Duckwrth Duckwrth
VIBE/ Stacy-Ann Ellis

NEXT: Meet Duckwrth, The Kid Bringing The Funk Back To Hip-Hop

The Cali-bred artist is giving the music game a little bit of color and a lot of funk.

The feeling you get when you hear that one song that instantly rises to the top of your most played list can be summed up to one, simple facial expression. It's the constipated frown that turns your face into a temporary state of "ugliness." You know, the expression you get when your favorite track comes on and the beat is so crazy you have to cut up. It's in that moment that you're so overwhelmed with happiness on the inside that you can't help but hit the stank face externally. That's the power of music. Unfortunately, aside from a few hits here and there, that type of fulfillment is lacking. But rapper Duckwrth plans to bring that and the funk back to the industry.

Duckwrth strolls into the VIBE headquarters with an entourage of two, visibly less than other rappers who have graced these wooden floors. He's seemingly soft-spoken, which is pretty interesting considering his his loud fashion sense, which includes a pair of leopard-printed pants (he stitched the patches on himself), tattered boots and a safety pin for an earring.

In a matter of minutes of sitting with him in a glass-enclosed conference room, you can tell that Duckwrth carries that same contradiction that comes with hearing your favorite jam. On the outside, he looks like this rebellious misfit, who could be a tad antisocial. But although his story includes many nights in his own bubble, he tells it with a fun-loving, energetic spirit that is nothing short of infectious.

Duckwrth, born Jared Lee in South Central, California, was fenced in by gang bangers and the hustle of the West Coast in the 90s. At the time, Snoop Dogg and Tupac were reigning over the radio stations. And while Pac often sprinkled in messages of black empowerment and consciousness, it wasn't enough to sneak past the Pentecostal Christian censorship of his mother. "She pretty much didn’t want me to be involved in what was going on," Duckwrth says of his mother's child-rearing. "A lot of the music was Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Eazy-E and DJ Quick. All she heard was gangsta sh** because we was in South Central. She didn’t want me doing drugs, having sex and gang banging."

He describes the adversity surrounding his home as opposite of his own upbringing, with some of his homies grew up in a house of gang bangers. Other kids he went to elementary and high school with were affiliated with gang-related activity—a situation that almost got him in trouble one day in junior high when he was thought to have called a Blood "a slob" (a blatant insult to the gang). So as a way to escape the madness, the rapper often barricaded himself in the house, building up an X-Men fantasy as a fortress from reality. His only break from Wolverine, Storm and Rogue, came when he listened to the forbidden sounds of hip-hop and rap booming from his sister's room when he was thirteen.

"When [my sister] would leave to do what she was doing, I would raid her room and find all her CDs and just start playing them," he remembers fondly. His sister seemed to have good taste though, putting him on to Ahmad's 1994 jam, "Back In The Day," The Roots and "B.O.B." by Outkast. "Those were the first songs that I remembered hearing, but I didn’t know who they were or what they were about. Some of the lyrics stayed in my brain," the rapper says. It may seem a bit peculiar that he hadn't heard a lick of hip-hop's driving forces, but up until that point he had only listened to classical music, gospel and a pinch of reggae (thanks to his dad). Actually, Jerry's first recollection of music was Phantom of the Opera, with other influences from Nina Simone, Bach, Mozart, Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix trailing close behind.

Although unconventional in the typical rapper narrative, it's that story of navigating his classical and gospel upbringing while digging into the thriving sounds of hip-hop that helped him find his own aesthetic. He's hesitant at first, but he thanks his mom for that. "My mom, she knew what she was doing. There’s definitely certain parts of it that I would've liked to have known earlier, but it kind of made me the person I am today," he confesses. "I naturally didn’t fit in. Even if I tried to, it didn’t click. I still have that detachment, but I don’t mind because I can go to any ethnicity [or] group and be able to speak their language and vibe with them versus my homies who may be limited."

And all praises to his social disengagement because it's that awkwardness and odd-ball quality that makes it possible to coin his own sound. "I call it funk wave or psych rap. Funk wave because I try to give that experience that makes people respond to it. Not everything I’m doing is funk, but within funk there’s this deep spirit in your stomach and your chest [when] your head starts rocking and your face gets all ugly," he explains. "And psych rap because I really like those ambient, psychedelic sounds." While the sound is his own, Duckwrth wishes to continue the blood line of idiosyncratic music that was pioneered by N.E.R.D, Outkast and punk band, Pink Floyd. And to say the least, he's definitely doing the family lineage justice.

His singles like "Do You Mind," speak to those 70s psychedelic waves, and his newest, dual tracks "Rare Panther + Beach House" bring out the rhythmic and danceable quality of funk. These defining singles are an introduction to his forthcoming project, I'M UUGLY. But it's more than just a title.

