by the over-produced artificial dance music that is all over the airwaves.  The runaway smash hit "Gangham Style" is a perfect example of the new soulless soul.  The Seoul crooner is a dance sensation.  You know it's gotten bad when the world is dancing to Korean music--the most studio produced music ever.

There must be a ton of unemployed, great, African-American musicians.  I hear Wynton Marsalis often plays to a handful of people.  Terence Trent D'Arby is lucky to get a few club gigs in Italy, France, or Switzerland and he may be the most soulful artist left.  It's no wonder that Whitney Houston's funeral was so inspiring.  The talent is in black church choirs and African-American churches.  Occasionally we see it on display on shows like American Idol.  We miss it, but we don't even realize we miss people with a voice like Luther Vandross, James Ingram, The Stylistics, and the incomparable Whitney Houston in her prime--who herself was a Clive Davis production--but what a majestic voice!  The loss of this level of musicianship is something to be mourned.  There are bands like Roots (who still had to take a job as Jimmy Fallon's back-up band), and more recently Bruno Mars that are bringing back some of the soul, but it's not the same.  We were once inundated with talent.

How did we go from the Commodores to Gangham Style in 30 short years?  I know the answer, but I can't believe it.


For some examples, Check these videos out:

One of my all-time favorites:  Ray Goodman and Brown lip-syncing on a TV show in 1980.  There are live versions out there.

Bootsy Collins breaking down funky bass playing.  It makes me weep that we don't hear this stuff anymore.

Bootsy absolutely tearing it up on the bass. Notice it's at the Jazz Open in Stuttgart.  You're more likely to see appreciation of this at a European Jazz Festival than in the USA.  And yes, there's a guy wearing a diaper.  All the more cool!



Back when a band really mattered and you had to have a horn section. James Brown slamming it.  If you're not moving to this you are dead.


Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" back in 1979/80 started to get rap exposure beyond New York City.  It is completely dependent on the bass line of Bernard Edwards and the Guitar part of Nile Rodgers.  Rap would play upon the oral/storytelling tradition of African American experience, but it would be reliant on samples of other people's musicanship.  I'm not sure Rap ever surpassed this.  The Chic song "Good Times" has been sampled over and over since.


The hollow sounds and super boring melody lines of the over-produced Michael Jackson on "Keep it in the Closet."


The completely atrocious, soulless, computer sounds of Usher---very emblematic of todays African American R & B music.


The funeral dirge of Gangham Style dance, hip-hop, soul.

Last but certainly not least, Terence Trent D'Arby combining vocals, songwriting, and musicianship.  Beautiful voice...and give him until 1:37 for him to get kicking.  My man, TTD.