BMI Trailblazers of Gospel Music - Show
Kirk Franklin speaks at 2017 BMI Trailblazers of Gospel Music at Rialto Center for the Arts on January 14, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BMI)
Paras Griffin

Music Sermon: How Kirk Franklin Remixed Gospel Music

In honor of Kirk Franklin's 49th birthday, #MusicSermon chronicles how the former VIBE cover star remixed gospel for a generation that may not have found christianity through church pews.

#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.

In this era of music, there’s “trap gospel,” one of the biggest rappers of the last several years wears a “3” on his hat to represent the holy trinity and holds his own version of the altar call at the end of his shows, and the song “Jesus Walks” is an old school classic. But it’s easy to forget that way back in the 90s when Kirk Franklin’s music first hit MTV, the pop charts and the cover of this publication, church folks were scandalized. Easy to forget that a gospel artist dressed like a rapper or member of your favorite male R&B group wasn’t common. There was a wide chasm between gospel and secular music. Until Kirk. In honor of his birthday, today’s Music Sermon takes a look back at how he changed an entire genre--maybe two.

Gospel and secular music have a decades-old love/hate relationship. The genres have always influenced each other even as they’ve denied each other. Up until relatively recently, the best of black music’s singers, musicians and producers developed their craft in the black church, bringing the oil with them into the world to sprinkle some anointing on soul and R&B tracks. Then there were the greats, like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, who turned away from presumed gospel careers to seek pop success, but who had the spirit so imprinted in their voices they made everything sound like worship anyway. R&B has always reached back to acknowledge the church, in the way you swing by on event Sundays even if you haven’t been to service in a while: artists participated in gospel tributes, featured choirs on big songs and performances, and in the 90s it was an unwritten rule that an R&B album contained at least a gospel-feeling interlude. But gospel’s foray into secular music was much less frequent. It happened occasionally; The Hawkins Singers, The Staple Singers, and The Clark Sisters all had singles land on the pop or R&B charts. Then Andraé Crouch laid the foundation for contemporary gospel music in the 70s and 80s, using secular influences in his sound and working with pop and R&B stars including Elvis, Michael Jackson, El Debarge, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Elton John, and Chaka Khan. (And composing/performing one of the livest TV theme songs of all time for Amen!) And then, Kirk. Kirk Franklin didn’t just bridge gospel and secular music, he combined them. The title “gospel rap” still isn’t commonly used, but Kirk Franklin is to whatever that hybrid genre would be called, what Puffy is to “hip hop soul.”

In the 90s, even young Christians were feeling disconnected from the gospel music they heard at church and on gospel radio. And the gospel that had a life on R&B radio, like BeBe and CeCe Winans, Take 6 and Sounds of Blackness, was more inspirational. Messages of agape love and hope. Not a lot of Jesus. Kirk came with Jesus, seeking the ears and hearts of the young churched and unchurched alike. He didn’t just aim for secular influence, but a full secular sound, with songs that sampled the Beastie Boys, Rufus and Chaka Khan, LTD, The Jacksons, Tears for Fear and even Scarface. Remaking hits from the 80s (yeah, yeah) to make it sound so crazy (yeah, yeah)…crazy for the Holy Spirit! It was kinda how parents blend vegetables into their kids’ favorite dishes on the sneak, except with Jesus instead of broccoli. Franklin created gospel that not only moved you to praise and tears, but made you wanna dance. Not just praise dance. Dance, dance. In the club. And while you were bankhead bouncing you realized you were getting a word. “They don’t come to gospel for the production or the beats,” Franklin told The New Yorker regarding his penchant for pushing sonic boundaries in gospel, “I wanna give you Jesus, but I wanna give you Jesus with an 808.”

While his career has been dogged with a mixture of praise and criticism, accused sometimes of having one foot in the world and one foot in the church, Kirk has remained one of the biggest contemporary gospel stars of all time – definitely the biggest of his generation. And still, continues to stand in the gap.

Franklin was a prodigy, and was writing, composing and directing the adult choir at his church as a minister of music by age 11. But unlike some children from strict christian households, he listened to and loved secular music. He established his name in traditional gospel circles working with various mass choirs, and simultaneously formed his own group, which he called The Family. His intention was to move gospel closer to secular music from the beginning. Not the message, though; just the music. “I’m trying to change the way people look at gospel music,” Franklin explained to the LA Times in 1996. “It’s not corny, and it’s not hokey. We’re not just running around here with some choir robes on, yelling and screaming. It’s not about that anymore, kid.”

At non-church audience performances, Franklin and The Family would flip current hits to get and keep the crowd’s attention, adding Christ-centered references where appropriate. Not just R&B hits, hip hop hits. “When the holy spirit comes, you know it comes correct…woo ha!! It gots you all in check!” Sound familiar? That type of flip, where you don’t distill the essence or the energy of the original, just the language, has become one of Franklin’s signatures.

Kirk and The Family’s breakthrough hit, “Why We Sing,” was a traditional contemporary gospel song, but still a remix of sorts. It was an update of the classic hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” with another of Franklin’s signatures: his voice guiding us through the song as combination worship leader and hype man. Over time the song rose to the top of the Gospel chart and the Contemporary Christian chart (The first black act to do so), and crossed over to the R&B chart. Kirk Franklin & the Family became the first gospel album to crack a million units in sales (unheard of prior, even with gospel’s biggest acts), and the first gospel album since Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace to land in the Top 10 of the Billboard R&B chart.

