Stephanie Mills Live In Concert
Raymond Boyd

Music Sermon: The Forgotten Voices Of The ‘80s Pt. II

In the last Music Sermon, we highlighted three ‘80s soul singers - Lisa Fischer, Vesta Williams and Phyllis Hyman - whose solo careers never reached full potential, despite their rare and enormous talent. Unfortunately, their stories don’t stand alone.

There are more cases that I can list off-hand of voices more powerful than most current artists, who’ve been relegated to the fringes of music conversations or completely left in the past. You know the key jams for some of these women; their songs are spun at house parties, at the cookout, during a good soul classics set, or when your parents get ‘hold of the aux cord. But the artists themselves aren’t nearly as visible as they should be – if they’re still visible at all. They weren’t in the ranks of participants for all-woman-power-singer specials like VH1 Divas. They don’t pop up for Grammy specials and tributes. But they do almost all have dedicated episodes of TV One’s Unsung.

It’s hard to narrow the field down to just a handful of these deserving artists to celebrate, but we’re going to get a few more in. In continuation from the last Music Sermon, VIBE examines an alternate aspect in the story of near-forgotten female vocalists of the ‘80s: artists who enjoyed longevity and success but never reached crossover status. Artists whose voices are known, but their names aren’t.

Angela Winbush

The hip-hop generation may not realize it, but it knows Angela Winbush. She’s been sampled, she’s been remixed, she’s been covered, and she’s one of the few women in our discussion who had a presence into the late-90s. In addition to a four-octave range, Angela was one of the first women who performed, wrote, arranged, produced and played multiple instruments, but she never felt she was properly recognized for her work. Despite such vocal range, all the looks she served looking like an 80s Gabrielle Union, and all the enduring bops she bestowed (seriously, I promise you know all these songs), she never crossed over and became a star.

Like many of the strongest vocalists of her era, Angela started as a background singer. She was part of Stevie Wonder’s group Wonderlove, and picked up writing and producing from watching Stevie work in the studio. At some point during her time with Stevie, she met Rene Moore, who was part of The Brothers Johnson. They each tell conflicting stories about whether they initially dated, but they decided they could work well together as a creative team, and they formed Rene & Angela. The duo wrote all their material from the beginning and was also producing by their second album.

The pair also started writing and producing for other acts, including penning one of Janet Jackson’s first singles, “Young Love.” Janet declined another song they wrote for her, to their benefit. “My First Love” was Rene & Angela’s first hit.

Angela and Rene moved to a new label for their fourth album, A Street Called Desire, and they were, as the kids say, in their bag. The project produced their biggest hits, joints that still hold up to this day. Angela was ultra ‘80s fly, too; she gave you fashion, hair, voice, everything.

Their ballad game was so tight, rumors persisted that the two were a couple (while Angela has said the two dated early in their relationship, they both maintain they weren’t romantically involved as professional partners).

Behind the scenes, though, conflict was escalating between the two. It began to come to a head when Angela took the lead on “Smile,” with no sonic trace of Rene on the track. The song hit No. 1, and proved Angela alone was as strong, if not stronger, than with Rene. (By the way: make a playlist for your boo, and put this song on it. You’re welcome.)

The album was their most successful, but after an alleged physical altercation with Rene while on tour, Angela decided she was done. They split after the album and immediately started throwing shots at each other in the press. Angela accused Rene of violent behavior (which he denied) and revealed that she’d in fact done most of the writing and producing they were credited for as a duo, but shared credit with Rene because she feared no one would take a female writer and producer seriously. She was right – her label almost dropped her because they assumed Rene did the heavy creative lifting until they heard the work Angela did for The Isley Brothers. Even years later, in 1991, Vesta Williams vented to Video Soul’s Donnie Simpson about her struggles to produce her own music, and used Angela as an example of the fight for women to get work and respect. “The males are dominating the production situation, but the females are dominating the charts…’Cause Angela Winbush; what happened to her? She was producing, she did a lot of production stuff.”

Once Angela was free from Rene and past a legal fight for proper songwriting credits, she continued to write and produce for other artists, including The Isley Brothers and Stephanie Mills. The latter led to a relationship with Ron (who’s 13 years her elder), and Angela eventually became the misses to Mr. Biggs.

As a solo artist, she came out the gate swinging with “Angel,” and landed an immediate No.1 song. The song is basically a remix of “Smile” on the low, but it worked.

I’m obliged to make a reference to “The Real Thing,” not because it was hit for her (it was, although I don’t think it’s one of her strongest songs), but because a young Don Cheadle is in the music video as a full-out backup dancer, and it’s hilarious.

After Angela and Ron were married, Ron took over the reins of her career as a manager, and she continued to produce for him and his brothers. Collaborations between the two became standard.

Back when she was a student at Howard University, Angela was a featured vocalist in gospel artist and composer Richard Smallwood’s youth choir. One of her most successful duets with Ron, “Lay Your Troubles Down,” was a nod to those roots; a take on Matthew 11:28-30.

In 1994 Angela released her last album, and scored one more solo hit with the Chuckii Booker-produced “Treat U Rite.” Looking like a young tender.

She decided to take a step back in her career and focus on her marriage, ironically, as Ron’s career was experiencing a resurgence. An OG with almost 30 years in the game, Ron didn’t deign to make the same promo rounds Angela needed to for her music. As a result, hosts like Don Cornelius in the earlier Soul Train clip and Donnie Simpson here would make Angela’s interviews about Ron, who they weren’t used to having access to.

“Float On” (1996), The Isley Brothers’ jawn with a “take that, take that” Bad Boy remix, was Angela’s last true feature appearance. Ever. At 40 years old.

