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Rhythm and Bullshit by Mark Anthony Neal

Posted on Friday, 25th May 2012 @ 02:49 AM by Text Size A | A | A

Yeah, I’m nostalgic: When Mary J. Blige first uttered the opening lines to “You Remind Me,” it was about making sure that hip-hop remembered that R&B came from the same streets where crackheads roamed and the same tenement vestibules where drama went down on the regular. But as I listen to Mario’s “Let Me Love You” for the 727th time, it is perhaps easy to suggest that R&B has lost its Soul, or that Clear Channel, Radio One (luv ya, Cathy!), AOL-Time Warner and Viacom—a neo-plantation cabal if ever there was one—ripped its heart out. Hip-hop may have sold out, but at least it has sold out on its own terms. R&B, on the other hand, has sold out on somebody else’s, on a pop-chart paper chase. Truth be told, U(r)sher was nothing more than a soon-past-his-peak R&B singer before John Smith laced him with some crunk junk; Ray J could have sang the hook on “Yeah” and topped the pop charts. And now, 10 million units later, we want to act like Mr. Raymond is the second coming of Michael Jackson? I ain’t willing to grant him the second coming of Bobby Brown. And it is not like we even knew Mr. Legend (in his own mind) and Ms. Queen of Crunk n’ B were in the room, until some hip-hop act sanctioned their presence. But what ails contemporary R&B is not just a matter of the commercial success of John Legend—and Amerie and Ciara and Mario. The current state of R&B comes not from a sudden decline, but a process more than 30 years in the making.


Does the soulless sound of contemporary R&B really have its roots in a controversial Harvard study from 1972, an alleged blueprint for the corporate theft of black culture’s heritage? Or was it all Clive Davis’s idea? The first of a three-part examination of how R&B became big business on the way to becoming irrelevant.

This story begins in 1972, when a few enterprising master’s students at the Harvard Business School prepared a study, commissioned by one of Columbia’s execs, detailing how the Columbia Records Group could better integrate the then largely independent black music industry into the mix. The now infamous Harvard Report—officially known as “A Study of the Soul Music Environment”—has often been referred to as a sinister blueprint aimed at arming a litany of “culture bandits” with the theoretical tools to return black culture to a neo-colonial state. There’s no denying that this is exactly the situation we’re staring at now, but it has nothing to do with the Harvard Report. What those MBA students articulated was a no-brainer marketing plan, informed by the commercial success of Motown and the cynical (though not mistaken) view that the Civil Rights “revolution” likely had more to do with the realities that black folk had disposable income and white folk consumed a hell of a lot of black popular culture than anything to do with real structural change in American society. In response to those expecting more sinister designs in the Harvard Report, David Sanjek rhetorically chimes, “why did [Columbia] feel the need to document what they should have already known?” (Rhythm and Business, 62). What Sanjek suggests is that eventually somebody in the music industry would have come up with their own version of the Harvard Report—say, Clive Davis, who incidentally was a president at Columbia at the time that the report was commissioned. The point is, with or without the Harvard Report, the takeover was well underway.

Black music has always had a complicated relationship with big business. That this relationship has typically had little to do with actual music perhaps explains the often unbalanced quality of this thing we’ve come to call R&B. This complicated relationship also partly explains what exactly R&B is. The term R&B is essentially a shortened version of “Rhythm & Blues”, but as a novice might discern, that which is called R&B bears little resemblance to the musical landscape created by Ruth Brown, Louis Jordan, Laverne Baker, Charles Brown and the Coasters. And perhaps that was the point. Musical innovations aside, R&B was essentially a marketing ploy that finally gained a significant foothold during the late 1970s. R&B was born out of competing logics—record companies tried to negotiate the realities of black culture and identity within the history of race relations in America while trying at the same time to reach a wider audience of black consumers and white record buyers. As black radio needed mainstream advertisers to court the emerging black middle class (as much an ideology as a measurement of economic and social status) and mainstream record labels became fixated on crossing over black artists to white consumers, terms like Soul and Rhythm and Blues quickly became too black. The same terminology turnover occurred during the late 1970s when urban began to stand for radio stations that essentially programmed black music. As Nelson George explains, “Urban was supposedly a multicolored programming style tuned to the rhythms of America’s crossfertilized big cities…. But more often, urban was black radio in disguise.” (The Death of Rhythm and Blues, 159).

