L. Michael Gipson: How Do Songs Become Soul Classics Today? (Pssst…They Can’t)

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    I was born in the age of Heatwave, Stevie Wonder, Minnie Riperton, Earth Wind and Fire, and The Jackson 5. Yet, by elementary school age I was familiar with the hits and cult classics of Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, The Four Seasons, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The David Ruffin era Temptations, Ray Charles’ Atlantic Records run, and much of what ruled the era in the years of my Baby Boomer mother’s girlhood. I didn’t know these songs or artists because my mother played them around the house from our vast record collection. No, I knew these songs largely because of the radio, which made all of the music of these artists, whose prime years were well before I was conceived, the classics of my youth and even of today through constant on-air repetition.

    The songs from the late ‘50s through the ‘80s have become the soul canon if you will. This has happend largely because of radio, through oldies but goodies stations and Quiet Storm formats that embraced a multi-decade range of chart hits and songs the deejays thought should have been hits. And so it was for siblings 18 years my junior when it came to the music of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even new jack swing to mid-decade smooth soul ‘90s. But, how does the music of today – or any time in the past two decades - become an R&B, soul, or funk classic? The truth of the matter is that right now those songs and, consequently, those artists can’t. Because radio.

    Churches, choirs, and gospel music stations help ensure the endurance of legacy gospel and the new classics coming online with each new year and generation. Jazz and classical music have academia to help preserve and spread the knowledge of their canon and perhaps add new material along the way (though this last part too is doubtful). Rock has no shortage of classic rock stations that may decide that classics may now include music from the ‘90s and early 2000s, then there is also the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to help preserve the legacy of that music and determine what newcomers should be added to its canon. Broadway show tunes have endless revivals, school and community theaters to keep the Tin Pan Alley and golden eras of song alive. I am not sure the same can be said for R&B and Soul music of the last 25 years, for which there seem to be few caretakers, chroniclers, and champions to ensure that the songs of Gen X and beyond also make it into the canon and the musical heart of children and teenagers everywhere.

    Now some of you might be saying that little to no music of the last quarter century are deserving of becoming classics, but anyone who has paid attention to the so-called neo-soul, independent soul, alternative soul, and “grown folks music” movements know that is a boldface lie, and not a very helpful one at that. The last two decades alone would include the introduction and/or primes of such artists as (in no ranking order): Kem, Zo!, Tank, Omar, Lina, Bilal, Adele, Musiq, Maysa, Myron, Dwele, Monet, Tuomo, Ledisi, Algebra, BSlade, Donnie, N’Dambi, Heston, D’Angelo, Floetry, Rogiérs, Maxwell, Jill Scott, Van Hunt, Choklate, Erik Rico, Eric Benet, Lauryn Hill, Yahzarah, Coultrain, Osunlade, PJ Morton, José James, Lizz Wright, Kelly Price, Erykah Badu, Reel People, Glenn Lewis, Alice Smith, Leela James, Peter Hadar, Conya Doss, Sy Smith, Keke Wyatt, Peven Everett, Mario Biondi, Keite Young, Frank McComb, Lewis Taylor, Monica Blaire, Rhonda Thomas, Eric Roberson, Marc Broussard, Cody ChestnuTT, Anthony David, Alice Russell, Martin Luther, Amp Fiddler, Julie Dexter, Jarle Bernhoft, Water Seed, Jaguar Wright, Deborah Bond, Gordon Chambers, Janelle Monae, Russell Taylor, Chrisette Michele, Dave Hollister, Jazmine Sullivan, Anthony Hamilton, Lalah Hathaway, Rahsaan Patterson, Amy Winehouse, Angela Johnson, Fertile Ground, Tortured Soul, Marlon Saunders, Jesse Boykins III, Syleena Johnson, Avery*Sunshine, Vikter Duplaix, Adriana Evans, Marc Broussard, Maya Azucena, Liv Warfield, Amel Larrieux, Calvin Richardson, Darien Brockington, The Foreign Exchange, Cooley’s Hot Box, Kindred and The Family Soul, Marcell & The Truth, Platinum Pied Pipers, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, and many, many others who arguably have nu-classics in their catalogs. I mean, really think about that nowhere near inexhaustible list and the jams they’ve already produced! Not to mention all the relative newcomers who already have canon potentials on the dock, like: KING, MNEK, Kwabs, Daley, Darien, Taiwah, Eric Lau, Josh Osho, Gwen Bunn, Mamas Gun, James Blake, DivaGeek, Alex Isley, HeavyLight, Aaradhna, Sid Sriram, Laura Mvula, Allen Stone, Amma Whatt, Jacob Banks, The Internet, Thundercat, Emeli Sandé, The Decoders, Electric Empire, Kameron Corvet, Lianne La Havas, Taylor McFerrin, Moses Sumney, Marques Tolliver, Jarrod Lawson, Cleveland P. Jones, Lil John Roberts, Denitia and Sene, The Endangered, The Revelations featuring Tré Williams, as just the tip of the iceberg.