During the remainder of the ‘90s, though, her hits were brought back through sampling and remakes. Jay-Z’s “Imaginary Players” sampled “Imaginary Playmates;” Biggie’s “I Love the Dough” sampled “I Love You More” and featured Angela on the hook; Foxy Brown’s “I’ll Be” sampled “I’ll Be Good.” Then in 2000, Avant and Keke Wyatt covered “My First Love” and found bigger chart success than the original release. Their version instantly joined the “cover song might be better than the original” list.

By the mid-2000s, Angela and Ron had divorced behind allegations of Ron cheating (fortunately, in advance of Isley’s sentencing for tax evasion), and Angela revealed she’d been battling cancer. She was diagnosed in stage four and given a dire prognosis, but she is still in remission, still performs, and still testifies. "For me, the only reason I think I'm alive is so I could save other lives," she told TV One’s Unsung. "It's not about me looking cute all the time. It's about my life being spared so I can show people they can make it through a tough situation."

Stephanie Mills

Some would argue that Stephanie Mills shouldn’t be mentioned in a group of under-celebrated singers, and she herself won’t agree to be featured on TV One’s Unsung, but she was clear that she wasn’t going to be a Whitney Houston or Diana Ross level crossover artist.

“I realize that R&B is what I do best, and I’m comfortable with that,” the singer told the LA Times about a decade into her career. “I don’t know how to cross over, and that’s okay because I’m satisfied with my audience. I’d like to have mass appeal, but not at the expense of what I do best.”
Stephanie emits powerful sound from a petite 4’10” frame - what the old folks used to call standing flat-footed and singing. She was a dramatic and high-energy performer, but she could just stand completely still, open her mouth, and blow everyone away. It was a power she possessed from a young age. Before the world knew who Stephanie Mills was, the then nine-year-old with a grown ass voice won Apollo’s legendary Amateur Night six weeks in a row. It’s only fitting that “Home” later became an Amateur Night staple for decades.

Stephanie’s journey didn’t include supporting the greats as a backup or session vocalist. Her story officially begins on the Broadway stage at 16, as the original Dorothy for The Wiz.

Following The Wiz, she released a couple of albums in hopes to capitalize on the momentum of the show - even though Diana Ross scooped her for the high profile movie role. Her third album, produced by Mtume, finally yielded a breakthrough with the disco-esque jam “What Cha’ Gonna Do With My Lovin.’”

But the real gem on the album wasn’t even a single. It was Stephanie and Teddy out-quiet storming each other on “Feel the Fire.” This is how you perform a duet, ladies and gentlemen. Make people wonder if it’s real. Now that I think of it…do duets even exist anymore?

Stephanie’s career story doesn’t include a ton of drama – or at least not public drama. The singer is notoriously private. There’s the standard label shuffle including attempts to evolve sound, some working better than others; and the age-old tale of mishandled funds by management. Also unique in the underappreciated vocalist discussion, Mills has an extensive catalog. She dropped an album nearly every year for 20 years – never more than a two-year gap between releases. Compared to her amount of output, though, she only has a handful of genuine hits. “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” Stephanie’s biggest crossover hit, came early in the game. It’s her only song to break the Top 10 on the Billboard pop chart.

Over the years, she played with a more pop-leaning sound. She even landed the theme song for Chevy Chase’s movie Hitch. But when the pop route failed to produce hits and threatened to alienate her fan base, she went back to R&B for good. One of the musicians who helped her get her swagger back was Angela Winbush. She wrote two hits for Stephanie over two albums, “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love,” and “Something in the Way You Make Me Feel.”

A few years ago, Angela joined Stephanie on stage for the song (they’re both still in full voice, by the way). They took it to church.
“You’re looking at survivors,” Stephanie says as Cherelle joins them (they don’t give her a mic, though. I love Cherelle with all my heart, but she ain’t in this particular cohort of vocalists). “My sisters here, we survived this business. Some of us didn’t make it, but we’re here to hold them down!”

Stephanie has a great voice for uptempos and mids, evidenced by her early hits, but ballads – love songs – are where she shines through.

Auntie Stephanie still performs, she’s still a concert draw. But like her sister-singers, she’s hyper-aware of the changes in the music industry over the years, to the detriment of R&B artists. She went viral recently for her candid commentary on Sister Circle about the appropriation of black music, and how quickly things change for an artist when they don’t have a hit.

Deniece Williams

The google header for Deniece Williams’ website reads: “4x Grammy Winner | Deniece Williams | Pop Star,” and she was kind of a pop star - but people under 40 may not remember. Williams’ career pedigree is crazy: another Wonderlove/Stevie alum, signed to Earth, Wind and Fire founder Maurice White’s production company, and produced by major names in R&B and soul during her career height including David Foster (before he was the David Foster), Ray Parker Jr.,Thom Bell and George Duke.

Deniece also sounds like she could be Minnie Ripperton’s vocal baby sister, and that’s not completely an accident. While the two have the same vocal range – including an unreal whistle register – they also had the same vocal arranger, Charles Stephney, Maurice White’s partner in Kalimba Productions. Deniece was also a session singer on Ripperton’s Perfect Angel album. The songstress’ first single, “Free,” feels like it could have been a Minnie track, but it was all Deniece. She and three other Wonderlove singers wrote it while playing around in rehearsal, and they performed it when Stevie showcased the singers during the show. Hearing “Free” during a Stevie concert drove Maurice White to sign her.