“Why We Sing” kept Kirk Franklin & the Family at No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel chart for almost a year (42 weeks), so they dropped Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas as a way of giving fans new music in advance of the sophomore album. The LP produced instant choir classics, like “Now Behold the Lamb,” but also spawned the jingle jam “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” in which a Kangol and leather vest-clad Franklin informed us, “Santa Claus ain’t got nothin’ on this!” Then he broke it down towards the end about how “(He) love(s) it when (we) call Him (our) savior.”

We talked about Kirk being the gospel inverse of Puff already, right?

The second album Whatcha Lookin’ 4 established Franklin songs as a staple for any youth or young adult choir worth their salt. They were easy to teach and easy to recall, with simple three-part vocal melodies--guaranteed to get the entire church rockin’. Enough so that the elders will ignore hearing Tony! Toni! Tonè!’s “Anniversary” during the modulations.

You know your part. Sing along.

By the way, there’s also a “Crush on You” remix for “Melodies…”
Yes, Junior Mafia.
Yes, for a gospel song.
Yes, it’s an entire bop.
Yes, Kirk is milly rocking.

Whatcha Lookin’ 4 was another platinum success, but it was the follow up that broke Franklin wide open in the secular space and made him a gospel’s biggest superstar. Jimmy Iovine, who was hipped to Franklin’s music by an employee, offered Franklin a production deal through Interscope Records. He believed Franklin would be for gospel what Bob Marley was for reggae. Franklin decided to build something outside of The Family that he could be more experimental with, and tapped a young Fort Worth choir called God’s Property to work with him.

The debut single was “Stomp,” and it changed everything. The single that went to radio was a remix, with a Funkadelic sample, featuring a rapper (Salt of Salt-n-Pepa), and was released on the same label that housed Death Row Records. The song’s intro was a declaration from Franklin – with another Biggie reference thrown in for good measure:

“For those of you that think that gospel music has gone too far, you think we’ve gotten too radical with our message…well I got news for you; you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. And if you don’t know, now ya’ know.”

(I’m positive Big never thought that hip hop would make it that far.)

God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts: both firsts for a gospel album. The single was a No. 1 hit on the pop charts and the first gospel video put in regular rotation on MTV. The project eventually sold three million copies, the largest selling album ever in the genre at the time. This was not your grandmother’s gospel.

Son, they were goin’ down the Soul Train line on this.

The saints weren’t really feeling it. While Kirk was still beloved as a gospel artist, some thought he was going too far to translate God’s word to young audiences.

VIBE’s October 1997 issue featured a cover story on Franklin’s unprecedented mainstream success – a story in which, among other things, he referred to himself as “the holy dope dealer” peddling “Jesus rock.” Some of the resulting letters to the editor were scathing.

“I was a Kirk Franklin fan until I read your story,” one read. “I commended him for being a young man who really loved the Lord. Now, I think he uses the words “Hallelujah” and “God” over bouncy beats to appeal to GenX, not to the traditional churchgoers. You can’t straddle the fence when it comes to serving God.”

“If I can go to a club and ‘stomp’ on a dance floor, then what’s the purpose of going to church? Mr. Franklin is little more than a pimp, prostituting a new style of gospel music that sounds no different from hip hop and R&B. Once (you’re saved), your life does not become a ‘holy ghost party.’”

But was this a fair assessment, or out of touch? After all, music is a form of ministry, and the point of ministry and evangelism is to bring souls to Christ. Why should the message not go forth in a way to reach a younger audience? Why can’t it be a “holy ghost party?”

This has been Franklin’s counter-argument as he’s faced this criticism continuously over his 25-year career. He responded to detractors in a 1998 interview with Jet magazine, explaining, “Gospel music is not a sound; gospel music is a message. As long as the message is still the good news about Jesus loves you and He died for you. He’s coming again for you.” The bottom line, “No matter how radical my music may seem, does the music say Jesus or does it not say Jesus?”

Franklin once expressed in an interview that he felt like he could be a 27-year-old with God’s Property. He didn’t have to temper his energy and excitement. Didn’t have to dress in suits to perform. Didn’t have to be a church elder. The success of “Stomp” and the God’s Property album left him free to push boundaries even further. He was all in. Shiny suit, fish-eyed lens, bubble coat and ski goggles, Darkchild production (and feature! With a Mase flow!) late-‘90s bling-era all in.

This is the greatest video in the entire history of music videos. You should watch it multiple times. ALL MY REAL LIVE SAINTS THROW YOUR HANDS UP!!

Kirk wasn’t just churning out party gospel, either. As great as Franklin was and is as a hype-man and ad lib master, his prevailing talent has always been his songwriting. He used his newly solidified multi-genre crossover appeal to round up Mary J Blige, Bono, contemporary Christian artist Crystal Lewis and he-who-shall-not-be-named for “Lean On Me,” an incredibly moving anthem for humanity and community.

To his point in the Jet interview, no one could argue that the doors of the church had opened that much wider, thanks to Kirk. Not only were all welcome, be they in traditional Sunday best or streetwear fly; people wanted to be part of it. Gospel’s reach outside of Sunday morning radio programming, AM stations, BET’s beloved Bobby Jones and gospel conventions saw continued growth following the two God’s Property albums.

In 1999, gospel duo Mary Mary (and producer Warryn Campbell) followed Franklin’s 80s sample, hip hop influenced formula to score a multi-genre hit with “Shackles (Praise You).” The sample of Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further” drove the single to success not only on the R&B and Pop charts, but also on the Dance chart, which propelled it internationally. Production virtuosos Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis scored a Top 10 R&B hit for Yolanda Adams with “Open My Heart.” A remix of the track cracked the Top 40 on the Dance chart. Gospel artists scoring No. 1 R&B hits and selling platinum albums were no longer anomalies. Secular producers working with gospel artists became more common.

