It’s always fun to watch VH1 shows about bands, groups, and artists to learn what they were going through when certain epic albums or songs were released. Sometimes a band’s roster would change and the sound would evolve as a result.
One special in particular had me thinking about an apparent trend in Afro-soul music today. The special talked about the days of funk in the 70s on up to the inception of hip hop in the 80s. It focused on James Brown and how his band fragmented/inspired other groups. In particular it showed how JB picked up Bootsy Collins and then let him go which led to the creation of the Parliament and the rise of George Clinton. Indirectly, it made me think of what popular Afro-American bands there are… soul or otherwise. Recently, I couldn’t really think of any.
From memory all I could come up with was The Roots or Mint Condition. Now, when I say bands I mean a group consisting of instrumentalist where you recognize a band member with a particular instrument. Like when you say Lars Ulrich, you think drummer. Thing is now when you do that with Afro-American artists today, there aren’t many ‘bands’ per se where you have that kind of word or name association. If you flip side and go into the rock genre, you’ll see groups like Foo Fighters or Queens of the Stone Age trading guitarists or drummers between recent bands like trading cards while keeping the face of the band to keep a certain identity.
It’s almost as if most black instrumentalists will either be their own solo act or they’ll turn up as mega producers because of their talents. For some reason there usually isn’t an in between. For instance, D’Angelo is a great producer and multi-instrumentalist. Because of his ability, he has stayed on the solo path since his debut on the scene working on the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack. Dwele, another talented multi-instrumentalist, even began as an emcee that could play various instruments including the flugelhorn yet became a talented producer and solo artist.
When you think soul groups nowadays, you think vocalists. From Jagged Edge, TLC, Destiny’s Child, Jodeci, and SWV to Gnarls Barkley, Blackstreet, Lucy Pearl, and J*Davey you notice that you either have a group of primarily vocalists and performers OR you have a producer-vocalist duo (which seems to borrow a bit from trends in hip hop).
For some reason it seems that the days of soul bands taking over the charts are long done or long overdue with names like Earth, Wind, & Fire, Atlantic Starr, The Maze, The Parliament, The Gap Band, and such fading into memory.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing though. Instead of adhering to one sound from one group, Afro soul instrumentalists are floating about from project to project as guest artists or producers. For instance, Zo! can be found contributing to hip hop and soul projects as his sound evolves from piece to piece depending on the nature of the collaboration. Timbaland and Pharrel are excellent examples of this. They both have tinkered with multiple genres and an exhaustive list of artists both solo and group based. These days the progressive evolution of an artist tends to be from songwriter/producer of one star to solo artist. This is how stars like John Legend (wrote for Lauryn Hill), Ne-Yo (wrote for Marques Houston, Mario, and countless others), and Rahsaan Patterson (wrote for Tevin Cambell and Brandy) broke into the scene.
Still, it will be interesting to see if soul music will push for a trend back to less ‘processed’ arrangements. Since there is such an influence from hip hop that seems to be a far fetched assessment but even hip hop has scene an evolution of sorts. Groups like Gym Class Heroes, The Roots (not even sure if they count since they’ve been at it since the 80s), and mashups like Linkin Park and Rage Against the Machine (I’m sure there are plenty more) are branching out along the live instrumentation path.
Oh well… maybe we’ll see it soon!