Stephanie Mills Live In Concert
Raymond Boyd

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

VIBE highlights powerful vocalists from the 80s who enjoyed longevity and success, but never reached crossover status.

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.


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.

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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.

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Issa Vibe: The Best Songs To Fit Your Different 4/20 Sessions

April 20th isn’t a national holiday, but it might as well be.

Although recreational marijuana use is only legal in 10 states, the U.S. is home to approximately 35 million regular users of cannabis, according to a survey done by Yahoo News and Marist University. That's 10.6 percent of the American population and while that may seem minuscule, the numbers are growing daily and it's understandable.

Weed has now become a staple of American culture; it's become a legitimate business in the states where it's legal, it's now part of the way people socialize, and better yet it's a theme in some of the hottest music out today. "Kush" has been included in some of the hardest verses that millennials and generation-z kids have heard in their lifetime.

Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg, amazing emcees in their own right, are also widely known for their love of the green plant. Wiz's biggest album, Rolling Papers is clearly influenced by weed and along with the Snoop Dogg-assisted "Young, Wild & Free" is all about that green positivity.

There's an endless list of hits about rolling up a joint, hitting it and passing it, but what about moods? Whether it's a bowl, a blunt or an edible weed, can leave people feeling a variety of ways and that all can be traced to a certain strand of weed someone's inhaling, or the mood they're already.

Regardless, it's important to be prepared and have music ready to match whatever feelings marijuana concocts; and that's why VIBE compiled an adequate list of songs for each of the main pot moods.

So on this 4/20, sit back, relax, smoke and find the songs that suit the vibe.


The "Let Me Chill Out" Mood 

Sometimes the best way to come down from an over the top high is to play some tunes with a soft beat and a light voice. The best artists in the game right now, like Jhené Aiko for instance, have created that sound that's perfect for when relaxation is needed, so of course, she made the list.  These are the top four songs that can help anyone kick back and relax if a pull from a joint just isn't hitting the right way.

"Blue Dream" by Jhené Aiko "Muse" by Afro Nostalgia "Summer Games" by Drake "LOVE." by Kendrick Lamar (feat. Zacari) The Bad B*tch Hours or "Top Two and I'm Not Two" Mood 

You look around the room and realize: you're top two and you're not two in it. All it took was one or a couple of puffs and then a pass to make you feel pretty good about yourself. One of the main upsides to smoking that's constantly mentioned in the media is that it can help alleviate chronic pain, well, another positive to it is that it can leave you feeling sexy, sensual and everything in between.

This is that high that can make you feel that you're significant other is lucky to have you, and subsequently makes you hit them up, that tells you: you're single and ready to mingle. It's a smoking session that lets you know: if you shoot your shot now, you'll score and it's a session that you want music playing that only affirms how sultry and seductive you feel. If this is how 4/20 leaves you feeling, putting on some RiRi or even Young Thug can effectively get you 'in your bag.'

"Same Ol' Mistakes" by Rihanna "Tyrant" by Kali Uchis (feat. Jorja Smith) "Worth It" by Young Thug "Smoke Break" by Chance the Rapper (feat. Future) The "Head in the Clouds" Mood 

More often than not, edibles have the power of leaving people spaced out and speaking slowly, after consuming them. Sometimes smoking weed, or hotboxing with friends is a silent event. Either everyone's consumed by their phones, or every other person has been looking at a nonexistent spot on the wall for the past 15 minutes.

Regardless this isn't the high where people want to hear "Act Up" by City Girls, no matter how much they love them. No, this is the high where people need music that takes them on a journey. Songs where the production is out of this world and it seems like the artist specifically made the song for a smoke session like no other. Travis Scott's ASTROWORLD is full of tracks with that vibe, and Lil' Wayne, a weed connoisseur of his own, has songs that fulfill that need too. Smoke a bit and let the weed do its thing.

"ASTROTHUNDER" by Travis Scott "I Feel Like Dying" by Lil' Wayne "Hyyer" by Kid Cudi "St. Tropez" by J. Cole The "Got the Giggles" Mood 

This is when the blunt hits perfectly and there's nothing wrong in the world or when the bowl did its' job and leaves everyone feeling silly. A "feel good high" is the best way to describe and the best way to live through that kind of smoke session is to listen to some "feel good music." These are the songs that can have people swaying unknowingly to its' beat, or the tracks that leave people smiling from ear to ear. This is the session that lets people know that "this is it chief," and here are the best songs to go along with it.

"Pass the Vibes" by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment "Dreamcatcher" by Metro Boomin' (feat. Swae Lee & Travis Scott) "It's a Vibe" by 2 Chainz (feat. Ty Dolla $ign, Trey Songz & Jhené Aiko) "Binz" by Solange
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4/20: A VIBE-Era Timeline Of Hip-Hop's Relationship With Cigars And Rolling Papers

Hip-hop's relationship with Mary Jane has always been a beloved one. From song from artists like Styles P, Curren$y and Snoop Dogg, laying back and enjoying nature's herbs is a coveted pastime in the game.

