Male vocal groups were a mainstay in black music for decades. Whether it’s gospel harmonizers, the lockstep, perfectly blended Motown, or Stax and Philadelphia International sounds; the synth, glossy, dance and pop-infused ‘80s; or the last great decade for R&B groups in the ‘90s, there had always been two or more gathered in the name of multi-part soul harmony. And then – there weren’t.
Music fans were in heavy debate a couple of months ago about the current state of R&B – male R&B artists, specifically – and whether real R&B music exists anymore. (Puffy chimed in with a pretty definitive answer.) The decline of R&B artists has been noted, but R&B groups have been damn near extinct since the early 2000s. Girl groups (do we still call them that in the woke era?) are still on the endangered list and tagged for monitoring by music conservationists whenever a new group emerges, but the guys are feared gone for good. The last year male R&B groups had a presence at the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart – not even a crossover chart, the R&B chart – was 2001, during 112 and Jagged Edge’s last strong album runs (“Where the Party At” peaked at No. 1 on September 15, 2001).
King of R&B pic.twitter.com/DCUCDFjCOY
— Diddy (@Diddy) December 11, 2018
How did such a staple in black music just go away? How did we go from your granddaddy and ‘nem doing doo-wop on the street corner in the ‘60s, to your uncles and ‘nem doing talent shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to your cousins and ‘nem singing in school cafeterias and bum-rushing established artists at shows to audition in the ‘90s…to nothing?
To talk about what went wrong, let’s explore R&B groups over time.
THE FOUNDATIONAL GROUPS
I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but you can trace all R&B back to a handful of artists/acts. Every vocal style, performance aesthetic, production technique, and sound evolved from someone and something that came before. This is especially obvious with groups, because R&B groups are a formula. They’re a musical equation of members, style, presentation and song. You couldn’t just pull four random people off the street – even singing-ass people – and put them in a group. The chemistry had to be right. The voices had to blend well. And there had to be at least one star. This formula was, of course, perfected at Motown – Berry patterned the label after an assembly plant, duh – but ‘60s acts laid blueprints and instructional guides. And ‘60s groups had the best names; The Temptations, The Impressions, The Platters, The Spinners. How did they come up with those joints?
The Temps are the male vocal group template. They’re one of the defining acts of the Motown sound, one of the best-selling male vocal groups of all time, and subjects of the best TV miniseries ever (“Ain’t nobody comin’ to see you, Otis”).
The Temptations were tight and precise, with effortless vocals and footwork.
The Miracles championed the smooth, sensitive front-man style. They were the first Motown group to land a No. 1 hit, and the first to start the trend of changing the group’s name to highlight the star. I can name everybody in the Temptations, I can’t name anybody but Smokey Robinson from the Miracles. Smokey was also a quintessential music man, wearing multiple executive and creative hats. He was not only one of Motown’s first artists and first stars, he was also the company vice president and one of its key writers during the formative years.
Sam and Dave may the greatest soul duo of all time, powered by Stax Record’s legendary session band, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, with Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, writing and producing. They brought all of the black church into their vocal performances.
With the emergence of funk in the ‘70s, bands moved to the forefront. A strong frontman was still necessary, but the band was the star. Complex choreography was replaced with high energy production and performance. It was about the jam. By the mid-‘80s, however, the black band was already dwindling. Advances in production were slashing recording costs, time and effort. It’s much easier to throw a producer and an engineer in a couple of studio sessions than travel musicians in, pay for rehearsals and schedule multiple days to record live in the studio. Sadly, this created a cycle. As music production continued to advance, lessening the need for session musicians, fewer new musicians were coming up anyway.
Tuskegee natives The Commodores started as a jazz band (musicianship!), but made their name with the funk. Several members played multiple instruments – for example, Lionel Richie also plays the sax. Shout out to my actual, real-life uncle on drums in this video.
The Isleys get the Male Vocal Group MVP award as the longest running group that managed to stay relevant and chart hits from the ‘60s through the ‘00s (do you know how hard that is?!). I’m going to back up a little: most music fans know the Isleys first as a funk and soul group, but they started as a doo-wop group, and even had a stint on Motown.
Also, there will be no Ernie Isley slander in my earshot, ever. Not never.
The prototype for all young black male groups of four or more members to follow. I don’t even need to say anything else.
First thing’s first, James “J.T.” Taylor is not “Kool.” With that out of that way, Kool & The Gang also started as a jazz band and evolved into funk, then disco, and eventually contemporary R&B. A lesson here is that if you know musical foundations and theory, you can adapt to almost any genre – ask all the producers who grew up playing in the church. Their evolution of sound over the years was such that a lot of folks under 40 still don’t realize that the group behind “Summer Madness” is also behind “Ladies Night” and “Celebration.”
The biggest problem with the group/band structure since the history of recording groups of any genre is, someone is inevitably identified as the star. Then the balance shifts, and eventually it falls apart. It happened routinely at Motown, and the ‘80s was maybe the most successful era for breakout frontmen. Michael and Jermaine from the Jacksons, Lionel from the Commodores, Smokey from the Miracles (although it took a while), Jeffrey Osborne from LTD, Teddy from The Bluenotes, Babyface from The Deele.
Bands that survived the funk and disco era (like Kool & the Gang and the Isley Brothers), and the new groups on the scene, adapted to the new quiet storm sound taking over R&B in the beginning of the decade.
In the mid-late ‘80s, a new crop of young groups emerged, mixing contemporary R&B sound with classic four and five-man group style and harmony.
The new jack swing sound emerged in the late ‘80s, and tempo, rhythm and 808s make R&B party-ready again.