According to the “Harvard Report” black radio was strategically important to record companies because it provided “access to large and growing record buying public, namely, the Black consumer.” The report is oblivious to the fact that the very birth of what was called “race music” in the 1930s was premised on selling goods and services to a uniquely defined audience, namely African-Americans constrained by Jim Crow segregation-an audience that might even buy a record or two, in the process of buying furniture, cleaning supplies and an insurance policy. Nevertheless, the report is cognizant of the growth of an emerging black middle class, one that would prove attractive not just to record companies but also advertisers eager to fuel black desires to consume the fetishes of a post-Civil Rights world. In the aftermath of centuries of struggle, exploitation and violence, some members of the black middle class often viewed their ability to consume widely throughout mainstream society as an emblem of the “freedoms” won during the Civil Rights struggle.

To get a sense of what this urbane blackness would look and feel like, think of the immensely popular early 1980s Colt 45 commercials featuring Billy Dee Williams. Twenty years later, no one really blinked an eye when poet Sonia Sanchez and Eric Benet used “smooth” R&B to hawk for an automobile maker. As R&B began to be viewed as the quintessence of upscale blackness, the more gritter aspects of black popular music—that which was, as Houston Baker Jr. describes it, “too blackly public” (as in embarrassing, like black folk eating watermelon in public)—began to disappear from the program list of some urban radio outlets in the late 1970s. So-called Southern Soul—the ZZ Hills, Denise LaSalles and Betty Wrights of the world—was an example of the kind of music that vanished from urban radio. Though Southern Soul didn’t disappear—labels like Malaco and Ichiban continue to promote Southern Soul artists to this day—the more bluesier aspects of its sound and its references to black southern culture were the very antithesis of the post-Civil Rights worldviews of many African-Americans. The popped-over P-Funk of Rick James—one of the best selling black artists at the beginning of the post-Soul era—was emblematic of the brave new world of R&B. The challenge for record labels at this point was to come up with product to feed the R&B machine.

The Harvard Report was adamant that the Columbia Records Group should not attempt to purchase any of the prominent Soul labels (Motown, Atlantic, Stax) or poach from them any of their established artists. (CRG eventually purchased Stax, but only after the label was in serious decline.) What the report did advise was that CRG cultivate relationships with small independent labels, as was the case when CRG began a relationship with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The product was Philadelphia International Records (PIR), and the impact of this groundbreaking relationship continues to reverberate 33 years later. As some critics—notably John A. Jackson in A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul—have observed, many of the Harvard Report’s suggestions were already in play at Columbia, and the relationship with PIR is one such example. This brings us back to Clive Davis, the point-person on both the PIR and Stax deals. Dismissed from Columbia is 1973 for financial irregularities (some have linked his dismissal to our jumble word for the day: alopya), Davis had nonetheless instigated the distribution and creative-resource relationship with PIR that would become the defining model for relationships between large corporate labels and black music, making Davis himself arguably the most prominent figure in the story of R&B.

The language that the Harvard Report uses to describe the value of indie Soul labels is undisputable: “These small independents could provide a source of product, in the form of ‘hot masters;’ talent which could have national potential; experienced personnel…in the areas of promotion and production; and serve as a source of captive independent producers.” Davis has claimed that he never read the Harvard Report, though it’s clear that he would have been one of key figures that the authors of the report would have interviewed, and Davis may well have provided them with substantive info regarding the importance of indie labels. Regardless of the source, what the report details is the blueprint for the black boutique label—essentially based on a model of neo-colonialism, where an imperialist power exploits the raw materials and talents of its satellites under the pretense that such satellites are autonomous. As Norman Kelley observes, “In classic colonialism, products were produced in raw periphery and sent back to the imperial motherland to be manufactured into commodities, then sold in metropolitan centers or back to the colonies. The outcome for the colony was stunted economic growth, as it was stripped of its ability to manufacture products for its own needs” (Rhythm and Business, 10). Looked at within the context of artistic production, the colonial model creates a context where black artistic production is mediated by a commodity culture more interested in “moving product” than cultivating art or developing artists, and then sold back to the masses as “art”, in the process stunting creative development. The irony is that which could be defined as organic artistic expression is seen illegitimate by the masses, who have been programmed to accept corporate packaging as the real.