    The ridiculousness of these jumbo listings or binders of artists is intentional, even as I hope others will add in the comment box more artists that I missed, to prove the point that there have been significant musicians of serious artistry in relatively recent years that have undeniable contributions for the canon -- many songs and names that are at risk of being lost. Some artists have already retired from the game, haven’t released new material in years and/or their finest music is already prematurely erased from many a memory (e.g. Olu, Jiva, Maiysha, The Rebirth, Jaspects, L’Renee, Lamone, Dain Harris, Kendra Ross, Lizz Fields, Middle Child, etc.) without the reinforcement power of radio. I’m sure some of the names listed sparked a moment of “oh, yeah, I remember him” or “I haven’t played her album in a long time!” Today’s modern classics have been made and tomorrow’s are being made every day, but who is playing them? And who is introducing them to the young?

    Terrestrial radio stations, especially those owned by major corporations, have largely long since stopped trying to uphold their once undeniable role in making songs classics, even those that were not chartbusting hits. Outside of college and community radio, DJs lost their independence nearly a generation ago and programmers have grown so conservative that obvious live instrumentation, such as strings and horns on an R&B song, is often mistaken or mislabeled as jazz, too niche, and are thus not added to playlists (real talk). In the last year it was announced that songs in the Top 10 could expect to be played on high rotation every hour at many radio stations across the country in response to Arbitron’s new Portable People Meters and radio’s fear that you’ll turn the dial if you don’t already know the song. Not even Top 20 much less Top 40, it’s now Top 10. This is a complete abdication of radio’s long-standing role of hit maker not solely hit player, much less gatekeeper of the canon. While there are still some oldies stations and smooth jazz stations holding on in major markets where some of the material we’re discussing finds a home, the oldies stations are more inclined to play the same hits on high rotation that were released before 1995, and smooth jazz stations play modern remakes, R&B classics, or new music that leans toward a fusion jazz/soul sound like a Robert Glasper, Gretchen Parlato, Gregory Porter, or Esperanza Spalding. Smooth jazz as a format is also dying on the vine, with scores of stations switching out of that format in recent years, leaving spaces like NPR, college, and community radio to do their heavy lifting.

    Internet radio and the DJs there had also been picking up the slack, but in very recent years there has been some mission creep as DJs, afraid of being deemed irrelevant and out of touch, have stopped playing a lot of the catalog material of artists of the modern era in favor of more and more Top 40 urban, urban adult contemporary (UAC), and big name indie artists, leaving an era of lesser known music at-risk in their midlife rush for youth (the average internet DJ playing R&B/soul is squarely a Gen Xer between their late 30s and early 50s).  

    That leaves TV and movie licensing, satellite radio, and the brave new world of streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, etc. Whether streaming services are going to be in the business of making songs classics remains to be seen, especially now that so many major labels are now in bed with these services and perhaps influencing what makes the rounds on repeat. While the music directors that select songs for TV and movies are fairly adventurous in their selections, those episodes and films are not in high enough rotation in your life to reinforce and consistently re-introduce these songs to new audiences, and films like Love Jones, The Big Chill, and Waiting To Exhale, films that spawn or reaffirm classics, are in short supply. Satellite radio is not yet ubiquitous, serving a very small population of subscribers.

    With terrestrial radio lost and gone forever, Internet radio in cars could be the game changer everyone is hoping for, but even once widely available, it will be some time before that comes to scale, maybe another generation of musicians and lost songs. Further, Internet DJs would have to be willing to go back to their origins as more tastemakers, not trend followers. They could begin to do so now in their online playlists, taking the time to excavate the forgotten and nearly forgotten. To be fair, some do now, but not nearly enough, and their audiences still aren’t yet vast.

    Artists create material that they hope will outlive them and give them immortality. It’s part of the benefit of being serious artists who are talented and dedicated enough to their craft to create enduring works of beauty. Those works are present. What is missing are consistent and dedicated distribution channels and devoted keepers of our musical memories to remind us of the good over the years, so that we can hold on to these tunes, cherish them, and pass them on, giving them new life with each successive generation. Of course, there is always the number one DJ to do that in every car and home, one better than any radio or streaming service, who can keep today’s new R&B and soul classics alive and well for today and tomorrow: you.

    By L. Michael Gipson

    SoulTracks Readers, what do you think are the modern classics of the last 25 years and how can we get them a bigger and broader audience? What say ye? (Please use our comment box below to share your thoughts).

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