During the ’60s, African American activists argued that R&B and soul artists deserved more creative control, not to mention a larger share of the financial rewards of success. Over the last three decades, the music business has changed drastically, in many ways for the better. Today, more black artists are thriving producers and entrepreneurs than ever before.
That said, there’s one still essential element frequently missing from the equation: vision. From the various members of the Wu Tang Clan to The Artist Formerly Known as Prince to Puffy Combs to Jermaine Dupree, never have more records been released bearing the words ”produced, arranged, written, and performed by.“ Too often, though, these releases lack substance, thematic coherence, and even imagination. That’s not to downplay the important role these artists play in the music industry, but this year overwhelmingly reaffirmed that total power in the right hands is indeed empowering (Lauryn Hill) while in the wrong hands it’s frightening (Master P).
In 1998, hip-hop and urban contemporary acts were trend-setters and headline makers; Madison Avenue placed rap rhymes alongside vintage soul in TV commercials. The comings and goings of SWV and Mariah Carey were profiled in gossip rags and People magazine, while hip-hop and urban contemporary singles consistently dominated the pop Top 10.
The influence of post-soul African American pop is so thorough that it has arguably replaced jazz and blues as a dominant world-music influence. Artists from Tom Ze to Compay Segundo to Angelique Kidjo to Ernest Ranglin all produced lively, arresting records that reflected ’70s soul, funk, hip-hop, and urban textures.
Meanwhile, critics and some segments of the African American audience continue to attack urban and hip-hop music for the wrong reasons. It’s sad to see so many vintage R&B lovers dismiss a solid vocalist like Keith Washington because he’s not Al Green or James Brown. A People magazine writer trashed Dru Hill for not sounding like Little Richardas though what Little Richard’s singing now compares favorably with ”Long Tall Sally“ or ”Tutti Frutti.“ Similar complaints were lodged by the reggae hardcore and by soca purists as well.
There were times in ’98 when it seemed that rapperseven gifted verbal improvisers like DMX, Canibus, or Method Manwere more interested in describing their sexual potency or dissing each other than in addressing social ills. Urban contemporary radio overdosed on overproduced ballads and gushy love songs, while cultural issues didn’t much inform Caribbean, African, and Latin music.
Still, there are too many wonderful records being made today for anyone to be content living in the past. This year, enough exemplary albums and singles were issued to satisfy even the toughest consumer, so long as that individual is cognizant of ’90s realities.
Locally, Nashville’s urban, hip-hop, and international communities kept growing and fighting the widely held notion nothing happens here except country. Aashid Himons and Utopia State made noteworthy records, while monthly revue The Spot provided a vibrant onstage forum for both words and music.
Even as commercial radio remained a creative graveyard, Vanderbilt’s WRVU-91.1FM broadcast everything from superb soul to street-level hip-hop to seldom-heard international sounds. Even if Fisk’s vibrant station was dormant for much of the year, it’s now poised to find its way back on the air in ’99. And since 92Q enjoyed ratings success this year, we can only hope that the station will allow more on-air time for deserving local artists.
The following are my favorite discs and singles from ’98 covering urban, hip-hop, film soundtracks, and international music.
1. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse) An epic work characterized by superb singing, inspired production, and compositions that synthesize a lifetime of cultural influences. Regrettably, conflicts between Hill and her Fugees comrades Wyclef Jean and Pras threaten to take the spotlight off her achievement.
2. Ernest Ranglin, In search of the lost riddim (Palm) Jamaica’s greatest living session guitarist makes the connection between the Caribbean, Africa, and America with style and zest.
3. Angelique Kidjo, Oremi (Island) The definitive, genre-busting record Miriam Makeba or Manu Dibango could have made if they’d ever encountered the right situation in the ’60s or ’70s.
4. Maxwell, Embrya (Columbia) Until the next D’Angelo record, Maxwell rules as the decade’s most imaginative funk-cum-whatever artist.
5. Gary Burton, Astor Piazzolla Reunion (Concord) Though first and foremost a jazz stylist, Burton has showed on several occasions that he can move outside the realm with ease, as he does here. The tango master would undoubtedly have been pleased, both by Burton’s solos and by the sweeping arrangements underneath.
6. Public Enemy, He Got Game soundtrack (Columbia) Spike Lee’s basketball movie didn’t excite too many people, but the sizzling Public Enemy soundtrack (one of two for the film) reminded everyone what a compelling orator Chuck D. can be when he nixes the clichés and pumps up the volume.
7. Goodie Mob, Still Standing (La Face) Southern hip-hop exploded in ’98, and the Goodie Mob were the victors, edging out OutKast’s fiery taunts and Master P.’s insufferable grunts.
8. Various Artists, How Stella Got Her Groove Back soundtrack (MCA) The film was disposable, the music wonderful. From intriguing collaborations such as Stevie Wonder and Wyclef Jean to Diana King’s sultry ”Make My Body Hot,“ the songsand Angela Bassetmade an otherwise dreary movie tolerable.
9. Compay Segundo, Lo Mejor de la Vida (Nonesuch) Even if your Spanish doesn’t extend beyond ”buenos dias,“ only those without heart could fail to be hypnotized by the buoyant vocals and delightful playing on this showcase work. Segundo’s disgraceful obscurity can be tied directly to outdated international politics.
