Category Archives: INDIE MUSIC NEWS

Canadian Singer/Songwriter & Pianist Michael Kaeshammer To Tour China

In Addition To This Tour, Michael Kaeshammer Has Been Asked To Write A Jazz Teaching Book To Be Published In China


Watch Beck's Slimy 'Colors' Video

Beck has released his slimy and vibrant new video for “Colors,” the title track off the singer’s just-released new album.

A year after Beck aligned with meme-making visual artists for his “Wow” video, the singer again pairs new music with a viral trend in the form of an “autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)” video.

In those popular YouTube videos, unseen people’s hands plunge, squish and claw their way through colorful, gooey substances. Beck’s “Slime Visualizer” video for “Colors” mimics that sensation.

The pop-minded Colors is Beck’s upbeat follow-up to 2013’s Morning Phase, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year. The album includes previous singles “Dreams,” “Wow” and “Up All Night.”

“The best songs make you glad to be alive,” Beck previously told Rolling Stone of the album. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Beethoven or the Monkees. That’s what I was thinking about a lot.”

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The Gaslamp Killer Shows Canceled Following Rape Accusation

Los Angeles producer the Gaslamp Killer has been accused of drugging and raping a woman and her friend in 2013.

“I’ve been silently suffering over this for many years. the gaslamp killer drugged and raped my best friend and myself 4 years ago,” a woman who uses the handle @chelseaelaynne wrote on Twitter Sunday night. Her account of the alleged rape, which happened four years ago and also involved a female friend, soon went viral.

In the tweet, Chelsea, who declined to use her last name to Pitchfork, accused the producer born William Bensussen of drugging the drinks of her and her friend while at a hotel party in 2013. Bensussen is alleged to have had “non-consensual sex with both of us while we were completely incapacitated.”

“I remember his disgusting body on top of me and being so scared I couldn’t speak,” she wrote. “I felt like I was in a nightmare and couldn’t scream or call for help or move. I have no idea the details of what he did to us.”

After she says she and her friend were dropped off at the hotel, Chelsea claims she “[threw] up all night and had flu-like symptoms the entire day following,” the result of the drug she says Bensussen put in their drink.

In subsequent tweets, Chelsea pointed out that the Gaslamp Killer blocked her on social media and that the producer attempted to contact the other woman in a direct message tweet that read, “Can we please talk right now? Your friend is accusing me of rape and I need you to back me up here.”

In a statement posted to Twitter following the accusations, Bensussen wrote, “I think it’s important that I be a part of this conversation. Firstly, I want it to be known that I would never hurt or endanger a woman. I would never drug a woman, and I would never put anyone in a situation where they were not in control, or take anything that they weren’t offering. Consent is intimate, and has left room for people who were not present to wonder what happened. In this case consent was between three people, in the form of an offer which I accepted. Allegations carry a lot of weight on social media these days, and the bravery of women who expose their stories can create necessary dialogue that leads to real change. But Chelsea’s version of this story is not true.”

The producer added, “I am thankful that I have been contacted by witnesses and my roommates at the time, in support. Please know that while I am shocked, I take this all very seriously. It is all so sensitive and needs to be treated with the utmost care and attention.”

Low End Theory, the popular Los Angeles DJ showcase where Gaslamp Killer frequently performed, decided to “part ways” with Bensussen following the allegations. “Low End Theory is deeply saddened to learn of the allegations made against William Bensussen aka The Gaslamp Killer,” organizers wrote. “Given the nature of the allegations made, we have made the decision to part ways with William.”

Gaslamp Killer’s Friday night performance as part of the Low End Theory’s showcase at Brooklyn’s Electronic Music Festival was subsequently canceled.

“Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival has chosen to cancel the Low End Theory show,” organizers said in a statement Friday. “This is not the appropriate time to present these artists in light of the allegations that were made last night.”

The Brainfeeder label, which released several Gaslamp Killer recordings, issued their own statement reiterating that the producer hasn’t been signed to the label in over five years. “The allegations against the Gaslight Killer come as a complete shock,” the label wrote. “Brainfeeder has always been a safe, inclusive space for artists of all types and we do not condone assault in any shape or form.”

