Rhythm & Blues + Coffee House Discussions: Defending Complex Flawed Boxes

by Joshua B. Hoe Some of the best conversations I have are at coffee houses (I am living in a hipster cliche)

So I was talking with a friend a few days ago between bouts of work at Starbucks (so much for hipster cred)….He asked a question in an offhand manner that went something like this:

“Can you name any R&B recording artists that had anything unique or interesting to say? That don’t follow the same formula and cover the same territory lyrically?”

My friend and I (Andre) had never really discussed the R&B genre...and while I certainly have listened to a great deal of what I would consider to be R&B music, I am not sure I had ever really thought about the “state of the genre.”

I was not aware of thinking about the question much...but I guess it stuck with me...

A Second Conversation

I suppose my subconscious worked on the question for the next few days and when I saw him a few nights later I suggested that I had been thinking about what he asked and I suggested that:

“Marvin Gaye, Prince, and Aretha Franklin are R&B artists that have unique things to say musically and lyrically”

My friend looked at me strangely and said that those were not R&B artists…..


And then I realized that I had never really thought about what R&B really meant or what R&B really represented. I considered that maybe I had been committing the sin of collapsing distinct genres or labeling artists with the wrong labels.

Then I kind of remembered that I don’t really think of genres that way….more on that in a second

I also remember realizing it was a good thing that I had people to talk with who actually liked to have deep discussions about music (did I mention I am living in a hipster fantasy?).

I also was, at this same time, trying to keep up my side of the argument...

...so I was like “umm...yes, they are.” and he was like, “umm….no, they are not.”

(Yup, deep discussions indeed)

Then we started talking….I mentioned that I believe soul and R&B are mostly interchangeable categories and he started explaining his argument in more depth.

I figured out that he defines R&B as a distinct genre starting in the 1980’s and incorporating a combination of synthesizers, dance focus, and crude sexuality. I suspect, given his musical leanings, that, in his own way, he is making the argument that Paul George made in his book “The Death of R&B.”

To give you a short form of this argument, here is a summary from Richard J. Ripani:

One might say that George's book lays the philosophical groundwork for the technical and analytic research presented here. His work guides the reader from the early days of rhythm & blues when the music had a higher degree of “blackness” up to the late 1980's, by which time, he believes, that the potential for crossover success by black artists had sapped the music of its African-American cultural strength. In other words, in the act of becoming assimilated into white society the black musician lost some of what made his music distinctive. (The New Blue Music, p. 12)

In other words, by defining R&B as “that black music that has been appropriated and destroyed” he and my friend can cleanly distinguish R&B as distinct from the forms of black music that he likes and/or wants to protect.

But what is the truth? I mean what if R&B really is a complex and flawed long-running saga?

I come from a pretty different tradition, I have always felt that American music is mostly a borrower's culture full of hustlers rogues and geniuses...and that all genres have permeable boundaries...I have always felt music happens on a continuum rather than between clean lines of genre...In fact, I think genres really exist to point backwards (towards tradition and history) not to construct fences between type of music...

My History With Black Music

I grew up with a Father who was a jazz drummer. Virtually every bit of music played in our house when I was a kid was black music (My Dad is a lifetime jazz fan and has an impressive collection of jazz records that he has amassed over the seven plus decades of his life)

Like most kids, however, I rebelled and headed towards rock and roll, and then punk.

And then something strange happened….Almost right from the beginning I started loving the Clash….and, guess what, the Clash loved reggae and were starting to be influenced by hip-hop...They even traveled to NYC to record and immerse themselves in the culture of hip-hop music.

So, as a good disciple I started listening to reggae and hip-hop too. And I loved it.

A few months ago I wrote a piece about how I first encountered Elvis Costello’s “Imperial Bedrooms” album after winning it in an auction at a debate camp. At that same debate camp, I also got to meet guest lecturer Dr. A.C. Tuna Snyder who, in addition to being a debate coach, was also the host of one of the best Reggae radio shows in the United States (at the University of Vermont).