Clive Davis is probably less a sinister figure in the rise and fall of R&B and more the embodiment of the corporate hustler. But there’s no denying that the very blueprint he outlined at Columbia became the most bankable strategy for R&B especially as he ascended to the leadership of Arista. For example, the most significant and successful black “boutique” labels of the 1990s, LaFace and Bad Boy Entertainment, were developed in Clive Davis’s house. Despite the negative impact that the corporate co-opting of black culture has on black creativity, we’re still left with the brilliance of the boutique model, as witnessed by the success of PIR. It all began with the production: the simple elegance of Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” or Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” or the glossy funk of The O’Jay’s “I Love Music”. The “Philly sound” (include Thom Bell and Mighty Three Publishing in this mix) became the soundtrack for an upscale blackness as far removed from the plantations of the South as it was from the factories of the Midwest. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were the real deal, and although they were not the sole innovators of this sound—think of the symphonic landscapes of Gene Page or the string arrangements of Paul Riser—the promotional and distribution muscle of Columbia allowed the duo to nationalize what was essentially a regional sound. By the end of the 1970s strains of the PIR could be heard in virtually every popular R&B song.

The boutique model was not necessarily about crossing R&B over to the mainstream, but rather positioning the larger corporate labels to better control the R&B market. As such, R&B artists were less compelled to compete with so-called pop artists. Although this meant that R&B artists had less access to resources—particularly as the record industry went through a financial slump in the late 1970s—it also created conditions where the R&B sound could develop without the additional pressure of attracting a wider audience. Very few soul artists made the transition to the R&B world. Notable examples are figures like Bobby Womack, whose Poet (1981) and Poet II (1984) represented the best work of his career and Diana Ross, whose Diana (1980), produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, represents the apex of her solo career. And then there’s the case of Michael Jackson, who remade himself into an R&B artist on his groundbreaking Off the Wall (1979), three years after he sat at the feet of Gamble and Huff, who produced the Jackson’s first CRG album after the Jackson 5’s departure from Motown in 1975. Often lost in conversations about Jackson’s emergence as the “King of Pop” is that he was cultivated in the R&B world—along with such other singular black pop crossovers of the 1980s as Whitney Houston and Lionel Ritchie.

If there was one figure who defined the genius of R&B it was Luther Vandross, who with the release of his eponymous debut in 1981 became the genre’s dominant artist. By coyly distancing himself from the black gospel vocal tradition, which grounded so much of the soul music of the 1960s and 1970s, Vandross cemented his appeal as the quintessential R&B singer. Specifically Vandross was trying to distinguish himself from generations of “shouters” such as gospel artists Joe Ligon (lead vocalist of the Mighty Clouds of Joy) and the late Archie Brownlee (of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) or soul vocalists like Wilson Pickett, the late Otis Redding and James Brown. As Jason King and others have suggested, Vandross was a student of various music traditions, notably black female vocalists of the 1960s (Dionne Warwick, The Bluebelles, Aretha Franklin), the Burt Bacharach and Hal David songbook, and the background-vocal stylings of the Sweet Inspirations. In addition, the lush orchestrations that figured so prominently in Vandross ballads—he is the definitive balladeer of the last generation of popular singers—suggested that he too was a fan of Gamble and Huff and Gene Page.

Still others such as Stephanie Mills, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Baker, Peobo Bryson, Atlantic Starr, Kashif, Loose Ends, Alexander O’Neal, The Whispers, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, and Chaka Khan (post Rufus) helped give R&B a cohesive sound in the early 1980s. As R&B was about attracting upscale “urban” audiences—whether legitimate members of the black middle class or working class strivers—it was by definition a genre targeted to mature audiences. As the 1980s progressed R&B was increasingly out of touch with a generation of black youth consumers, who felt little need to distance themselves from the realities of the Jim Crow era, especially as they faced down the venomous edge of the Reagan era. In real terms the R&B world was being challenged by the embryonic sounds of hip-hop for the attention (and disposable income) of “urban” audiences. A telling sign was the success of Chaka Khan’s remake of Prince’s “I Feel for You” (1984), which featured an opening rap by Melle Mel (technically the first hip-hop and R&B collaboration, though in my mind Jody Whatley’s “Friends”, which was blessed by Rakim, is more significant.) The song remains Khan’s best-selling single. Khan’s version of “I Feel for You” began a tenuous relationship between R&B and hip-hop, one which would finally earn hip-hop validation from the black mainstream and ultimately render R&B irrelevant.

s ubiquitous as it is today, as recently as 15 years ago hip-hop faced a real battle just to be heard on urban radio. Like Soul and Rhythm and Blues before it, hip-hop was too publicly black for advertisers, and when it found its way on the playlists of big market urban radio it was often after-hours on the weekend. There were a few exceptions—Whodini, for example, doesn’t get enough credit for their melding of hip-hop and R&B (courtesy of Larry Smith) on tracks like “Friends”, “Funky Beat” and in particular “One Love”, a strategy that Heavy D and the Boyz later exploited to become a radio-friendly favorite. The success of Jody Whatley’s collaboration with Rakim, “Friends” (1989), made some R&B artists and labels more willing to rent-a-rapper for some street credibility, but at the same time, it was still common practice for labels to deliver to radio versions of R&B singles in “rap” and “no rap” mixes to maximize radio airplay. Ultimately it took the sound christened the “new jack swing” to bring record labels and urban radio on board with the changing dynamics of R&B.