But we wouldn't be able to enjoy it all without the inclusion of cigars and rolling papers. Sure, we have vapes and other creative ways to reach aerial heights, but the OG accessories bring a different element to the table. The herb holiday might be a perfect time for enthusiasts to light one in the air, but VIBE was inspired to pay homage to hip-hop's love for the preroll.

Only keeping the VIBE-era in mind (starting from 1992), we analyzed companies like Swisher Sweets, Phillies and more, along with its ambassadors throughout the game like Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill and Wiz Khalifa.

Enjoy the brief timeline of Hip-Hop's relationship with cigars and rolling papers below.

Made with Visme Infographic Maker

___ 1. Zig Zag


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A post shared by Zig-Zag World (@zigzagworld) on Apr 15, 2019 at 1:06pm PDT

Established Since 1855

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1992-1996 / 2009-2013

Most Popular in California

Top Ambassadors: Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, Juicy J

In 1988, N.W.A. founder Eazy-E established Zig Zag as the official rolling paper for west-coasters after referencing the brand on a song from his solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It. In subsequent years, Zig Zag would appear on songs from legends like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, and B-Real, resulting in the brand becoming synonymous with the west coast.

The decline in west coast rap's popularity during the latter half of the '90s would result in a decreased amount of nods to Zig Zag within hip-hop, as other brands continued to dominate the conversation. In 2009, Zig Zag's standing among rap fans would receive a jolt when Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y teamed up for their collaborative mixtape How Fly, which included numerous references to the brand. However, as other brands of rolling papers began to dominate the market, Zig Zag's approval rating faltered slightly, but continues to transcend generations and will forever be remembered as the O.G. smokers utensil.

2. E-Z Wider

Established Since 1972

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1992-1996 / 2008-2011

Most Popular in New York

Top Ambassadors: Wiz Khalifa, Chris Webby

The east coast's affinity for blunts is well-documented, but for a brief period during the '90s, EZ-Wider became the alternative for a select group of rappers out of New York City. Introduced into to hip-hop lexicon by A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg on "Scenario (Demo 2)," EZ-Wider enjoyed a short run among smokers in the hip-hop community before losing its luster by the mid-'90s.

After more than a decade of sporadic mentions in rap songs, EZ-Wider made a comeback. This was largely on the strength of rappers like Wiz Khalifa, who brought the brand back to prominence in the late aughts during his transition from rolling cigars to smoking using paper. Over the past decade, EZ-Wider's popularity has been eclipsed by competing brands in the market, but its place within hip-hop history is secure.

3. Phillies Cigars (Known as Phillie Blunts)


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A post shared by Phillies Cigars & Tobacco Fans (@philliescigars) on Oct 7, 2018 at 1:19pm PDT

Established Since 1910

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1992-1999

Most Popular in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Atlanta

Top Ambassadors: Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Redman, Big Pun, Big Boi, N.O.R.E., Big L

The first cigar to truly reign supreme in hip-hop is the Phillie blunt with a history that runs deep. Referenced as early as 1989, the Phillie came to prominence during the early '90s, with rappers like Redman, Nas, and The Notorious B.I.G. becoming unofficial ambassadors of the brand.

Found in some of the most memorable rap songs of all-time, the Phillie blunt was the cigar of choice on the east coast but began to spread to regions like the south and midwest, with artists like Big Boi of Outkast, and Twista singing its praises. By the end of the '90s, the popularity of the Phillie blunt began to wane, and while it still receives the occasional mention for nostalgic purposes, has never regained its stature as the go-to cigar in hip-hop.

4. Swisher Sweets

Established Since 1959

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1993-Present

Most Popular in California, Texas, Tennessee, Illinois, Louisiana

Top Ambassadors: Three 6 Mafia, UGK, 8Ball & MJG, Scarface, Kid Ink, Lil Wayne, Freddie Gibbs, Gucci Mane, Wiz Khalifa, The Game, Lil Durk, Fat Trel, Ab-Soul, YG, Danny Brown, Fredo Santana, Machine Gun Kelly, Wale, Mac Miller, G-Eazy, G Herbo, Kevin Gates, Jeezy, 21 Savage

During the early '90s, Swisher Sweets emerged as the cigar brand of choice among marijuana enthusiasts in the south and western regions of the country. Since as early as 1993, when rap group Souls of Mischief helped put the brand on the map, Swisher Sweets cigars have become a staple in hip-hop, maintaining their popularity for the better part of a quarter century.

Over the years, Swisher Sweets has been name-dropped in songs by rappers from all corners of the country, but rap legends UGK and Three 6 Mafia were among the brand's most fervent supporters. Today, artists like Gucci Mane and Lil Yachty continue to keep Swisher Sweet in the public consciousness and recognized as one of the legacy smoking utensils in hip-hop culture

5. White Owl Cigarillos


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A post shared by Gotham Cigars (@gothamcigars) on Sep 9, 2014 at 8:29am PDT

Established Since 1887

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1993-1997

Most Popular in New York

Top Ambassadors: Wu-Tang Clan

One cigar that caught traction among marijuana aficionados during the early-mid '90s was the White Owl, which became one of the leading brands on the east coast at its peak. Initially popping up on the rap radar via a mention by Gang Starr member Guru in 1992, White Owl would be championed by a number of rap artists out of New York. One act that helped solidify White Owl's standing within hip-hop culture was the Wu-Tang Clan, as numerous members of the Staten Island-based collective paid homage to the brand until its sudden decrease in popularity during the latter half of the decade.

