How the Drake formula could save R&B boy bands.
By Christopher (CJX) Joseph
Okay, okay, hear me out! I know you’re saying – WHAT?? For the record, I’m not speaking of real BAND’s, musicians incorporating strings, percussion, keys such as Mint Condition, Tony, Toni, Tone, or the Roots. And yes, I’m talking about that Drake, the solo artist currently riding the top of the R&B and pop charts, read on.
I’m talking about the boy and girl bands, the ones with pop sensibilities who incorporate fashion, looks, and the latest dance moves with slick harmonizing, doo-wop over music tracks or a-cappella that equate to hits. Most of us quenched our musical thirst when young on these groups no matter the genre. You remember the great boy bands of the 1990s, Boyz II Men, Jodeci, H-Town, Shai, 112, Blackstreet, Guy, Next, New Edition, Jagged Edge, Dru Hill, Color Me Badd, Portrait, Soul IV Real – they was all over the place ruling R&B radio! The ladies had there share also, TLC, Destiny’s Child, Envouge, Jade, SWV, Total; to name a few. Trust, our parents didn’t think BBD was true R&B, but it was catchy and something to dance too, just as their parents probably didn’t like their music, its a cycle.
The formula was tried and true from the sixties when doo-wop ruled the pop and R&B charts. Such classic Motown era groups such as The Temptations, Isley Brothers, The Supremes, The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Miracles, The Dells, Booker T & the M.G.’s, Martha and the Vandellas, The Four Tops, to early 1970s Jackson 5, O’Jays and Labelle.
In many ways the 90’s mirrored the success of the 60’s; with updated formulas.
The cycle is sure to repeat again as history teaches us.
It’s hard to pinpoint what killed off boy bands. The late 90’s saw huge success with pop bands Blackstreet Boys, NSync, 98 Degrees and All-4-One who blew up then fell apart. R&B bands of the early 2000s barely became, imploding upon impact such as Ruff Endz and Ideal. One scenario is the overwhelming super sugary boy band imagery was being killed by hip-hop hardcore posturing. When Puff pulled out shiny suits for Mase it was a wrap, nobody wanted their men looking like idiots on stage. Boys crooning to women, shoo-wopping, begging, was considered weak and pathetic. The era of cool is in; guys have to stand on wall at dances, posture outside being hard, pick fights with a hapless soul who step’s on his new kicks. Women today don’t even appreciate a man that has dance-floor moves or expects him to ask her for a dance. It all goes hand in hand. Michael Jackson would probably have a harder time getting established in the hard core generation.
Other factors include the arrival of free internet music, country crooning took over the top of the chart and most boy bands beat their own selves up, vying for spots on VH1’s behind the scene. Eerily similar to the 60’s, the front man or woman started to break out the pack. Relationships are hard to maintain from marriage, former school chums to being in with your boss, things happen. Michael broke away from his brothers, Labelle morphed into just Patti, Diana became the only Supreme. In the 90’s New Edition lost Bobby and found Johnny, then reemerged as an energized BBD and then back to formula as one crew in 1996. Recent times, except for Justin Timberlake or Beyonce, not many former group members have enjoyed solo success. We are all individuals with our own wants and needs but having a family that supports you is crucial to your survival. A group needs to have each others back under a ton of pressure to succeed.
Which brings me to the current state of R&B bands. On the national scene they are nill to none, not even actual musical bands are making major waves. Theres been a few attempts such as Day 26. I watched with interest as noted producer Andre Harrell rolled out his pet product of Hamilton Park, a four man crew of harmonizers to high fanfare. Unfortunately the hype didn’t equate into chart dominance. Despite industry grooming of the highest degree, the groups singed earnestly about romantic love and sexual desire but came out flat and uninteresting over equally insulting bland grooves. The result was about as exciting as getting your teeth pulled. While they were a pleasant throwback to the b-boy bands of the 90s, it didn’t resonate with audiences.
Obviously the industry is feeling the pressure, as national television has churned out reality shows devoted to doo-wopping, dancing groups such as the Sing Off to mixed reviews. In the wake of American Idol and X-Factor we are overdosing in competitions.