The uptempo hit No. 2 on the R&B charts and cracked the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. Deniece was already a mom of two who’d been through a failed marriage when she recorded the song, possibly lending to the twist that makes “Free” so intriguing. The song is about love, passion and even ecstasy, but without ties – at the woman’s urging, “’cause I’ll only be here for a while.” Listeners may not even realize it’s a lowkey curve, because they’re caught up in the Earth, Wind and Fire-backed groove. “I think it was a combination of the song itself and what the song said lyrically,” Deniece said of the track’s success and endurance. “Somebody told me that I was the first woman they heard in music that (said) at the time that ‘you don’t have to stay.’”

Deniece co-wrote on each song for This is Niecy, as she did for most of her music throughout her career. A couple of other songs on the album had a showing on the R&B charts, but “Free” drove the project’s success.

Almost immediately after This is Niecy was released, Charles Stephney died suddenly. Music discussions give a lot of weight to writers and producers, but great vocal arrangement can make or break a song, and make the best use of a singer’s talent. Maurice White produced Deniece’s follow up album, Song Bird, by himself, and even though it was a moderate success on the R&B charts, she later said it felt like something was missing. “I think the success of my first project was because it was music for the expression for my voice,” she explained in an interview. “We went out and we did some different music, and then he brought in another arranger, who’s very very gifted and talented but was not correct for me… It wasn’t the same arrangement or the same feel… I think we did a project that was good, but we didn’t do a project that had the magic of the first one, because the players and the music changed.”

Deniece landed her first No. 1 pop hit paired with Johnny Mathis for the ballad “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” which also hit the top of the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts.

The single’s runaway success led to a full duet album, and then an additional pairing later on for one of the great sitcom theme songs of the ‘80s, when TV show themes were whole compositions.

Maurice eventually talked to Thom Bell, producer for the Stylistics, Delfonics, and key producer and arranger for Philadelphia International Records, about working with Deniece. With Thom, the magic that was missing for Song Bird was back. “There’s only one other person in my musical life that has understood my music the way Charles Stephney did as an arranger,” Deniece has claimed, “and he is Thom Bell.”

The Thom Bell era netted a few hits for Niecy, including one of her signature songs. Deniece wrote “Silly” years prior to recording it, but couldn’t quite get it to the right place. “I said ‘Let me work on it a couple of minutes’ and I musically rewrote it,” Thom explained in an interview. “I rewrote it as an arranger, not a songwriter.” Again, the importance of a master arranger.

Deniece’s cover of “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” the first secular song she learned growing up in a strict Christian household, was another winner, reaching No. 1 on the R&B charts and Top 10 on the Hot 100 chart.

Despite success, Thom stopped working with Denise after their second collaboration. The deeply spiritual singer, who’d included inspirational songs on each of her albums, was shifting her focus back to God after an experience while performing at a gospel concert in 1980. Bell shared recently that it was a little too much for him. “She was going through a spiritual awakening, and religion is really not my thing.” The producer, who’s worked with top divas including Dionne Warwick and Phyllis Hyman, gave Deniece her props, though. “She’s a fantastic singer. You very rarely ever can find a singer that can do things that she does. Performing is not what she does good,” (Thom Bell is also a little shady) “but she’s a great singer.”

Deniece was, indeed, experiencing a spiritual re-awakening, but she had one more act in her career before she devoted herself to gospel completely, and it was the biggest act yet. Maurice White’s imprint shut down and Deniece was moved to Columbia Records proper. She’d given producer George Duke a song for the group Sister Sledge, but the track prompted him to suggest they work together instead. The partnership led to the biggest – and last – hit of Deniece’s career.

“Let’s Hear it for the Boy” was the featured track on the Footloose soundtrack (which opens an entire black music segment for the party game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon), and was a No. 1 hit at pop, R&B and dance. The Let’s Hear it for the Boy album also featured one of the great Black History Month program songs of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. “Black Butterfly” wasn’t a hit single at the time, but it’s one of Williams’ signature songs now.

The album was Deniece’s career peak, and her descent followed immediately. Her next project didn’t connect how her previous work had. Now that she was in the bigger label system without designated producers guiding her projects, her music lost focus. “At the record label there was a big argument that would keep going on that she’s an R&B artist but she’s selling pop. And the pop department would say that she may sell pop, but she’s an R&B artist,” she explained in an interview. “They couldn’t just make up their minds. I kind of kept getting tossed around. “

Deniece had already started her own production company to focus on gospel acts, and was building a roster. She’d also annoyed the 1985 Grammy Awards telecast producers and surprised viewers when she took the stage and sang “God is Truly Amazing” instead of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.”

After the Hot on the Tail album, she turned her attention exclusively to gospel music, where she’s been active since. R&B and pop landed her No. 1 hits, but gospel earned her career four Grammy awards, starting with her first foray into the genre, I Surrender All.
.

HONORABLE MENTION: Meli’sa Morgan

Meli’sa Morgan is an auntie favorite, but she’s significantly unsung. The Julliard-trained artist was once being watched as the next black songstress to break on the heels of Whitney Houston and Sade. Her debut single, a smoky, all-soul-everything cover of Prince’s “Do Me,” catapulted her to the top of the R&B charts for weeks, and led to modest pop success for both the single and the album. Her version also sparks serious debate among even die-hard Prince fans about whether it’s possibly the better rendition.

The LA Times, in a 1986 feature they opened by recounting incidents of people confusing Meli’sa for Whitney Houston on the street, said of Morgan: “With all due respect to Houston and Sade, Morgan may be the best young soul singer in the business. With her sultry, smoldering style she falls somewhere between super-soulful Chaka Khan and pop-oriented Houston.” (Melis’sa was a background and/or session singer for both Chaka and Whitney as well as Melba Moore.)

