Black Music Month...The 90's Paved The Way
June 9, 2015
Every June, when Black Music Month is celebrated, it is always fun to look back and see how we got to this point in time. One of my favorite quotes applies, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior."
The economics of Black music has expanded the Urban format to Urban AC and Top 40/Rhythmic. The music is Urban and Suburban. What we see today is a result of the '90s. The new wave of Hip-Hop and R&B had been building for years and this was the decade when it could no longer be denied. Thanks to the talent pool, evolving social awareness, the increased greening of Black music, and technology, the artists of the '90s became pivotal figures in the evolution of mainstream music.
Black Music Explosion
Hip-hop and R&B dominated the charts and radio during the '90s on Mainstream Urbans (Black radio) and the new format Urban AC. The '90s also saw the emergence of "Smooth Jazz" stations whose playlists contained up to 70% African-American artists. It was during the decade of the '90s, AC and Hot AC stations joined with Top 40 in playing more Black artists. Audience research was indicating large numbers of non-African Americans grew up with Black music and it had a wide acceptance level. I believe MTV, The BOX, BET, and VH1 played a huge part in the growth.
Research and Exposure
The '90s was also the decade of heightened research and all the cable network videos of Michael Jackson, Prince, Rick James, Lionel Richie, Jermaine Dupri, Bobby Brown, Biggie Smalls, Dr. Dre, New Edition, Whitney Houston, Rick James, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Jay-Z, Heavy D, Scarface, The Isley Brothers, Will Smith (DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince), MC Hammer and on and on. This really was the last big music evolution before the music/media digital delivery revolution, social media, and Y2K.
The '90's also gave birth to music collaborations. One in which artists took genuine pride in each another's work and often made appearances on one another's record. From a creative standpoint, it was reminiscent of the old Motown and Stax record days. This type of gamesmanship was virtually unheard of in earlier decades because labels didn't want to split royalties or help boost other artists' careers. Today collaborations are common.
Stop Blaming Research
The two misconceptions about Black music in the '90s are music research and the era itself. For a long time, even the most successful and well-run Black radio stations depended on the ears and minds of the program and music directors to make the decisions on what songs were to be played. Until the '90s, most Urban radio stations were looking for answers from request lines and calling record stores. Often stations found out that some songs not selling at retail were still big favorites with radio listeners. The requests lines in the majority of markets were totally controlled and dominated by teenage girls.
The timeline for Black radio and research coincides with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Along with conglomerates and Wall Street came a need for more analysis of the listening audience. Now comes the misread; research has not ruined Black music, Urban radio or radio in general; it's the interpretation and application. Recently a VP told me his company had discovered through auditorium tests the need for '90s Hip-Hop titles for its Urban AC stations. When I asked why it took so long for this conclusion, he told me, "We had to wait until the budget was at point we could hold the test." My point: Everyone is waiting to try and not make a mistake. The human element controls research.
They Don't Make Music Like That Anymore
Like any era, all I have to do is bring up all hits from the '90s and the first words out of the mouths of many: "Most of the music today is terrible; the '90s had it all." Another misnomer; every era has its share of good and bad. Every generation romanticizes moments of their youth and much of it is associated with their music. Until I point out some titles from the '90s, no one remembers how bad some of the songs were.
Black Music Moving Forward
"Black Music isn't the same anymore." It is not supposed to be; it's called growth. Inevitably there will be more hybrids in terms of artistry and digital music delivery systems. However, none of it diminishes the accomplishments of African-Americans in the music and radio industries. I am looking forward to Black Music Months for years to come.