Growing up as children in the late 80’s, many of us can remember listening to our parents singing along to their favorite recordings from bands like Cameo, The Gap Band and Earth Wind and Fire.
Over twenty years later, at least a few of these bands are still touring and going strong, a testament to how music from that era continues to stand the test of time and remain as relevant today as they were yesterday.
But it’s often wondered, if the music of the past decade or so will still have the impact of an Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and fire or The Gap Band in future. This is not to say that the music of the 90s and of the 21st century doesn’t have staying power and longevity, but it’s often hard for fans of yesterdays’ classic to categorize today’s music as “timeless”.
Since the rise of Hip-Hop in the late 80’s and early 90’s, there’s no question that there has been a significant and substantial decline in the number of all black bands in comparison to those in the generations before Hip-Hop became popular. Previous the inception of Hip Hop, there was tons of bands that were all black, or were at least formed and led by African-Americans.
Yes, there have been and still are plenty of black bands out there that are having at least some success (such as Robert Randolph and the Family band), but besides that, who else comes to mind?
Which brings us to the question: What happened to black bands? Did the popularity of Hip-Hop cause the decline of these bands and groups in the name of the success of the solo artist?
The ideal that Hip Hop had at least something to do with the decline of black bands in the past 30 years or so definitely has some relevance to it.
The truth of the matter is, when the winds of change start to gust through the music industry, it happens pretty gradually, even though it might seem as if it’s happening fast.
In the era of the 1960s and 1970s, black bands were all the rage. artists like Geroge Clinton and Sly Stone had the foresight to know that simple doo-wop and Motown sounds would continue to inspire music in the future, but black artists couldn’t stay stuck in the same mold. So they created groups that eventually became very experimental, avant-garde and progressive at the time, with music that was based on R&B, but took from areas of old school funk, jazz, and new school rock. They created bands that weren’t afraid to take risks and go against the grain, and they inspired others to do the same.
Fast forward to the 70s and 80s and we begin to see even more bands that would take on the elements that Clinton and Stone incorporated, and even took them to the next level. And especially in the 1970s, there were more and more black bands that would compete against one another: Parliament Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire, The Isley Bros, Kool & The Gang, Heatwave, Bob Marley & The Wailers, Chic, and even Bad Brains just to name a few. And what’s even more impressive is that these bands effected music across genres: disco, funk, rock, reggae, R&B and so on.
Even in the 1980s there were a lot more groups that could be considered bands, or had band elements to them, such as Guy, with New Jack Swing revolutionary Teddy Riley, and Prince and the Revolution, arguably the biggest band in the world at one point, and to some, still a “black” band.
However, a recent documentary about the rise of Soul Train during the 1970s, featured footage of Don Cornelius having to make tough decisions about including disco music in the show, and eventually including Hip Hop acts like Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in the still early days of Hip Hop.
Cornelius was clearly uncomfortable with both decisions, but he knew that they were business decisions that had to be made in the best interest of Soul Train as an outlet for black music. And that just goes back to the fact of the winds of change coming through constantly in music. Either you get brace yourself for the storm or you get blown away.
These facts are not lost on some of the most successful artists, instrumentalists and producers in urban music.
For example, Rochad Holiday, former member of the R&B group Something For The People, as well as a successful producer for both NeYo and Brandy, says that much of what we’re seeing can be attributed to a new era in music. “It’s more electronic than ever,” he says. “Music has become a hybrid of live instruments and programmed music. Live music only seems to apply to seeing people perform live with a band, and even then there are electronic elements to it. I think it has a lot to do with the public wanting to hear the song the way it sounds on the radio, video and Internet.”
When the same questions are posed to Steve Gooden II, drummer for the likes of big names such as Kelly Price, Byron Cage, and Canton Jones, he has the following take on the subject: “I think its been a lot of inconsistency of the employment of bands in hip-hop. A lot of times hip-hop producers will sample the sound of a drum and program it into their song. Some people just can’t vibe with a live band and the new generation of listeners are more into repetitive sounds vs. live instrumentation.”
Gooden goes on to say that he believes that the masses of black people “don’t really support live music like they did in the past and I think the decline of music education programs in school has a lot to do with it. The music appreciation and awareness just isn’t there anymore.”
Did Hip Hop have the biggest effect on the decline of black bands during this time period? Maybe…but maybe not. The nature of movement and trends the music business finding what’s next and moving on is probably more to blame. And the ironic thing about it is that so many people at the time believed that Hip Hop, as a form of music, would never work, couldn’t sell, and was just a fad. Clearly these folks were proven wrong.
But what’s more interesting about this subject is that, even though Hip Hop did have at least some effect on the industry moving away from featuring black bands, Hip Hop also took basically everything it was from the very artists and forms of music it replaced.
Without the music, style and success of Parliament, Kool & The Gang, Heatwave, Chic, James Brown, and Sly Stone, Hip Hop would have nothing to sample from, and therefore would have no foundation. And without a foundation, how can you even being to build something?
And besides, even though black bands are not as prominent as they once were, what about the fact that Hip Hop artists across the spectrum actually have begun to incorporate more of a band element into their live shows. What Gooden says is true: there exist lots of inconsistencies with Hip Hop artists using and employing bands. But then again, artists like Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and a host of others are using bands with live instrumentation in their shows as we speak. And we cannot forget about The Roots, who are, by many accounts, the best band that Hip Hop has ever seen.
Overall, it’s a very tricky, sticky subject that lots of people probably have lots to say on. As music and the music industry continue to change, we might just see the reintroduction of the all black band as a great staple in modern American music. But only time will tell, and we’ll just have to wait and see.