Teddy Riley is generally recognized as the genius behind new jack swing, a sound that married the old-school harmonies of the black church with a hard rhythmic edge. Riley’s group Guy (originally featuring Aaron Hall and Timmy Gatling) was the primary vehicle for his production, but he also produced Johnny Kemp (“Just Got Paid”), Keith Sweat (“I Want Her”), James Ingram (“I’m Real”), Boy George (“Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip”), the Winans (“It’s Time”) and Michael Jackson (“Remember the Time”). The range of artists that Riley worked with gives some indication of new jack swing’s impact on the recording industry.

 

Riley might have been the true innovator of the swing, but Bobby Brown gave it its public face. Bobby Brown was the first true embodiment of hip-hop in the R&B world, even daring to drop a rhyme or two himself, like a low-rent LL Cool J. Many folk looked askance a few years ago when Whitney Houston referred to her husband as the “king of R&B”, but the reality is that Brown’s breakthrough recording, 1988’s Don’t Be Cruel, is singularly responsible for the trajectory of R&B well into the 1990s. It is virtually impossible to imagine the careers of R. Kelly, Dave Hollister, Jaheim, Joe, Avant, Usher and Justin Timberlake without the success of Don’t Be Cruel, which produced five bonafide R&B and pop hits, including “Every Little Step”, “Rock Wit’cha” and, of course, “My Prerogative”, produced by Riley.

 

In a 1988 New York Times feature on Brown, Peter Watrous was prophetic when he suggested that Brown’s “success could have important implications…. If [his] achievement is followed by the deserved success of others, then perhaps the wall, kept sturdy by radio, press and record companies, that has historically divided black and white music worlds will begin to crumble.” Behind Watrous’s prescient observation was the realization among the major labels that hip-hop possessed real commercial potential beyond urban audiences. The popular view is that the majors got involved with hip-hop in the aftermath of successful crossover releases by Run-DMC (Raising Hell) and the Beastie Boys (License to Ill) and the strong response to MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps (1988). While this view may indeed be correct, a more cynical view is that major labels adopted hip-hop once the independent labels that supported it throughout the 1980s became a threat to their hegemony in the field of black music. What was most important was maintaining complete control over the urban contemporary market. If hip-hop happened to crossover—so the thinking was in the late 1980s—it would be simply gravy.

 

By the mid-1990s hip-hop would of course do so much more, eventually becoming one of popular music’s dominant genres. But the germ of that success came years earlier via a small boutique label distributed by MCA, the label Brown recorded for. Sean Combs gets much of the credit for carrying hip-hop over the crossover hump, but before Bad Boy Entertainment there was Uptown, the brain-child of former Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde frontman Andre Harrell. In the early 1980s Jekyll and Hyde (‘Genius Rap”) were known for the business attire they wore on stage while rapping, a look that captured the very aesthetic that Harrell hoped to cultivate with the Uptown label, a style he would call “High Negro”, which melded the upscale blackness of R&B (and the yellow-power-tie/Reagan-era generation of niggeratti strivers) with the street. Harrell was not necessarily an innovator; groups like Full Force (“Alice, I Want You Just for Me”) and The Force MDs (“Let Me Love You”) were already charting this territory. But Harrell had the genius to mass market this sound. Not surprisingly, Heavy D and the Boyz were one of the label’s first successes, the group’s “We Got Our Own Thing”, produced by Riley in 1989, became an anthem for the era of asymmetrical high-top fades, Africa medallions and pastel colors. But Uptown’s two signature acts, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, defined the Uptown sound and the possibilities of a true hip-hop and R&B hybrid.

 

Jodeci was comprised of two sets of brothers from North Carolina, Dalvin and Devante Degrate and K.C. and Jo Jo Hailey, who were the group’s primary vocalists. In many ways Jodeci was like a quartet of Bobby Browns, though none in the group possessed Brown’s charisma. Their deft command of harmonies was a throwback to the classic Soul-man era, with K.C. Hailey often doing his best imitation of Bobby Womack. Their debut, Forever My Lady (1991) featured popular hits such as “Stay”, “Come and Talk to Me” and the title track. What caught the attention of urban audiences was their gear—thugged out in baggy jeans and Timbaland boots (courtesy of budding fashion designer Sean Combs)—which helped Jodeci pioneer a sub-genre that I like to refer to as Thug Soul (Dave Hollister and Jaheim are the most successful converts). Though the group never achieved real mainstream appeal, Jodeci became the perfect counterweight to the popfectionary R&B of Boyz II Men during most of the 1990s.