Late Monday, Chelsea tweeted, “wanted to extend a sincere thank you for all the support raean and i have received – telling our story is the first step in moving on. was a surreal and terrifying experience to watch rape culture unfold in my mentions and in his statement. i am so filled with love and admiration for the women who have confided in me the past few hours. there is power in solidarity.”

Read Chelsea’s account of the incident in full below:

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Review: Beck Gets Back to Having Fun With Chrome-Plated Funk of 'Colors'

Throughout Beck’s nearly 25-year career, his finest moments – oddball hip-hop hits like “Loser” and “Where It’s At,” the 1999 funk romp Midnite Vultures, the 2014 folk-rock dark horse Morning Phase – have mixed sincere musical crate-digging with winking self-awareness. It’s a balancing act that can easily tilt into cheap parody, and while many artists have followed Beck’s lead (Father John Misty being the most prominent recent example), few have done it with Beck’s range, wit or soul. Which is why Colors is so welcome; it’s a brilliant attempt to reckon with – and put his own stamp on – modern pop in the late 2010s. The result is his most straight-ahead fun album since the Nineties.

The first signs of his new project surfaced in 2015 with the glistening “Dreams”: funky, chrome-plated rhythm guitar with multifarious vocals – falsetto, wildly pitch-shifted – ricocheting like spotlights off a disco ball amid Eighties electro-pop and Seventies stadium-rock flourishes. Over those carpet-bombing hooks, our hero declares himself “about a lightyear from reality,” shouting out a girl (likely his paramour, Marissa Ribisi) who’s making him high. The 2016 single “Wow” found him higher still, with red-eyed trap beats and a kaleidoscope of whistling tones, Beck rhyming “jujitsu” and “girl with a Shih Tzu” with a baked old-school flow. The funniest stoner jam in ages, it was a long way from the moony Morning Phase, but no less compelling.

Both of those songs are highlights of Colors, but so is nearly every track, in terms of off-kilter pop craftsmanship. The title song matches an ocarina-tone melody with cyborg hand claps and vocals apparently jacked from Melle Mel’s “White Lines.” With its music hall piano, “Dear Life” nods to both the Beatles and late indie-folk virtuoso Elliott Smith. It’s a reminder of the tradition Beck comes out of, as is “I’m So Free,” whose title he enunciates to resemble “I’m so fake,” while brightly snarling chord changes recall Nirvana at their most shamelessly inviting.

It’s a sign of the respect Beck commands that his Colors collaborator is Greg Kurstin, the superstar producer-writer who helped Adele create “Hello” – roughly the 21st century’s biggest pop hit. (The men also have history: Kurstin was a keyboardist on Beck’s 2002 Sea Change tour.) Together, they jam-pack each song with sonic ideas, even as they zero in on pop simplicity.

Thetitle of the strangely haunting “Fix Me” recalls a certain big-boxColdplay ballad, likely not by accident. With pretty bell-tone flourishes, itsstandout verse declares, “I want you, I want you, I want you, oh, I wantyou.” Trite? Arguably. But clichés are clichés for a reason. And in theright hands, the everyday can feel utterly fresh and essential all over again.Which is exactly what happens here.

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Review: Pink Keeps Energy High, Vitriol Catchy on 'Beautiful Trauma'

Pink was dominating the charts with spunky,real-talking anthems back when today’s slow-sad divas were in preschool, and herseventh LP is a reminder of that. The title track and the strummy “WhateverYou Want” are vintage Pink, with juicy hooks and pop-rock muscle; “IAm Here” underscores its EDM-powerment message with a gospel choir. Trauma’schilled-out middle sags, but “Revenge,” her bad-romance duet withEminem, is an early shot of energy; Max Martin and Shellback’s homage to Dr. Dre’sskip-step beats may be too on the nose, but Em’s rhymes nicely recall a timewhen even lunatics rode bright hooks. 

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Hear Depeche Mode Frontman's Chilly New Collaboration 'Where I Wait'

When electronic-music artist Kurt Uenala was conceptualizing Cryosleep, the first album he’d be releasing under the name Null and Void, he knew he wanted to do a song that featured Depeche Mode‘s Dave Gahan. The two became friends about a decade ago, when Uenala was an audio engineer working with Gahan on both Depeche Mode and solo recordings, and they’ve co-written several tunes together. So Uenala knew the icy single “Where I Wait,” which is premiering here, would be a perfect fit for Gahan.