Duckwrth paints an image of his hour and a half commute to the studio in Hollywood as a map to how he came up with the title for his forthcoming album. The rapper illustrates 12-hour days in the studio, recording and collaborating with other impressive talents like Wale, Wiz Khalifa and Travis Scott, who were merely down the hall from him. That experience, he recalls, is crazy but as soon as he wrapped for the day, he's back on the bus to South Central, which is nothing like pow-wowing with rap's elite.  "I’m hopping on the bus at 1 o’clock in the morning for an hour and a half trip. And as you go from Hollywood to South Central, the areas starts to change; the people that are hopping on the bus start to change," he explains. "It just gets grimier and grimier. It’s a quick reminder of reality. It kind of gave me this realization that a lot of sh** ain’t pretty."

And while Duckwrth may have some of the charm of being an artist, he admits his lifestyle isn't entirely pimped out and dripped in gold. "I’m not driving a Lamborghini or flexing. My music is my flex; my livelihood. I’m still up and coming. But within that, I’m going to make it beautiful as f**k," the rapper says. And that's exactly what I'M UUGLY is conceptually. "[I'M UUGLY is] painting this scene of euphoria while everything is still ugly around us. It’s kind of saying that’s not the end all to be all." Sonically speaking, he says that type of elation on the album can only be represented by that same funky expression that arises every time you hear a sick beat.

But while his current up and coming lifestyle doesn't come without hints of grime and ugliness, it definitely has it's beautiful moments. Probably the most radiant of them all would be hopping on tour with standout talent Anderson .Paak on the Malibu Tour. As Duckwrth delves into what touring was like, you can tell it was one of his greatest highlights. Some of the partygoers might've came to see Anderson, but they left with a newfound obsession for Duckwrth. And that's because of his competitive drive that made him want to be more than just an opener. But while the "Milk n' Honey" singer may have put him on to the rock n' roll type lifestyle (he recalls one wild night in a hotel room full of naked groupies swinging from ceiling pipes), .Paak also put him onto a couple of lessons to hone his craft. When all the groupies left and the ear-piercing noise of a wild crowd died down, Anderson told him, "You can make songs, but it’s about the records." "He said, 'I want to die and be reborn by your music. It’s about the records.'" He laughs, remembering how he played Anderson some of the tracks that he put so much effort into creating, but his mentor was still not all the way impressed. "He’s like, 'the drums can come up; that can be a little better. You cool bruh, but you still got some more work to do.' I needed that in my life. He’s like a older brother."

Duckwrth won't have to worry too much about making the hits, however his music will speak for itself. But remember, I'M UUGLY is more than an album, it's an all-around feeling, a state of being. It extends into everything Duckwrth does. His dress code is a testament to that. The rapper dares to be different, mixing androgynous styles sort of like his colleagues, Young Thug and Jaden Smith. His Instagram account floods his feed with vibrant patterns and even a skirt, which he notes just seemed cool. While it might be on trend and even iconic to double-dutch on the lines of gender norms, he says his initial intention was never to break boundaries; he's just doing what moves him in the moment. "I'm not trying to be revolutionary. I'm just trying to do what feels right," he admits. "I appreciate Frank [Ocean] in his ["Nikes"] video. He was on some David Bowie sh**. That was dope. I appreciate Jaden Smith and Young Thug because they're not dressing to impress. They're dressing because it feels good, and that's how people should do it. So if it's breaking boundaries, so be it. If it makes you feel right as a person, then that's what it is. "

The conversation is nearing an end, and while he doesn't have much more to say about the music, he cracks open his journal full of doodles and sketches. As he quickly flips through the tattered book, showcasing each sketch more breathtaking than the first one, he reveals that he has drawn all the singles art for his forthcoming project. It's been over forty-five minutes, and it's too late to go into a whole other story about his other artistic abilities, but it's pretty clear he has a lot more to offer. As he shuts his book, loose pages flying out, he hints that he'll be around to tell that part of his story another day. But for now, his first offering I'M UUGLY will serve plenty.

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TV show creator Norman Lear at home, February 27, 1984 in Los Angeles, California.
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How Norman Lear’s Historic Black Sitcoms Changed American Television

On Tuesday night, May 22nd, ABC is celebrating TV creator and producer Norman Lear with  Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, a live remake of his two most iconic shows. Lear and his partner Bud Yorkin were the primary drivers in moving television sitcoms from the idealistic representations of husbands and wives sleeping in separate twin beds in the 1960s to a realistic depiction of America in the 1970s.

One of the successful runs in sitcom history began with a show about a bigoted, curmudgeonly white man named Archie Bunker. With All in the Family, Lear built a TV world that reflected the real world - especially the ugly and uncomfortable parts – for the first time. With a laugh track, Lear’s shows were the first to address abortion, menopause, politics and anti-war sentiments. The first to prominently feature an interracial married couple, the first to feature a transsexual character, and the first to make topics of race and class – “liberal” issues – the driving storylines on TV. Most importantly, Lear was the first creator/producer to center the black family and black stories on television, giving white viewers some of their first insights into the challenges – but more importantly the normalcy – of black families.

