Monday, May 26, 2003

R&B of the '80s: part 1

R&B, or what passed for “black music” (as Billboard renamed such a chart in 1982; for 9 years prior it had been the “Hot Soul Singles” chart) in the 1980s was a slippery, conniving beast. At decade’s beginning it was a mélange of ‘70s soul, disco-influenced tracks, and balladeering. By the cusp of the ‘90s, it was a sea of new jack swing and, well, more balladeering. Hip-hop was making an impression, but more on the album chart than that for singles - only two hip-hop singles made it all the way to the apex of the Hot Black Singles chart in the decade, L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love” (the week of 9/26/87) and De La Soul’s “My Myself and I” (6/10/89). However, as poppy as it got at times, the R&B world was never truly one of “black pop.” Using Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Singles 1942-1995, I’ve examined the changing face of the genre throughout the ‘80s, using its charttoppers as example. I downloaded and listened to every bleeding one of ‘em - which means that I now have to admit to having “Ghostbusters” on my hard drive. Some of us are gluttons for punishment, I suppose. [And yes, it’s as bad as, if not worse than, you remember, but we’ll get to that once we arrive in 1984.]

The first thing that really struck me in this examination is the crossover - or, more appropriately, lack thereof - between the Hot Soul/Black Singles and Hot 100 (in theory, multi-genre, in reality, “pop”) charts throughout the decade. In 1980, only three of the year’s 14 #1s on the Soul (which I capitalize here as it’s part of a title) chart made it to the top of the pops. The next year, that number dropped to one, which was the case in ’82 as well. Three more made the double in 1983, with seven doing in in ’84 (alongside the aforementioned “Ghostbusters,” there were a pair from Purple Rain, as well as #1s from Footloose and The Woman in Red: hello, MTV-influenced soundtracks!). As for the rest of the decade:

number of Billboard Hot Soul/Black Singles #1s which also hit #1 on the Hot 100, by year
1980: 3
1981: 1
1982: 1
1983: 3 (two of which were by Michael Jackson)
1984: 7 (see above)
1985: 4
1986: 7
1987: 6 (three of which were by Michael Jackson)
1988: 5
1989: 2

It’s worth noting that midway through the decade, songs starting having much shorter stays atop the Hot Black Singles chart, leading to many more #1s. Here’s that list:

number of Billboard Hot Soul/Black Singles #1s each year, by year

1980: 14
1981: 16
1982: 13
1983: 14
1984: 18
1985: 20
1986: 25 (longest for four weeks, shared by three songs)
1987: 32 (longest for four weeks)
1988: 34 (longest for only three weeks, shared by three songs)
1989: 37 (longest for three weeks - only one song!)

It fascinates me that as the decade wore on, there were more songs topping the Hot Black Singles chart, and proportionately far fewer of them crossing over. For example, take 1989. That year’s two #1s which went the distance on both the Black and pop charts were Prince’s “Batdance,” and “Miss You Much” by Janet Jackson. Most of us old enough to, remember those singles. But what of some of the others? The year’s first #1 (1/7/89) was “Oasis” by Roberta Flack - which didn’t even dent the Hot 100. Next was Karyn White’s “Superwoman” (#8 pop, and the aforementioned three-week charttopper at R&B), followed by “Can You Stand the Rain” by New Edition (#44). Surface had three songs ascend to the summit of Hot Black Singles in ’89. One of them, “Shower Me With Your Love,” also went to #5 on the pop chart, but the other two (preceding and following “Shower”) didn’t crack the pop top 40. For every Soul II Soul (“Keep On Movin,’” 7/8/89/“Back To Life,” 10/7/89; #11/#4 pop) there was a Levert (“Just Coolin,’” 3/11/89) or Skyy (“Start of a Romance,” 5/13/89) who didn’t crack the Hot 100. So you’re left with this seemingly odd dichotomy during a decade when some utterly amazing records were being made - and were going unheard by the majority of the populace, whilst its largest minority was scarfing them up.