THE GREATEST DECADE
The ‘90s was the saturation point for Male R&B groups. There were fifty’lem groups. That’s an actual number. You can find lists of the 20 greatest Male R&B groups of the ‘90s. I don’t think I could put together a list of 20 R&B singers. The ’90s was also a massive decade for the expansion and evolution of the R&B genre. New jack swing, hip-hop soul, neo-soul, gospel-infused inspirational R&B. Whatever flavor you wanted was available.
There were classic groups with doo-wop inspired style.
Young, high energy new jacks with choreography for days.
I always say that Troop is the physical embodiment of new jack swing.
There were also groups that were a little more mature in content, what the old heads used to call mannish. (We had no business singing along to “Come Inside” so hard!)
The ‘90s also introduced R&B artists that moved like rappers, complete with combat boots and group chains.
By the ‘90s, commercially successful black bands were basically defunct. There were only two still standing. (For the purposes of this discussion, The Roots are solely hip-hop.)
THE FINAL CLASS
The last class of successful male R&B groups debuted in the mid-late ‘90s, and carried over into the early ‘00s. The shift in the landscape was clear early in the decade. The neo soul movement, while triggering a brief return to live music production, spawned mostly solo stars. And hip-hop was like the new fish you add to your lively aquarium, only to wake up each day and discover it’s eaten another of its fellow tank-mates, until it finally had the tank to itself. R&B songs were rarely sent to radio without a version featuring a rap artist. Contemporary R&B got less mainstream airplay; songs needed to have some bounce. A staccato flow. Something other than standing flat-footed and singing over melody. For the past decade, the lines have become even more blurred between the two genres, leading to the R&B debate mentioned earlier. These bops went out of fashion, but they went out with a bang. Shiny suits and leather, big budget videos, 25 dancers. Sigh…I miss those days. #BringBackVideoBudgets
So, what happened? On the business side, the rise of digital piracy hit the formerly recession-proof music industry unexpectedly, and then it was slow to adapt to digital downloads and streaming, which very quickly upended a long-standing business model. The cost and effort of developing a group, paying for vocal training, choreography, styling and travel, plus dealing with headaches from group dynamics (the term “herding cats” could be changed to “herding recording artists” and still be a perfectly apt analogy) was netting an increasingly diminished return on investment.
On the talent side, infighting between group members has always been a problem; resentment towards whomever was being groomed for solo success, fighting over name ownership, fighting over money, or just getting sick of each other. It’s broken up families: Raphael Saadiq and brother Dwayne Wiggins seemingly don’t rock with each other – or, rather Ray doesn’t rock with Dwayne. (Editor’s note: Raphael Saadiq told VIBE why he doesn’t see a Tony! Toni! Toné! reunion in the cards.) It’s broken up childhood friendships – the members of New Edition hashed out their differences and reunited for a tour and BET’s The New Edition Story, just to fall right back out and split in two factions, with Ralph and Johnny holding the name New Edition hostage.
The mid-00s featured a big youth culture moment thanks in part to 106th and Park, and black boy bands – like B2K and Mindless Behavior – were central to that. Even with R Kelly’s pen game on “Bump Bump Bump,” however, B2K were bigger at crossover radio than R&B, which was probably the desired result. Puffy tried to restore the feeling with Day 26 in 2008, and they landed a #1 Billboard 200 debut, but had no hit singles.
The shift was even visible in music recognition. From 2003 to 2011, the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group was awarded to collaborations. Destiny’s Child was the last group to win, for “Survivor” in 2002, but the last male R&B group to take home the trophy was Blackstreet for “No Diggity” in 1998. The recording academy eliminated the category altogether in 2012.
Shout out to Teddy Riley, by the way, for having three successful groups in the ‘90s (even though he can’t perform under the name Blackstreet anymore because Chauncey Black owns it. I told you, messy).
There’s been a nostalgia-driven ‘90s revival in music and culture for the last few years, and R&B groups from the era are having their moments. BET’s The New Edition Story was a ratings bonanza and a generated buzz and marketing moments for over a year. Anniversary pieces about classic R&B records and singles from 20 and 25 years ago seem to hit every other week. DJs who were babies in the ‘90s have added new jack swing and hip-hop soul classics to their sets. The last few male R&B groups to release albums to any fanfare were – wait for it – ’90s R&B groups. Jodeci’s reunion album The Past, The Present, The Future in 2015, and Bell Biv DeVoe’s Three Stripes plus 112’s Q Mike Slim Daron in 2017.
These groups still tour. Hell, you can catch almost every group listed above in some type of iteration. It might just be one original member and three strangers at a supper club, but you gonna get them hits. The audience is there for the classics and the nostalgia, but mainstream labels still aren’t interested in new music from established groups, or sinking the money into developing new talent. It hasn’t made sense, financially, to the powers-that-be. The label mantra for the past decade has been “R&B doesn’t sell.” Ballads or mid-tempos with no rap features and no autotune are usually only programmed on Urban Adult radio, which is a slow-moving format listened to by mostly physical album buyers. And oh, look at that, there’s almost no place to buy physical albums anymore! Digital streaming hit R&B hard. Streaming is a singles and playlist format, R&B is an album game. Brick and mortar record stores have closed (except for specialty shops), and big box stores pull albums from the shelves because CDs don’t sell much. But then they don’t sell because fans can’t find the music. Thankfully there is, finally, a shift back to contemporary, soulful R&B in progress – about a decade later than music cycles usually happen – led by artists like H.E.R and Daniel Caesar. Artists who play instruments! And write songs about love instead of sex! And sell records and win Grammys doing it! But it remains to be seen whether there’s room for the eventual return of the group. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the ’90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.