In advance of tonight’s special, we look at the two very different black family portraits Lear created for the world, why they were important, and where they fell short.

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Good Times (1974 - 1979)

Good Times evolved from Lear’s realization that black people needed to be visible beyond the service and sidekick roles they usually occupied on television. The producer developed a backstory for Florida Evans, the maid for Bea Arthur’s Maude, so viewers would realize she had an existence outside of her service to white folks. “You’re seeing a different side of (Florida),” Esther Rolle said to Ebony about her character’s development. “What I do in my madam’s house is a façade; what I do at home is me.”

When John Amos was introduced as Florida’s husband (then named Henry), he and Rolle were so compelling together that CBS asked Lear to give them a spin-off.

Mike Evans, the first Lionel Jefferson (aka Light Skin Lionel, aka the Lionel that can actually act, aka the fine Lionel) had expressed an interest in writing to Lear (giving cast members shots to grow outside of their roles is a recurring theme with the producer), so Lear gave Evans and writer Eric Monte (Cooley High) a crack at the series.

Monte and Evans placed the Evans family in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects and along with Lear established three rules for the show: the Evans would never go on welfare; they would face the “reality of their world,” which in 1970s Chicago included gang violence, crime, financial challenges, and a pimp named Sweet Daddy; and despite anything the family faced, the Evans children would get an education.

The parameters the creators put in place were key as everyone knew they were breaking new ground: the Evans were the first black two-parent family on television.

The overprotective stay-at-home matriarch, three-job-working, strict disciplinarian patriarch, creative if flighty eldest trying to figure out his path, studious and straight-arrow daughter, and super-bright, politically aware and socially conscious youngest son weren’t unlike the make-up of any other American family, which was intentional.

But their problems were unique to any other family on TV, like trying to keep their son out of a gang in Southside Chicago.

“They were representing their entire race, who had never, ever been represented before,” Lear explained in his autobiography. “And I realized shortly into rehearsal, just from questions and conversations and body language and everything else, just how much weight was on them.”

The show, which Ebony called “…the best effort to date at showing a real slice of ghetto black life,” was a hit – and not just with black viewers. The audience was 60% white, and the pressure for positive representation was real. Lear’s unflinching commitment to real storylines produced episodes, not just about the challenges of living somewhere between working class and the working poor, like a neighbor eating dog food; but also ableism, age discrimination in the workforce, and child abuse (hi, young Janet Jackson). And conversations that are still hot topics forty years later, including racial bias in standardized testing and preventative health for black men (turns out, James was always mad because he had hypertension).

The challenges of balancing realism and comedy without playing into tropes and stereotypes kept the sitcom from reaching its full potential. That weight the adult cast felt caused tension with the creative team by the end of the first season. Rolle started pushing back on some story ideas and dialogue, including an episode where 16-year old Thelma is pressured to sleep with her older boyfriend. Rolle wouldn’t even review the script, telling Lear, “The last thing we want to deal with on this show is teenage sex… It is morally wrong, let’s not even discuss it.” Lear ultimately won that battle. Over time, the biggest conflict came from increased centering on J.J.’s “dy-no-mite”-punctuated antics and borderline buffoonery.

Amos and Rolle weren’t having it. “They chose to go for the obvious and the comedic...It started to dissipate into something I wasn’t terribly proud of.” Amos later said. He felt like the show was doing the other characters a disservice, saying, “’You guys don’t really matter. We’re more interested in seeing J.J. with a chicken hat on.’

”Rolle was more direct in her critique, “(J.J.)’s 18 and he doesn’t work, He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think,” she complained in an interview. “…they have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”

Jimmy Walker – who wasn’t close with anyone in the cast – responded in the same interview, “I play the way I see it for the humor of it. I don’t think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said.” (I guess syndication wasn’t a consideration in the ‘70s. But also, Walker’s a clown, so…)

Amos and Rolle made a pact at the beginning of the series: they would fight to preserve the integrity of the characters and the family. When they felt they weren’t representing responsibly anymore, they spoke up. Amos threatened to leave the show at one point, forcing producers to delay taping. Eventually, he was labeled a “disruptive element” on the set, and they decided to kill James off. The choice to remove the key figure that made the show so important led to its eventual demise, but Amos later told Lear he was right to fire him for the way he behaved.  Ironically, James’ death – just as he’s finally pulling his family out of the hood - produced one of the two most powerful scenes of the series, and maybe the only time we saw Rolle’s power as a stage actress.

(The second is Penny’s mama coming towards her with an iron, which I can’t even watch anymore.)