I had just started to explore reggae but he was very kind and talked to me several times and promised to share music suggestions etc. This allowed me to start on my journey of reggae appreciation.

As I grew to follow ska’s growth in England, that also deepened my appreciation for the music of Jamaica.

I was also lucky enough to attend a magnet high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was in downtown and was based on a mandatory integration scheme designed to ensure diversity. In other words, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by not just classic rock but also hip hop, funk, soul, and R&B music.

I was dressing and acting punk, but I was really listening pretty regularly to punk, post-punk, reggae, ska, and whatever jazz my dad was playing around the house.

I started noticing the similarities...and connecting urban musics...and noticing overlaps.

I also started reading up whenever I could find magazines that covered the ever widening span of the music I was listening to.

I found out that secretly Johnny Rotten (Lydon) was a reggae aficionado and widely respected as a collector….I noticed that when Malcolm McLaren started his solo hustle he chose hip-hop (Buffalo Gals, Double Dutch)...I noticed that Johnny Rotten was doing 12 inches and videos with Afrika Bambaataa...I started to be aware of Don Lett the house DJ for punk shows that played reggae, ska, and hip-hop.

My worlds came together…And I started to hear influences crossing genres...I could see the rock influence in PE and the metal and reggae influences in Bad Brains. I could hear reggae in PIL and a little of everything in Prince.

I started seeing all musics as connected and fluid...I started to appreciate sampling and pastiche…(As you probably know, after years of contemplation, I cannot provide a meaningful definition of punk music).

I guess I look at a genre like a sign welcoming you to a department at a store….

Like if you walk into the housewares section….You will probably find that everyone is welcome in, and you can certainly bring non-housewares into the housewares sections.

In fact, you might find something that might fit in your house or in your car in housewares...but, still, if you need something for your house, it can probably be found in the housewares section.

Or, genres are like countries with open border policies...They still have a border, but the purpose of that border is not to keep people from mixing with the locals. The signs at these borders are more like PSA’s “you are now entering punkville” or welcome to the kingdom of psychedelia.”

Of course, there is also historical significance to music and to its history. It is one thing to say you see the influence of black protest music in punk...In no world would I ever want to erase the signs (or signposts towards the musicians and history that they reveal).

I think you should get to know the history of the important folks in each genre and understand the historical and cultural impacts those artists had on the progress of this country and even the world….But, the genres themselves serve, to me, as signs for countries with open borders, they are signposts to me (often signposts to awesomeness sure..but signposts nonetheless).

So What?

So, I did some research, and I want to make some arguments in favor of my perspective in terms of R&B. It turns out my view of music fits pretty well with the history of R&B (good luck really, I had no idea what I would find in my research).

Here are some arguments that support the idea that R&B is a very wide genre encompassing a wide-variety of styles and musicians over a very long period of time:

First, to attribute R&B to only the period from the late 70’s to now risks erasing a pretty large amount of history.

The term “rhythm and blues” was supposedly coined in 1948 by a music journalist...a more specific etymology was provided in the excellent book “The New Blue Music” (mostly music theory) by Rapani,

Rhythm & blues is one of the descendents of a long-standing African-American musical tradition that includes spirituals, ragtime, blues, jazz, and gospel music. Each of these musical genres is a blend, more or less, of elements from both the African and European musical traditions. I envision rhythm & blues along a continuum with African-American genres referred to above, and as the inheritor of many of their musical elements. The period of time from 1950 to 1999 witnessed a transformation in the melody, harmony, rhythm, and form of rhythm & blues. (p.4)


In 1923 the Okeh record company became the first to use the term “race records” specifically to identify its catalog of music created by and targeted to black Americans. Before long the term became standard in the record industry, and it remained so until after World War II. By the late 1940's the word “race” began to have a negative connotation and was replaced with “rhythm & blues” a term first used by Billboard magazine in its June 25, 1949, issue when the company switched the name of the black record sales chart from “Best Selling Race Records” to “Best Selling Retail Rhythm & Blues Records.” However, according to Arnold Shaw, by the time the term rhythm & blues came into common usage it was “not a euphemism for something else...it was something else.” He contends that rhythm & blues was, in contrast to country blues, “good-time dance music,” “black ghetto music,” and “group and joy music.” (p.5)

In other words, rhythm & blues has always been broadly defined and always included many of the elements that my friend Andre was so critical of.

