Thursday, January 17, 2008

R&B: The Heart's Still Beating

As I mentioned in a previous post, I tend to spend my listening time in the car with my iPod instead of the radio or CDs. Largely because I rarely hear anything on the radio that requires repeated listening, whether it's on local Los Angeles radio stations or XM Satellite radio.

I had a career in radio for twelve years as a disc jockey and a program director. My last stop was launching L.A.'s first R&B station that covered the entire county,from Los Angeles down to San Diego, 92.3 The Beat. That was 1990. Luther Vandross and Anita Baker were certified superstars, Bobby Brown, Brian McKnight and Mary J. Blige were coming into their own, while Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were on a seesaw with LA and Babyface as the dominant producers of the day. Hip Hop was on the cusp of exploding on the West Coast via NWA, which spawned the greater success of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, which begat Snoop Dogg and many more.

At that time, most successful R&B acts were on major record labels, while hip hop was scattered on indie labels across the country, getting airplay on mix shows, in clubs and occasionally prime time radio. Years later, the script is flipped. Hip Hop acts dominate radio and traditional R&B acts are on independent labels, getting airplay on Quiet Storm programs and internet radio shows, occasionally getting prime time radio exposure, but ultimately looking for new avenues to have their music sampled.

When I talk with folk who came up on R&B, the generally feeling is that there's no real R&B for adults anymore. I understand the frustration, because radio for that audience is still the main vehicle to hear new music. The reality is that life intrudes. While your love of music probably never dies, responsibilities step in and the free time you once had to stay up on your favorite artists is replaced by working, raising a family and figuring out what to do with the small amount of time that you have to yourself. Then add how regimented and restricted radio has become with deregulation resulting in cookie cutter radio stations that have no regional identity or personality. Finally, mix in national program directors, consultants,tighter playlists and research almost totally replacing instinct and taste, and you're left with a very small selection of music to choose from, via traditional means.

In the interest of feeling your pain, I'd like to offer for your consideration that the heart of R&B is still beating, by suggesting a few albums to check from artists who are keeping the music alive, making it fresh and keeping it vital.

1. Eric Roberson: ( Roberson, or 'Erro' as he's known to his fans, is of the new breed of R&B artists who has set up his career from heavy touring (check him out at the Temple Bar) and an active internet presence. Eric has written for Jill Scott, Carl Thomas, Musiq Soulchild and others. He's a great lyricist with catchy melodies, but his live show is one of the most engaging you'll ever see for a guy who hasn't had a major radio hit. He's released several albums, all available on his website, but for an introduction, I'd recommend 'The Collection' from iTunes, which gives you a solid career retrospective of this groundbreaking artist. If asked, he'll describe his vibe as 'Honest Music'. The man speaks the truth.

2. Raheem deVaughn ( Just dropped his second album this week, 'Love Behind the Melody'. His first album, 'The Love Experience', was a solid debut that was exciting in it's willingness to experiment with spare tracks, multi-layered harmonies and a deeply expressive falsetto. The latest album continues that direction with tighter tracks and lyrics that are reveal a more vulnerable and exposed singer trying to live through love. The first single, 'Woman', sets the right tone for the entire set.

3. Luther Vandross: 'Love Luther'. I mentioned this collection several posts ago, but it's worth bringing up again. Epic/Legacy has compiled an excellent 4 disc retrospective that gives this superstar and his fans their due. All the hits, plus jingles, demos and unreleased live versions of classic Vandross gold.

4. Ledisi ( 'Lost and Found'. This Bay Area powerhouse has been around for years, destroying audience after audience with original compositions that belong on the radio. She released a couple of great indie cds a few years ago that fetch a pretty penny on Ebay, but she deserved a better stage to be heard from. Verve obviously agreed, signed her and released 'Lost and Found' last year. This is what the core of R&B is: heartfelt lyrics delivered by a passionate singer. Ledisi is at home with ballads and jazz, but don't think she can't get her groove on, because she'll hurt your feelings. If you get a chance to see her in concert, you'll wonder why it took so long for someone to find her.

5. Raul Midon ( : 'Love Somebody'. Not totally R&B, let's call it 'kinda alternative' R&B. Midon, a blind, singer-songwriter, guitarist from New Mexico was the last artist that legendary producer Arif Mardin produced before he passed away. Also on Blue Note, Midon will remind you of Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway and Jose Feliciano. A blistering acoustic guitarist, Midon is particularly strong with melody. His lyrics sometimes tend to be simplistic, but part of that comes from his natural optimism. He's released two albums, but so far he hasn't been able to transfer the fire of his live show to cd yet, but I'm sure it's coming. He's another one who's not to be believed in concert. He has a limited edition live cd floating around, which I'd recommend as the best introduction. But if you can't find it, either of the two studio albums are worth getting into.

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