Watching now, viewers have identified Florida as a hater; she seemed to thwart every possible opportunity for the family to get even the tiniest glow up. But Florida was a manifestation of Rolle fighting with the show runners against anything she thought was gonna make us look crazy. Was some of it based in respectability? Absolutely. But considering Good Times was the only show of its kind, at least until What’s Happening!! debuted in 1976, I understand. Except for Black Jesus, that was fly. Florida was buggin’. Ebony, the most important black media outlet at the time, understood why she and Amos were fighting against foolery, too. The last black-centered sitcom before Diahann Carol’s Julia, Sanford and Son and Good Times had been Amos ‘n’ Andy, and nobody was trying to go back to that. “What seems to be called for now is a greater relevance among characters and a closer rein on a tendency to slide towards old-timey black minstrelsy. What is being revealed is a healthy awareness on the part of black performers that they are responsible for cleansing the stained image of blacks so long perpetrated on stage and screen.”

Shortly after John Amos left the show, Esther Rolle left as well, and ratings fell. Writers tried revamping J.J. as a mature head of the family, they introduced new characters and even brought Rolle back for a period, but the show was canceled in 1975.

Good Times feels now like Blaxploitation (and it was a bit) and poverty porn. But then, it was still a new version of our story told publicly. It was still a top-rated show about a black family. It was still a display of active and conscientious black parenting, including a black daddy with a job in a house, even in the ghetto.

The Jeffersons (1975 - 1985)

The Jeffersons was the longest running black family sitcom on television – longer than The Cosby Show. The show started just as the black middle class was building in the wake of the post-civil rights movement and was the first show to depict a black family that wasn’t working class. The show introduced one of the most iconic black TV characters in history. George Jefferson was the representation black folks had been waiting for; he was the hope and the dream. A black man from post-great migration Harlem who reached out with both hands to grab every part of the American Dream that he could as soon as it was available to him and would give white people his a** to kiss if they weren’t with it. It’s easy to dismiss George as mostly mouth and swagger, but that mouth and swagger were on our collective behalf.

Lear created the Jefferson family as an agitator for Archie Bunker. Lionel was a character from the beginning of the show, a smart young black man Archie considered one of the “good” ones. Then, the family moved in next door to the Bunkers  – the first black family in the all-white Queens neighborhood.

George wasn’t introduced for a couple of seasons. Sherman Hemsley was in a Broadway production, but Lear was so intent on him in the role that he found workarounds. George was the black version of Archie: stubborn, bullheaded, archaic in some of his thinking, and prejudiced towards people who he deemed other. George was sharper than Archie, though, and a fighter, which created great tension between the two characters as their families fell into a neighborly relationship. Usually at odds, one of the best scenes between the two happens in a set-up episode for the spin-off. The Jeffersons are meeting the Willises for the first time, and George and Archie are equally horrified to discover Tom and Helen Willis are an interracial couple. As they watch Tom dance with Louise at the end of the scene (I think I might have preferred this Tom…I don’t think he would have taken George’s sh*t), they toast to their shared disapproval.

George: Bunker, what is this world coming to?

Archie: Beats me, Jefferson. All I got to say is (raises glass), here’s to yesterday.

Feedback from the scratchin’ and survivin’ work of Good Times impacted how Lear developed The Jeffersons. Three Black Panther party members showed up a Lear’s production company one day to express their displeasure with Good Times. Lear recounted the story for an interview, saying, “They were pissed off that the only (black) family that existed, the (patriarch) had to hold down three jobs.” The Panthers asked why there couldn’t be an affluent black family on television, and Lear listened. Maybe George and Weezy would have stayed next door to the Bunkers, or moved to the black middle-class Queens enclave Jamaica Estates, or back uptown to Harlem for the spinoff, but that random visit sent them to a deluxe apartment in the sky in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The Cosbys, the Banks, and other upper middle class to upper-class TV families that came later were comfortable being comfortable. But the Jeffersons were adjusting to having finally attained the dream, being part of the early post-segregation black upper class, and the mixture of pride, guilt, and responsibility that came along with it – and so were the white people and other black people in their orbit. What happens when you’ve made it? When you jump from being a black housekeeper to hiring a black housekeeper? When your old friends from around the way come around? When you can buy your family whatever they want just because? How do you stay real in the midst of that?

The Jeffersons addressed not just race and class, but also race vs class. George wasn’t educated, but he worked hard, and expected his success to afford him respect and access - his theory was that green was more influential than black, and he was furious every time that proved to be untrue. There were plenty of puns based on George making social faux pas to impress elite white people, but there was also the very clear message – even if you’re a black millionaire: you still a ni**a.

I recently went back and watched the entire series on TV One, and the first few seasons are the blackest thing I have ever seen on television. As George and Louise are adjusting to their money and their lifestyle, the Harlem stayed jumping out. George still spoke in “jive” (the AAVE of the ‘70s), and would call somebody “ni**a” in a minute. Louise had a lot of fire early on, too. Her character became more one dimensional (and low key annoying) as the series progressed.