TV was getting into the gospel game as well. After decades of being relegated to the Stellars, The Doves, and maybe one BET Awards performance, gospel was getting fresh looks. In 1999, VH1 added Franklin, CeCe Winans, and Shirley Caesar to a televised concert special. "Gospel music is no longer relegated to just the churches in the South," network exec Robert Katz told CNN at the time. "There is an emerging gospel music, a pulse that is all over the country.”

The game had changed.

This next part is far too familiar in stories of skyrocketing success: after the highest heights, there is conflict, because mo’ money, mo’ problems. And that goes double when you’re supposed to be about the Father’s business (just ask John Gray). On the heels of The Nu Nation Project, Franklin faced multiple lawsuits and a public battle with porn addiction. His next album, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, was a throwback to the sound and style of the early Family albums; traditional contemporary gospel. But it didn’t sell as well as his previous projects. Franklin found himself in a spiritual identity crisis. In a 2003 interview, Franklin revealed that he was unprepared for the success. “Selling a lot of albums and crossing over made me famous, and it gave me an audience. It gave me validation.” Abandoned by his parents at a young age, he was seeking attention and adoration, and when it came in the form of celebrity, it was addictive. “It was almost like I was the worst person God could have ever chosen…It’s like sending a crack addict to be a missionary in a crack house.”

Fortunately, Franklin bounced back, and relatively quickly. He didn’t go as hard as he had previously--he was older, youth culture had changed, and Kirk in a 4XL tee doing snap rap gospel would have been a bridge too far. But he went back to the formula that worked for him. The days of 17-person choirs were gone (thanks, label budgets), but flipping familiar hits is evergreen. Soul/R&B (Patrice Rushen, “Haven’t You Heard”), pop (Kenny Loggins, “This is It”), rap (Scarface feat. 2Pac “Smile”), all could be used to glorify and edify.

 

There’s more, though. Much like Puffy was once blamed in part for hip hop going too pop and getting too shiny, Franklin bears some weight in steering gospel music away from the traditional format of scripture-based gospel sung by choirs to the modern praise and worship format. The songs are simple and repetitive, and usually sung by small praise teams instead of choirs, led by worship leaders or soloists, and can be backed by tracks instead of musicians. In an attempt at being more radio-friendly, more gospel artists also stay in a Jesus-free inspirational lane. Is it a love song? Is it a gospel song? Who knows?!

Shortly after Andraé Crouch’s death, Franklin shared on his personal blog that he was embarrassed he’d dismissed Crouch’s style of gospel when he was younger, and expressed amazement at the wide recognition and respect Crouch enjoyed and how his music touched people of all walks of life. Things Kirk implied he’d thought only possible with crossover success. And now, the sound of gospel music had shifted completely. Arguably too much so.

“Our music doesn’t affect people the way it used to. It doesn’t create movements like it did during Andrae’s time. Is it because today’s worship leader is too busy trying to get the record deal, the applause, a higher church salary, and that crossover song? [The guilt is all over my hands, people!]”

Franklin may be more mindful now of the balance between blending and distilling, as many career gospel artists are tackling the question of how to restore their genre to former greatness – a question echoing throughout R&B and hip hop as well. Now, a gospel influence in hip hop and vice versa isn’t so foreign. There are even thriving Christian rappers. But Franklin is still one of the go-to’s when secular urban artists need a gospel OG. In 2016, almost two decades following the angry VIBE write-ins, Franklin found himself again facing questions about the appropriate line for gospel crossover when he recorded “Ultralight Beam” with Kanye. When asked about the backlash, Franklin’s answer to the The New York Times sounds like it applies to all the ups and downs of his career. “What I always have to remember is motive and intent: ‘Kirk, you know why you’re there, you know what God has put in your gut. Some of that will come and you will weather it.’ Christianity ain’t something you signed up for like a vacation. It’s not a first-class trip to Fiji. You’re signing up for the ridicule.”

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Music Sermon: The Evolution And Extinction Of Male R&B Groups

Male vocal groups were a mainstay in black music for decades. Whether it’s gospel harmonizers, the lockstep, perfectly blended Motown, or Stax and Philadelphia International sounds; the synth, glossy, dance and pop-infused ‘80s; or the last great decade for R&B groups in the ‘90s, there had always been two or more gathered in the name of multi-part soul harmony. And then – there weren’t.

Music fans were in heavy debate a couple of months ago about the current state of R&B – male R&B artists, specifically - and whether real R&B music exists anymore. (Puffy chimed in with a pretty definitive answer.) The decline of R&B artists has been noted, but R&B groups have been damn near extinct since the early 2000s. Girl groups (do we still call them that in the woke era?) are still on the endangered list and tagged for monitoring by music conservationists whenever a new group emerges, but the guys are feared gone for good. The last year male R&B groups had a presence at the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart – not even a crossover chart, the R&B chart - was 2001, during 112 and Jagged Edge’s last strong album runs (“Where the Party At” peaked at No. 1 on September 15, 2001).

King of R&B pic.twitter.com/DCUCDFjCOY

— Diddy (@Diddy) December 11, 2018

How did such a staple in black music just go away? How did we go from your granddaddy and ‘nem doing doo-wop on the street corner in the ‘60s, to your uncles and ‘nem doing talent shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to your cousins and ‘nem singing in school cafeterias and bum-rushing established artists at shows to audition in the ‘90s…to nothing?

To talk about what went wrong, let’s explore R&B groups over time.

