The Evolution of Soul Music

Remember When. Do you remember way back in the day when singers actually sang? Tales of heartache, heartbreak, love gained, and love lost were what ruled the airwaves. No matter the subject, these were songs that were REAL. You could tell from the opening lyrics of a song that this was obviously a singer who knew what he/she was singing about because they had been there before….You know what I’m talking about! I’m talking about Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Smokey Robinson, and quite a few others. When they sang…you listened, because you believed every soulful note, every lyric that was emerging from their lips. That’s what made the sound so appealing. You couldn’t help but to listen because there was a song that accurately matched any and every situation that you might be going through with your significant other.

The 70’s ushered in the next phase in Soul Music, with acts like The Spinners, The Delfonics, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and The O’Jays. These were acts that were mostly from inner cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia who made their mark on soul music with compelling harmonies and grooves that mirrored a generation. The 70’s ushered in an era where soul artists began to sing about the plight of the inner city; something many of the listeners could relate to. Listen to a masterpiece such as Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking 1971 album, What’s Going On. This album addressed many of the social and political issues of the day. At the time, Motown did not want to release a “message” album because it veered too far away from their more Pop/R&B- oriented sound. It was only at the insistence of Gaye himself that the album got released and eventually became one of the biggest selling albums of 70’s era Motown. However, no soul blog would be complete without officially mentioning the contributions of Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” double LP. Released in 1976, it was the culmination of everything we had heard from Stevie up until that point. It was the product of sound experimentation; of a lifetime’s achievements and losses; and of a message of social change. And just think that this enormous body of creativity and inspiration came out of someone whom by this point, hadn’t even reached the age of 30 yet.

Meanwhile, on the east coast, Philly International was the dominant force in popular soul music. Headed by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Philly International cranked out some of the most significant singles/albums of the day, such as “I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners, “Sideshow” by Blue Magic, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” by The Delfonics, and countless others. As the decade progressed, the influence of disco became the next wave in popular music- which forced many of the era’s soul artists to either change with the times, or fade out completely. Very few 70’s-soul artists were able to stay relevant as the 80’s ushered in. This perhaps explains why there were so many popular songs from the disco era that no one really knew the singers of; because they didn’t have much success after their one hit. That was just the carefree nature of the disco era- to live in the moment, have a good time while you’re at the club, and not worry about tomorrow. This only lasted for so long, before the rebellions such as Hip Hop and Punk Music was born, which completely went against everything that disco stood for.
The 80’s & 90’s seemed to veer away from Soul Music, and ventured more into Pop/R&B territory. With the popularity of Hip Hop stemming from the late 70’s onward, a new type of real was being born. It was the sound of the streets; the voice of a new generation that obviously had something to say and an outlet to express it. Even though older folks disliked Hip Hop and what it represented, it was the same urban vibe that drew those same listeners to Soul music in the 60’s & 70’s. Hip-Hop artists, many of which were still in, or barely out of high school themselves, were a generation that was heavily influenced by the soul music of their parents. James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, was recognized early on as “the most sampled artist in Hip-Hop.” In a sense, this was the new generation’s way of paying homage to the generation before it, even though the members of the older generation didn’t see it that way. Going even further, unlike any sound before it, Hip Hop was not just a style of music- it was a culture unto its own self. This culture was expressed not only in the music itself, but in the popular dance craze, known as break dancing, in the beat-boxing, and even in the graffiti on the streets. While many observes thought that Hip-Hop was just a passing craze- a fad that would not last, it has managed to undergo several different transformations over the years, going from what started out in a house party in the Bronx on 1520 Sedgwick Ave- culminating in the most popular sound of American music today.

The early 2000’s ushered in a sound that seemed to go back to basics. Many listeners (myself included) grew tired of hearing the same commercialized, manufactured music, and instead wanted to hear songs with depth and meaning. At the time, early 90’s acts like R-Kelly and Silk began to take popular R&B in a different direction, talking less about love and more about just sex. Enter: the refreshing change that was Neo- Soul. What started in the mid-late 90’s with acts like Tony, Toni, Tone, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Maxwell evolved into an art form that much resembled that of its 70’s predecessors. The term Neo-Soul, coined by Motown Records Executive, Kedar Massenburg described the sound of classic soul, presented with a modern twist- in essence, the new-wave of soul music. What makes Neo-Soul so different from its competition is in its pure unabashed, unapologetic honesty. Most of the artists are singer-songwriters in their own right, so what you’re hearing is not the words of some unknown songwriter that you’ve never heard of- it is in fact, the trials and tribulations of the artists themselves. The year 2001 ushered the biggest albums to-date of the Neo-Soul era, such as Alicia Keys, Songs in A Minor, India Arie’s, Acoustic Soul, Musiq Soulchild’s, Aijuswanaseing, and Jill Scott’s, Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1. In addition, more indie-acclaimed Hip-Hop began to become recognized with Neo-Soul. Artists such as Common, Mos Def, and The Roots began to collaborate and form partnerships with many of the Neo-Soul pioneers. As the decade progressed, and the music scene changed once again, more commercialized R&B and Hip-Hop became more of a dominant force in popular music. The industry didn’t really know what to do with many of these talented, yet uncompromising artists, which resulted in many of their albums being delayed or shelved completely, due to lack of funding and promotion.

So I ask: What happened to Soul Music? How did the industry get to be so commercialized, so generic, that it no longer focuses on heartfelt, meaningful music? I mean this is the type of music that has stood the test of time because so many people can connect to it, and yet what currently sells in the music industry is nothing more than music made for the club or a one-night stand; or both. So where is the realness in music anymore? I’ll tell you where it is. It is in the sound of the streets amongst the indie artists; it is across the pond in England, where singers such as Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and Adele have ushered in “The New British Invasion” in popular music; it is in the music that you don’t hear as often because it doesn’t fit a certain mold that the industry deems as “marketable.” But who really are music executives to tell the listeners what and what not to listen to. The moral of the story is to let your own ears, not the industry, decide what is popular and what you need to be listening to. Decide for yourself. That’s what good music is all about. It is meant to invoke emotion, foster creativity and self-expression, and speak for the masses of unheard voices, wanting to bring about change. Don’t let your ears deceive you into thinking otherwise.

And don’t forget to check out my good friend Raymond Tyler’s blogs on all things music, culture, and entertainment related. They are:

The Little Wellness Arts and Cultural Center-

The Musician and Entertainment Report-

Until next time……

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