George was written to be abrasive and dislikable on the surface with redeeming qualities beneath, but Hemsley brought the character to life, with the walk he gave him without thinking, with Louise’s nickname, “Weezy,” with his attitude and mannerisms. Sherman was quiet, reserved in real life, and found playing George difficult. The blatant intolerance and insults, the rudeness and door slamming. It’s amazing from today’s more politically correct viewpoint that not only did this fly on primetime TV, but it was also one of the top sitcoms on air. The think pieces, Twitter hot takes and “What if this was a white character acting like this?” would be on a hundred if the show aired today. But George’s ridiculousness was the point.

At its best, the series educated viewers through George’s development, dispelling myths and stereotypes, and not just expanding the awareness of white viewers, but black ones, as well. At its funniest, the wit and wordplay were some of the best on TV. I would bet money that Martin pulled from George and Florence (a role we really don’t give Marla Gibbs enough love for) when writing Martin and Pam.

By the early ‘80s, the black professional class had grown and with the Reagan boom, plenty of families had moved on up. Now that the Jeffersons weren’t a unique story, the show was still cute but had lost its heart. CBS abruptly canceled it without a series finale.

George Jefferson endures, though. We know his walk, we know his dance, we know his door slam, we know him. We literally all know an old black man like George: ain’t gonna take no sh*t, kind of an a**, you worry he might say something extremely foul in public, but also has all the confidence and swagger.

Morehouse honored Norman Lear in 2016, and Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the university’s president, proclaimed that Lear “showed America 40 years ago that Black Lives Matter. He opened the eyes of millions of Americans when it came to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, all by making us laugh about it heartily so that we can think about it differently. Norman Lear is and will always be, in TV and race relations, a pioneer.”

I know we stopped giving cookout invites, but somebody please send Norman Lear a plate.

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Lennox McLendon

Music Sermon: The One Minute Hit - When TV Theme Songs Were Lit

The idea of sitting around the TV for appointment television is an archaic concept. Multiple devices with screens for everyone in your home plus the control of streaming has changed how we consume nearly everything except sports, award shows, and Game of Thrones (until tonight). But the children of the 80s very much remember when TV watching was still an event, cable was basic, and the networks reigned supreme. Back in that era of genuine primetime programming, our favorite TV shows came paired with 30-second to one-minute themes. But not just a random little ditty to open the show; these were genuine mini-songs. Verses, chorus, hook, and maybe even a reprise for the end credits.

Now, a drive for more advertising inventory coupled with shorter attention spans has rendered the true theme song a rarity; but in the cases where they do still exist, the songs continue to be a key part of experiencing the show (again, like Thrones). The theme song draws you into the world of the show, it sets the tone, and it stays with you after. And the theme song game wasn’t a space like the commercial jingle game where only folks in the game know who the players are. The theme show business has its own OGs, but there are also names we know well - acclaimed producers, artists and musicians who helped create TV music magic. As such, there’s also a lot of hidden music history and connections behind some of these joints. I have watched an inordinate amount of television consistently throughout my life - you will pry my cable cord out of my cold, dead hands - and I consider myself an expert on the TV theme song. I offer you my list of some of the most soulful, slappin’ and impactful examples of the majesty of TV theme songs from yesteryear.

Sanford & Son

There is literally no music space Quincy Jones hasn’t conquered, including television. Q was in movie scoring land when Norman Lear’s partner Bud Yorkin came to him about composing a theme for their new show, Sanford and Son. “He said, 'I'd like you to write the theme for it.' I said, 'Who's in it?' And he said Redd Foxx,” Quincy told Billboard. “I said, 'Man, you can't put Redd Foxx on national TV!” I had worked with Redd Foxx 30 years before that at the Apollo. We used to do the Chitlin Circuit. I used to write this music for him to come out with.”

Q composed “The Street Beater” without even watching the Sanford and Son pilot. “I wrote that in about 20 minutes,” he said in an interview about his work in television. “I just wrote what he looked like. It sounds just like him, doesn’t it?” The funky, rag tag, backwoods bluesy song was the perfect musical accompaniment for Fred’s surveying his junkyard as Lamont’s truck rolled up, “It was raggedy, just like Foxx.”

Good Times

Norman Lear was the goat of working-class American storytelling on screen, but his shows also had some of the most iconic theme songs – “Those Were the Days” for Archie Bunker, “One Day at a Time” has great lyrics if you pay attention, he even had Donny Hathaway singing about pre-Golden Girls Bea Arthor for Maude. TV producers often used the same writing and production teams for their shows' themes, and Lear often tapped the husband and wife team of Alan and Marylin Bergman, who got their break co-writing with Quincy on “In the Heat of the Night.”

But as I said before, don’t let the TV theme song credits fool you, the Bergmans are two-time Academy Awards winners and in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. That’s the kind of talent behind Good Times.