When the singer heard Uenala’s music, it resonated with him. “I usually respond to quite minimal, quite ethereal music that’s just not too complicated,” he tells Rolling Stone, on a joint call with Uenala. “I don’t need tons of chord changes. I need something that will make something happen visually in me, where a phrase appears. It could be an atmosphere or the way a sound bounces of something else.”

“We know each other so well, after so many ears of working together, that you don’t need to tell me to play a G-diminished-seven or something,” Uenala says to Gahan. “I know your lingo is more cinematic; you say, ‘Make it a bit more cloudy or whatever.’ I know your language.” The singer laughs.

Uenala originally pitched the song as something Depeche Mode would record, but because of the limited time they had booked in the studio the band decided to focus on polishing off its singles instead of recording “Where I Wait.” Drawing heavily on his and Gahan’s shared language, Uenala crafted a chilly chord progression for “Where I Wait,” over which the singer could divine a moody melody and pensive lyrics about the dark side of devotion. “It’s a song about unconditional love,” Gahan says. “Once that love becomes conditional, hate takes over and death and murder follows. And that’s really what [director] Tim Saccenti, who made the amazing video for this song, picked up on. In the video, there’s a girl and a guy; she wants him, she gets him, she loves him. Maybe he loves her and then that turns into something different and she can’t have him anymore, so she murders him. It goes beyond rage.

“Of course we don’t all do that, but it’s human nature,” he continues. “It’s like something takes over when you can’t own something; you kind of want to destroy it. I mean, it’s kind of how my mind thinks, but things like that is what’s happening in the world right now. Things just seem like chaos out there and we’re all just sucking it up rather than throwing up our arms and going, ‘What the fuck is happening?’ I can’t even look at my phone anymore because it’s like one diversion to the next. Music, to me, is still the savior and the communicator.”

Gahan says that it’s Uenala’s unique understanding of what he needs as a singer that has made their working relationship so fruitful. “I know his vocal range and I know roughly what note choices he makes,” Uenala says. “It’s not predictable, but I know people have habits and what they like.” Elsewhere on Cryosleep, Uenala has collaborated with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Big Pink and Shannon Funchess, though most of the album features his deft synth and sequencing work.

“I was always into synth,” says Uenala, who grew up in Switzerland and now lives in New York. “I had a brief stint with rock & roll and metal, as well as some jazz, but I remember begging my mom if I could play synthesizer as a teenager.”

In various capacities, he’s worked with Moby, the Kills, Soulsavers and others over the past two decades and recently he decided it was time to make his own album. Now that it’s slated to come out on November 3rd, he’s also getting ready to figure out how to perform it live. I try to use a lot of hardware synthesizers because I like to keep it quite improvised live,” he says. “The meat and bones of the song are programmed, but that’s just sequencer data. I can alter the sound and make parts longer and shorter. It’s a little risky, but I feel it’s worth it. I like seeing live acts that take a risk. If the songs are suddenly stripped down to drum machine and a bass line, and on the album it’s much more grandiose, I appreciate that it’s different.”

Meanwhile, Gahan is on the road with Depeche Mode and is simply happy with the way his contribution to the Null and Void LP turned out. “What Kurt and I made went to a cool place because Kurt built a new atmosphere around the song,” he says. “It worked very cinematically.”

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Hear Tears for Fears' First New Song in 13 Years, 'I Love You But I'm Lost'

Tears for Fears unveiled their first new song in 13 years, “I Love You But I’m Lost.” The song is one of two new tracks Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith recorded exclusively for their upcoming greatest hits collection, Rule the World.

Smith takes the reins on “I Love You But I’m Lost,” an upbeat, dancefloor-ready single. The band note that the acoustic “Stay” will be more in line with their “most emotional fare.”

The 16-track Rule the World, due out November 10th, boasts Tears for Fears’ biggest hits like “Mad World,” “Head Over Heels,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Shout” and “Pale Shelter” alongside the two new recordings. The collection is available to preorder now.