I am against making boxes fit our political agendas at the expense of erasing specific history….R&B started in the muck of much of the same mire that moves people to want to put in a separate box in the first place.

But, it is also that R&B was never really a genre in the first place, it was a commercial designation, it always covered a broad range of musical experience as Rapini continues:

Rhythm & blues is most clearly viewed as a broad range of popular music primarily created by and for black Americans. Like the even more general category of “popular music,” rhythm & blues is a conglomerate of many different musical styles. Thus it is more of a trade category than a genre. The earlier term “race” records was itself used to describe a collection of musical genres and other offerings such as blues, gospel, black vaudeville, recorded sermons, and some jazz that was marketed primarily to black Americans. (p.5-6)


Once one accepts the characterization of rhythm & blues as a trade category, it becomes easier to explain the periodic inclusion of songs that are decidedly not “good-time dance music,” “black ghetto music,” or “group and joy music” on the R&B charts. (p.6)

In other words, even at the beginning it was a moveable feast….It always included all kinds of music. The problem with ignoring that it started as mulch...is that you are ignoring that it started as mulch...It’s history is bound up in being at the same time racial, recognized, and yet also borderless and even appropriated.

Obviously, much of what makes the R&B genre problematic in Andre’s eyes was also present at the inception. In one sense, it’s very birth happened in the cauldron of race politics and assimilative impulses and some of it’s early interlopers (The Everly Brothers and David Seville) were white but still reached the top of the R&B charts.

Of course even 80’s R&B also included artists that charted as R&B but also excelled on other stages, perhaps the best example of this would be the massive 80’s success of former Miles Davis sideman Herbie Hancock with his song “Rockit.”

In fact, even the inclusion of synthesizers can be seen as part of a progression from the 50’s to now,

It can be said, however, that the core style of rhythm & blues inherits most of its identity from earlier African-American folk and popular music, such as work songs, string band and jug band music, fife and drum music, minstrelsy, black vaudeville, black religious music, blues, and boogie-woogie. Rhythm & blues style arose from, continued its development in, and still has its home in America's black community. It is more urban than rural and cities such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans, Nashville, Houston, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Detroit were natural centers for rhythm & blues due to their large populations of African-Americans. During the 1950's rhythm & blues began to feature electric instruments, and this remains an important trait. As discussed later, much of the rhythm & blues music of the 1970's and later is highly dependent on the sounds of not only electric guitars and basses but also synthesizers. (p. 6-7)

I personally think that looking at R&B as a progression makes it much more historically interesting. It is a “genre” that has been involved intimately in the discussion of what black music is and what assimilation and appropriation is for over 60 years.

The Awesome Fun That Is Music Discourse

Again my argument is that genres do not exist to include and exclude...They are more like the signs that stand at the borders of towns and cities. They tell people what they are entering, they don’t exclude visitors and assimilators, but they do tell you what to look for.

This is not, however, a discussion that has a RIGHT and WRONG stamp that can be easily applied after reading. Each of us is probably right and wrong at the end of the day (well, he is obviously more wrong than me jk).

I am not writing this in the service of “winning” a debate...I really enjoy this kind of conversation...What is music, why should we define and categorize music, how should we define and categorize etc.

In other words, I look forward to Andre’s response :)

Or yours, what do you think R&B is? What do you think of the concept of genres in music? I would love to hear your comment!


Richard J. Ripani is a musician of over 30 years with a Phd in Musicology, His book is The New Blue Music, changes in Rhythm and Blues 1950-1999 (2006). In the book, he uses music theory to create musical reference points that can be used to identify R&B fingerprints that are consistent throughout the decades. Pretty interesting stuff.


OpinionJoshua B. HoeComment