The Good Times theme is a negro spiritual (there’s a Hammond B3 organ in it; issa spiritual), and singers Jim Gilstrap, from Stevie Wonder’s backing group, Wonderlove; and Somara “Blinky” Williams, a former original member of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) Singers along with Andrae Crouch and famed session player Billy Preston, put some extra oil on it.

You don’t believe me when I say this is worship music? Watch this.

I really wanna know what the Bergmans knew about hanging in a chow line, though. I’m not even sure I knew that was the lyric before Dave Chappelle told us.

The Jeffersons

Before we move on from Lear sitcoms we have to pay respect to the best black TV theme song of all time. And before you argue with me, let’s please look at the stats: a 35-person choir, stomping and clapping - even double clapping! - mention of fish fry, and a reprise over the end credits with hummin’ like your big mama used to do while she was cookin’ on Sundays. Winner.

Even though it’s one of the best-known sitcom theme songs ever, what’s lesser known is that another Lear alum was behind it – Ja’net Dubois, aka Good Times’ Wilona Woods, co-wrote and sang the theme. Also, the male voice that joins her in the bridge isn’t Sherman Hemsley (although it really sounds like it could be him) but career backup singer Oren Waters.

Ja’net, who was a singer as well as actress, ran into Lear on the CBS lot one day and shared that she wanted to display her talent beyond acting. Lear partnered her with Jeff Barry to work on the aspirational Jefferson’s theme. Jeff had pop hits under his belt as part of producer Phil Spector’s stable; he wrote “River Deep - Mountain High.” He also wrote “One Day at a Time,” and later “Without Us,” Deniece Williams and Johnny Mathis’ yacht-rocky theme for Family Ties.

Dubois later told Jet magazine she pulled from her own experience once she’d “made it” with Good Times. “I moved my whole family. I bought (my mother) a house, bought her a mink coat. I did everything, retired her. I did everything I ever promised her.” And you can feel Ja’net’s testimony coming through as that moving van makes its way across the Queensboro bridge and up the East Side.

Amen

Sherman Hemsley had the good fortune of being associated with two entries in the Praise Songs of TV (I just made that up) category. Amen’s “Shine on Me” is not only a rousing bop, it’s a forreal and actual gospel song. The theme was written, produced and played by the father of modern gospel, Andraé Crouch, and sung by gospel legend Vanessa Bell Armstrong. Sister Vanessa was backed in the TV version by the choir from Crouch’s First Memorial COGIC church. She later did her own version, but it didn’t have quite the same oomph when slowed down a little and without the full voices of a choir behind her.

Sigh… Imagine a time when a sitcom about a deacon in the black church with a whole gospel theme song was a primetime network hit. Also shout out to “There’s No Place Like Home” from 227, which preceded Amen on Saturday nights.

The Cosby Show

We’re going to set everything about Bill Cosby the man aside for a minute to talk about the show and its music. Agreed? Amen.

The Cosby Show has to be in this conversation, because over the course of the show’s history, the theme song and opening sequence became a hallmark of the series’ greatness, and it’s a prime example of theme songs being deeper than just something to play over opening credits. Every season, a new adaptation of “Kiss Me,” the theme written by Cosby and Stu Gardner (who also co-wrote the themes for A Different World and Living Single), opened the show. The opening sequence featured a Huxtable family dance showcase, changing as the kids grew and the cast core cast added, and sometimes subtracted. We were as anxious for the Cosby season premiere to see the new intro as we were to see the show itself.

Season 3 is when it started getting crunk, with a little Latin action. Auntie Phylicia was gettin’ it.

In Season 4 (my least favorite), “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” mania had made its way to the Huxtable family with Bobby McPheren’s rendition and a bit of a roaring ‘20s (and for the sake of the show location, we’ll say Harlem Renaissance) feel. Elvin’s first year in the sequence, Denise’s first year out.

Season 5 was a production. Literally, it was staged like a Broadway production. By now, the show was known for exposing diasporic art and culture and the people behind it to the world whenever possible, and that was the intention here as well, on the low.

The set design was a little South Pacific-esque, and costumes had a Caribbean flair reminiscent of some Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater pieces - appropriate since the movement was choreographed by Ailey great (and Boomerang’s off the chain creative director) Geoffrey Holder. Cosby’s high school classmate James DePriest, one of the first internationally recognized African American orchestral conductors, arranged the music, played by the Oregon Symphony orchestra. It was sweeping and gorgeous and I remember it being kind of a big deal. Second season with no Denise in the credits. I think she had left Hillman and gone Africa by this point. Or something.

Season 6 is my favorite. It was a party. The entire family was getting it in to a jam session take on the theme remixed with Junior Walker and the All Stars’ “Shotgun.” Even though the opening was set in front of the Apollo marquee, this was the Motown sequence. “Shotgun,” was a massive crossover hit, produced by Berry Gordy, and featured Motown’s famed session players, the Funk Brothers on instrumentals.

Welcome back, Denise. And hi, Martin and Olivia. Theo and Vanessa were hitting. that. heaux.