Meli’sa also co-wrote all but one of the album’s tracks, and co-produced - a role she had to push for. “I had to fight to get to produce,” she told the LA Times in the same interview. “Capitol (Records) said I was busy enough with the singing and songwriting…But I wouldn’t accept that. I had exposure to producing, enough to know I could do it. My attitude was that if they wanted those songs to be recorded, they had to let me be involved in producing them. I just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Morgan had a couple of impactful singles on her subsequent albums, including “Love Changes,” which was featured on both her and Kashif’s individual records. But she said she eventually took a self-imposed hiatus after hip hop started edging her soul sound out of relevance. “When I went on hiatus, the industry was really changing,” she later shared. “I had signed directly to Capitol because I had a production deal with them. All of a sudden, MC Hammer came along, and then hip-hop and rap music were taking the industry by storm, and in a totally different direction. And basically trying to keep up with that – you really had to have it integrated into your style and a whole new look – and keep my style of music was a conflict of interest.”

Ironically, hip-hop has been key to keeping Meli’sa’s music relevant. Do Me Baby opened with “Fool’s Paradise,” now one of her signature songs, thanks to Jay-Z’s sample flip for “Knock the Hustle.” I mean, it’s also a legitimate bop, though. Throw this on at any NYC party above 110th street or in the outer boroughs and watch what happens.

The obscurity of these women in the annals of R&B history is culturally tragic, not just because they could sing other artists under the table, but because they were complete, truly gifted creatives. Many of them wrote, played, produced, and were genuine collaborators with their own visions for their artistry - at a time when female artists weren’t easily able to rock like that, period, let alone black female artists. In the modern music era they’d be heralded as bosses, and mavens. Instead, folks barely know the depths of their talents. I hope we’ve helped remedy that a bit. Also, shout out to Stevie and Chaka for their touring companies basically being Hogwarts for singing-ass-singers. I believe they’re the two names you’ll come across the most not only in the stories we’ve shared, but with additional talent from the decade if you take a deeper dive. And after reading this, you should do exactly that. As I said earlier, there are so many more artists from the era whose stories aren’t often told, and they deserve to be heard.

--

#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.

From the Web

More on Vibe

August Moon (@slutaugust)

Faze Clan, 100 Thieves, And How Hip-Hop And Video Games Collide With Esports

“I got game like Genesis.” – Lord Finesse, “Yes You May (Remix)” (1992)

Smugly sophisticated, succinct but vivid, Lord Finesse managed more in five words than this author ever could. Then there’s The Fresh Prince, who gave us, simply, “Ever since I was younger, I was into video games” on 1988’s “Human Video Game,” complete with Ready Rock C’s beatboxed rendition of the Donkey Kong theme. Of course, Biggie immortalized the poshness of a multiple console array on “Juicy,” a lyric inevitably recited at the mere mention.

Prescient though these men were, none could have predicted that Rockstar Games’ 2013 offering Grand Theft Auto V, itself emblematic of this marriage of worlds, would become the most profitable entertainment title in history. It raced to $1B in sales in just three days and has since surpassed $6B. Or that video games would out-earn all of Hollywood’s offerings and all record label projects, combined—now eight years and counting. Or that, according to the Wall Street Journal, more people watched other people play video games than they did the entirety of the 2017 NFL season.

The math is mind-bending. And few are as qualified to unlock it as Kevin Mitchell, who launched an esports program within the Sports Communications Department at Emerson College and also a pre-college initiative for high schoolers interested in esports careers. Last year, Mitchell founded the College Esports Expo (CEX), the first of its kind; year two saw 300% growth. CEX panels discussed ESPN’s first-ever Collegiate Esports Championship (CEC), a March Madness-esque national championship for gaming set to premiere this May; the fledgling Evergreen Conference, an esports league comprising the eight Ivy League schools; a Learfield IMG merger that Mitchell claims “will reshape the college esports landscape” by elevating merchandising, sponsorships and media rights to the level of D1 athletics. Meanwhile, more than 200 national institutions offer scholarships for varsity esports. And major schools like NYU, Syracuse, George Washington, and UC Irvine–“the Harvard of esports,” says Mitchell, with 400+ members in its esports club and an on-campus gaming arena–are diversifying their esports curricula.

Mitchell boasts not just game but guile and grit as a veteran of the music industry, hired by Bobbito Garcia at Def Jam and mentored by Lyor Cohen. Along the way, he earned several Grammy nominations and created a Washington, DC-based internship program that counted Young Guru, Delante Murphy, and Kevin Liles as participants. He also singlehandedly pressed up the white labels for ‘90s anthem “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz. But it was his oversight of Shaquille O'Neal’s record label TWIsM that bore fruit.

“It was ’96. I was on set at a video shoot for ‘Man of Steel,’ off the Steel soundtrack, and I beat Shaq at Tekken in front of Ice Cube and B-Real,” Mitchell grins. “Shaq got pissed and joked that he didn’t want to pay me. That’s my earliest recollection of hip-hop and gaming—that and playing Madden with Snoop in the ‘G Thang’ era.”

Long removed from boyish bravado, Mitchell, who acknowledges that he’s “more of a practitioner than an academic,” serves as director of business development and strategic intelligence for theater company National Amusements—looking for opportunities between seemingly disparate worlds. When he first started placing songs into the Madden and NBA Live franchises on behalf of EA Sports, he knew he’d found his lane – it turns out that hip-hop and gaming aren't as different as they may seem.