 

It would be Jodeci’s female counterpart at Uptown, though, who would ultimately change the game, at once representing the best of R&B and facilitating its demise. Andre Harrell heard a demo of Mary J. Blige singing an Anita Baker tune, but was at a loss as to how to promote her. Blige’s big opportunity came when she recorded a song for Uptown’s soundtrack for the 1991 film Strictly Business. Though it was not released as a single, “You Remind Me” caught the attention of hip-hop DJs and soon found its way on the playlists of urban-radio programmers. With a hit record in hand, Uptown forged ahead with Blige’s debut What’s the 411? The success of the recording pivoted on the lead single, “Real Love”. Built around the rhythm track of Audio Two’s 1987 hip-hop classic “Top Billin’”, “Real Love” was the blueprint for what Combs would dub “hip-hop soul”—essentially the marriage of R&B vocals with hip-hop beats and samples, which by the end of the decade became the standard form of R&B production.

 

What separated Blige from her peers was that she tapped into the emotional core of a generation of music fans for whom loss and betrayal were always the first and foremost expectations, whether in love or public policy. Hence a song like “Real Love” resonated very powerfully, because it captured the hip-hop generation’s utter fixation with delineating “the real”, its existential quest for authenticity. Unlike the civil rights generation, which was often consumed with defending its legitimacy in the face of an all-too-present white gaze, the hip-hop generation rejected the significance of the white gaze, defining the real within the context of black community instead. What is at stake in this quest for the real is the very real possibility of rejection and censure from the community. It’s a product of the apprehensions and ambivalences associated with coming of age in an era where you are free to be whatever. And it was Blige’s vocals—ragged, displaced and aching—that summoned all of these emotions, as she struggled with the demons of betrayal and abuse in her own life. Blige quickly became known as hip-hop’s Aretha Franklin, not so much for her technical proficiency but her ability to speak for a generation, much the way Franklin spoke for the civil rights generation.

 

What hip-hop soul did was bring the production values of hip-hop to the R&B world. Combs is notable if only because he was best positioned to exploit this marriage. By the end of the 1990s others were doing it much more consistently: Timbaland (in his work with Aaliyah and Ginuwine), Chucky Thompson, Jermaine Dupri and even Dr. Dre, who produced one of Blige’s biggest hit singles, “Family Affair” (2001). The use of hip-hop production in R&B created a wider audience for hip-hop itself, something Combs quickly took advantage of with Craig Mack, the Notorious B.I.G. and Mase. While there were artists who had crossed over to the pop mainstream—Run-DMC, the Beasties, NWA and Hammer being the most notable—only after the success of hip-hop soul were popular hip-hop artists routinely expected to cross-over as well, as has been the case with Jay Z, Nas, DMX, Ja Rule, Eminem, Nelly, Ludacris, and the rest. Telling in this regard is the fact that R&B vocalist Ashanti’s breakthrough onto the upper tier of the pop charts, “Foolish”, featured a sample of the Notorious B.I.G.‘s “One More Chance (remix)” (itself built on a sample of DeBarge’s “Stay with Me”).

 

Despite the success of hip-hop soul and purveyors like Blige, Faith Evans and later Ashanti, the R&B world of the mid-1990s still allowed for the relatively old-school stylings of Gerald Levert, Brian McKnight, Keith Sweat and the so-called neo-soul movement, which was essentially R&B packaged in opposition to hip-hop soul and marketed to traditional R&B audiences tiring of hip-hop’s urban-radio hegemony. Ironically many neo-soul artists also relied on the sample-based production that hip-hop initially popularized (listen to Angie Stone’s “Sunshine” and D’Angelo’s “Send It On”, which sample Gladys Knight & the Pips and Kool & the Gang respectively). This moment in R&B would be short lived, as the massive consolidation within the music and radio industries would create the context where virtually all forms of urban music would began the pop-chart paper-chase in pursuit of the new queen: hip-hop.