Ok, actually, Season 8 is my least favorite. Least favorite season, theme song, opening sequence, all of it. Here, I think, it’s clear that the show was past its prime. This jazzmatazz intro didn’t feel super fresh or creative, and Theo was trying to hit b-boy moves, and cousin Pam clearly wasn’t comfortable, and Vanessa looked like she just got engaged to a 40-year old ninja named Dabnis, and Clair still had her coat on because she couldn’t be bothered.

But on the cultural side, it was still in theme. The mural was created by kids at Harlem’s Creative Arts Workshop, although a legal dispute over art clearances kept this visual from being used as originally intended in Season 7. On the horn is Lester Bowie, a trumpeter known for his free jazz style.

A Different World

Obviously, we were paying a visit to Hillman next. “A Different World” is one of the best theme songs of all time – for Seasons 2 through 5 (also one of the best shows of all time – for Seasons 2 through 5).

Dawn Lewis, aka Jaleesa, co-wrote the song with Stu Gardner. She was originally supposed to sing it, as well, until whoever hired her to write the song realized she was also in the cast, and whoever cast her as Jaleesa realized she also wrote the song. The collective powers that be thought Dawn singing the theme would center her too much when the show was about Lisa Bonet, so they went to Al Green. Yes, the Reverend Al Green. A version of the “Different World” theme song sung by Al Green exists out there in the world somewhere, and I now have a life mission to hear it. Producers didn’t like it, though. They decided to go with a female voice, and pegged folk and blues singer Phoebe Snow.

As the show went into its second season, producers decided to take a similar approach as The Cosby Show and flip the theme every season with different artists and styles. Then Aretha Franklin recorded her version, and that idea was dead, because why would you ever ask someone else to sing behind Aretha. Debbie Allen, who had just stepped in as the show’s executive producer (Aunt Debbie brought A Different World out of the middling fare of its first season to the strong, black and relevant show we remember it as, but that’s a different Sermon) called Auntie Re personally, and then brought her whole team from Detroit to LA on a bus (because Auntie Re wasn’t gonna fly, chile). Then, TV history was made.

“I just know that she came in and hit it,” Allen told Vulture. “It wasn’t like she had to do ten takes, that’s what I know. She just hit it. That’s what I remember and then we all kind of hung out and had food together, you know — she loved our show which is why she did it.”

I’m low key surprised Aretha agreed to do the song since her ex-husband, Glynn Turman, joined the cast in Season 2 and she’s petty like that, but she also watched a lot of television and was a fan. When most think of A Different World, they’re thinking of seasons two and beyond. That iconic montage we’ve see recreated in tribute again and again, from SportsCenter to Grown’ish Season 2 promos. Nobody references car washes and hanging out outside of….a barn, I think? Where they at a farm for the Season 1 opening sequence? (You can tell some white people put that together – no shots).

Finally, the last season of A Different World was sort of “Different World: The Next Generation,” so they went in a new direction for the theme with a very non-Boyz II Men sounding Boyz II Men (I thought it was Take 6 for the longest), but Seasons 2 through 5 still reign supreme.

Different Strokes

On to a different show about different worlds. Remember I mentioned OGs in the theme song game? One of them was Alan Thicke. Yes, Robin Thicke’s daddy was not only lovable TV dad Jason Seaver, but also a professional theme writer. Thicke penned the tracks for a couple of sitcoms, including Facts of Life (with Robin’s mama Gloria Loring on vocals), but his thing was game shows. Your grandma has Alan to thank for the “Wheel of Fortune” theme. He not only wrote but sang “Diff’rent Strokes” (sounding a little like his son), and I mean, the song is perfect. The opening, the harmony build in the second verse, the bridge, the breakdown “…and together we’ll be fine, ‘cause it takes…,” the hum at the end of the closing credits version. You can tell from this one-minute jamalam that Robin got his blue-eyed soul honestly.

Speaking of the Chappelle Show again (there’s a Chappelle reference for everything in life), Dave closes out his famous White People Can’t Dance episode (Season 2, Episode 3) with a spirited performance of “Diff’rent Strokes,” going into a “Facts of Life” vamp, backed by Questlove and John Mayer.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Living Single

I’m putting these two together because they’re two of the last examples of the explanatory theme song for black prime time television.

The Quincy Jones-produced Fresh Prince theme tells us Will’s entire back story and the premise of the show – a ‘90s hip-hop answer to the Gilligan’s Island theme.

Living Single’s theme conveyed the high energy city life the four upwardly mobile friends were navigating, with emphasis from Queen Latifah’s sing-rapping about her homegirls standing on her left and her right, and the legendary dancing silhouette that is Big Lez.

Both shows, songs, and visuals have become representative of the hip hop generation’s takeover of ‘90s black television and ‘90s black culture, and both continue to hold up amazing well 25 years later.

