Skip to content Skip to footer

No Hate, No Fear: The State of Black Music in the US

Black music sounds the way it does because musicians are not at the table trying to make 21st century music. Musicians need to stop hating and get busy creating music that speaks to this generation.

Hip Hop session (Image: Rudy Nosile / Flickr)

Something happened to black music in the United States!

In 1979, Sylvia Robinson invested a record that was a copy of another record, with talking over it and no singing; it was a huge success.

In 1980, the first digital drum machine and the first analog drum machine were released to the retail marketplace, successfully and gradually eliminating the need for multiple musicians in record making; the drum machine was a huge success.

Also in 1980, MTV ushered in the video age by turning music into something you watch, as well as listen to; it was a huge success.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan slashed funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which everyone knew would choke arts and music education in most of the public schools in the United States; he was successful.

In 1983, MIDI entered the marketplace and allowed instrument manufacturers to exploit the protocol by creating relatively inexpensive, push-a-single-button devices that allow a single person to create complete compositions at home without a recording studio; MIDI was so successful that the original protocol is still in use today.

In 1985, “Walk This Way” pushed soul and funk from the popular consciousness by giving a marginalized art form the stamp of economic viability. Hip-hop is unofficially 41 years old, and officially 35 years old; it has been very successful.

In 1987, Public Enemy released a record that contained multiple copies of other records with talking over it and no singing; Public Enemy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

Also in 1987, NWA released a record using the same samples that Public Enemy used, but with lyrics that were considered disrespectful to women, and glorifying drugs, crime, and the gang culture of Los Angeles. Dr. Dre recently closed a deal with Apple that will make him the first hip-hop billionaire. Ice Cube is a successful actor in family-oriented films, and NWA were 2014 nominees for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 1991, Suge Knight and crew walked into Jerry Heller’s office with lead pipes and baseball bats to demand the release of Dr. Dre, The DOC, and Michel’le from their contracts, so that they could join the Death Row Records roster of acts, thus sending a message to the record industry that the music business was no longer a game, but more of a life and death struggle for the economic equity that mass distribution represents.

In 1992, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs was given a $6 million investment by Clive Davis to form Bad Boy Records. Sean Combs’ current net worth is north of $700 million.

In 1993, Death Row Records released an album by Snoop Dogg that debuted at No. 1; Snoop Dogg has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide.

In 1995, Tupac Shakur lost his life to the culture of violence, followed in 1997 by the death of the Notorious BIG; both have reached the status of cultural icons; both have had films produced on their lives and both have left lucrative estates. Tupac’s is worth $40 million with a yearly income of $9 million. Notorious BIG’s is worth $160 million, and his 21-year-old daughter, T’yanna, is worth $50 million.

In 1999, Eminem released his second album, which won the Grammy for best rap album in 2000, establishing him as the official Elvis Presley of hip-hop.

And all this happened before the 21st century.

In the 21st century we got Akon, Lil Wayne, Drake, Rihanna and T-Pain’s successful forays into a simple piece of technology called Auto-Tune; even non-singers could now sing.

OK, I could go on, but I know you are wondering, “Well, what do you think of all this, Prince Charles?”

It depends on which part of this very complex aesthetic you are talking about, because there are 360 degrees to the current art form that is black music.

In 1979, I hated “Rapper’s Delight”! You could have shut down hip-hop right there for me and called that a novelty record. How dare they steal, “Good Times,” Nile Rodgers’ hard earned intellectual property. Besides, I had just put out my first single and that record was taking up my airtime at local radio.

In 1980, the drum machine freaked me out. Which one do you buy? How do you program it? I was so curious, I changed the way I made music to see if I could get a grasp on the tool that was changing the way records were being made. I made three albums as a recording artist; half were done with a live band and the other half were done by me alone. Hip-hop producers also discovered the drum machine and were making records with beats that were driving audiences wild.

In 1981, I remember Ronald Reagan’s press conference announcing the slashing of federal funding to the NEA. I was shocked because I knew that nothing good would come out of that cute little spending cut.

In 1983, I made my first video and had to contemplate whether I would showcase myself as a multi-instrumentalist – or a singer; I chose singer. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five chose an inner city backdrop that made rapping look as sexy as singing. The race for the hearts and minds of young black boys and girls was on. Both of our records used MIDI.

In 1985, while walking down 7th Avenue in Times Square, I saw the Billboard Magazineheadline, “‘Walk This Way’ reaches No. 1.” I knew then that the handwriting was on the wall, and, sure enough, most of the funk and soul artists got dropped from their record labels within a two-year span. A cheaper, more cost effective way of making music had proven its economic viability.