“There’s a high level of authenticity required with gaming; it’s not anyone trying to be something they’re not. That was always a staple of hip-hop. Also, the power of both seemingly came out of nowhere, driven by a fringe component of society: Latinos and African Americans from the streets who didn’t have an outlet and gamers holed up in their basements with nobody paying attention to them," Mitchell explained. "...Now, both disciplines have become borderless and diverse, and they leverage the internet—streaming for gamers and SoundCloud for rappers. They also share management inefficiency. Think about all those regional record labels that emerged then imploded; a few people did well while a lot of the talent suffered. Esports is no different. ... Those in the gaming space are not equipped to lead others because they’re used to thriving independently.”

Speaking of thriving, one needn’t look much farther than Drake, Travis Scott, and gaming phenom Ninja, the most followed–and most profitable, cresting half a million dollars a month–user on all of streaming platform Twitch. Those three, plus gaming aficionado JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, lifted the virtual roof off Twitch in March of 2018 when they teamed up for a game of Fortnite.

“That was the ‘man on the moon, shot-heard-round-the-world’ moment in esports,” attests Mitchell. “It’s akin to hip-hop’s moving from the uptown clubs to the downtown clubs. That day, hip-hop went to Union Square. I’d always anticipated that moment because of my exposure to hip-hop, but I couldn’t exactly predict how or when it would take place. If you could write a script of how these worlds would intersect, it would be that.”

The threesome would prove no one-night stand. Later in 2018, Drake would join Scooter Braun as co-owners of esports team 100 Thieves, along with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. And the NBA affiliation doesn’t stop there. Incredibly, there is a full-blown, sanctioned NBA 2K League: 21 NBA franchises drafted teams from among the world’s best NBA 2K players. It’s the first official esports league operated by an American professional sports association.

The synergy isn’t lost on the ballers. Says Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons, himself an avid gamer: “The overlap between hip-hop and esports is so dynamic because a lot of these artists are still in their teens and mid-twenties. So the crossover is easy to see: when they aren’t making music in the studio or performing in front of thousands of people, hip-hop artists are locked in playing a video game. And, from the other side, esports is a good way for gamers to meet their favorite artists or athletes; not only are they fans of our work, most of us know gamers by name and we are fans of their work as well!”

One such famous fan is Lil Yachty, now a member of the mighty FaZe Clan, far and away the world’s most successful esports brand. FaZe is a fascinating case study, for it combines 24/7 pro gamers with online personalities dedicated to creating content. Consider the work of FaZe Blaze, who as a preteen created and uploaded Call of Duty montages and now, via his FaZe affiliation, speaks of how blessed he is to have played GTA with Mac Miller and to call Schoolboy Q a friend. Fittingly, Blaze is releasing a wholly self-produced and performed hip-hop album called Playing Games. Blaze’s words ring true to any artist: “My best friends today are people that I met playing online; we all have the same passion to create. All of us are open books; we understood from very young ages that, if we were going to do this YouTube thing, anything in our lives can and will be made public. And because we’re so open with our audience, they connect with us on a much deeper level. It’s the sort of connection you make with real friends, close friends, even siblings. On the other hand, critical feedback can be hard. You’re not going to make your best stuff every time. But somebody else’s opinions shouldn’t change what you do, how you do it, or, ultimately, who you are.”

Whatever FaZe Clan is doing, it’s working: FaZe tallies a combined social reach of 210M, 21 times larger than that of the aforementioned 100 Thieves. In fact, FaZe was ranked #2 on Bleacher Report’s 2018 Power 50 Shake it Up list—two spots ahead of Drake. And FaZe’s social engagement numbers trump the Kardashians’. Not convinced? Prior to his induction and totally unsolicited, Lil’ Yachty was habitually tweeting, “FaZe Clan or no clan.”

Yachty reflects on those no-clan days. “I got my first Xbox in kindergarten. I was 5 years old. Faze Clan is the best gaming group in the world, plus I had been a fan since high school. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? Esports is going to the top. Major. It’s getting much more respect and I’m all for it. And hip-hop and gaming will continue to intersect because artists are younger and younger these days. There’s always a need for games and music.”

Yachty and the aforementioned Smith-Schuster, who in the offseason actually lives in the FaZe house in the Hollywood Hills, are among the group’s more visible assets. So too is FaZe streamer Tfue, who boasts the most-watched Fortnite channel on Twitch and whose 6M+ monthly viewer hours actually outpace Ninja’s. But the machine behind FaZe is no less impressive. CEO Lee Trink once helmed Capitol Records and Virgin Records. And the director of business development is none other than Clinton Sparks, the Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter, and DJ. Known best for his forward-facing ventures–writing and producing for everyone to Lady Gaga to Pitbull, winning ASCAP Awards with DJ Snake–Clinton has long pushed the culture from a number of leverage points, e.g. his stint as director of marketing at Karmaloop. There, under the purview of founder and CEO Greg Selkoe, he helped turn Karmaloop into the biggest streetwear E-commerce website. So, when Selkoe sold out of the ‘loop and assumed presidency of FaZe, he insisted that Clinton leave his native Boston and bring his magic dust to La-La Land.

Indeed, if looks like the Planters Super Bowl commercial, brand deals with Nike, HTC, and Nissan and collabs with Supreme and Champion are aftershocks of FaZe’s clout, then the L.A. house marks its epicenter. “At any given time, you will find guys like Post Malone, Trippie Redd, Logic, and Roddy Ricch just hanging out at the FaZe house,” notes Clinton. “The FaZe house is a thing; the Hollywood house tours actually stop now and point it out.” The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone. The home, once the sanctuary of the reclusive gamer, has become a tourist attraction.