“I Love You But I’m Lost” and “Stay” mark the duo’s first original material since 2004’s Everybody Loves a Happy Ending; the band recorded an EP of covers – including Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start” and Animal Collective’s “My Girls” – in 2014.

Although the band remained active in the dozen years as a touring unit, Smith and Orzabal avoided recorded new music together until 2016, when they revealed they were working on a new album.

In a Westword interview this summer, Orzabal revealed the new album would be titled The Tipping Point and that it would feature songs like “My Demons,” “End of Night,” “Up Above the World” and “I Love You But I’m Lost.”

Rule the World Track List

1. “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”
2. “Shout”
3. “I Love You But I’m Lost”
4. “Mad World”
5. “Sowing The Seeds Of Love”
6. “Advice For The Young At Heart”
7. “Head Over Heels”
8. “Woman In Chains”
9. “Change”
10. “Stay”
11. “Pale Shelter”
12. “Mothers Talk”
13. “Break It Down Again”
14. “I Believe”
15. “Raoul And The Kings Of Spain”
16. “Closest Thing To Heaven”

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Hear Bootsy Collins' Funky Song With Musiq Soulchild, Big Daddy Kane

Bootsy Collins plays scalding funk on new single “Hot Saucer,” featuring singer-songwriter Musiq Soulchild and rapper Big Daddy Kane. 

The iconic Funkadelic bassist anchors the track with a dirty, distorted bass. Soulchild croons a series of food-as-sex metaphors (including nods to collard greens and “cheese on grits”) and Big Daddy Kane follows suit in his brief verse, boasting, “I’m cooking up something insatiable. You ready for a taste? Say grace.” Blistering electric guitar solos bookend the song, including a climactic run of shredding and finger-tapping.

“Hot Saucer” is the third sample of Collins’ upcoming 14th solo album, World Wide Funk, following cosmic slow-jam “Worth My While” and synth-fueled rap-funk track “Ladies’ Nite.”

The LP, which follows 2011’s Tha Funk Capital of the World, features several other major cameos, including Doug E. Fresh, experimental guitarist Buckethead and bass guitar virtuosos Victor Wooten, Stanley Clarke and Manou Gallo.

Another noteworthy track on World Wide Funk is “A Salute to Bernie,” a posthumous showcase for keyboardist Bernie Worrell, Collins’ former Funkadelic bandmate, who died from cancer in 2016 at age 72.

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Watch Usher, Luke Evans Riff on Marvin Gaye, Al Green Songs on 'Corden'

Usher, Luke Evans and James Corden settled the final score of vocal sexiness on Thursday’s Late Late Show, crooning pop and soul classics in a three-way showdown.

“I feel like there aren’t male vocalists out there doing sensual, soulful vocals anymore,” Corden lamented to start the segment, declaring himself “the sexiest male vocalist alive.” Usher rushed onstage to interrupt those boasts, challenging the late-night host to a sensual vocals riff-off.

Corden opened with a portion of K-Ci & JoJo’s 1998 piano ballad “All My Life,” extending the climax with a lengthy vocal run. Usher’s response? “Wow, somebody get this guy a Tic-Tac.” The Hard II Love singer fired back with a breezy segment of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 anthem “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” showing off his effortless falsetto.

Then Evans emerged from backstage, armed with Foreigner’s 1984 power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is,” to showcase his smooth vibrato and expressive upper register.

A depressed Corden, realizing the power of his competition, dropped out of the battle. (“I shouldn’t have started this,” he mock-cried. “I’m not a sexy singer, and I’m fine with that.”) But Evans coaxed the host back onstage for a climatic trio version of Al Green’s 1972 hit “Let’s Stay Together.”

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R&B's Changing Voice: How Hip-Hop Edged Grittier Singers Out of the Mainstream

Tank, a veteran singer with a decade and a half of R&B hits, remembers the moment when rappers took over the airwaves.

“Bone Thugs-n-Harmony are the Jesuses of melody rap,” he says. “What they did was theirs at the time; nobody could touch it, so nobody did. But when Nelly came around [in 2000] with hip-hop fully infused with melody, that’s when people started to take notice. Then Ja Rule came. It’s like, ‘Hey – you’re in my lane!'”