6. Optimo


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A post shared by | Cigars (@optimocigars) on Feb 24, 2019 at 5:02pm PST

Established Since 1898

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1997-2001

Most Popular in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee

Top Ambassador: Juicy J

The Notorious B.I.G. may have immortalized the brand after referencing their cigars on his hit single "Big Poppa," but Optimo's lineage in hip-hop can be actually traced back to the southern region of the country. As rap acts out of the south began to reach a national audience during the latter half of the '90s, Optimo's approval rating skyrocketed as well, quickly becoming the cigar of choice for many of the region's star talent.

This particularly proved true in states like Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, where Optimo was considered king among blunt smokers and mentioned at a seemingly constant clip. Optimo cigars are not as prominent in rap lyrics as they once were, but remain a legacy brand in the south and have earned their rightful place in the annals of hip-hop history.

7. Garcia Y Vega


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A post shared by Garcia Y Vega 1882 Cigars (@1882_backwoods) on Jun 22, 2015 at 10:57am PDT

Established Since 1882

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop):1995-2001

Most Popular in New York, California

Top Ambassador: JT tha Bigga Figga

One cigar brand that had a brief, but noteworthy run within hip-hop was Garcia Y Vega, which was touted by various rap artists on the east coast in beyond. Finding its way into a rap song as early as 1994, the popularity of the Garcia Y Vega cigar was largely relegated to the east coast during its peak years in the latter half of the '90s.

The brand's popularity reached all the way to California, where rappers like JT the Bigga Figga helped give Garcia Y Vega its cultural clout. Today, a Garcia Y Vega cigar is largely considered a relic, but its recognition within the hip-hop community as one of the defining brands for blunt-gut spillers is well-deserved.

8. Dutch Masters Cigars


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A post shared by Russian Cream (@dutchmasterscigars) on Apr 15, 2019 at 5:31pm PDT

Established Since 1911

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1996-2008

Most Popular in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia

Top Ambassadors: Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, The Lox

In terms of sheer dominance of the market, Dutch Masters was once at the top of the list of cigars among marijuana smokers. Introduced by members of the Wu-Tang Clan during the group's rise to power, Dutch Masters would quickly catch on with fellow New Yorkers, including like-minded rap acts Mobb Deep and The LOX.

By the time the smoke from the cigar wars of the '90s cleared, Dutch Masters was the clear victor, as the brand extended its dominance into the next decade. While Dutch Masters' stronghold on the lungs of rap artists and fans alike began to dissipate by the end of the aughts, the brand still receives nods til this day and remains the go-to cigar within the hip-hop community.

9. Backwoods Smokes


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Rate these 1-10 and why? #exoticbackwoods

A post shared by Backwoods Cigars (@backwoods_cigars) on Mar 26, 2019 at 3:41pm PDT

Established Since 1973

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1998-2005, 2013-Present

Most Popular in New York, Philadelphia, California, Texas, Atlanta

Top Ambassadors: Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Mac Dre, Travis Scott, Lil Yachty,

One cigar that has transcended regions and managed to sustain its standing among marijuana smokers is the Backwood, which has a history that is as rich as any brand in hip-hop. Referenced in a rap lyric as far back as 1994, by the turn of the century, Backwoods saw a spike in popularity, with rappers from the east coast and west coasts singing its praises.

After finding equal footing with the competing cigar brands at the time, Backwoods' visibility within rap dipped during the latter half of the aughts, before returning to prominence the next decade. This was due in large part to the influx of a new generation of rap stars gravitating to the brand, resulting in it regaining its reputation as the unofficial cigar of hip-hop as of 2019 and moving forward.

10. RAW Rolling Papers


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A few cones a day.. : @ganjawitness #rawlife #natural #rollingpapers #alcoyspain #rawpapersovereverything

A post shared by RAW Rolling Papers (@rawlife247) on Feb 10, 2019 at 5:10pm PST

Established Since 2005

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 2012-Present

Most Popular in North America

Top Ambassadors: Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, 2 Chainz, Mick Jenkins, Chris Webby, Z-Ro, Futuristic

As the new kid on the block, RAW Rolling Papers may lack the rich history of other brands in the market, however, its place as the current smoking utensil of choice in hip-hop cannot be denied.

Establishing itself right in time for the cultural gravitation to rolling papers during the late aughts, RAW Rolling Papers capitalized on early cosigns from marijuana mavens like Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y to infiltrate the culture. With about a decade since its first mention in a rap song, RAW Papers have become a cultural institution in their own right, partnering with various rap artists and connecting the dots between hip-hop, culture, and marijuana.

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