Fittingly, the first #1 on the Hot Soul Singles chart in the 1980s was by Michael Jackson (“Rock With You,” 1/5/80, 6 weeks). He had far and away more #1s in the decade than anyone else (9), and of course in many ways defined the decade both in R&B and pop - well, him and Prince. The funny thing is that neither Jacko nor the Purple One were particularly trendsetters, at least not so far as popular music went. Michael, especially, rode trends, or at least crested their waves. Prince was so far in his own world that even at the height of his commercial success, he was like no one else, and more talented than nearly every one else. “Rock” was also a fitting way to start the year itself, as most of the uptempo charttoppers in ’80 were still milking disco for its rhythms if not its style. This, however, was the black version of disco, and in some ways (even though it could be argued that everyone wants to) wasn’t meant to cross over. Shalamar’s “The Second Time Around” (2/16/80), the Whispers’ “And the Beat Goes On” (3/1/80), even the S.O.S. Band’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right) Part 1” (6/28/80) and Tom Browne’s “Funkin’ For Jamaica (N.Y.)” (10/4/80) - while the Shalamar and S.O.S. singles did go top 10 pop (the Whispers made it to #19, and Tom Browne didn’t even make top Hot 100), none of these sound innately pop, and listening to them now, I have difficulty imagining them on the radio betwixt the likes of Air Supply, Kenny Rogers, and Queen; perhaps it was the last gasps of disco itself which helped lift them across the crossover divide.

The year’s other #1 singles included the last one (yet) by the Isley Brothers (“Don’t Say Goodnight,” 4/19/80), a nearly brilliant, nearly rock-funk moment by Jermaine Jackson vis-à-vis Stevie Wonder (“Let’s Get Serious,” 5/17/80), Miss Ross wearing her perfectly fitting Chic straitjacket (“Upside Down,” 8/16/80), and the execrable “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang (12/20/80). Every year needs its low points to make its high ones look that much better, I suppose.


1981 was the year of disco’s death rattle, as it mutated/cross-breeded with P-Funk to make a new, unruly beast the following year. It wasn’t done just yet, though, as shown by hits from Lakeside (“Fantastic Voyage,” 1/31/81, ick), Yarbrough & Peoples (“Don’t Stop the Music,” 2/28/81, not much better), alongside Luther Vandross’ so Love Unlimited Orchestra-influenced “Never Too Much” (10/24/81). And then there was Earth, Wind & Fire.

“Let’s Groove” (11/28/81, and the year’s longest charttopper at 8 weeks) is a near-perfect record, a combination of the new breed of funk (Gap Band, Cameo,, as evidenced in the song’s bassline), EWF’s classic Chicago-with-soul formula (horns!), and a groove that swings just hard enough but never breaks. Maurice White and company may have known that their prime was ending, and if they did, they went out with guns blazing - they wouldn’t have another #1 for nearly 6 years, and only graced the Black top 10 once in that timespan. “Groove” is discoish but not of it, riding a groove so easy it’s complex with vocals so soaring your practically enter the sky just listening. But wait, there’s more. That beast I mentioned above reared his head a year early, in the form of the Gap Band.

“Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)” (2/14/81) started the Oklahoma trio on a run of six top 5 singles out of seven releases over a three-year period, two others of which also made the top (we’ll get to those in ’82). There was nothing disco about this band; they were in many ways the godchildren if not directest descendants of George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic mafia. As most of the time (if not always) with the f-u-n-k FUNK, the key is the basslines, and “Rubber” features their most towering one, sonically speaking; this record is nearly all bass, albeit with some whip-crack drumming tossed in so seemingly nonchalantly you barely notice it - that’s how good it is - and the divine, heaven’s-just-a-sin-away vocals of Charlie Wilson. And has anyone else noticed how almost all of the Gap Band’s most monumental songs are about getting dumped or dumping one’s lover? Just proves, again, the axiom that it often feels so good to hurt so bad.

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