By 1987, my fear of being made irrelevant as a musician had reached a fever pitch and I began a process of deep reflection. This was a war, and in the art of war, you must know your enemy, this thing that called itself music, that had taken jobs away from so many musicians. What was the enemy made of? It was all so foreign! Where could I go to figure it all out? Aha, the answer was in recording studios. So, I became an audio engineer.

In 1991, I had my first gold record. In 1992, I had my first platinum record and was making music with Diddy that everyone in my neighborhood was listening to and loving.

In 1993, I told Diddy that Mary J. Blige’s vocal performance was not in tune. He said, “Watch what I do with this.” That record went on to sell more than 3 million copies, was nominated for best R&B album at the 38th Grammy Awards, and, in 2006, was included in Time magazine’s 100 greatest albums of all time list. We did not call her back to replace the out of tune vocals.

In 1995, I met with Tupac on several occasions to discuss work that we would do together. It never happened.

In 1996, while finishing work on the Notorious BIG’s second album, he wrote a song on the spot called “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You.” I asked him why he would want to put that thought into the universe and he answered, “Because that is how it is right now, out here, in these streets.” And then he was gone.

In 1998, I recorded and mixed the album “No Way Out” for Puff Daddy and the Family. The album won the Grammy for best rap album. In 2000 and 2001 that honor went to Eminem.

By this time I had come full circle as a musician, songwriter, entrepreneur, historian, and as someone that has something to say.

In 2002, Donnie McClurkin won the Grammy for best contemporary soul gospel album. I was the sole mixing engineer on that project and often reflect on the wonders of my musical journey that brought me into the room with the pastor of a mega church who had something to say with the power of music.

You see, I told you my story, because . . . I hated a style of music for so long, that I no longer had the energy to hate it anymore, and . . . I feared a style of music so much that I chose to face it instead of fleeing from it.

And you know what I learned? That my hate was a by-product of jealousy and my fear was a by-product of ignorance.

Now, is our current black culture in jeopardy from the misogynistic, cannibalistic, zombie-inducing cultural codes that are being thrown at our children? Yes!

But, have you ever heard a beat that was misogynistic?

Have you ever heard a melody that reeked of thug life?

Have you ever heard a harmony that endangered a child?

Has an instrument ever placed a culture into despair?

It is not music that is the problem in the music business; it is the message and the messengers.

Think about this! Can we demand a II/V/I progression from Rick Ross or a circle of fifths from Chief Keef?

Now think about this all you musicians! When was the last time you made a record that was as sexy sounding as Rihanna’s or as powerful sounding as Beyonce’s or as vital as Jay-Z’s or as compelling as Drake’s? When was the last time you tried to “go” at an artist who is on top of the charts?

Black music in the United States sounds the way it does because musicians are not at the table trying to make 21st century music. Musicians are spending their time complaining about why their 20th century “thing” is not being received well.

Are we clear that musicians speak medicine, and the rest of the country speaks first aid?

I am not condoning any immature rapper’s lyrics. I am putting out a call to all musicians to stop hating and get busy creating music that speaks to this generation and the 21st century.

Compelling records bring people to your performances. Live is not the same thing as a recording, just the way a Broadway show is not the same thing as a Hollywood film. The language of your craft has gone way beyond your instrument. How much of it do you know?

If you do not speak to the people of this generation in a language they can understand, then people who are uninformed will gladly continue defining music culture, and the culture of your neighborhoods, for years to come.

What is the solution to the current state of music in the United States? For musicians to stop hating it, for musicians to stop fearing it! For musicians to begin understanding the musical and sonic vocabularies so that they can recapture their place as innovators within the 21st century’s version of this most innovative art form.

I’m asking every musician to modernize their creativity, to up their technology, to increase their entrepreneurial net worth.

Can you imagine your favorite vocalist ripping over a fat 808 beat that rivals a hot Rihanna record? Can you imagine your favorite guitarist killing it over a four-chord invention that would make Lil Wayne green with envy?

Has anyone reading this listened to the chord changes in T-Pain’s “Chopped and Screwed?”

Does anyone reading this know that DJ Mustard currently has 10 records in the Hot 100 . . . and he is not using any chords? And, that his sound was ripped off by a producer called The Invisible Man to create the number 1 record in the country by Iggy Azalea? Oh, but that doesn’t matter?

Listen up; wake up!

Before we can get the hearts and minds of the audiences that are listening to the destructive messages in today’s music, we must first conquer the music itself.

John Lennon was a consistent chart topper when he gave us “Imagine.” Marvin Gaye was a soul legend when he gave us “What’s Going On.” James Brown was the hardest working man in show business when he gave us “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud.”

Listen, absorb, understand, contextualize . . . then . . . create!


It begins now . . . No hate, no fear!