Music Sermon: The Golden Era Of Black Movie Soundtracks
In honor of this award season's love for black films and soundtracks, VIBE revisits soundtracks from the 90s: the golden era of original black movie music.
We’re experiencing a renaissance for black storytelling. A few years after #OscarsSoWhite called Hollywood to the carpet for lack of opportunity and acknowledgment of black filmmakers and actors, there’s a marked increase in visibility of our stories and the voices that tell them. Black content had a similar wave in the ‘90s. The expansion of network TV beyond the big three networks created space for black programming, and young black filmmakers were in demand for the realism and sociopolitical statements woven into our stories. More black movies were released in 1991 than the entire decade prior. Karen Grisgby Gates, who currently reports on race and identity for NPR’s Code Switch, wrote about the black movie boom for the New York Times Magazine in 1991. “The frenzy for black product…has become so great that black film properties may be to the nineties what the cell phone was to the eighties: every studio executive has to have one.”
Aside from being able to see ourselves and our lives on screen, the beauty in the abundance of black movies was the abundance of fire soundtracks that came with them. The soundtrack was a must-cop that was as important as the film. Even if the movie was trash. Maybe even if you didn’t see the movie. In this digital streaming era, movie soundtracks don’t happen as often; playlisting has almost rendered the compilation album obsolete. Soundtracks have been almost an afterthought, with little promotion and fanfare. Interest in developing musical companions worthy of great films is slowly returning, with the Black Panther soundtrack as a prime example. But for a blissful period in music and film, the soundtrack was actually a key part of a movie’s marketing. It was essential to the experience.
In honor of the love that black films and the music for black films are getting this awards season, let’s revisit some of the rich offerings from the golden era of original black movie music.
A quick disclaimer: The Bodyguard soundtrack transcends discussions of era and genre, so it’s not included in the below.
As a preamble and prelude, we must start by recognizing the catalyst for the black movie dominance of the 1990s, a filmmaker always incredibly deliberate about the scoring and soundtracks for his work. Spike Lee has his own lane here.
School Daze (1986) was not only a realistic depiction of HBCU and BGLO (black greek letter organization) culture, but a delightful mix of musical show tunes and jams, plus negro spirituals, jazzy soul, and the song that took gogo mainstream. School Daze was the black college experience boiled down to 11 tracks.
God bless Spike and E.U for blessing us with the universal clarion call to get your ass on the floor. We all know what that gogo drum intro means.
I put Do the Right Thing’s opening credits in my top five. Nobody dances as hard as Rosie Perez. In the world.
Do the Right Thing = “Fight the Power.” There’s a whole soundtrack, yes, but don’t ask me what else is on it. “Fight the Power” is heard in the movie 15 times. That’s the soundtrack.
Great music is a signature of a classic Spike Lee Joint. He has two movie soundtracks from our greatest musical geniuses, Stevie Wonder and Prince. He has one full of contemporary jazz. One full of ‘70s soul classics. The music is always perfectly suited to the film.
Spike proved to Hollywood that movies made on small budgets could be very profitable: not only would black people would go out to see stories created for and about them, but white people would, too. Studios were intrigued and in need of original ideas. Young, edgy studio New Line Cinema gave directors Reginald and Warrington Hudlin a $2.5 million budget for the 1990 teen comedy House Party. The movie grossed $26 million. We showed up. On opening night, not only were the seats full at the theater I went to (I went to the black movie theater, of course), folks bought tickets to other movies, snuck in, and were standing against the walls. A movie about a high school house party starring two rappers and an R&B group (Full Force), had to have the right music. Early new jack swing was on deck.
This is one of my favorite movie scenes. Back in the day, you and your crew had to have your steps together, because there was always an opportunity to show off on the dance floor.
The soundtrack wasn’t huge commercially, but it was a preview of the more evolved merging of music and film on the horizon.
Public Enemy is not a group you associate with dance tracks, but “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man” goes. I have this on my workout list now.
In 1991, New Jack City renewed the urban soundtrack game. In the ‘70s, the blaxploitation era was a similarly big moment for black cinema. Film soundtracks were extended elements of the story. The music from Shaft, Superfly, Claudine, Sparkle and more still maintain their critical and cultural importance years later. The Curtis Mayfield-led Superfly soundtrack even made more money than the movie! New Jack City brought back the importance of extending the feeling of the movie through its music. Giant Records was a brand new label and had something to prove. “The strategy was simple: to get hot! It was about making this look like the most exciting black urban compilation record possible,” A&R Gary Harris shared with OkayPlayer. “I envisioned a record where we would put our artists on…and then surround them with stars, exciting music and that would give a platform to our artists as well as give us some billing very quickly."