THE FOUNDATIONAL GROUPS

I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but you can trace all R&B back to a handful of artists/acts. Every vocal style, performance aesthetic, production technique, and sound evolved from someone and something that came before. This is especially obvious with groups, because R&B groups are a formula. They’re a musical equation of members, style, presentation and song. You couldn’t just pull four random people off the street – even singing-ass people – and put them in a group. The chemistry had to be right. The voices had to blend well. And there had to be at least one star. This formula was, of course, perfected at Motown – Berry patterned the label after an assembly plant, duh - but ‘60s acts laid blueprints and instructional guides. And ‘60s groups had the best names; The Temptations, The Impressions, The Platters, The Spinners. How did they come up with those joints?

The Temps are the male vocal group template. They’re one of the defining acts of the Motown sound, one of the best-selling male vocal groups of all time, and subjects of the best TV miniseries ever (“Ain’t nobody comin’ to see you, Otis”). The Temptations were tight and precise, with effortless vocals and footwork.

The Miracles championed the smooth, sensitive front-man style. They were the first Motown group to land a No. 1 hit, and the first to start the trend of changing the group’s name to highlight the star. I can name everybody in the Temptations, I can’t name anybody but Smokey Robinson from the Miracles. Smokey was also a quintessential music man, wearing multiple executive and creative hats. He was not only one of Motown’s first artists and first stars, he was also the company vice president and one of its key writers during the formative years.

Sam and Dave may the greatest soul duo of all time, powered by Stax Record’s legendary session band, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, with Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, writing and producing. They brought all of the black church into their vocal performances.

THE BANDS

With the emergence of funk in the ‘70s, bands moved to the forefront. A strong frontman was still necessary, but the band was the star. Complex choreography was replaced with high energy production and performance. It was about the jam. By the mid-‘80s, however, the black band was already dwindling. Advances in production were slashing recording costs, time and effort. It’s much easier to throw a producer and an engineer in a couple of studio sessions than travel musicians in, pay for rehearsals and schedule multiple days to record live in the studio. Sadly, this created a cycle. As music production continued to advance, lessening the need for session musicians, fewer new musicians were coming up anyway.

Tuskegee natives The Commodores started as a jazz band (musicianship!), but made their name with the funk. Several members played multiple instruments - for example, Lionel Richie also plays the sax. Shout out to my actual, real-life uncle on drums in this video.

The Isleys get the Male Vocal Group MVP award as the longest running group that managed to stay relevant and chart hits from the ‘60s through the ‘00s (do you know how hard that is?!). I’m going to back up a little: most music fans know the Isleys first as a funk and soul group, but they started as a doo-wop group, and even had a stint on Motown.

Also, there will be no Ernie Isley slander in my earshot, ever. Not never.

The prototype for all young black male groups of four or more members to follow. I don’t even need to say anything else.

First thing’s first, James “J.T.” Taylor is not “Kool.” With that out of that way, Kool & The Gang also started as a jazz band and evolved into funk, then disco, and eventually contemporary R&B. A lesson here is that if you know musical foundations and theory, you can adapt to almost any genre - ask all the producers who grew up playing in the church. Their evolution of sound over the years was such that a lot of folks under 40 still don’t realize that the group behind “Summer Madness” is also behind “Ladies Night” and “Celebration.”

CONTEMPORARY R&B

The biggest problem with the group/band structure since the history of recording groups of any genre is, someone is inevitably identified as the star. Then the balance shifts, and eventually it falls apart. It happened routinely at Motown, and the ‘80s was maybe the most successful era for breakout frontmen. Michael and Jermaine from the Jacksons, Lionel from the Commodores, Smokey from the Miracles (although it took a while), Jeffrey Osborne from LTD, Teddy from The Bluenotes, Babyface from The Deele.

Bands that survived the funk and disco era (like Kool & the Gang and the Isley Brothers), and the new groups on the scene, adapted to the new quiet storm sound taking over R&B in the beginning of the decade.

In the mid-late ‘80s, a new crop of young groups emerged, mixing contemporary R&B sound with classic four and five-man group style and harmony.

The new jack swing sound emerged in the late ‘80s, and tempo, rhythm and 808s make R&B party-ready again.

THE GREATEST DECADE

The ‘90s was the saturation point for Male R&B groups. There were fifty’lem groups. That’s an actual number. You can find lists of the 20 greatest Male R&B groups of the ‘90s. I don’t think I could put together a list of 20 R&B singers. The ’90s was also a massive decade for the expansion and evolution of the R&B genre. New jack swing, hip-hop soul, neo-soul, gospel-infused inspirational R&B. Whatever flavor you wanted was available.

There were classic groups with doo-wop inspired style.

Young, high energy new jacks with choreography for days.

I always say that Troop is the physical embodiment of new jack swing.

There were also groups that were a little more mature in content, what the old heads used to call mannish. (We had no business singing along to "Come Inside" so hard!)

The ‘90s also introduced R&B artists that moved like rappers, complete with combat boots and group chains.

By the ‘90s, commercially successful black bands were basically defunct. There were only two still standing. (For the purposes of this discussion, The Roots are solely hip-hop.)

THE FINAL CLASS

The last class of successful male R&B groups debuted in the mid-late ‘90s, and carried over into the early ‘00s. The shift in the landscape was clear early in the decade. The neo soul movement, while triggering a brief return to live music production, spawned mostly solo stars. And hip-hop was like the new fish you add to your lively aquarium, only to wake up each day and discover it’s eaten another of its fellow tank-mates, until it finally had the tank to itself. R&B songs were rarely sent to radio without a version featuring a rap artist. Contemporary R&B got less mainstream airplay; songs needed to have some bounce. A staccato flow. Something other than standing flat-footed and singing over melody. For the past decade, the lines have become even more blurred between the two genres, leading to the R&B debate mentioned earlier. These bops went out of fashion, but they went out with a bang. Shiny suits and leather, big budget videos, 25 dancers. Sigh…I miss those days. #BringBackVideoBudgets

So, what happened? On the business side, the rise of digital piracy hit the formerly recession-proof music industry unexpectedly, and then it was slow to adapt to digital downloads and streaming, which very quickly upended a long-standing business model. The cost and effort of developing a group, paying for vocal training, choreography, styling and travel, plus dealing with headaches from group dynamics (the term “herding cats” could be changed to “herding recording artists” and still be a perfectly apt analogy) was netting an increasingly diminished return on investment.