“We didn’t stop and realize what was happening,” Tank continues. “With hip-hop growing and taking over at the rapid pace that it was, I would say us R&B guys couldn’t compete – and we didn’t compete.”

The ascent of rap on mainstream radio has had wide-reaching consequences for R&B, fundamentally changing the types of voices you hear in the genre’s mainstream. Historically, singers with a mastery of clean, high tones – from Patti Labelle to Deniece Williams to Ralph Tresvant to Usher – flourished next to singers who favored lower, rougher registers, artists like Barry White, Chaka Khan, Anita Baker and Toni Braxton. This variety allowed for a breathtaking range of expression: No other genre celebrated as many fine gradations of the human voice as R&B. But as melodic rappers became ever more dominant, the lower-register R&B singers largely disappeared from the mainstream, and young singers hoping for mainstream success began staying away from deeper tones and rougher textures.

“I’m in my high interview voice so I won’t frighten you,” jokes Braxton, whose low vocals graced multiple platinum-selling records during the 1990s. “I’m prejudiced because I’m a contralto, but I don’t hear many of them anymore.” Kuk Harrell, a vocal producer for superstars like Rihanna and Usher, offers a similar observation. “I really do miss that lower-register voice,” he says. “That’s not to say we don’t have great emotions out of higher-voiced singers, but that particular thing is not here.”

“A certain grit went into something else,” adds the singer Bilal. “Ain’t nobody singing like Teddy Pendergrass no more.”

Why did the doors close for deep and gritty vocalists, who were an important part of R&B’s mainstream as the genre progressed through soul, funk, Quiet Storm, disco, Eighties synth fusions, house music and the hip-hop-inflected mutations of the Nineties? More than 20 conversations* with artists, producers, label executives and radio programmers indicate that low-register R&B singers were squeezed on two sides at the turn of the millennium: First, rappers took over the vocal ranges that once belonged to R&B, and then struggling labels abandoned R&B groups, which traditionally supported a wide variety of voices. These shifts were compounded as mainstream radio stopped playing R&B songs, which limited the avenues of exposure for all R&B singers but especially hurt those who favor low, throaty intonations.

Once rappers embraced melody, they almost immediately started putting lower-register R&B singers out of work. Many rappers automatically sing in lower tones, defaulting to a register close to their speaking voice. The takeover process that started with Nelly and Ja Rule accelerated as improvements in voice-modifying and pitch-correcting technologies made it easier for rappers to transform into crooners. “The hip-hop artists have been able to get into that lane because of the enhancement of Pro Tools [a popular production program] and Auto-Tune,” says Tricky Stewart, a songwriter/producer (Rihanna, Beyoncé) who has worked in A&R at both Def Jam and Epic Records. The increasing dominance of hip-hop during the course of the 2000s affected all of R&B. “The emergence of rap guys who could do melody simpler and a lot more digestible moved those of us who really like to sing out of the way,” Tank says.

As a defense against hip hop – and to take advantage of its popularity – R&B singers embraced a more rhythmic vocal style. Deep-voiced singers like Pendergrass or Anita Baker often thrived singing ballads; the ballad form, with long climbs and heaving climaxes, rewards vocal gravitas. In a hip-hop world, though, everything is more kinetic, and so, as Braxton points out, “ballads are more midtempo.” This limits the opportunities for young lower-register R&B singers to shine and discourages them from cultivating skills that are unlikely to bring them success. “Once you start adding a little bit more rhythm into the melody, it automatically reduces the ability to belt, to sing long tones,” says Danja, a producer who has collaborated with Mary J. Blige and Justin Timberlake.

In addition, R&B singers started working primarily with rap beats, which can be forceful enough to de-prioritize the singing voice. “R&B has become so track-heavy that it leaves very little room for a big voice,” says producer Chuck Harmony (Ne-Yo, Rihanna). “It’s no longer about the color or texture or tone of the voice [in R&B],” adds Gabrielle Goodman, a professor of voice at Berklee College of Music. “It’s all about the beat.”