New Jack was a tipping point for ‘90s culture. It was the first film about the crack era, and the announcement of a new youth movement. Screenwriter Barry Cooper coined the phrase “new jack swing” in 1987 about Teddy Riley, and since then it was used in the street and some circles, but the movie presented new jack as a culture, not just a music genre. A culture based on lifestyle: music, fashion, partying, street savvy. So, the music had to be on point.
The soundtrack was a masterful mix of established and new artists.
It also incorporated the two artists starring in the movie, Christopher Williams and Ice T. The album reached No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200, and No. 1 on the Hip Hop/ R&B chart, where it stayed for over a month.
The floodgates opened for black storytellers. At the same time, black music – specifically, new jack swing and hip hop - was growing and breaking into the mainstream; a perfect storm for soundtrack excellence.
Uptown Records was a major force behind the evolution happening on the music side. Uptown was first real lifestyle label, the home of new jack swing, and the parent of Bad Boy Entertainment. Andrè Harrell called it the new Motown, and like Berry Gordy with Motown, he wanted to expand Uptown’s entertainment reach beyond music to TV and film. Strictly Business (1991) was Uptown’s launch into multimedia, and a precursor of sorts to Boomerang, as one of the first films centered around successful young black professionals, and as the film that introduced young Halle Berry.
The soundtrack was centered around Uptown’s roster. Father MC, Heavy D & the Boyz, Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” more than six months before What’s the 411 was released, and the debut of Jodeci.
The soundtrack also featured acts outside of the Uptown system including LL Cool J, Stephanie Mills, and Nice & Smooth. My favorite track - one of the only songs released as a single – is still a favorite in an uptown party. (New Yorkers call Harlem and areas north of Manhattan “uptown.” That’s the inspiration for the label’s name.)
What I’m about to say next is controversial, but I must speak truth to power. Juice is an urban classic, but Tupac and the soundtrack are the only reasons to revisit the film (and to look at young Omar Epps and Khalil Kain). It aged terribly.
The album, however, is still one of the best hip-hop compilations ever.
The Juice soundtrack is super “up top,” super hip-hop, with classic emcees like Kane, Eric B. & Rakim, EPMD and Too Short (for some west coast representation).
It also featured one of Naughty by Nature’s greatest joints. I think we sleep on Treach, but that’s another sermon.
Really though, beloveds, you can drive a mack truck through the movie plotline.
In June 1992, Eddie Murphy gifted the world with Boomerang: one of the smartest, funniest, most well-written ensemble romantic comedies ever. Of any genre, any demo, ever. And God opened the heavens above Kenneth Edmunds’ house and told him to go forth and produce R&B soundtracks.
L.A. Reid and Babyface were already OG songwriter and production hitmakers, but this was their first movie project. The relatively new label heads were inspired by the success of New Jack City, and used the soundtrack as their benchmark. They spent time on set, watching while creating, which is why all the songs fit so perfectly with the film.
Uptempo love bops. A severely underrated Johnny Gill jam. Emo, heart-wrenching ballads. An unintended launch for Toni Braxton – both of her songs were written with Anita Baker in mind. Plus a little hip-hop - Tribe’s inclusion was Eddie Murphy’s call.
Music from motion pictures became a vehicle to introduce new artists to the marketplace before their solo debut.
We met Snoop and his laid-back flow on 1992’s “Deep Cover” before he jumped on The Chronic later that year.
Little bitty baby Usher was mackin’ on the Poetic Justice soundtrack.
Puff put new signee Biggie Smalls on Uptown’s Who’s the Man soundtrack right before breaking camp to start his own label and taking Big with him as the anchor artist.
The Above the Rim soundtrack (1994) is G-Funk greatness. Death Row slammed the album down on the table like a big joker after whoppin’ ass with The Chronic in ‘92 and Doggystyle in ’93. The compilation was for west coast hip-hop what Juice was for the east, and it had some solid R&B joints.
“Regulate” alone is enough to land this soundtrack in Top 5 of the decade. Warren G. put his foot in the track (even though it’s hard to jack up “I Keep Forgettin’”), and I think this is the best display of Nate Dogg’s gangsta-soul vocals. The single’s success was a large factor in the compilation’s ten-week run at the top of the Hip-Hop/R&B chart.
We rocked rough and stuff with our afro puffs (holds out mic).
Side note - Death Row drama got in the way of Rage having the shot and support she deserved and it makes me sad. Her verse on Doggystyle’s “G Funk Intro” is better than some entire albums.
SWV was good for a soundtrack remix, and the version of “Anything” with Wu-Tang Clan was everything. (Wu-Tang isn’t in the video edit.)
Above the Rim is also like Juice, in that Tupac and cast plus the soundtrack are the only reasons the movie still holds classic status. Because, man, that plot… (Imagine the shakinghead.gif of your choice here.)