On February 8, 1996, Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. At the same time Jay Z was preparing for the late-spring release of his debut, Reasonable Doubt, unaware that he and many other hip-hop acts were about to benefit from the atmosphere of deregulation and capital accumulation that the new law typified. Reasonable Doubt was released by Roc-A-Fella Records, an independent label founded by Carter, Karreim Biggs and Damon Dash. By 1998 Roc-A-Fella would enter into a joint equity deal with Def Jam, itself a former indie label, founded in 1984 by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin and later distributed by Sony and Polygram. When Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam agreed to partner, a 40 percent share of the latter was about to be sold to Polygram for $130 million. Shortly thereafter Polygram was bought by Seagram (yes, the liquor company), creating the Universal Music Group, which would later be acquired by the French company Vivendi. At the very moment that Vivendi/Universal (where Jay Z, 50 Cent, The Game and Eminem currently work) was unveiled, Clear Channel could claim ownership of more than 1,200 radio stations—247 of them in the top 250 national radio markets. Clear Channel’s emergence as the dominant force in commercial radio was directly related to the bill that Clinton signed into law in 1996. Confusing? Of course it is, but imagine how confusing it was—and still is—for your local up-and-coming R&B artist who can’t find a major label to sign her or a urban radio station that would play her music even if she did.

 

Arguably the most noticeable of the wide-ranging effects of the Telecommunications Act has been the Clear Channeling of America’s public airwaves. Prior to 1996 companies were constrained from owning more than two radio stations in any market and could own no more than 28 nationally. The logic behind this was simple: As the Broad Artist Coalition and the Future of Music Coalition argued in their joint letter to the FCC and Congress in 2002, “radio is a public asset, not private property…. The quid pro quo for free use of the public bandwidth requires that broadcast stations serve the public interest in their local communities.” While many radio stations do some form of public-affairs programming—usually in the early morning hours on the weekend—serving the public is broader than that. Part of the responsibility of any radio station is to support music that speaks to local tastes. This is one of the ways that local music scenes have developed and been nurtured in the past, whether it was Rhythm and Blues in the Midwest in the early 1960s (which produced Motown and Curtis Mayfield), the Philly Soul of Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff in the 1970s or hip-hop in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1980s.

 

In the aftermath of the Telecommunications Reform Act, the massive consolidation in radio has left fewer people making the decisions about what music will be played. The ten largest radio conglomerates in the U.S. control more than two thirds of the national radio audience, with Clear Channel and Viacom (which, incidentally, owns both MTV and BET) controlling more than 40 percent of that. That these conditions impact what music you hear on the radio and the ability of local groups to get on their local radio station goes without saying. In the past, for example, if a particular region had 20 radio stations, 20 different program directors (PDs) would likely decided what would be played. In the current environment playlist decisions are now in the hands of a smaller group of PDs, who often cede some of their decision making power to regional and national program directors. Furthermore, as the Future of Music Coalition noted in their 2002 report “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians”, in any given region, the concentration of ownership among a small number of conglomerates is even more intense. The Clear Channeling of radio has homogenized American radio. This is why urban stations in the major markets all sound the same.

 

The nationalizing of local radio has made it increasingly difficult for listeners in various locales to hold programmers accountable. One of the best examples of these struggles was the protest of New York City’s Hot 97 (WQHT-FM), after the station’s morning drive-time team performed a racially insensitive parody about the tsunami that destroyed portions of Indonesia and Africa. Though nationwide protest eventually forced the station’s parent company, Emmis, to fire a producer and a host at WQHT and to pledge $1 million in tsunami relief, the fact that the drive-time hosts felt comfortable enough to perform a bit that was so insensitive to its core audience in the first place speaks to the distance between the conglomerates that manage the stations and the communities they are supposed to serve. About the people who ultimately decide what’s heard on your local radio station, activist and journalist Davey D recently told Democracy Now, “we’ve got to know that these are 40 and 50-year-old men and women behind the scenes, calling the shots, deciding that at 7:00 at night, you can hear the Yin Yang Twins talking about ‘wait until you see mi d-i-c-k’ and that it’s not a problem.”

 

Along with radio consolidation has come the emergence of nationally syndicated morning drive-time programming (6:00 to 10:00 A.M. in most markets) geared toward African-American and other so-called urban audiences. Of these syndicated shows, the Tom Joyner Morning Show (TJMS) is best known. With a foothold in more than a hundred urban radio markets, the TJMS is potentially a formidable political force, as it can reach and unify listeners across the country. In its best moment, the TJMS is a digitized version of the chitlin’ circuit, the network of clubs, restaurants, hotels, dance halls and the like that were crucial components of black life and culture during the era of Jim Crow segregation. As African-Americans pushed for integrated social and cultural institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, the thinking was that the chitlin’ circuit would die off. But in the current era of niche marketing—which urban radio and R&B exemplify—the chitlin’ circuit survives not to unite to black audiences but to deliver advertisers access to a vibrant black middle class with disposable incomes.

