Director John Singleton
Portrait of film director John Singleton on the Columbia Studios lot in Los Angeles, California in 1994.
Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

John Singleton: The Cinematic Voice Of The Hip-Hop Generation

The unapologetic visionary told our stories in a way no one else could.

For almost 30 years, writer/director/producer John Daniel Singleton had been one of the premiere storytellers of the hip-hop generation. In the late ‘80s, actors/directors Robert Townsend and Spike Lee broke through Hollywood barriers as black filmmakers with Hollywood Shuffle, She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, proving that our stories could be told with a modest budget, and young, largely unknown talent and still yield a high-profit margin. As smaller, niche studios emerged on the scene and looked for content in the early ‘90s, they gravitated towards black films; a trend that started in earnest when a 23-year-old writer and director fresh out of University of Southern California’s film school brought a coming-of-age tale of three black teenagers in South Central Los Angeles to the screen titled Boyz n the Hood. Then, nothing was the same.

1991 was the beginning of a black movie boom that lasted a little more than a decade; it was the first time black actors and black stories from a black perspective had been so broadly represented in cinema since the Blaxploitation era of the 1970s. The ‘80s film industry focused on widely marketable stories with notable names - the decade of the blockbuster. There were black movie stars — most notably Eddie Murphy — but not black creatives behind the camera. The ‘90s brought a complete cultural shift in music and media. There were more films written, directed and/or produced by black people in 1991 alone than the entire previous decade. The representations in New Jack City, Jungle Fever, House Party II (just a year after the box office success of House Party), Daughters of the Dust, Strictly Business, The Five Heartbeats and more than ten other films that year covered the varied aspects of the black experience, from deep and profound to light and comedic. But the breakout success of the bunch was Singleton’s debut film.

The semi-autobiographical story of Tre, Ricky and Doughboy simply trying to survive through everyday life in Inglewood was brand new to the mainstream – Boyz was released the year before the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged with brutally beating Rodney King turning the nation’s attention to the racial tension and social issues of the lower income, predominately black Los Angeles neighborhoods south of the I-10 freeway. Singleton strived to bring the realities of South Central to the world the way Spike Lee was known for doing with Brooklyn, New York. While at USC, the student saw Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing and started working on Boyz N the Hood immediately, developing it from a concept in his film school application. “I was so enamored with Spike and what he did,” Singleton told the LA Times, “painting Brooklyn as his cinematic turf, I was like, I have to come from L.A. so hard, so people really know that it has its own type of flavor and its own vibe.”

“Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” - Doughboy (Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood)

After the movie grossed an impressive $55 million, other L.A. “hood” films followed, most notably 1993's Menace II Society (Albert and Allen Hughes), 1992's South Central (Stephen Milburn Anderson) and 1995's Friday (Ice Cube, whose career as an actor and filmmaker was inspired by Singleton giving him his first role in Boyz), the lighter side of the hood that still addressed drive-bys and crack heads, but Boyz was the prototype.

West Coast hip-hop was making a national impact by 1990. NWA’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton blew listeners away with the raw depiction of life as a young black man in L.A., but Singleton translated the perspective to film in a way that humanized the stories. You didn’t have to be a hip-hop fan to understand Boyz N the Hood, but Singleton’s casting of some of the strongest rap voices in the West enhanced the feeling of seeing Cube, Snoop or Pac lyrics come to life.

“A lot of people don’t really understand what it is to be young, black and male and grow up in L.A. It’s like you – you’re taught to have the potential to explode,” Singleton explained to NPR around the film’s 20th anniversary. “You know, it’s like if a person looks at you wrong or a certain slight could turn into like, you know – you know, boom!”

Like his big brother in cinema, Spike, Singleton’s career expanded over the years beyond exclusively black subjects into more diverse storytelling and genres, including a turn at the helm for the Fast and Furious franchise with 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious and, more recently, the television dramas Snowfall for the FX network and BET’s Rebel. But here, we examine his first decade of filmmaking following the explosive success of Boyz N the Hood, the cultural impact of his early films, and Singleton’s classic “isms.”