On the talent side, infighting between group members has always been a problem; resentment towards whomever was being groomed for solo success, fighting over name ownership, fighting over money, or just getting sick of each other. It’s broken up families: Raphael Saadiq and brother Dwayne Wiggins seemingly don’t rock with each other - or, rather Ray doesn’t rock with Dwayne. (Editor's note: Raphael Saadiq told VIBE why he doesn't see a Tony! Toni! Toné! reunion in the cards.) It’s broken up childhood friendships – the members of New Edition hashed out their differences and reunited for a tour and BET’s The New Edition Story, just to fall right back out and split in two factions, with Ralph and Johnny holding the name New Edition hostage.

The mid-00s featured a big youth culture moment thanks in part to 106th and Park, and black boy bands – like B2K and Mindless Behavior – were central to that. Even with R Kelly’s pen game on “Bump Bump Bump,” however, B2K were bigger at crossover radio than R&B, which was probably the desired result. Puffy tried to restore the feeling with Day 26 in 2008, and they landed a #1 Billboard 200 debut, but had no hit singles.

The shift was even visible in music recognition. From 2003 to 2011, the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group was awarded to collaborations. Destiny’s Child was the last group to win, for “Survivor” in 2002, but the last male R&B group to take home the trophy was Blackstreet for “No Diggity” in 1998. The recording academy eliminated the category altogether in 2012.

Shout out to Teddy Riley, by the way, for having three successful groups in the ‘90s (even though he can’t perform under the name Blackstreet anymore because Chauncey Black owns it. I told you, messy).

There’s been a nostalgia-driven ‘90s revival in music and culture for the last few years, and R&B groups from the era are having their moments. BET’s The New Edition Story was a ratings bonanza and a generated buzz and marketing moments for over a year. Anniversary pieces about classic R&B records and singles from 20 and 25 years ago seem to hit every other week. DJs who were babies in the ‘90s have added new jack swing and hip-hop soul classics to their sets. The last few male R&B groups to release albums to any fanfare were – wait for it - ’90s R&B groups. Jodeci’s reunion album The Past, The Present, The Future in 2015, and Bell Biv DeVoe’s Three Stripes plus 112’s Q Mike Slim Daron in 2017.

These groups still tour. Hell, you can catch almost every group listed above in some type of iteration. It might just be one original member and three strangers at a supper club, but you gonna get them hits. The audience is there for the classics and the nostalgia, but mainstream labels still aren’t interested in new music from established groups, or sinking the money into developing new talent. It hasn’t made sense, financially, to the powers-that-be. The label mantra for the past decade has been “R&B doesn’t sell.” Ballads or mid-tempos with no rap features and no autotune are usually only programmed on Urban Adult radio, which is a slow-moving format listened to by mostly physical album buyers. And oh, look at that, there’s almost no place to buy physical albums anymore! Digital streaming hit R&B hard. Streaming is a singles and playlist format, R&B is an album game. Brick and mortar record stores have closed (except for specialty shops), and big box stores pull albums from the shelves because CDs don’t sell much. But then they don’t sell because fans can’t find the music. Thankfully there is, finally, a shift back to contemporary, soulful R&B in progress – about a decade later than music cycles usually happen – led by artists like H.E.R and Daniel Caesar. Artists who play instruments! And write songs about love instead of sex! And sell records and win Grammys doing it! But it remains to be seen whether there’s room for the eventual return of the group. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

#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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Don Cheadle On The Good Insanity Of 'Black Monday' And Battling Twitter Trolls

Don Cheadle isn’t insane; he just acts like he is, really well, on Showtime’s Black Monday. On the Wall Street dramedy about the 1987 stock market collapse, Cheadle has made fun of the AIDS epidemic and snorted cocaine off of a video game accessory as Maurice “Mo” Monroe, star trader on the show. As offensive as Mo is, Cheadle joined the cast after he “read the pilot, it made me laugh and I thought it was insane...in a good way,” according to the actor speaking with VIBE.

The 54-year-old Grammy-nominated director wasn’t rocking the Jheri curl and polyester threads like his character does in the show when the actual 1987 stock market crash occurred. At that time, he was a broke, struggling actor who admittedly could fit all of his worldly possessions in his car. Black Monday lets Cheadle experience the cocaine binges, robot butlers, and Jheri curl juice he never had in his past. But, fake or not, Cheadle doesn’t want to be on camera saying all of the absurdities Black Monday creators Jordan Cahan and David Caspe think up.

“Jordan and David are always pushing it and it's often up to us to say, 'Yeah, that's a bit too far. If you're going to say the line on camera, that's fine. I'm not going to say that on camera' (Laughs).”

With VIBE, Cheadle recasts Black Monday’s lead roles with rappers, talks smuggling blackness into a show about Wall Street, and why he doesn’t back down from Twitter exchanges with trolls.

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VIBE: What are some things you share with your character Mo?

Don Cheadle: That's a good question. I don't know. I know I'm nowhere near as intense as he is. I'm not as ambitious at all costs as he is. My sense of humor can kind of be on that level. But, never in public. You know how you could go in with your friends and be like, 'Please don't ever tape this' (Laughs).

