The history and evolution of music genres are always connected to historical events, and this is particularly evident with rhythm and blues.
You may instantly think of artists like Usher, TLC, Beyoncé, or Chris Brown. But as soon as you scratch the surface, you’ll discover that classic R&B was more jazz-rock-oriented than contemporary R&B, which incorporates more hip-hop and electronic sounds.
There seems to be an abyss between classic R&B and modern R&B, especially when directly comparing early soul singers to those pf the last decade. However, the links are still there, and once you learn how the genre has evolved, the connections suddenly become more evident.
We can divide the history of R&B into two significant eras: the classical rhythm and blues that reigned from the 1940s to the late 1970s, and the contemporary style that started to develop in the 1980s and continues to this day.
THE HISTORY OF R&B
It all started in the 20th century, with the great migration in the US when African American families began moving to urban centres across the Northeast and Midwest. This movement helped bring African American music styles to the spotlight, ushering in a blend of multiple genres. Soon, this new music started to spread across the nation and was known as “race music” – a term later changed to rhythm and blues, or R&B.
Precursors of rhythm and blues sprouted in the ‘20s and ‘30s with jazz and blues setting the roots for what would evolve into classic R&B, including the electric guitar, piano, and saxophone. But it wasn’t until the 1940’s that the name “rhythm and blues” replaced “race music” as a term for all African American music.
Rhythm and blues became popular in the late ‘40s, and it included genres from boogie-woogie, African American swing, jazz, and blues: all styles that greatly influenced both classic and contemporary R&B.
The blooming of R&B had crossroads with the social issue of segregation in American society. While advocates of segregation wrongly claimed that R&B and rock and roll were “dangerous to American youth”, kids would continue to identify with these genres and form bonds that transcended cultural backgrounds and skin color.
As society evolved, so did R&B. Though the term’s meaning has evolved over time, it’s still used today to describe most African American music regardless of how closely connected to the original R&B it actually is.
THE EVOLUTION OF R&B
Like other music genres, rhythm and blues have evolved immensely since the 1940s. From Louis Jordan to Beyoncé and the wave of R&B singers from the ‘90s, the genre has come to incorporate dozens of subgenres and underground styles throughout the years.
How has this genre shifted from jazz to hip-hop, while staying authentically R&B at its core? Let’s find out.
1940S R&B: CLASSIC RHYTHM AND BLUES
At the end of World War II in the late ‘40s, a new wave of music was emerging. People began to call it “race music,” but some considered it a derogatory term. In response, Jerry Wexler from Billboard created the term “rhythm and blues” to describe all African American music.
Pioneer Louis Jordan and his band Tympany Five dominated the R&B charts at the time. Jordan was an American saxophonist, singer, and songwriter who played jump blues – a swinging up-tempo mix of jazz and blues, and a precursor of modern R&B. He established the use of the electronic organ, tracing the path for classic R&B, urban blues, and rock and roll.
The typical sound of this decade was defined by various musical characteristics such as piano trios, vocal harmonies in a woo-dop style, and rhythm and horn sections. In the 1940s, R&B was closely connected to blues and jazz, but that was about to change.
1950S AND ‘60S R&B: A TRANSITION AND SEPARATION FROM ROCK AND ROLL
As rock and roll emerged, R&B took a separate path. For some time, people often considered them to be the same genre, with the only difference being that rock and roll was made by and for white people only.
From the late ‘40s to ‘60s, R&B was considered the most popular music genre, but was often mixed and mistaken with rock and roll because of the predominant use of the guitar and drums.
By the ‘60s, the music industry started to refer to R&B simply as “soul music”: a genre adopted by Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, the queen of soul Aretha Franklin, and the popular girl group The Supremes, which will influence most of the girl groups from the 90s.
With rock and roll moving towards a heavier sound, R&B musicians wanted to try different moods and atmospheres, creating a more danceable form of R&B. These experiments would set the path to disco and funk, making R&B an umbrella term for soul, disco, and funk.
1970S AND ‘80S R&B: THE GENESIS OF CONTEMPORARY RHYTHM AND BLUES
With the new direction of the genre, the golden era of classic R&B began. In this decade, R&B was the precursor of disco music, much like it was the precursor of rock and roll in the ‘50s.
Among the famous acts in the ‘70s were Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross’s breakthrough solo career, The Jackson 5, Chaka Khan, and the godfather of funk: James Brown.
Following rhythm and blues’ relentless evolution, a new transformation takes the genre by storm in the ‘80s. This time, adopting a variety of genres and blending them with styles like jazz, funk, pop, hip-hop, and electronic elements.
Musicians experimented extensively with this new blending of sounds, from which new subgenres like alternative and progressive R&B were born. The “new jack swing” sub-genre, introduced by Teddy Riley and Bernard Belle, originated from combining hip-hop productions with dance and the already established contemporary R&B sound. This would later develop into the characteristic ‘90s R&B sound we all know and love.
1990S R&B MUSIC: HIP-HOP AND SYNTH-LOOP DOMINION
With the growth of hip-hop culture, younger audiences started to turn to hip-hop. The rebellious and outspoken character of rappers proved more appealing to younger generations than the romantic R&B artists on the dance floors of the previous decade.
With hip-hop’s increasing success over rhythm and blues, many established R&B artists incorporated the hip-hop style into their own productions and were constantly featuring rappers in their songs or combining the new R&B trend with their sounds.
The distinct sound of ‘90s R&B music is the absence of real instruments and the predominance of synths, software loops, and samples: something that was never truly accepted by hardcore fans of classic R&B.
Some people call this the golden era of contemporary R&B. These were undoubtedly the breakthrough years for girl groups, with SWV, Destiny’s Child, TLC, and En Vogue achieving success and global chart domination for years.
RHYTHM AND BLUES IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Following the successful fusion between hip-hop and R&B in the ‘90s, the turn of the century marked the genre’s commercial pinnacle with hits from Usher, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake’s debut solo album, and Mariah Carey’s song of the decade: “We Belong Together”.
The subgenre of neo-soul also became more popular at the time, thanks to emerging artists like Alicia Keys and Amy Winehouse, who pawed the way for future generations of R&B artists. Neo-soul is considered more in line with rhythm and blues roots as it includes live instrument recordings, unlike contemporary R&B with hip-hop production techniques and sampling. The extensive use of autotune gained popularity in the early 21st century, especially in R&B, dance, and pop music, and it remains a crucial feature in today’s productions.
R&B ARTISTS TO DISCOVER IN 2022
Henshaw radiates classic R&B essence: timeless vocal harmonies and live instrumentation, with style reminiscent of Ray Charles or Sam Cooke’s works. His debut album, Untidy Soul, was released in January 2022, but he’s been releasing music since 2015.
Giveon’s career skyrocketed after his collaboration with Drake on “Chicago Freestyle” and Justin Bieber’s “Peaches.” In 2021, he released a compilation album of his previous EPs; his neo-soul compositions can be appreciated by pop and R&B fans alike.
Emanuel’s debut album, Alt Therapy, was nominated for JUNO’s Traditional R&B/Soul Recording award in 2021. Described as “healing and gratifying,” Emanuel’s smooth voice amplifies the message his words convey – and the instrumental production of his tracks is simply peerless.
Jenevieve has just started her music career with her debut album, Division, released in 2021. During the pandemic, she released the single “Baby Powder," which became a streaming hit. She draws inspiration from the sounds of Michael Jackson, Aaliyah, and Prince, and you can clearly hear them all in her very promising debut album.
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Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.