Soundtracks were also a great opportunity for artists to experiment with classic covers. The complete Jason’s Lyric soundtrack isn’t available on streaming services (as is the case with several soundtracks and compilations from the ‘90s, due to publishing issues), but it had some highlights. Most notably, the male R&B supergroup Black Men United and the early D’Angelo composition “U Will Know,” Brian McKnight’s endearing “Crazy Love,” and the cover that I believe in my soul K-Ci Hailey was put on this earth to sing.
When Waiting to Exhale arrived in theaters in 1995, it was first a moment for black women. Then, it quickly became a moment for all women. There’d never been a female ensemble cast like this: middle-class black women navigating universally relatable issues in love and life, not struggling to find a way to survive in or get out of poverty and violence. When Forest Whitaker tapped Babyface for the soundtrack, ‘Face assembled an all-star roster of black female artists of all ages and career stages, anchored by Whitney Houston, for a collection that invoked love, loss, and sisterhood.
The movie was an event, and the soundtrack was the after set. People wanted to go home and hold onto everything they felt in the theater – even the sadness. There were several go-head-and-cry-it-out-and-then-move-on-girl cuts.
The soundtrack was a massive hit. It topped the Billboard Top 200 Albums for five weeks, and the R&B album chart for ten weeks. The album went seven singles deep (rare for a soundtrack) and spawned five Top 10 hits on the Hot 100, and two No. 1s.
There was something for everybody. Brandy for the young’uns.
CeCe and Nippy for the wholesome.
Toni for the chill aunties.
Plus, Chaka, Patti, Aretha, Chantè Moore, Faith Evans, TLC, and a few debuts. It remains one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time.
I’ve gone on multiple twitter rants about people who (have no taste and) don’t like Love Jones. But at least everyone seems to universally agree that the soundtrack is a banger. The term “neo-soul” was coined right around Love Jones’ release in 1997, but the movie represented the era perfectly, as did the music.
I’ve always loved the usage of music in this movie, from jazz to classic reggae to funk to James Brown at the steppers set (when have you seen a date like that depicted in a movie?).
Before the movie had even opened, I was pressed to see it, because this was the best song I’d ever heard in my life. Even though “The Sweetest Thing” was credited as The Refugee Camp All-Stars, it was really our first taste of Lauryn’s solo style.
Love Jones combined classic jazz compositions, contemporary jazz vocalists, and the as-yet-unnamed neo soul genre artists, and it felt cohesive.
Maxwell was a late ‘90s/early ‘00s soundtrack staple.
Rounding out the decade is 1999’s The Best Man. The movie’s biggest musical impact is probably establishing Cameo’s “Candy” as the new official electric slide song (we weren’t doing that before this movie came out, real talk).
The soundtrack was a great mix of chill R&B (including an early Beyoncè duet that I always forget is Beyoncè), and good hip-hop.
Where is Jaguar Wright, by the way?
Lauryn was reveling in her new Marly-ness, doing updates of her father-in-law’s classics.
This is the video that should go in a time capsule for early 2000s R&B. For the hood and the highrises, or the mansions with the maids (LOL, RL thought that was deep).
Again, Maxwell was present and accounted for.
There are so many more albums I could have touched on: Boyz n’ the Hood, The Five Heartbeats, House Party II, Menace II Society, Mo’ Money, Higher Learning, Low Down Dirty Shame, Friday, Life, Bad Boys, The Nutty Professor, Rush Hour, Romeo Must Die, Don’t Be a Menace, Panther, How to Be a Player, Belly, Hav Plenty, Soul Food, Love and Basketball (even though that’s 2000), and probably at least ten more that spawned one or more hits from the soundtrack. And that’s just taking original music under consideration. There were also dynamic compilations of classics like Crooklyn and Dead Presidents.
The thing is, the story of the golden era of soundtracks is the story of the golden era of black films. It’s overwhelming to remember the sheer volume of output from black directors, producers, and/or actors during this span of time, and sad to consider that decades later we had to start all over again and are just now seeing progress with representation (and with acknowledgment; the earlier movies were largely ignored by mainstream awards bodies). Yet it’s still only a fraction of what we had. In the 1991 Times article referenced earlier on the increasing demand and opportunity for black filmmakers, Warrington Hudlin realized a change in the media landscape was due, pointing out that “(i)f, within the next thirty years, America is going to be predominantly a nation of people of color, then white studio executives had better begin to understand who their consumer is going to be.” That thirty years is almost up. Last year, there were soundtracks for The Hate You Give, Creed II, A Wrinkle in Time, the Superfly remake and of course, Black Panther. Maybe by the time we reach 2021, the black movie and soundtrack game will be back in full effect.
#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.