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Poetic Justice, (1993) – Writer and Director

After Boyz N the Hood, the 25-year-old wanted to do something that wasn’t message heavy, but just about the experiences of young people from his hood. He’d bumped into Janet Jackson on a set soon after Boyz and told her he had a script that was perfect for her. She asked him to send it over…but there was no script. He just knew he needed a big name attached to his second film and wanted her. He started writing Justice with Janet in mind as the lead. He was also enamored with budding rap/movie star Tupac Shakur and thought he was a strong enough personality to pull his weight opposite Janet. Ironically, Singleton has said that Pac’s anti-Black Hollywood attitude drew him to the rapper: “I saw him do his first interview on BET. He declared war on black Hollywood – not Hollywood itself, but black Hollywood. He was like, ‘F*ck Spike Lee, f*ck Eddie Murphy, f*ck Quincy Jones, f*ck all these fake a** people. They’re going to see a new dude out here. I’m going to come hard.’ And I was like, ‘I want to work with him!’”

If Boyz N the Hood was an introduction to South Central L.A., Poetic Justice continues the tour. Through Singleton’s penchant to use the same actors in his movies - in this case Regina King, Tyra Ferrell, Lloyd Avery II (reciting almost the same exact lines as he did when his character spotted Ricky in Boyz), and Dedrick D. Gobert – the viewer has a sense of continuity between films. The movie remains a Singleton fave not because it’s as strong as Boyz N the Hood, but because it isn’t. Roger Ebert said in his review, “Poetic Justice is not (Boyz’) equal, but does not aspire to be; it is a softer, gentler film, more of a romance than a commentary on social conditions…by the time it's over we can see more clearly how Boyz presented only part of the South Central reality. Yes, things are hard. But they aren't impossible. Sometimes they're wonderful. And sometimes you can find someone to share them with.”

In my opinion, the best part of the film is the crew happening upon a random family reunion and stopping to eat. It’s a testament to the connection between black folks, ‘cause you sho’ can roll into a massive black family gathering, say you’re somebody’s child, hug some strangers, and grab a plate. As long as you speak to everybody and can play cards, you good.

Iesha: “So what y’all gonna do?”

Chicago: “What you mean? We gonna eat.”

Justice: “You crazy? This ain’t your family”

Lucky: “We black, we all family...especially when it comes to barbeque.”

Singleton became close to Pac while filming and had plans to do more projects with him, including Baby Boy – Pac was supposed to play Jody, and they suspended development after his death. Singleton was also long attached to a Tupac biopic project, but eventually abandoned the project altogether because, he said, “The people involved aren’t really respectful of the legacy of Tupac Amaru Shakur.”

Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” (1992) – Director

Late one night, a half-asleep Singleton got a call from someone he believed was Michael Jackson requesting a meeting. He asked if he could give him a call the following day. The next day, a game of telephone commenced: Singleton called his agent, his agent called Michael’s agent, then Michael called Singleton and said he was interested in them working on a video together. When John asked about the late night call, Michael said it wasn’t him. Later, Singleton discovered the original call was a prank from Lloyd Avery II, but the end result was the epic cinematic short film for “Remember the Time.”

The nine-minute long masterpiece premiered simultaneously on Fox (following The Simpsons), MTV and BET, and it was the most beautiful, unapologetically black a** sh*t. And that full blackness was the intention, “(Michael) said, ‘What do you wanna do?’ I said, ‘I wanna put you with a whole bunch of black people.’” The video featured not just “a whole bunch of black people,” but rich and famous black people like Eddie Murphy, Iman, and even a comedic cameo by then NBA All-Star, Magic Johnson. Singleton also wanted to bring Michael into the New Jack Swing era. He called choreographer Fatima Robinson, who’d been an extra in Boyz, to bring in every hip-hop dancer of note in the game and give Michael some updated moves. The short film was a cinematic portrayal of historical black royalty (shoutout to the original Asiatic black man), opulence and excellence. Threads and think pieces would’ve abounded had it premiered in today’s digital era.

Higher Learning (1995) – Writer / Director / Producer

Higher Learning isn’t Singleton’s strongest film. The edict on race, sex and culture through the microcosm of the fictitious Columbus University was criticized at the time for being too shallow and on the nose. The New York Times review pointed to the arcs of the main characters: “Malik (Omar Epps), a black athlete, risks being exploited for his sports ability in ways that prompt unflattering comparisons with the trenchant ‘Hoop Dreams.’ Remy (Michael Rapaport), a white misfit…falls into the clutches of skinhead Aryan supremacists. These guys, loathsome even by skinhead standards, resort to every stock villainous gesture short of twirling their mustaches. Kristen (Kristy Swanson)…winds up crying date rape in ways guaranteed to alienate a large segment of the audience, which will think her anything but blameless.”

However, looking back at the film from a 2019 lens, those on-the-nose points have become social and cultural reality.

