I stumbled with an article written by Martin Fister. A good read.
R&B has always been the softer side of urban music, dealing with love and emotion, where hip-hop has always focused on political and street commentary. While the message of R&B has remained the same, the style of it has changed drastically over the last ten years.
Today, R&B makes extensive use of AutoTune, a technology that fits perfect pitch on artist vocals and allows vocal distortion. Going further, the ballad, which used to be the dominant form for R&B tracks, has been replaced by the club joint, popularized by artists like Chris Brown. And the most drastic change? There are no more R&B groups! Since its beginning, R&B has been defined by its vocal groups. The 1950s were packed with the street corner singing of Doo Wop groups like the Platters and the Flamingos. The banner was then taken up by The Temptations and The Four Tops in the 1960s and The O'Jays and The Spinners in the 1970s. The 1980s kept the sounds of groups alive with a wide variety of successes including The Tyme, Full Force, The Deele and The Force M.Ds.
The 1990s were defined by these groups, young men coming together for the love of the music. Just off the top of my head, I can quickly name: Riff, Guy, After 7, Entouch, Jodeci, Dru Hill, Playa, Profyle, Boyz II Men, All 4 One, Shai, Troop, Silk, H-Town, U.N.V., Hi-Five, Az Yet, Another Bad Creation, Bel Biv DeVoe, Mint Condition, Tony! Toni! Tone! And that's without even looking at artists that didn't dominate the charts. If I did this same thing today, I would have Day 26, a group formed on a reality TV show, and Pretty Ricky.
So I ask you, what happened to the R&B male vocal groups? Have young men and women forgotten what it means to sing together? In hopes of getting a better understanding of the question, I set out to ask the very artists for their opinions.
When asked about the group scene today, Anthony Fuller of Riff said, "Yea, we want to be able to give them singing and entertainment. A lot of things that's done now is basically entertainment. Even in the studios, a lot of things are programmed to where you sing one note and let the studio do the rest."
Following up, group mate Dwayne Jones said, "And you know, right now that's all you're hearing. Songs with the voice box and stuff like that, again, nothing wrong with that and that's cool. But what's actually missing is that nice three, four, five part harmony. Nice deep down soul in your gut type singing, you know we don't hear anybody begging anymore."
Both placed blame on the homogenizing sound of R&B caused by the AutoTune technology, and when you listen to the active groups today, you can see the presence. The sound of old features group harmonies, belting, pure singing. Today, it is hidden behind voice modifications and synthesizers. Seeking to find the blame for this change in music, I began to look for groups of old and find out their reasoning for taking time off or for breaking up.
According to Keith Mitchell of After 7, "It got frustrating pouring your heart and soul into a project and your record label drops the ball on records. So we lost confidence in the label and asked to be released. We didn't lose our record deal for all the public they should know that because it's a pretty unique situation and not many artists choose to walk away from labels but at the time, we did."
Expressing similar feelings, J.Poww of the group Universal Nubian Voices said, "Well after the second album, we were very disappointed with how the record was handled, as far as what singles were chosen, even the overall direction of the record. Had it been my choice there would have been a few more up-tempo, mid-tempo things and there would have been some other things that would have transpired as far as what would have been the first single. We left Maverick in 96 because of that. We weren't dropped."
From the various artists' opinions, it seems that the common thread was the labels. Artists find themselves forced into a niche or abused to the point where there music lost its soul. Their artistic expression is dictated by labels and the cause of these groups creation, the love of the music, is lost. However, these blames can't be put entirely on the labels. In the end, the labels are in the business to make money. Today, they see AutoTune based R&B music selling, and so they downplay the groups in order to sell more records. The consumers are causing the silence of R&B vocal groups as much as the labels. Until there's a proper demand for R&B groups, there won't be any interest from the labels in producing this kind of music again.
However, this leaves an interesting hole in the market. As Dwayne Jones from Riff said, "Growing up, we can go back a decade and say you know, Force MDs, Full Force. And then they can say, the Marvin Gayes and the Stevie Wonders, but coming up now in this century, that music is missing right now... there's a gap in between there. Because now, the kids, the only people who they actually know now is probably Chris Brown."
Today's market lacks the sound of real vocals to inspire another generation of kids to pursue music careers. While we as listeners can survive the dearth of R&B vocal groups today, can the industry survive it? Looking towards the future, R&B singer Case leaves us with an optimistic view, "Because I think music just goes around in a big circle. So I'm pretty sure it'll be back around to where it was. There were so many groups back then, and then it changed back to the solo artist and I figure it'll be back."