Clinton, whose legendary Vegas parties brought worlds together, revels in the apparent dichotomy. “There's a really blurry line between what's cool and what's not cool anymore. You don’t necessarily have to run in rap circles to exist in each other’s lanes. But this move isn’t an accident; we strategically recruit and bring in people that make sense to the lifestyle that FaZe represents," he said. "It's not strictly ‘Can you game well?’ It's also ‘Do you understand culture? Maybe you're great at fashion? Maybe you're a model? Maybe you're an artist?’ So we seek out people with keen understandings of culture and lifestyle. Ultimately, my goal is to enhance and amplify the existing business and to make the FaZe brand bigger than any one player on the team, to the point of sustainability—not just in esports, but in music, fashion, business development, and new products. And I want to familiarize people not otherwise familiar with esports and get them involved.”

Clinton has stayed busy assembling what he calls a “hip-hop syndicate.” He’s currently in talks with everyone from French Montana to DJ Paul to Trey Smith to Travis Scott. On the content and business development levels, he’s dialoguing with Mark Wahlberg and Apple Music Head of Content Larry Jackson. And he’s secured investments from music executive Troy Carter–formerly of Spotify–and Yo Gotti.

“My experience with esports has been with Faze because they are in touch with the culture,” Gotti states emphatically. “My kids are big fans. The youth cares about music, fashion, and gaming and they’re all connected. I see what they are doing business-wise and I wanted to be involved. I know what it is to build a brand and FaZe not just a team; it’s a brand and a lifestyle. I’m all in!”

Indeed, the monetary aspect speaks to another unique parallel between the rap and gaming worlds—the hustle. Says FaZe Blaze: “The beautiful thing about our world today is that we have the resources not just to create, but to create revenue. We can literally generate cash, while living at home, through the internet.” The corner has been replaced with a gaming chair and a LAN line; the product, once physical, is now virtual. The end result is the same.

“Gamers are the new rock stars,” Clinton Sparks attests. “They're the new leading actor. They're the new leader of the band. They're the new major DJ. And it's only going to get better. To consider yourself cool but not see where esports is going is to be the guy who didn’t see what the internet was going to be when it was first introduced.”

Others are jumping onto the trend as well. Meek Mill announced in February that he was founding an esports team, and personality DJ Akademiks now hosts a Complex show called On The Sticks where he plays video games with celebrities (guests so far have included artists like Yachty and A Boogie, comedian Chris Redd, and baller Iman Shumpert) while speaking to them about music, gaming and more.

“Esports is Vegas when it was still a desert,” concludes Kevin Mitchell. “I see esports having the same appeal that owning a basketball team had in the Rucker Park or Above the Rim era. I see Floyd Mayweather’s team facing LeBron’s team and bets being placed on mobile phones. I see esports leagues being as prevalent as Little League and AAU. And I want to help athletes create a new model, similar to a ‘Déjà Vu’—make that impact that the industry really needs without getting permission. Just kicking in the door.”

Continue Reading

Then & Now: The O'Jays Highlight Their Rich Discography, Trump And New Album 'The Last Word'

Soul legends The O'Jays have seen a lot throughout their time in the game and displayed the state of the world through 31 albums. Their latest and final album The Last Word is no different as the trio dedicates tracks like "Above the Law" towards social injustice and callings of a love movement on "Enjoy Yourself."

For this session of VIBE's Then & Now series, group co-founders Gerald Levert and Walter Williams take a trip down memory lane with their biggest hits. It wasn't easy as the group has a slew of Top 20 Billboard hits like "Love Train," "Used Ta Be My Girl" and the stirring "Backstabbers," but the duo made sure to share how the tracks were made with spiritual undertones thanks to Philadelphia songwriting icons Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

"That song had a big fat message of love, the bible speaks of love throughout it," Williams says about their 1974 hit "Love Train." "It was an idea when we went in the studio. They had the track and we recorded the background but no verses. But [Kenny] Gamble wrote the first and second verses and we went in the studio and tried it out and went on to do the adlibs. Because of the lyrical content, you can feel where it was going."

The two also showed love for those who have sampled their work like Angie Stone and Drake. The rapper cleverly interpolated 1972's "Backstabbers" in his 2016 hit, "Fake Love" while Stone lifted the track for her 2002 single "Wish I Didn't Miss You."

"I like him, I like his message and I liked his delivery," Levert said about Drake's approach to the sample. "I like where he's going in his music. There's not a lot of profanity and cursing and saying a lot of negative words. There's a message in his music."

Often praised for their political undertones, Williams and Levert say their ability to stay consistent allowed them to make some of the most timeless music in R&B.

"It's tough to get around but you have to be persistent," Williams said. "You have to go after what you want today. You have to stay relentless and then you get action."

Levert notes that today's artists are holding back when it comes to speaking up against the political machine. "I think the younger artists are too afraid to hurt their fanbase by taking a stand," he said. "They're too afraid to offend or think, 'It's not my fight. Things have changed, we don't need to address that.' Things are not gonna change as long as you don't speak out on it. If you just keep letting things go on and you never have anything to say, they will continue to go that way."

Watch Then & Now with The O'Jays up top.

Continue Reading
Scott Harrison

Music Sermon: The Divinity Of Luther Vandross

“There are voices in this world and once they sing, it’s a stamp on everybody.” Bravo producer and personality Andy Cohen was asking Patti Labelle about her dear friend Luther Vandross on talk show Watch What Happens Live. “Luther’s done that.”

Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. was the preeminent urban pop singer; the essence of ‘80s quiet storm R&B. He was called “the velvet voice” and “the Black Pavarotti,” but there’s not really a male predecessor he compares to because he didn’t pattern himself after the soul men like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, or Teddy Pendergrass. He studied the divas. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Patti Labelle were the voices that fascinated and inspired a young Luther. Seeing Dionne Warwick live at the Brooklyn Fox Theater made him realize he wanted to sing. “She came on stage and just killed me; the music was more serious, the song value was more serious. 'Anyone Who Has a Heart' was a masterpiece,” he told The Washington Post. “I decided at that point that I wanted to do something in music."

The difference informs the distinction between him and most other men of R&B. Luther sang from a softer space, topically and tonally. He usually sang from a gentle, easy place. Not urgent. Not aggressive. Never suggestive. His first greatest hits compilation was titled The Best of Luther, The Best of Love because his entire catalog was love. Romantic and devoted love, not sex or lust. Adoration. And while his voice is appreciated–he’s featured on every greatest vocalist list of note–the full range and depth of Luther’s vocal craftsmanship are not. He was a writer, producer, and one of the greatest vocal manipulators in the game, as well-known and sought-after from early in his career for his vocal arrangements as his singing. The New York Times once described Luther as having an “obsession with the human voice, bordering on clinical.” Some people’s gifts are leagues beyond the old talent-plus-preparation-equals-opportunity equation. Some are truly called, anointed even. Luther was divinely appointed.

The world was officially introduced to Luther in 1981, but he was already an established singer’s singer on the professional circuit. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, teenaged Luther was part of youth performing arts group sponsored by the Apollo Theater called Listen My Brother. Their music was largely social commentary, and they performed in and around New York, including on the very first episode of Sesame Street.

In 1974, Luther accidentally landed a gig as a background singer and arranger for David Bowie. He visiting a friend in Bowie’s band at the studio, and talking about an idea to improve the hook for “Young Americans,” unaware that the singer was standing within earshot. Bowie loved the idea, hired Luther, and quickly became a champion for the young singer’s budding career. Luther handled vocal arrangements for the entire Young Americans album, and additionally wrote the album cut “Infatuation.” He also performed a 45-minute opening set of his own material each night on tour, at Bowie’s insistence.

Luther’s singing here on the far left.

Bowie then introduced the crooner to Bette Midler, who took him on tour, and Luther’s career as an in-demand background singer and arranger was underway. His study of great female vocalists helped him develop an ear that set him apart. “One of the contexts you have to understand was that the background singing has always been a female-dominated area,” Luther explained in an early interview. “I was bringing stuff on my own to the sessions that was kind of unique in terms of how to do background vocals. And later I learned never to give away anything you can sell, so I started charging for this extra bit of approach, which was fine, because by this time everyone wanted it so bad that they were willing to pay for it.”

Over the years, Luther sang with Carley Simon, Chic (“Everybody Dance”), Average White Band, Chaka Khan, and Roberta Flack, who chided him for getting too comfortable as a background singer and encouraged him to finally put a demo together. Due to his own intimate relationship with excellence in backing vocals, Luther was famously known to always use the top talent in the business for his albums. A read through the personnel of his catalogue will reveal names including Cissy Houston, James Ingram, Darlene Love, Tawatha Agee (lead singer of Mtume), premiere professional backing vocalists like Fonzi Thornton, and Lisa Fischer, who Luther pushed to get out of her comfort zone and record as Flack did with him.

During a recording session for Quincy Jones, Luther was introduced to a commercial producer, who then helped him break into the jingle-writing business. He’s always been credited with his ability to write an infectious hook–that talent was honed with jingles.

Before Luther took the solo leap, he tried the group route. He briefly had a deal as part of a group called, appropriately, Luther. They recorded two albums, but neither made any noise. Then, he joined disco group Change as their frontman and had two hits, including one of my favorite mood-boosting, make everything right anthems.

Luther had a little money in his pocket from commercials and background singing, and from writing and producing a song for the Broadway musical-turned-major motion picture The Wiz.

Oh, you didn’t know Luther wrote “A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice)”?

He had the means to record and produce his demo himself, and assembled what became his career dream team. While in the group Listen My Brother, Luther met pianist Nat Adderly, Jr., son of jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley and nephew of saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. As a session singer, he met bassist Marcus Miller and recommended him to Gladys Knight, and the two bonded while on tour. He recruited them both to put together the songs that eventually became Never Too Much, and they were key contributing architects to Luther’s signature sound.

Miller is responsible for those slappin’ basslines that were prevalent in Luther’s early work, and for most of Luther’s uptempo cuts. “I never had any official responsibilities with Luther because we used to just work,“ Marcus shared in an interview, “but I felt like one of my (unspoken) responsibilities was to make sure Luther had tracks on his album that could be played on the radio during the day time.”

Adderley’s genius came through in Luther’s trademark covers. In Luther’s case, “remake” is a more apt description than “cover,” because he and Nat would take the original songs apart, stretch them out, invert them, slow parts down, add sections, reverse some sh*t… it was a whole different composition when they were done. The lush string and woodwind arrangements in Luther ballads are Nat’s handiwork. Incredible piano flourishes and solos, also Nat.

When both Miller and Adderley worked on the track, magic ensued, starting with Luther’s forever-a-bop solo debut “Never Too Much.” Coming out of the funk band driven ‘70s landscape, labels were doubtful of Luther’s smooth solo style. Epic finally took a chance, and it hit just as popular urban music went through its next evolution, which happened to be right in Luther’s sonic pocket.

“Luther, Marcus Miller and I had a real musical connection,” Nat has said. “We saw stuff the same way. We thought of things in the same way. When we came together, we really learned about each other and fed off of each other.”

