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Grunge Killed Rock, Rap Killed R&B

In 1997, after 15 years of songwriting and singing in a band, I wrote and recorded my last song. It was a soulful, snappy pop R&B tune called “Where Is My Love.” It was my best song ever. I had finally developed my craft. But by the mid-90s, R&B, or soul music, was dead. Rap music, also called hip hop, was dancing on its grave. So I figured it was time to hang up my microphone. There was simply no place on the black charts for a Manhattan Transfer-type act that focused on harmonies, melodies, lyrics and production. Rap music, like Godzilla over Tokyo, crushed everything in its path. Love songs would not be able to compete with the fire, anger and all-consuming dominance of rap.

At the same time, grunge music was dominating the white charts. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had been number one around the world in 1991. By the late ’90s, they were followed by Nickelback, Godsmack, Staind, Creed, Limp Bizkit and a host of bands fueled by angst, anger and rebellion. The pop/rock sound of the ’60s British Invasion was a faded memory. Hair metal, the dominate rock of the ’80s, was quickly and suddenly vanquished by grunge like a virus destroys cells. But Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain himself said the song helped create an era of corporatized sterile rock bands.

“Corporate” is the word both these phenomenons, rap and grunge, have in common. In previous eras, acts like The Allman Brothers, The Supremes or The Beatles developed and nurtured their sounds organically, in rural Georgia communities, on Detroit streets, and British shipping towns. By the ’90s, corporations had swallowed every major independent record label. The last major indie, Chrysalis Records, was absorbed by EMI in 1991 and ultimately subsumed by Universal Music Group. 

Corporate culture demands control, predictability and similarity of its products, whether producing iPhones, McDonald’s burgers, Chevys, or music acts. When “Teen Spirit” sold 30 million copies worldwide, record companies ditched their hair metal acts (also called glam metal) and scoured Seattle and the world for bands sounding and looking anything like Nirvana.

R&B’s demise was not as sudden. As far back as 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” crashed the Top 40 like Japanese planes hitting Pearl Harbor. It used a sample from a popular disco song, without permission, and went triple platinum at a time when disco was fading. Also, in 1988, music critic Nelson George had written a book called “The Death of R&B.” That was the year of gangster rap’s first blockbuster, “Straight Outta Compton,” which went triple platinum. 

Gangster rap, a subgenre of rap, was suddenly everywhere: in homes, on the radio, in music stores, and on MTV. Its tenets of glorifying crime, murder, misogyny, homophobia, vandalism, and street gangs were irresistible to black and white youth alike. In his book, George details how CBS Records basically folded their black (R&B) music division, stifling the careers of its traditional singing acts. Rap was the new flavor. Corporations bet heavily that it would have longevity, unlike the quick demise of disco.

And while hair metal groups looked lame compared to the anarchy and dissonance of grunge, the gentle songs of Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross withered next to “Kill The Police,” “Looking Down The Barrel of A Gun” and “Ready To Die.” No hormonal 15 year-old boy was going to choose a gentle moon-and-June song over rap and grunge’s rebellious sounds of chaos. They were sounds that plugged directly into their central nervous systems. 

Rap was here to stay. It was not only popular, but it was a safer financial bet for record companies. Many black acts such as Earth, Wind and Fire, the Commodores, LTD and Santana, consisted of as many as a dozen members. Their bands – and expenses – were huge. Compare that to 1997’s top-selling rap acts, which were individuals including The Notorious B.I.G., P. Diddy, Busta Rhymes and Coolio. Record companies took less of a flier giving advance payments to one performer than twelve. Rap songs were also cheaper to produce. It cannibalized (“sampled”) songs of the past, and a rapper simply talked into a mic. Live music required months in the studio to record horns, strings, drums, guitars and singers. All else being equal, rap was a safer investment.

In the end, grunge and rap prevailed. Hair metal died with a whimper. But a few now-forgotten voices spoke up against gangster rap. A woman named C. Delores Tucker was a civil rights activist who marched in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King, and served as Pennsylvania Secretary of State. She spent the last few years of her life speaking against the destructive influence of gangster rap music. For her efforts, she was attacked by name in the lyrics of Tupac, Jay Z, Lil Kim, The Game, and Eminem, who called her a slut and told her to “suck a dick.” Tucker was silenced, and criticism of rap has since been virtually nil.

As a proud boomer, I look back nostalgically at our “classical” music: ’60s Motown, ’70s disco, ’80s pop, and ’90s new soul. We took it for granted and had every reason to believe there would always be good popular music. But corporate consolidation of record and radio companies brought it all to an end. Grunge petered out and left a fragmented landscape of today’s alternative rock and American Idol-style pop acts that sound like 14 year olds. 

In 2017 rap music officially replaced rock as America’s most consumed form of music. In the rock world, grunge, in its death, had salted the earth such that nothing else would grow. And rap music proved to be Hiroshima for soul music. Rap now flourishes in various formats; mumble rap is an interesting one, where the words are largely indecipherable by design. 

After abandoning my music career, I wrote a book about the rise of rap and death of soul music. The title sums up what I felt, and still feel, about rap. It’s called, “The Emperor’s New Music.”

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Alex Langford
Alex Langford
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