 


Brian McKnight

Musically, the TJMS adheres to a standard “smooth R&B and classic Soul” format with no interest in breaking new R&B acts. Instead they have made even harder for local acts to break through. Nationally syndicated shows such as the TJMS or The Doug Banks Morning Show (on ABC Radio Networks), have made local drive-time personalities obsolete, thus denying many audiences the opportunity to have their local culture and music reflected during the drive-time hours, when listenership is at its peak. Despite being jettisoned from New York’s WRKS in early 2003, the TJMS cemented its domination of the urban market when Tom Joyner entered into a partnership with Cathy Hughes’s Radio One Corporation, the largest black-owned radio conglomerate.

 

Consolidation was not restricted to radio. In the late 1990s record-label consolidation also played its part in the demise of R&B. As Michael Roberts notes in his essay “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” label consolidation began in the late 1960s when WEA (Warner Brothers, Elecktra, Atlantic) became one of the first super labels (See Rhythm and Business). Motown Records, which the Harvard Report urged the Columbia Record Group not to purchase in 1972, was eventually sold to Polygram in the mid-1980s. The Columbia Records Group itself was purchased by Sony in 1988, at which point much of the popular music produced in the United States was controlled by what was referred to as the “big six”. With the merger of Seagram’s music holdings with Polygram in 1998 and the recent annexation of Sony music by BMG (Sony BMG Music Entertainment), six has become four. With the recording industry is dominated by four transnational conglomerates, fewer people make development and production decisions and fewer staff the A&R (artist and repertoire) departments responsible for signing new talent.

 

Because R&B had lost market share to hip-hop in the late 1990s and because new R&B was neglected due to the programming logic of “classic Soul and smooth R&B” formats, R&B became viewed as a retrograde genre. While undiscovered Soul and R&B artists suffered under consolidation, hip-hop has benefited. Forms of hip-hop thought to be regional as little as 10 years ago thrived in the new media landscape. The perception among both the record labels and radio programmers is that this older audience is unwilling to support contemporary R&B music to the extent that younger urban and crossover audiences support hip-hop (the success of “classic Soul and R&B” tours of course suggest otherwise). Even those acts perceived to have commercial potential among traditional R&B audiences—I’m thinking specifically of the Philly Neo-Soul scene that produced Musiq, India.Arie, Jill Scott, Bilal, Res, Kindred, Jaguar Wright, Amel Larrieux and Floetry—we’re marketed as throwback performers, whose proclivities for so called positivity were construed as an aesthetic value. Regardless of the critical acclaim that Neo-Soul (organic R&B) received, major labels and urban radio never thought it anything but a niche market. Of course, such top-tier stars of R&B as Mary J. Blige, Usher, and Mariah Carey (no longer marketed as a pop act) held their own in the marketplace, often trading creativity for familiarity, rehashing the production styles that first made them popular or acquiescing to the allure of hip-hop-style production in an attempt to remain relevant to younger urban audiences.

 

One would be hard pressed to think of an R&B artist, established or otherwise, that has received the kind of promotional support that 50 Cent or The Game received for their major label debuts. One recent exception might be Alicia Keys, though a fair amount of her initial success must be chalked up to Clive Davis’s bag of tricks—this is the man who helped established a little known teenage singer from New Jersey, Whitney Houston, as the best selling female vocalist of the last generation. And such artists as Ashanti, Ciara and John Legend weren’t necessarily promoted on their own merit but on the merit of their hip-hop benefactors. Lacking strong promotional support, many established R&B acts have little incentive to push the envelope on their recordings. The career trajectories of Gerald Levert and Brian McKnight are instructive. Though these two are easily the most consistent artists in contemporary R&B, their recent recordings rarely break from the formula that helped establish them more than a decade ago (Levert’s Do I Speak for the World? might be the exception). Their respective labels value such an approach because when peddling a known commodity McKnight and Levert can regularly move 500,000 units without any real promotional support.

 

Meanwhile consolidation allowed hip-hop to leverage its growing commercial power. As major labels began to seek out regional hip-hop groups to sign—much like the imperial powers of the past seeking to annex new lands (and resources) to their empires—it created the context where these groups could quickly and easily gain a national audience once they were added to the playlists of the urban stations of the major radio conglomerates (and video channels). The damn-near-hegemony of crunk in 2005 is probably the best example of this process. Crunk is not a new phenomenon—can anybody say MC Shy-D?—but the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 allowed for the regional Southern sound to be heard in places like Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and other locales far-removed from the “dirty, dirty.”