Changes in R&B’s production and writing practices impacted all singers, but again, they especially hurt deep-voiced artists. While R&B songs traditionally deployed a steady progression of energy that would peak in a song’s bridge and final chorus, hip-hop’s innovation was to take one portion of a multi-section R&B track and loop it for maximum impact, bringing full force from the opening bars. Every year, rap producers devise an even fiercer sound to buckle club walls; as a result, singers working with rap beats often push up the scale to begin tracks where they would customarily end them. “Music is higher energy now,” Braxton says. “When I’m in the studio, I’ve noticed I have to sing the song higher so the energy is there.”

A feedback loop developed: “Having the voices change a bit changed the key that everyone was writing in,” Harrell notes. The result has been especially noticeable on the male side of the genre, where most of the R&B singers to become major stars in the last decade emphasize their falsetto. Think of the high, child-like tone Chris Brown employed on his signature early hit “Yo (Excuse Me Miss),” any of the gliding, weightless tracks Ne-Yo released between 2005 and 2009, and several lissome singles from the Dream, who made his vocal allegiance plain on a song titled “Falsetto.” More recently, Jeremih and the Weeknd have used airy tones to score hit after hit. 

This is not to say there is no longer a demand for the lower singing ranges; it’s just that rappers like Future and Quavo are providing the huskier melodies on the mainstream R&B/hip-hop airwaves, leaving little space for R&B singers. “Rappers became the Otis Reddings,” says Raphael Saadiq, a singer/songwriter/producer with three decades of R&B hit-making experience. “The global success of hip-hop has forever altered what we know as R&B music,” acknowledges Sylvia Rhone, President of Epic Records. “You don’t hear a lot of big, Whitney Houston–type voices right now.” It’s telling that one of the biggest crossover R&B songs in recent memory, Childish Gambino’s scratchy retro-funk cut “Redbone,” was made by an artist who came up in hip-hop.

Just as rappers were starting to take singers’ jobs, piracy eroded CD sales, and struggling labels began to invest less in artist development, reducing the pool of R&B singers. “R&B was hit the hardest by the lack of artist development,” says Tricky Stewart. “You see a shift in the 10,000 hours: R&B artists have not been able to put that in the way they once were.”

All R&B singers suffered, but the resource shortfall hit R&B vocal groups with particular force, drastically altering the kinds of vocalists able to swim in the genre’s mainstream. “Marketing a group is much more expensive – you’re moving four bodies, styling four singers, getting four hotel rooms,” says Ezekiel Lewis, Senior VP of A&R for Motown. “Fundamentally behind some closed doors it was said, ‘We’re not really signing groups unless they’re in packages from an institution like Simon Cowell or K-Pop,'” Stewart adds.

Vocal ensembles have always been critical to R&B: They were important in the rise of Motown (the Supremes) and the polished soul variants in Chicago (the Impressions) and Philadelphia (the Delfonics); they persisted through the eras of funk (the Jackson 5) and disco (Sister Sledge), survived the rise of solo megastars in the 1980s (Levert) and exploded in the 1990s behind Boyz II Men and many more. A group nurtures a variety of tones for the sake of harmony and musical interest; in the Temptations, David Ruffin’s raspy voice and Melvin Franklin’s deep bass thrived in the same space as Eddie Kendricks’ high, glossy vocal. A low-register vocalist like TLC’s T-Boz can even serve as the anchor of an ensemble, so it makes sense that groups served as launching pads for some of R&B’s signature full voices, including Pendergrass (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), Johnny Gill (New Edition) and Beyoncé (Destiny’s Child).

But since the breakup of Destiny’s Child more than a decade ago, there has not been a single crucial vocal group on mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio, thus destroying the support system for lower-register singers, who could prove their commercial viability to a skeptical record industry in a safe group setting before starting a solo career. The pool of textured singers who once enjoyed success in groups has been decimated: Beyoncé is the only one still standing in R&B’s mainstream. And without ensembles, even a young artist aspiring to sing like Jodeci’s K-Ci – his voice is not especially low, but it’s impressively grainy – has no place to call home.

“The demise of groups definitely took away from the variety,” says Lewis.