One of the characteristics you two share is being confrontational. Do you ever worry that your personal opinions on Twitter could affect TV ratings?

Naaaahhhh. I've never had anybody of any position come to me and say, “You're really risking something and you got to knock that off.” No employer has ever said anything to me. There's a lot of bots on there, for one. A lot of people -- presumably people -- that come at me and say stuff like, “You just lost a fan.” I’m just like, “You were never a fan. Let's be real.”

On the show, Mo and Regina Hall’s character, Dawn, are the only prominent Black characters, yet their blackness has yet to be the focal point of an episode since the series’ premiere. Was that intentional and will the show explore blackness in the ‘80s?

It comes up in the second episode when they're in the store. Mo is telling her, “Those white boys will f**k you, they'll date you, but they won't give you a spot.” We want to pepper that stuff in, kind of smuggle it in and not lead with it. That's not something the characters talk about every day. They know who they are, they know what they're dealing with, and it comes in and out of the show. It's not the focal point of the show, which I like. They are black and it is front and center, but it isn't the subject matter.

The second episode has the classic back and forth negotiation scene between you and Dawn. Were there ever scenes where you and Regina couldn't get through it because y'all kept making each other laugh?

We would crack each other up a lot. Both of our desire was to always get it on camera, so we never really lost it during a shot. Maybe once or twice. But, most of the time we would get the take and then we would crack up. I'd always be like, “When you said this line.” She would be like, “When you said this.” We kind of improv a lot on the show and some stuff gets in there. When she said, “Who wants to titty f**k Keith” [in the series premiere], Regina just improv’d that.

So it was all Regina Hall's idea to mount Paul Scheer and thrust in the air as if she was titty f**king him?

Yes, that was her (Laughs).

The third episode starts with the most ‘80s scene we'll probably see on television this year: you snorting coke off of a Nintendo Duck Hunt gun while talking about Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields dating.

(Laughs) Yeah.

Are those moments intentionally put into the show to show that Black Monday is set in the ‘80s?

I think, absolutely, we're trying to juxtapose that time period to now and see the things that remain and the things that change, and see how far we've come in some instances and how far we still have to go. Absolutely, all of that cultural stuff is very fun to play with. We always want to make it a part of the show. We don't want to full out do something that has no bearing on anything just to make fun of the ‘80s.

The music for the show has been great. Knowing what you know about Mo and the ‘80s, what would be his morning playlist before a day of kicking a** on Wall Street?

Oh, he would definitely listen to Run-DMC. I think he's into all of that early hip-hop with [Big Daddy] Kane and LL Cool J. He's deep into that. He probably also listens to some of the stuff that was coming out of Europe at that time. Stuff like the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, a lot of that stuff. UB40 (Laughs). At one point in the show, he's like, “Don Henley's coming to play. I don't really f**k with his music, but he's number one, so I'm listening to it.” He likes what's popular.

You once said you wanted to cast Kendrick Lamar for the role of Junior in the film Miles Ahead.

Yes.

If you had to cast the roles for Dawn, Mo, Blair, and Keith with rappers, who would they be?

Oh, wow. Who would Dawn be? I think Dawn might be Queen Latifah. I like Dawn as Queen Latifah. I don't think Keith and Blair would be any rappers (laughs). I can't think of any rappers Keith and Blair would be. Not that there aren't some. I mean, they might be 3rd Bass. Who would Mo be? That's a good question. Who do you think Mo would be?

Mo is so out there I was thinking…

Ol’ Dirty Bastard?

Or a really animated Leaders of the New School Busta Rhymes.

Yeah. Definitely, a young Busta Rhymes. Kool G Rap also.

If they're going to be doing as much cocaine as Mo does on the show then it has to be someone from Wu-Tang.

(Laughs) It has to be O.D.B.

I did a little bit of IMDB digging and saw that Kevin Arnold is listed as your stunt double for 5 episodes of the second half of the season. Is Mo about to get crazier in the second half of the season?

No comment (Laughs). Things get crazy.

With a show titled after and centered around an event that it appears will be reached by the season finale, is there any way this show could come back for a second season?

Fingers crossed. I think the jumpoff is Black Monday, and the show is still going to still be about the stock market, Wall Street. That one day was just what started a lot of stuff. Things kept going on from then and are still going on.

Catch 'Black Monday' on Sunday nights at 10p/9c on Showtime.

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Meet Koffee, The Rising Jamaican Star Who Is Hot Like A Thermos

Back in 1962, a 17-year-old Jamaican singer/songwriter named Robert Marley recorded a song called “One Cup of Coffee” and went on to take reggae music around the world. Fast forward 55 years to 2017, when a 17-year-old Jamaican singer/songwriter named Koffee dropped her first record, “Burning,” setting her on a path to become the most talked-about new artist in dancehall reggae right now.

Koffee got her big break when veteran singer Cocoa Tea invited her onstage at the January 2018 edition of Rebel Salute, Jamaica’s biggest roots reggae festival. “She name Koffee and me name Tea,” he quipped, calling her the “next female sensation out of Jamaica.” The artist born Mikayla Simpson doesn’t actually like coffee though—she prefers hot chocolate.

After graduating from Ardenne High, the same school dancehall star Alkaline attended, Koffee turned her focus to music. She shot a live video with new roots superstar Chronixx at Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios, then dropped her breakout single “Toast,” produced by Walshy Fire of Major Lazer fame. That video has racked up 10 million+ views and made the artist, who stands just over five feet tall, a very big name on the island. Now signed to Columbia UK, Koffee will release her debut EP Rapture next month.