 


Gerald Levert

But aspiring R&B artists have been challenged by what the Future Music Coalition calls the “twin bottleneck” effect. Basically, with intense consolidation in both the recording industry and commercial radio, artists are squeezed out of a hearing at both the labels and radio stations. While independent labels remain an option for artists, the reality is that the four major label conglomerates—the four industry gatekeepers—are responsible for more than 80 percent of what makes it on commercial radio play lists. As the Future of Music Coalition explains, “Major record labels have large promotional budgets. Because the promotional money is there, radio companies have an incentive to make access to the airwaves more scarce, and thus more expensive” (my emphasis). And of course, among the major-label conglomerates, the competition for the airwaves is fierce, as airplay directly affects sales.

 

What strategies can a label employ to guarantee that their artists will receive the kind of airplay that they deserve? In the early days of rock and roll, the practice of payola was critical for up-and-coming labels trying to get the attention of DJs, who at the time were primarily responsible for what was played on the radio. For example, there is a subtle scene in the recent film Ray, where Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records passes cash on to a DJ to get him to play Ray Charles’s breakthrough crossover hit “I Got a Woman”. But paying DJs to play certain records has been illegal since the early 1960s, when Cleveland-based DJ Alan Freed was indicted on charges of bribery.

 

As program directors replaced DJs as the primary gatekeepers of radio playlists, forms of payola have become more elaborate and covert (See Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men). In fact there were two notable forms of payola, that while highly suspect, were legal. One was the practice of using “independent” promoters to interact with radio programmers (thus obscured the possibility that labels are directly paying stations) and the other was that of “paid spins”, where songs for a particular label are played as part of an advertisement spot. The latter is perfectly legal, as long as its disclosed that the spot is paid for by said label. The case of independent promoters received much of the attention in investigations of illegal payola, simply because of the huge amount of money exchanged between labels, promoters and radio stations to guarantee that certain records regular airplay. According to Eric Boehlert, in the latest of his on-going articles on commercial radio at Salon.com, the practice of paying independent promoters cost labels as a group as much as $150 million annually. In this environment, virtually everything that appears on a station’s playlist has been paid for in one form or another.

 

Most radio programmers retreated from using independent promoters when Representative Russ Feingold and others in Congress, and most recently New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, began to raise questions about the process. (The same retreat occurred in the mid-1980s when Rudy Guliani, then an U.S. Attorney, and Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, announced payola probes). Though Boehlert can boldly claim that payola, in its most recent incarnation, is “dead”, he has also acknowledged that urban radio is the “Wild, Wild, West” of the record industry. Indeed, Cedric Muhammed of Blackelectorate.com, asserts that in the recent past DJs at Radio One, for example, have been “admonished” for playing music that is not on the station’s playlist and in some cases “terminated” if a non-playlist song is played five or more times. R&B artists who don’t appeal to younger urban/hip-hop audiences are already at a disadvantage at the major labels, and even those aligned with independent labels who do support them, like, say, Hidden Beach, home to Jill Scott, Lina and Kindred the Family Soul, are further disadvantaged because commercial radio is governed by how much one is willing to pay to get tunes on the air. While it’s easy to suggest that audiences have the power to demand music that they would like to hear, the reality is that an audience must first know alternatives exist. And mainstream commercial radio remains the place where most listeners become aware of new music.

 

The current radio and label consolidation, along with the emergence of hip-hop as the dominant cross-over genre and the perceived aging of traditional R&B audiences, has created the situation where the best R&B being recorded is simply not heard by the audience that would be attracted to it. Satellite Radio has been one of the places where new R&B can be heard, but the format’s overall audience is still paltry when compared to that of commercial radio. The alleged death of payola suggests that at the moment, at least, there exists the possibility for a more diverse range of music to hit the commercial airwaves, but even Boehlert laments that “tight radio playlists are unlikely to improve anytime soon”, in part because programmers “will rely more and more on proven hits singles as well as older, already familiar songs, leaving less airtime for new acts.” Ultimately, the current state of contemporary R&B has little to do with the mediocrity of R&B’s status quo—there is great music to be heard—but unless mainstream labels create conditions in which emerging R&B artists can be nurtured, without the pressure to cross-over to urban youth audiences, and audiences themselves become more vigilant about seeking out and supporting new music, much of R&B’s current greatness will fall on deaf ears.

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