Lower register singers still exist in the radio niche known as Urban Adult Contemporary. However, Top 40 stations are accepting very few R&B songs – analyzing Billboard charts shows that in 1996, 26 singles from singers made it from the mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart to the Pop Airplay chart; last year, that number fell to five**. Within that small pool of R&B singles that might get pop exposure, tracks rarely come from Urban AC. The result is a top-down filtering process, dictated largely by pop radio appetite, that limits the reach of all R&B singers, but especially those with grittier voices.

To call someone an R&B singer is not to define his or her sound; instead, the title reflects the avenues of exposure available to an artist. There are two possible routes to listeners for R&B singers: Urban AC stations, which target black listeners aged 25 to 54, and mainstream R&B/hip-hop stations, which aim to hook black listeners between the ages of 18 and 34. Artists do not control which branch of radio adopts their record; that is usually determined by label promotion efforts and programmer decisions. 

Singers are sheltered from rap on Urban AC, so it makes sense that this is where you find a diverse group of voices, including artists like Jazmine Sullivan and La’Porsha Renae. But the price of that safe space is a capped audience – last week the Number One hit on Urban AC reached roughly 9 million listeners, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while the Number One mainstream R&B/hip-hop hit made more than 35 million impressions. Few songs in heavy rotation on Urban AC achieve mainstream ubiquity. Of the 12 tracks that hit Number One on Urban AC last year, only Mary J. Blige’s “Thick of It” cracked the Top Five on mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio.

As a consequence, singers on Urban AC have fewer options than their mainstream counterparts. “You don’t get the same level of investment if you’re reaching a smaller audience,” says Ethiopia Habtemariam, President of Motown Records. “Urban AC is not a bad place to be if they’re sending money, access, training to that area,” adds Claude Kelly, Chuck Harmony’s partner in the R&B group Louis York and an accomplished songwriter/producer in his own right. “But you have a gang of talented artists that are just dying for some attention, for the right songs, for the right opportunities.”

Why won’t those opportunities come from the mainstream side? In a world where R&B songs don’t get picked up by pop radio, there is not much incentive for mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio programmers to play them; sure enough, only 10 of the top 40 songs on the format last week were helmed by a singer, and only four of those didn’t have a featured guest rapper***. “Very few R&B records break through on the pop charts,” says Colby Tyner, VP of Programming at Radio One, which is currently responsible for 57 broadcast stations in 15 urban markets in the United States. “The hip-hop ones break through.”

“R&B singers who want to have major success have to make decisions between what they love and where they want to be heard.” –Tricky Stewart

In addition, programmers deem it too risky to play records that deviate from the dominant hip-hop sound. “It’s hard to play Kevin Ross [who had a soft Number One Urban AC hit this year] after Cardi B [who has a bone-crushing mainstream rap hit right now],” Tyner says. “That’s why there’s the separation of church and state. The energy and vibe of the music that we’re playing on the mainstream side just doesn’t mesh with the Urban AC side.”

But it’s not that simple: Artists on the AC side continuously fiddle with the production on their singles to make them more appealing to mainstream programmers. The stinging drums in two relatively recent Urban AC Number Ones, Ro James’ “Permission” and Leela James’ “Don’t Want You Back,” were precisely calibrated to compete with contemporary rap hits; the instrumental underpinning Guordan Banks’ “Keep You in Mind” is similar to the beat of Yo Gotti’s “Rake It Up.” Yet with rare exceptions, these attempts to fit in at mainstream radio still fall flat.

“That’s the frustrating piece for R&B singers who want to have major success,” Stewart explains. “They have to make decisions between what they love and where they want to be heard. They have to make a series of compromises, and when an artist has to make those compromises, we usually don’t like it as much.” Adding to the frustration, those compromises still don’t allow these singers to compete at radio.

Some emerging stars hope to duck out of this rigged system by completely disassociating from the term R&B. “Frank Ocean, FKA Twigs, they didn’t want to be considered R&B,” Stewart says. “The stigma right now is that R&B is not hot, because R&B means you’re going on AC.”

Songwriter/producer Warren “Oak” Felder (Alessia Cara, Kehlani) shares a similar story. “There was one particular artist I’m not going to name, but we sat down with their team [in 2011] and they wrote out other genre names to call the music,” he remembers. “The names were like, ‘soulful noir.’ That’s how toxic that word had become.”