In the new era of build your own brand, every hopeful singer, rapper, musician is posting videos on Youtube to hopefully gain a million hits and promote and market themselves to eventually get noticed (more on that another article). Groups striving for this are almost nonexistent as it would take a team effort while still struggling. Has to be another mindset to believe in the dream, but it can happen.
So how the heck could Drake of all artists save an R&B band? Analyzing the current state of R&B/Hip-Hop radio, the R&B has taken a back seat to hip-hop. At the same time rap artists are embracing R&B greater than before and vice-versa, ALA Chris. Drake has capitalized on blending the two genuinely into a vibrant career. Back when Bone Thugs and Harmony first blended harmonizing with rap, most rappers disdained the thought of mixing the two. Ever since Melle Mel hopped on Chaka Khan’s huge hit ‘Feel For You’ the obvious hitmaking gene was apparent, putting a hot rapper on a R&B song meant ‘hit.’ Rappers vice versa, looking for that ‘soul’ put a singer on their hooks.
Still, rappers themselves wouldn’t be caught dead flipping a singing verse. It took a while for it to take hold, Biggie crooned in sarcastic fashion on ‘Playa Hater,’ Mos Def a ‘rappers rapper’ can sing his butt off, most notably, Nelly merged the two quite successfully commercially to much criticism. Other rappers, who probably sang in the first place, morphed into successful singers such as Cee Lo Green, T-Pain, and Queen Latifah. Lauryn Hill had probably the most critically acclaimed rap/R&B hybrid before going M.I.A. Not to mention Ja Rule, who did some type of deep throated attempt that sounded vaguely similar to singing, but it equated into hits. Now full fledged spitters such as Kanye West and Lil Wayne have flipped the auto-tune switch into warbling out singsongy tunes. That would have never ever happened a mere twenty years ago! Speaking of auto-tune, if you need constant tweaking to enhance your craft by technology, then you have no place in a doo-wop band. A good band can impress live as well as in studio.
Drake grew up with all this cross-blending. He is a product of North American cultural blending in many ways. His Memphis father played in R&B bands while his Jewish Canadian mother was a teacher. Drake’s formula of displaying synonymously his emotions singing, spoken word verbiage and then a rhyme is catchy and captivating audiences. He can flip formats easily within a tight timeframe. Some criticize him for ‘being too soft’ or ‘not rhyming harder,’ or being to mediocre, but charts don’t lie. While far from the first to exploit this combo, it’s in his D.N.A. as the formula obviously works. Within a few short years he went from a being a nobody, pushing works online, spurning out underground mixtapes. His catchy hooks and obvious talent emerged, catching the eye of industry heavyweights, most notably Lil Wayne. No easy feat, he topped the charts independently, before coming under a bidding war by labels, eventually signing with Wayne’s Cash Money. Most important he is one of the leading entertainers for the crucial under 13-25 set that spends cash, and lots of it, on music, fashion and related goods. This is important for advertisers as the young drives the popular industry and sets the standards into the next generation. Face it, Drake and the current crop of young stars are shaping the minds of our children.
Time to capitalize on this groundwork and bring your A game to build better.
Getting labels out of your head, think of Drake as just what he is, an entertainer. Not a ‘Rap’ artist, and not a ‘R&B’ or ‘Pop’ artist with talent. It helped when accepting Nelly, and its whats happening now.
A young hot b-boy R&B Band needs to come out raw, edgy and unadulterated. Everybody wants to go back to Boyz II Men mega-success dreaming of ‘End of The Road,’ ‘I’ll Make Love To You,’ ‘Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,’ and other sweet melodies. Boyz II Men is the blueprint of R&B bands and a hard act to follow. The irony with that insanely great music, bad copies won’t make a dent in todays R&B/Hip-Hop hit driven radio. Such was the barrier to Hamilton Park and Day 26. Yeah, the former sang about love over the computer – a la ‘sexting’ and had a song called ‘Grindin,’ but they sound awfully tame to current hit makers Nikki Minaji, Trey Songz, Travis Porter, and Chris Brown himself who has turned himself into a sensitive ‘bad boy.’ A true ballad of losing the love of your life you want to transcend to different genres and be long lasting. Following bad advice, both groups threw expletives in their attempts of ballads halfheartedly. An expletive does not work in a begging ballad where you want the girl to forgive you. It may work if you don’t care what you did to the girl, but it seemed forced and out of place, probably to portray the group as edgy. One word, FAIL.