10. Various Artists, This Is Soca: 15 Massive Carnival Hits (Music Club) Perhaps in the 21st century soca will make the leap into the American consciousness that reggae did in the early ’70s; until then, yearly anthologies like this invaluable collection must suffice.
11. Will Smith, ”Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It“ (Columbia) Hip-hop’s best pop stylist and actor, Smith crafts excellent of-the-moment ditties that nicely reflect rap’s spirit without resorting to vulgarity or excessive production gloss. But someone should tell him to cut back on the pompous interviews.
12. LSG, ”Your Body“ (Elektra) It seemed impossible that the teaming of Gerald Levert, Keith Sweat, and Johnny Gill could fail to deliver the goods. Ultimately, though, only this single clicked.
13. tie: Sparkle, ”Be Careful“ (Interscope)/Kelly Price, ”Friend of Mine“ (Island) Essentially two different riffs on the same subject. Sparkle’s admonitions to a clueless lover were more chilling than Price’s denials of cheating.
15. Brandy, ”The Boy Is Mine“ (Atlantic)/Monica, ”The Boy Is Mine“ (Arista) A rivalry that’s not a rivalry, according to the principals. These two singers made pop noise with a song each claimed didn’t depict how they’d act in a similar situation.
1. Marvin Gaye, Midnight Love & The Sexual Healing Sessions (Legacy) Gaye was nearing the end when he made these cuts, but that wondrous falsetto hadn’t lost any punch. He was also moving into new fieldswitness the reggae version of ”Third World Girl,“ one of many unreleased gems on this two-disc set.
2. Astor Piazzolla, Zero Tango Hour (Pangaea) The one album to get if you’ve got any doubts about tango’s romantic allure. Piazzolla forever silenced his Latin American detractors when this masterpiece was initially issued; the reissue’s 20-bit technology is like putting more blue in the sky.
3. Bob Marley, The Complete Wailers 1967-1968, Parts I & II (Jad/Koch) The complete nine-volume set has long been available in France, but this year American fans finally got the first two three-disc installments. Those who only know Marley’s later work might blanch at the master seeking soul hits and covering gospel tunes, but as is true of all great performers, his scope sometimes surpassed that of his audience.
4. Ray Charles, The Complete Country-Western Recordings (Rhino) It’s been beaten to death, but here’s the spiel one more time: Yes, African Americans also sing country. These still amazing songs confirm not only that reality, but also Charles’ eclectic mastery.
5. Various Artists, Disco Ball (Rhino) Having completely dismissed disco during its heyday, revisionists in the rock press are now racing to cover their tracks. This comprehensive multi-disc set chronicles both the genre’s greats (Chic, KC & the Sunshine Band) and its hacks (Silver Convention).
6. Culture, Production Something (Heartbeat) Reggae’s premier trio were never more anthemic than in the ’70s, and this reissue combines vocals and dubs while framing Joseph Hill’s alternately defiant and appealing leads.
7. Various, Soul Barbecue (Rhino) After unleashing a massive soul collection last year, the nation’s best reissue label offers another shot of powerhouse soul hits.
8. The Dells, Oh! What a Night! The Great Ballads (MCA) Lead singer Marvin Jr.’s rambunctious leads helped transform a good doo-wop ensemble into a great soul group, surpassed only by The Temptations and maybe The Four Tops.
9. Horace Andy, Mr. Bassie (Heartbeat) Andy is another in a slew of underrated reggae artists, although this set of Studio One classics may help change that.
10. Various Artists, Funk Millennium Party (Rhino) Nothing obscure or rare, just body-bumping ’70s classics from The Commodores, Kool & the Gang, et al. that signaled a changing of the R&B guard.
A trio of thoroughly researched, frequently prickly books topped the year’s reading list. Nelson George’s eagerly anticipated Hiphop America (Viking) proved worth the wait. As usual, he covered every possible angle, including looks at style and clothing as well as hip-hop’s links to basketball and language. He neither excused the ugly (sexism, vulgarity, idolatry of drug dealers and pimps), nor neglected the worthy (verbal facility, poetic imagination, historical consciousness).
The dean of rock critics, Robert Christgau, demonstrated in Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists From Vaudeville to Techno (Harvard) that he’s unmatched among his comrades in eclectic interests and broad knowledge. Even if you disagree with him (which in my case was often) or don’t share his interests (punk, metal, industrial), you can’t stop reading his work once you start.
Ronin Ro stepped inside a nightmare and detailed it with aplomb in Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records (Doubleday). Should Suge Knight be released from jail, it will be quite interesting to see what happens to several individuals whose lives Ro relentlessly chronicled.
Other noteworthy volumes: Larry Nager, Memphis Beat (St. Martin’s); Liz Jones, Purple Reign: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (Birch Lane); Mikal Gilmore, Night Beat (Doubleday); Gene Santoro, Stir It Up (Oxford); Michael Tisserand, The Kingdom of Zydeco (Meade); Tom Schnabel, Rhythm Planet (Universe); Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm & Blues, Black Consciousness & Race Relations (California); James Dickerson, Women on Top (Billboard); and David A. Jansen & Gene Jones, Spreading Rhythm Around: Black Songwriters, 1880-1930 (Schirmer).
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Wonderful! We're hoping Knoxville puts something like this together, too. It's a fantastic concept!!