“Mi only spit lyrics, don't really talk a lot,” she states on the track “Raggamuffin.” But when Koffee turned up to VIBE’s Times Square headquarters, bundled up against NYC’s February chill in a hoodie, thermals, and Nike x Off-White sneakers, she opened up about her musical journey, the power of gratitude, her surprising inspirations, and how she plans to spend her birthday.

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VIBE: I haven’t seen you since your EP listening in Kingston. Congratulations on an impressive body of work. Koffee: Thank you. I feel humble and proud at the same time. I really put a lot of thought into the EP, the way I structured it, and the content, the lyrics. It really means a lot to me, so I appreciate you saying that.

It’s amazing how much you’ve accomplished since Cocoa Tea brought you out on Rebel Salute. Yeah, and that was only a year and a month ago!

So how did the link with Cocoa happen? Actually, it happened through Walshy Fire. After my very first single “Burning,” Walshy reached out and sent me some riddims, in hopes of us working together, which we ended up doing. We were supposed to meet up at a studio in Florida and when we went there Cocoa Tea was already in the building. We were like, “Wow, Cocoa Tea!” Because Cocoa Tea is a reggae legend for us in Jamaica. Walshy actually introduced Cocoa to some of my music, and Cocoa was like, “Wha? Mi gonna bring her out on Rebel Salute next month!” This was in December, and Rebel Salute was in January.

Timing is everything. Rebel Salute made a huge difference. It opened me up to a lot of opportunities. Even today a lot of places that I go, people remember me from there. I was doing music before. I’d done a few shows here and there, but the audience at Rebel Salute is very important. It’s an epic stage to present yourself.

Were you nervous? Just before going out on the stage I was backstage pacing back and forth. I was trying to keep warm as well because it was chilly that night. But I was really nervous because it was my first time being in such a light.

Do you think being so young has helped you? Like, you may not overthink everything. I think you have a point. Because I’m young, my mind is a bit more pure, or uncorrupted. Experiences do have a way of taking away your mental space and the things you’re willing to try. Staying in “the comfort zone” is the most comfortable thing, but sometimes pushing yourself to step outside of that will help you overcome your fears. That, and just the drive and motivation. I definitely try to keep challenging myself.

Reggae has always been a male-dominated industry, but female artists are definitely on the rise. How do feel getting catapulted into that category? I feel like it’s a big responsibility, and “to whom much is given, much is expected.” So I don't look at it as, “Oh, I’ve made it.” But I acknowledge that I’m in a position where I have a responsibility now to fulfill and to pull through. It just pushes me to work harder, make more things happen, and just keep it going.

I love the line in your song “Raggamuffin” where you say, “Mi give them heart attack inna mi halter back.” Was that inspired by Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Rankin’” from the ‘70s? Yeah, I love that song. That’s the thing, I would say that every artist is an influence to me. Growing up, I would hear these songs being played by people next door, down the road, all around. Just in the Jamaican environment on a whole. So those songs definitely do have an influence on me, the messages from those times. Once you hear it, it’s in your head. You know it now and it really makes a difference in how you think, how you speak, and everything.

When people think of a female dancehall artist they usually think of colorful hair, long nails… But you seem to have your own swag. How would you describe your style? I would definitely say unique, but at the same time, it is natural to me and not calculated. I don't put a name to it and say, “I’m gonna be this way.” I just kind of flow and whatever you see is me doing what I feel. Like, I’m not sure what these pants are, but I bought them in Berlin. I got this hoodie in the UK—I’m not sure what brand this is either. I was just trying to keep warm. My friend Ayesha from the UK styled me with this top recently for a shoot.

There’s a line on “Burning” where you talk about “Koffee pon di street, tank top inna di heat / Jeans pants an’ Crocs / No socks pon mi feet / Knapsack mi a beat / Well pack up an’ it neat.” Was that your real-life dress code in 2017? Yeah, I remember at that time that’s how I used to roll. You know in Jamaica it’s hot, so I probably had my tank top and my jeans on, or my shorts. And I had this one pair of grey Crocs that I just wore everywhere. And I always have my knapsack. So yeah, that was my reality at that moment.

How far away does that feel, now that you have a stylist and travel the world? That’s amazing. It’s a transition that’s really beautiful and something I really appreciate.

I have a feeling you’re going to re-introduce words like “appreciate” and “give thanks” into pop culture. I hope to start a wave of gratitude. Even by writing that song “Toast,” when I say “We haffi give thanks like we really supposed to,” it reminds me to be grateful. I aspire to be humble and I pray and ask God to help me be grateful. I try to maintain it and I hope that will inspire other people to do the same.

Let’s talk about “Toast.” On the chorus, you say “We nah rise and boast.” But then again, a lot of reggae and dancehall artists are very “boasy.” That’s part of the culture. When I say “Wi nah rise and boast” it means that no matter what happens along the journey, we’re still gonna remain the same. We gonna big up we friend and hold a vibes. I’m just making it clear that we never come fe hype.

You can spit pretty fast, but I feel like some people may be missing some of the things you say. But if you listen carefully you’re talking about real things. Thank you for noticing that. When I wrote “Raggamuffin,” a lot of my musical influence came from artists like Protoje and Chronixx. Chronixx has basically been an advocate for the youths, so his message had an impact on me. When I was vibing to the beat, I wanted to cover myself, cover my country where I come from, good things and bad things, and the music, reggae itself.

Growing up, did you see inner city kids not being looked after by their own government and their own people? Most definitely. I wouldn't say that the government is responsible for the lives of everybody as citizens. But there are some general things that need the government’s attention and they don't pay the attention that they should. They'd rather focus on things that can garner income. There are roads that need to be fixed in places that tourists don't necessarily visit. And nobody cares about those roads. Minor injustices, major injustices—just things that really need to be spoken about so that people can think about it and look into it.