The Times mused Kristen would be thought “anything but blameless,” because she consented to sex, but her partner charged ahead without a condom despite her insistence he wear one - a key topic in conversations around consent and sexual assault today. Remy is radicalized in part because he’s looking for acceptance and belonging. Black people intimidate him, and the cool white kids think he’s weird – sounds like everyone on 4chan, the anonymous message board infamous for breeding internet trolls, incels and alt-right wingers. And considering we’ve recently seen a mob of Bobs-from-accounting carrying tiki torches with no shame or fear, and white power dog whistles peppered in the rhetoric of even the country’s highest elected official, the Aryan brothers on Columbus University’s campus are lightweight.

Malik’s athletic exploitation for education fits right into the current dialogue around student athletes. There’s also a moment early in the movie, when resident super-senior and sage, Fudge (played by Ice Cube...every campus had one; mine was named Bill), asks Malik what he’ll do when he’s at a football game full of white people, the National Anthem begins, and everyone turns around to watch him. Malik’s nervous: “I’d probably stand up” is especially resonant in this post-Kaepernik protest era.

(Also, shoutout to the exchange between Cube and Regina King about the printer paper that echoes Doughboy telling Shalika, “You better take yo’ a** to the store with that.”)

Rosewood (1997) -  Director

Rosewood was Singleton’s first commercial disappointment, but the historical drama was exactly within the director’s mission and intention with his art: to make sure our narratives are told properly.

The movie is based on the accounts of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre in Florida, which Singleton learned of via a 1994 story in Esquire. The tale is eerily similar to Black Wall Street, where a white woman falsely claimed assault by a black man, and the white community used the accusation as motivation to attack a financially thriving all-black area in Oklahoma. Singleton did fictionalize some elements of the story, including Ving Rhames character, Mr. Man, who rallies to fight back against the white mob. He said he added Mr. Man because historical accounts omit the fact that we fought back against our persecution. “The written history is black people, no matter what their persecution was, no matter what was heaped upon them by institutionalized racism, and American terrorism, they always got their a** kicked, and they kowtowed and they left,” he explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “That ain’t true…We got our a** kicked, but we kicked a**. People lynched our women, killed our kids, we went back and shot them. It’s the people that are writing the history, that are re-writing history…They’re trying to lead… people of color not to fight back against their persecution. It ain’t true. We fought back.”

Baby Boy (2001) – Writer / Director / Producer

Singleton has called Baby Boy the counterpoint to Boyz N the Hood. Baby Boy is a different type of coming-of-age tale; not a story of a character’s journey from naiveté into maturity, but one of a manchild’s forced acceptance of adulthood and responsibility. Jody isn’t a high school student fighting to survive in the South Central streets, he’s a twenty-year-old living in his mother’s house, using his girlfriend’s resources, and getting by off good dick and good game. He’s not gang affiliated, he’s not a hard criminal, he just a fucc boi.

The role of Jody was originally intended for Tupac. After Shakur’s death, model/singer Tyrese Gibson – in his film debut – was chosen in part because he’s an avid Pac fan. In tribute, a mural of the rapper covers the wall above Jody’s bed.

Baby Boy is a BET Black Star Power hall of famer and is maybe one of the best bad movies of all time. Ok, it’s not bad bad; it’s cultural excellence, and it’s damn near documentary-level accuracy in the portrayal of an ain’t sh*t mama’s boy, but Oscar material it ain’t.

Singleton is extremely particular about the dialogue in his movies and has his cast get together for an off-script improv session before taping, to flesh out their character personalities. It’s a technique Lawrence Fishburne passed on during Boyz, learned from the legendary director and Singleton hero Francis Ford Coppala. “I hate watching movies and they’re only talking dialogue that can only happen in a movie. I abhor that,” the director has said. “I have a saying where the audience has to come out and have ‘isms,’ they have to come out and say things characters said in the movie. That’s when you have a hit because you’ve captured them.” I don’t think any of Singleton’s movies can beat Boyz for “isms,” but Baby Boy holds its own. There are quotables and meme material for days. The most popular and enduring is Juanita’s (AJ Johnson) “Mama gotta have a life, too,” followed by Taraji’s trademark “I hate ‘chu!” But almost every character gets in a gem or two.

“Forty dollars?”

“Y’all some unstable creatures.”

“I don’t give a f**k about your little fort.”

…and OG Melvin’s famous “Guns and Butter” sermon.