Luther knew who he was as a singer and an artist. He wrote and produced the majority of his early material, and continued to co-write and co-produce through most of his career. He was clear on what worked for him both vocally and formulaically. Marcus Miller shared, “One of the things I used to hear him say was ‘I don’t need to compete with any other singers. Other singers sing hard, high, and with a lot of riffs. That’s not me. That’s not my thing. I’m just going to style these people to death.’” And he styled us to death, honey. Luther was the king of melisma and dramatic effect, but without oversinging. Where most vocalists would build towards a climax in the song, Luther’s structure was often reversed. He’d start easy, build during the middle, and come back to a soft, light, but emotional close.

This careful, deliberate singing was part of his genius. There’s a reason Black folks yell “Take your time,” to soloists when they’re in their bag–mastery isn’t rushed.

As I mentioned before, Luther was also a transformative cover artist. Would straight Deebo your song – that was his song, now. And artists didn’t even mind, because he elevated it so incredibly. Some of Luther’s biggest hits are covers: “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” (The Carpenters and Aretha Franklin), “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Dionne Warwick), “Since I Lost My Baby” (The Temptations), “Bad Boy/Having a Party” (an interpolation of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party”), “If Only for One Night” (Brenda Russell), “Creepin’” (Stevie Wonder). He was a repeat offender with Dionne Warwick’s material from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, jacking not just “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the song that blew him away at a young age, but also “A House is Not a Home”–on the same album. And she didn’t even care, look at her.

Luther’s capabilities as Mr. Steal-Your-Song also translated to his strength as a duet partner. He knew how to blend voices so perfectly, he was outstanding when paired with another strong vocalist. Luther produced Cheryl Lynn’s 1982 album Instant Love, and took the opportunity to use a Tammi and Marvin classic to showcase the singer’s strength beyond uptempo dance hits.

One of my favorite Luther duets and covers is an album cut with the tragically uncelebrated Martha Wash. Their version of the torch song standard “I Who Have Nothing,” is a little heavy on production in some places, especially the early ‘90s R&B sax, but their voices are perfect together. And the breakdown at the end? Whew. All the feels. All of them.

But Luther could also do very sweet and simple arrangements, like his duet with Gregory Hines. This song always makes me wish Gregory had done more professional singing after he left musical theater.

Don’t get it twisted, though, Luther specialized in controlled vocals, but he could act a fool when he wanted to. Especially when playing off the energy of another singer, like his dear friend and my favorite Auntie, queen of extra just because she can, Patti Labelle.

Jenifer Holliday and Luther messed around and pushed poor Paul Simon out of his own damn song.

Luther was a balladeer of elite caliber, but he’ll also get an uptempo jumpin’, literally. When Aretha’s career was in a lengthy lull and facing the challenges of a new musical era, Clive Davis called Luther to write and produce for her. Luther, who once called himself an "Arethacologist," was thrilled to work with one of his biggest idols and inspirations. But Luther was a very exacting producer; he would tell vocalists specifically what and how to sing. Auntie Re wasn’t playing that at first, and even stormed out of the studio at one point, but the end result was her biggest hit in seven years.

Luther himself has several cookout and red cup party classics. Tunes that me, you, your mama and your cousin can dance to. That’s part of the beauty in Luther’s music; there’s no content too mature–or too immature–for anyone. While recalling Luther, Marcus Miller remarked, “There is no greater feeling in the world than walking down the street in New York City and hearing a Luther song blasting in the street.” I can personally confirm, as someone who’s heard Luther blasting while in these New York City streets.

What I don’t believe is acknowledged enough is Luther’s longevity. A 20-year career is a rare feat for any artist, but especially for a core R&B singer who started in the ‘80s. Luther did have pop hits–“Here and Now” was one of the biggest wedding songs of the ‘90s–but he was always a core R&B artist, and always stayed on brand and on topic. He was somewhat inactive in the latter ‘90s after ending his contract with Epic Records; he released one album with Virgin records in 1996, but it’s not usually included in his definitive material. Whispers and speculation about his health began, as he’d spent much of the ‘90s going up and down dramatically with his weight. But he made a fierce return in the early aughts. His final two albums, with Clive Davis’ J. Records, were two of the biggest in his career, with material that was relevant and contemporary without sounding contrived.

This song makes me want to put on some white linen and go on somebody’s boat ride.

As secure as Luther had always been in his artistry, he still felt overlooked as a writer and producer and longed for critical recognition beyond R&B. Out of 33 career Grammy nominations with eight wins, only two were in the Pop category. It wasn’t until his final album, 2003’s Dance With my Father, that Luther earned the elusive Song of the Year nomination and subsequent win he’d been longing for, for the album’s title track. But he also suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2003, before the project’s release. Since he was unable to shoot a video, artists who loved him stepped in with their children or parents as a tribute. Warning: this video may cause severe allergy flareups.

I have no doubt that barring health issues, Luther would at minimum still be touring. He was one of the most thorough live performers I’ve ever seen, with production simple enough to keep the vocals as the centerpiece, but extra enough so you were visually entertained as well (lots of sequins). Luther was touring in 2003 until his stroke (do yourself a favor and listen to his Live at Radio City Music Hall album, his last live appearance), and was scheduled to perform at Essence Festival that year. Can you imagine Luther at Essence Fest?

When news of Luther’s death broke, my mother and I–both huge fans–were driving to a family reunion, and we played and sang along to his music for about four states. I still play Luther when I need a boost, or when I want to burrow deep down into my feelings. When I want to go into chill mode, or when I want to dance around the house. Luther is all-purpose. He is all-emotion. He is everything. He was a gift.

--

#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.

Continue Reading

Top Stories