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Neo Soul: Funk ‘n’ Grits ‘n’ Gravy

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Part 1 of 3

The best-known Neo Soul music acts include Maxwell, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Musiq, Floetry, D’Angelo, Angie Stone, Bilal, India.Arie — even Lauryn Hill and Joss Stone. But what exactly is Neo Soul?

Neo Soul is a raw, non-conformist musical cocoon of yesteryear — the 1970s and earlier — brilliantly interpreted by contemporary talent. The resulting sound has the power to sooth, heal and excite in butterfly kisses. Like the boldest, hippest poetry, Neo Soul expresses pure, unabashed emotion and informs the listener long after the song’s final notes dissipate.

Neo Soul represents a spiritual revival of decades-old underground funk, sometimes with jazz, rock or folk elements. Like funk music, Neo Soul pledges deep allegiance to a bluesy, gospelized essence popularized by greats like Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield… So much so that, sometimes, if played between “real” oldies, a “neo” track sounds like a tune from long ago — but blissfully without the hisses and scratches associated with vinyl records!

More simply, Neo Soul is a continuum of legends such as Donny Hathaway, Prince, Minnie Ripperton, Ann Peebles, Al Green, Donald Byrd & The Blackbyrds, Marvin Gaye, Parliament-Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Betty Wright, and Sly & The Family Stone given a fresh, new millenium edge.

Perhaps the first American vocal act to redux this powerful sound was Zhane (pronounced Jah-NAY). This Philadelphia duo’s seminal CD of 1994 included the radio hit “Hey Mr. D.J.”, which sampled synth chords from “Haven’t You Heard” — an R&B tune by jazz crossover composer Patrice Rushen. Zhane used Rushen’s springy melody to create a mega party anthem, one embraced by young and old alike. However, most of Zhane’s album cuts took the neo sound steps further, skillfully stepping into light jazz territory, making the CD a diverse, enduring classic.

The next significant Neo Soul entree was perhaps the 1995 CD Words by The Tony Rich Project. Produced by L.A. Reid, Tony Rich broke the sound barrier with a laid back blues and folk-rock sound embedded in a Nu-drum rhythm. A multi-instrumentalist with a smooth voice a la Baby Face’s, Tony Rich indeed helped rebirth a missing sound in soul music, with a few tunes (surprisingly) still in rotation today on Easy Listening radio.

But it took D’Angelo, the Virginia-born son of a Pentecostal minister, to perfectly define the sound of Neo Soul. D’Angelo created a mass yearning for more of this dark, sexy, moody stuff with his seminal 1995 hit “Brown Sugar” (and CD of the same title). He crooned sultry love songs with heavy down beats in a manner that harkened Prince and Marvin Gaye at once. D’Angelo is considered the artist who opened the flood gates and put Neo Soul on the map, solidifying a well-deserved place in music history.

All the while, the Neo Soul movement was joined by other immensely talented and impassioned Neo Soul vocalists such as Joi, Carleen Anderson of the Young Disciples, and Laurnea — all taking wonderfully different tangents. Some leaned heavily toward rock, others incorporated a spoken word poetry style and political rants.

But it wasn’t until 1997 when Erykah Badu rocked the industry with a haunting voice reminiscent of Billie Holliday’s that Neo Soul seemed to blossom into the full bouquet it is today. Executive produced at Motown by Kedar Massenburg, the same visionary who produced D’Angelo, Badu was so fresh in her throw-back styling that she garnered a succession of chart-topping hits and gained a die-hard cult following. With beats by The Roots and masterful jazz bass contributions by Ron Carter, Baduizm is an essential CD for any serious music collector.

Amidst the onslaught of new jack R&B, these Neo Soul pioneers proved the seasoned sound of Soul was not only still viable, but a life’s spice in great cross-generational demand. Today, the Neo Soul scene is robust with a full menu of innovators paying homage to black music roots — yet keeping it progressive and next-level.

Part 2 of this three-part series will explore London’s indelible imprint on the Neo Soul movement, asking the question, “Why did it take the Brits to get us diggin’ America’s old Soul grits again?”

For more articles on Neo Soul, CD reviews and the artists behind the music, visit Viqi French Fever – The Hot Nu Music Blog.

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About Viqi French

  • Da Chario

    Good write up on Neo Soul, for a part 1 beginning. It’ll be interesting to see how far you take it in the other two parts. There’s a lot to the neo soul story and this is a beginning that I’d say I can agree with. Glad you mentioned the London influence on this music. Many people don’t seem to realize this factor.

  • V.V. Top

    “Great” as he may be, D’Angelo is a troubled man. Between car crashes, cocaine and pot possession, and not being about to get back in the studio in years, I have to wonder if he’ll prove to be another “2” hit wonder or what!

  • Mercy P.

    I’m definitely a “soul” fan, too, but I’m not hearing a lot of serious heat from the artists in the past year or so. The only new CD I’m playing is Carleen Anderson’s new one. It’s a killer.

  • Groove G.

    Looks as though D’Angelo is on the road headed in the same direction as Old Dirty: dead. Dude betta wake up and smell the percolator, or his greatest hits album is going to be a couple a tracks short. Thrown from his car in crash last week… Lucky the po-po didn’t find his damn stash.

  • GravyTrain

    I would add to that Joel Kass. I heard him in concert last year. Probably one of the best new comer’s into Neo-Soul. He was on the keys with Lilias White on voice.

  • ShawnEe

    Joel Kass….i thought he just did jazz…maybe he is expanding to Neo Soul.

  • http://www.viqifrenchfever.blogspot.com Viqi French

    I’ll have to check Joel Kass out; I’m not familiar with him. I’ve also heard good things about another new-comer, Benny Singer. Hope they’re both bringing some good energy to this important genre.

  • Sheemy Sheem

    Great article…I always said that Zhane’ had a lot to do with the “Neo” Soul movement in its baby stages. Glad to see someone else has their ears open too!! Loved it Viqi!!

  • http://www.puresocial.co.uk Chris

    Anybody know if D’angelo is planning a comeback. Music’s not the same without him.

  • Jamal999

    I was at a Joel Kass concert last year where he performed some great Neo Soul material in Chicago and was on stage with BabyFace. Two incredible players on one stage. His gig is a fusion between old Prince and Parliment. Very hip material.

  • http://myspace.com/nyokanyde Nyoka

    Bilal is the MAN!!!! I love him…

  • http://www.jencarzak.com Jennifer Carzak

    Jamal, i went to the Joel Kass concert too. I got his new CD. Do you consider him neo soul though? I think his material is more R&B.

  • D. Rose in the paint

    But Joi came out a couple years before D’Angelo