Hustle & Flow (2005) – Producer

Hustle & Flow is an outlier in this overview; the movie came out later than our scope of reference, and Singleton didn’t write or direct, he just produced. But the film is key because it was Singleton’s full-circle moment.

Stephanie Allain, the black Columbia Pictures executive who championed Boyz N the Hood, was fighting to bring unknown filmmaker Craig Brewer’s surprisingly complex and heartfelt movie about a pimp chasing his rap star dreams to screen, and getting turned down. So she took it to Singleton. “(Studios) always think they know what should be made and what shouldn’t be made and what’s cool,” he recounted to The Hollywood Reporter. “I’d just made 2 Fast 2 Furious, it made like $200 million all around the world...You guys can’t give us $3 million to do this movie?... I was like you know what, fine, forget it, I’ll do it...My philosophy was, if I had the money to do Boyz N the Hood on my own, would I do it?”

The 2005 film was a surprise hit and critical success, garnering 2006 Sundance, SAG, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominations with a Best Original Song win for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” So basically, without John Singleton, the world would never have been blessed to see Juicy J, DJ Paul, and Crunchy Black win an Oscar.

Singleton had been outwardly critical in recent years about black creatives fight for presence and voice in filmmaking. "They ain't letting the black people tell the stories," he lamented in 2014 before an audience of students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television. "The so-called liberals that are in Hollywood now are not as good as their parents or ancestors. They feel that they're not racist. They grew up with hip-hop, so [they] can't be racist. ‘I like Jay-Z, but that don't mean I got to give you a job.'" He went on to add that it wasn’t that “black movies” weren’t getting made, but that they didn’t have substance because black people weren’t in charge of the narrative. “(The studios) want black people to be who they want them to be, as opposed to what they are,” Singleton explained strongly. “The black films now — so-called black films now — they're great. They're great films. But they're just product. They're not moving the bar forward creatively…when you try to make it homogenized, when you try to make it appeal to everybody, then you don't have anything that's special."

Since that speech, a new boom of black content by black creators has begun. The new guard of directors like Ava Duvernay, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele and Barry Jenkins are killing at the box office and making strides towards recognition at notable awards ceremonies. Singleton became the first ever black nominee for Best Director in 1991. The next nomination didn’t come until 2009 for Lee Daniels, and there’s been one each of the last three years, most recently with the long-awaited nomination for Spike Lee. But a black director has yet to actually take the Oscar home (Lee won for Best Adapted Screenplay, the first Oscar of his career). There’s still a long way to go.

It’s fitting that Singleton and Lee are the bookends of the highest acclaimed black directors, even though the student was nominated decades before the teacher. “I just try to rep hard for Spike,” Singleton said recently about his goal with filmmaking. “When he was starting he was trying to get people to say, ‘Hey listen, we can have our own idiom in film. We can have a black film aesthetic. We can have a thing that’s unique.’ When I do whatever I’m trying to do, I’m still trying to rep that.”

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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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John Johnson III

Megan Thee Stallion Helps DTLR Celebrate Fashion's Past, Present and Future

Fashion retailer DTLR has always curated the best of streetwear, with their latest fashion show proving the evolution is real and influential.

The fourth annual show took place in Atlanta this spring under a theme titled, "Genesis."  The event took place in Atlanta, GA, with hosts Yung Joc and DTLR's Radio's Tiara LaNiece. DTLR's Apprelle Norton, David Storey and KeJuan McGee curated the event to take their guests "on a journey through the past, present and future of fashion, featuring the latest from top leading brands such as Nike, Puma, Adidas, Levis, Champion, Reebok, Fila, Black Pyramid, New Balance, Tommy Hilfiger, Staple, Hustle Gang, Akoo, Ethika, Odd Sox, and many more."

In addition to presenting some of the hottest looks out, the event also welcomed performances from VIBE NEXT Alumna Megan Thee Stallion. Appearances from the the "Big Ol Freak" rapper was an added effort on DTLR's Vice President of Marketing, Shawn Caesar's part to make the fashion show more of an "experience."

"We wanted to add more of an 'experience' feel to the show this year," Caesar said in a press release. "[We wanted]  to encourage more engagement and interaction from our attendees, and to aid in creating more memories and reasons to stay connected to the DTLR brand long-term."

DTLR is quickly becoming a part of a class of successful upcoming brands. The brand has more than 240 stores in 19 states and Washington D.C. and it manages to combine fashion, sports, entertainment, sports, and community empowerment into one; all while providing their customers with elite footwear, apparel and accessories to match.

See photos from the event below.

 

 

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