BDP used the term Edutainment—education and entertainment. Is that something you present in your music? Yes, it’s definitely something I aim for. I think that it’s important to keep people interested enough to want to absorb what you are saying. And then it’s equally important to present something that is worth absorbing. Something productive, something inspiring, motivating. Just mixing both so that you have their attention and you’re also delivering something that’s worth their attention.

You were still in school when you did your song “Burning.” As a new artist did you have to convince the producers to work with you? Gratefully, no I didn't have to convince them. Because I did a tribute to Usain Bolt before that. I wrote a song with my guitar titled “Legend” and posted a video of me performing it with my guitar on Instagram.

Usain came across it and reposted it, so that garnered a lot of attention. People from the music industry reached out to me, and in that group of people was Upsetta records with their Ouji Riddim. They sent it to my first manager like, “Let’s see what she can do” and so forth.

There’s this thing in Jamaica called Sixth Form. It’s like you graduate high school and there’s an extra two years that you can do as like a pre-college. I applied for it and didn’t get through. Right after that, I did the tribute to Usain Bolt and then Upsetta sent me the Ouji Riddim. I was in a state of mind where I felt disappointed. I felt the need to motivate myself, so I was like “Come with the fire the city burning!”

How does your mom feel about all of this? I started writing lyrics at 14 years old, but she didn't find out until I was 16, when she saw me perform at a competition in school. I invited her there and she was taken aback, like, “Wow! So this what you've been doing?” (Laughs) She wanted me to do academics like every parent wants. And she was little disappointed when I didn't get through to Sixth Form. But over time, as I wrote more and performed more, she began to trust my talent and just trust the process. So she started appreciating the music and now she's fully on board.

What did your mother think of “dancehall pon the street,” like you sing about in your song “Raggamuffin”? As you know I’ve been living with mommy since I was a baby up until I was 17, so being under her roof I didn't go out much. I was always in the house just chilling and stuff. I know that there’s a dance on like every corner. lf you are driving, you always hear music playing. You have the oldies dancehall, you have the new dancehall—everybody just hold a vibe. That’s basically where that line comes from.

Do you go to dances now? I’ve been going to a few parties and getting out, but I haven't been to like a dance dance. I’ve been to Dub Club, you get some really good music there. But Dub Club is like a relaxed kinda vibe.

You recently performed at Bob Marley’s 74th birthday celebration in Kingston. Do you still listen to his music? Most definitely! Bob has set such a great and amazing foundation for the music, the industry, the genre itself, the country, the youth... He’s set such a great example that you haffi really learn from it and take a lot from it so that you know where you’re coming from. You haffi understand how to execute in honor of such people.

What are some of your favorite Bob songs? Well, I performed “Who the Cap Fit” that night, so that’s one of my favorites. And I like “Is This Love” and “Natural Mystic.” That’s just a few.

I know that’s a hard question. What about a dancehall legend like Super Cat? Hmm… “Mud Up” woulda be my favorite Super Cat.

Really?! Yeah, because of the flow he has on it, not necessarily the content. See, I’m from Spanish Town. Jamaicans on a whole, we like vibes. We like lyrics that, as we would say, “it slap!” It touches you, and really hits that spot. So I listen to a lot of different things, and the lyrics that I listen to aren't always conscious. But what I derive from music is not necessarily the message. Sometimes the flow that you’re hearing, that’s the wave for the moment. It may not be the best for the youth, but that’s what people like to vibe to. So you take that vibe, put a positive message to it, and that’s the spin. So I listen very widely.

One of my favorite songs on your new EP is the “Rapture” remix. It was dope that you got together with Govana on that. When I first wrote “Rapture,” Govana had recently done a song called “Bake Bean” that took off in Jamaica. When him drop that, it’s like the flow really resonate with me. I was like, “This is dope.” So when I did “Rapture” I was listening back to it and thought I should probably try to get Govana on this track. And it turned out so sick!

That’s cool to have the credibility where other artists respond to you like that. Because I'm sure it’s not always that easy. No, it’s not always easy. Me haffi give thanks for the way people have been responding.

So no one has kissed their teeth and said, “Nah man”? (Laughs) No, not yet. (Laughs) But what I have to appreciate is just when another artist really listens and pays attention. Sometimes an artist can be good and they don't get the response or the attention that they deserve. Some people don't want to listen, so I give a lot of respect to who is willing to listen.

Well Govana has given you that “crown” in his verse, which reminds me—how did the song “Throne” come about? I remember Walshy sent me that riddim in the first batch of riddims that he sent me. The riddim for “Toast” was also in that batch, but I started with “Throne.” It was basically like a challenge for me. I was like “How am I gonna spit on this?” Because the riddim sounded so dynamic. I was like “mi haffi mash this up!” Hence the fast spit-fire kind of vibe.

What music are you currently listening to on your phone? I don’t listen to my own songs that much. I’m vibing to Mr Eazi. I’ve been going in on the Afrobeats. Burna Boy. Smino the rapper. And I’ve been going in even more on Bob Marley.

Well, it’s reggae month right now. So there’s lots of legendary birthdays—Bob Marley, Dennis Brown. That makes the month even more significant! By the way, I’m born in February also. (Laughs) February 16th.

Happy Earthstrong! Were you keeping that quiet? I just remembered. I’ll be 19!

Wow—you’re gonna be out of the teens soon. What you gonna do on your 19th birthday? Wowwwww—I dunno. I’m gonna see when I get to Jamaica which party. I’ll probably just try and go to a dance or something. That ah go be mad!

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