We haven’t even touched on the soulful ‘70s themes that became hit singles, like “Welcome Back Kotter” (my joint) or “Angela” from Taxi, or sketch show theme songs like Heavy D for In Living Color (or TLC for “All That,” for y’all younger folks), or the cartoon smashes. There are gems galore to be mined, all containing shining bits of nostalgia and callbacks to a simpler time. These songs often resonate with us even more strongly than our favorite singles from the era because they were a constant for years instead of months. And thanks to networks later devoting blocks of time to classic TV reruns like Nick at Night and TV Land, many of these shows – and theme songs – have been introduced to a new generation.

We’ve focused mostly on black TV shows, but there are a few theme songs that cross cultural, generational and international boundaries. When the Golden Girls premiered in 1985, the series featured a remake of the 1978 song “Thank You for Being a Friend,” and it has lived in all our hearts ever since. So much so, that a member of the black church delegation gave the song a proper remix a couple of years ago. Let this be a reminder that great TV theme songs were not only catchy songs that stuck in our heads for decades, but also impetrated universal lessons about life, love, and friendship.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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8 Best Samples From Megan Thee Stallion, Tyler The Creator And DJ Khaled's Projects

Megan Thee Stallion, DJ Khaled and Tyler, The Creator have more in common than just a release date. The artists also know a thing or two about thoughtful sampling.

Their projects, which all happen to be some of their best efforts, find inspiration from 70s soul and deep 90s underground jams. Jackson 5, Jay-Z and Sizzla were sampled on DJ Khaled's previous release Grateful, but with Father of Asahd, the producer and proud dad jumps back into the crates. This time around, modern hits are used like Ms. Lauryn Hill's "To Zion" and Outkast's "Ms. Jackson."

Megan Thee Stallion's samples also prove her rhymes aren't the only thing fans should pay close attention to.

Check out some of our favorite samples from this week's releases below.

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Megan Thee Stallion- Fever 

1. "Hood Rat S**t"

Sample: Latarian Milton's Viral Video (2013)

Plucked from the wonderful world of viral videos, Megan uses the then 7-year-old's mischevious joy ride to accurately describe how she rolls with her crew.

2. "Pimpin"

Sample: DJ Zirk & Tha 2 Thick Family featuring 8Ball & MJG and Kilo-g  "Azz Out" (1996) 

There's something to be said about Megan's very clever samples. The chorus to the late 90s underground gem stems from southern legends like Tennesee's 8Ball and MJG along with NOLA's own Kilo-g. Megan grabs a few bars from the track and puts her own twist on them for the chorus: "Stick 'em up, stick 'em up, raise 'em up, raise 'em up Drop it off in his fucking face just to saw it off/Gotta get my a** ate, gotta make that a** shake/Gotta swipe this ni**a card so much they had to call the bank"

3. "Simon Says" featuring Juicy J 

Samples: Billy Paul, "Me And Mrs. Jones" (1972), "Looking For Tha Chewin,'" DJ Paul (Ft. 8Ball, DJ Zirk, Kilo-G, Kingpin Skinny Pimp & MJG) (1992)

Another variation of the aforementioned track is also heard on her collaboration with southern legend Juicy J. The soft intro by way of Bill Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" also offers a soulful touch to the track.

DJ Khaled- Father of Asahd

4. "Holy Mountian" featuring Buju Banton, Sizzla, Mavado and 070 Shake) 

Sample: "One Spliff a Day," Billy Boyo (1981) 

Boyo's legendary riddim has been used by a bevy of artists including SiR and Wiz Khalifa but Khaled's curation of the track with some of the biggest names in reggae takes it to another level. It also doesn't hurt that his longtime friend and icon Banton opens the album.

5. "Just Us" featuring SZA 

Sample: "Ms. Jackson," Outkast (2001) 

This sample definitely raises the eyebrows, but the careful loop paired with SZA's sing-rap flow makes it worth a listen.

6. "Holy Ground" featuring Buju Banton 

Samples: "To Zion," Ms. Lauryn Hill and Carlos Santana (1999) 

Grand opening, grand closing. Banton closes out the album with soul-baring lyrics and a thoughtful sample to match. Carlos Santana's chords from the original track give the song a sentimental feel along with Banton's lyrics about mass incarceration, cultural warfare and spiritual freedom.

Tyler, The Creator- IGOR

7. "A BOY IS A GUN" 

Samples: "Bound," Ponderosa Twins Plus One (1971) 

Tyler might have gotten inspiration to sample this song from Kanye West (Bound 2), but his take is smooth and subtle as he navigates through love and heartbreak.

8. "ARE WE STILL FRIENDS" featuring Pharell Williams 

Samples: "Dream," Al Green (1977) 

Underneath IGOR's tough exterior lies a gentle soul. The placement of Al Green's "Dream," on the latter end of the album takes the listener on a starry love high. Pharrell and Tyler allow the sample to act as a skeleton for the song as they point out how to keep love alive.

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