Many executives and artists believe that streaming will level the playing field for all types of R&B singers by giving them an alternate – and unmediated – path to a wider audience. “It’s been a big turnaround in the past two years: We now have the data that shows R&B’s a genre of music people love,” Habtemariam says. “On the streaming side,” Felder adds, “it is the listener who decides.”

This view of streaming, in which the selection of services like Spotify mirrors the will of the people, is perhaps overly optimistic. These platforms have their own agendas, and their flagship playlists are put together by gatekeepers, albeit a different set from the ones who control the airwaves. Still, Spotify’s “Are & Be” playlist is somewhat more welcoming than radio, effectively functioning as a combination of mainstream R&B and the biggest records at Urban AC. But Are & Be hasn’t given anyone from the Urban AC world enough of a boost to move beyond that classification – it did not transform, for example, James’ “Don’t Want You Back” into a mainstream hit. With 3.6 million followers, Are & Be can’t yet match the muscle of radio, though that might shift if the playlist garners the 7.9 million followers of its hip-hop equivalent, RapCaviar.

Another consequence of streaming has been that labels are beginning to make money again – the music industry recently reported its biggest percentage revenue gain since 1998 – which means the industry may be willing to support and promote a wider variety of singing styles. There is evidence of this in the rise of Ty Dolla $ign, who has become a go-to featured vocalist for Top 40 artists even while sounding like a rogue member of a 1990s vocal group. (His appearance with Jacquees and Quavo on the “B.E.D.” remix also hints at exciting ensemble possibilities.) Radio One’s Tyner points to the success of SZA as a possible indicator of shifting currents. “She has two songs on most of our stations in top rotation,” he says. “That’s a change.” 

Motown’s Lewis sees signs of strength in the fact that Bryson Tiller’s “Don’t” and Khalid’s “Location” both enjoyed mainstream play in the last 18 months. “That makes me think we’re starting to go back to where a song by a black artist that is an R&B song, whatever that means in the 2020s, can be part of the pop landscape,” he says.

For years, rappers offered a tougher alternative to singers, but now they have become so melody-focused that R&B singers, given resources and label support, may be poised to mount a counterattack. “As hip-hop grew, it got on the radio on the back of R&B,” Lewis says. And now singers have been piggybacking on hip-hop to get R&B on radio again, using a rapper’s cadence and rap beats to clear the way for a record like Khalid’s.

Since voices like Khalid’s are traditionally the type that get relegated to Urban AC regardless of a performer’s age, his success provides yet another demonstration for labels and programmers that rugged singing tones can connect with a wide listenership. “All too often, the industry thinks that turning on one faucet means turning off another,” acknowledges Mike Caren, CEO of Artist Partners Group and Creative Officer, Warner Music Group. “There can be lots of different streams of styles, and people will appreciate them all if they’re exposed to them and they’re good.”

For all R&B singers, but especially those with rougher or deeper voices, the quality has not flagged, but the mechanisms of exposure remain fickle. “It’s still far from being good enough in terms of the diversity of R&B singers,” Kelly says. “There’s another kind of voice that both men and women want to hear. It can be mainstream. It should be mainstream.”

* Thanks to Peter Edge, Chairman and CEO, RCA Records; Kevin Liles, CEO and Co-Founder, 300 Entertainment; Ryan Press, SVP & Co-Head of A&R, Warner/Chappell; Jeff Ramsey, Associate Professor of Voice at Berklee College of Music; Terri Thomas, Operations Manager and Program Director, KMJQ and KBXX Houston; Tamela Mann; Ledisi; and Salaam Remi, who also spoke for this story. 

** The five singers to cross over were Beyoncé, Tory Lanez, the Weeknd, John Legend and PartyNextDoor. Rihanna gets major support at pop radio, so she is not considered an R&B artist for these purposes; Drake is counted as a rapper. Even if you chose to count both those artists as R&B singers, the number of crossover singles from singers has still fallen from 26 to 11.

*** Bruno Mars is discounted here, since his songs start at pop radio and then move to mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio. 

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