Sex, of course sells, but isn’t everything. Most R&B revolves around it or the romantic foreplay that leads up to, or the heartbreak afterwards. Jodeci, were known for sexual escapes such as ‘Freak’N You’ and ‘Feenin’ and emotional ballads such as ‘Cry For You”. However, their first huge hit was ‘Forever My Lady’ which was a ballad about a young man having an unexpected baby with a girlfriend. Not only was he okay with it, he vowed to take care of his woman and the baby. That was risqué then as it is now, with unplanned pregnancy in teenagers and young adults a topic of controversy. It was ballsy and honest, and equated into an adoring legion of young women who appreciated this. The initial introduction to the group was established. It cemented the foundation for their romantic and sexual ballads that became their legacy. Other bands such as Dru Hill followed this concept. Comparing to Hamilton Park again, they sang of ‘Thing Called Us’ where the lead singer balked at having a baby with his love and then had to explain why, the poor guys said ‘sorry’ every five-seconds…omg wrong move.
Day 26, the hyped up boy band who won P. Diddy’s Making the Band reality show, also came and went. Officially disbanding a mere three years after their ballyhooed win; they produced no chart hits. Despite well written sweet ballads, they failed to relate to the audience at large, despite a decent fanbase to build upon. One would think with Diddy and Andre Harell’s music cred and history of crafting hits, the cohesion and output would have been stronger.
Audiences don’t want to hear men begging and being soft, at least not right off the bat. In a time when masculinity is being challenged by economic hardships, lack of opportunities, education and environmental disparity, equating into a high rate of black men incarcerated, or just down and out, confused and disoriented.
Boyz II Men cut their teeth with their emotions that overflowed the lyrics with a-cappella harmonizing. They connected with the audience, such as how Jodeci did with ‘Forever My Lady.’ ‘It’s so Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday’ was an emotional punch that resonates still today. They showed diversity doo-woping over new jack fast drum beats on ‘Motown Philly.‘ Building on this, they opened your eyes with ‘Uhh Ah’ that oozes of sex you up conquests. “Please Don’t Go’ was that emotional coup de grace to keep your disgruntled love. Toping it off with the Babyface killer ‘End of the Road’ lamenting on the lost of a true love, no apologies, no begging, it was just sad to see it over. Like any relationship, we started off dancing with them, shared a sad moment, built up to a sexual point, then asked the love please don’t go, then summed it up by the end of the road. It was a process, a storybook play by play as all four members would trade off and speak directly to their audience on an even level. They resonated with us, and we got to know them like our next door neighbors.
The group of the new generation obviously has a heavy load history on its shoulders. Don’t sweat it, know it well, and look to the future.
You want to be in a supergroup? Here’s a little advice to get started:
1. Teamwork is priority one. The band first needs cohesion. Keep your ego in check! The band members need to be a team first and foremost. Once the musical ride starts, its hard to slow down and check yourself.
The band must figure out what direction they want to go in and then throw it out the door. Artistic goals aside (Leave that for the inevitable solo album) the goal of a group is to connect with an audience to help develop your inevitable sound. There is three or more of you that must be in cohesion in how you approach this. Use your artistic talent to work as a team to feel out your audience. Boy or girl band, your primary audience is women, they drive music and fashion. Cater to them, listen to them, feel where the vibe is. Write a list of relevant topics and pick the best out of them, start here and craft accordingly. If men feel your message and how you approach women, you will gain their audience. ‘Forever My Lady’ was probably nobody’s first choice but was ultimately the only choice.
Feel your music. Its one thing to have well written songs and another to pull the emotion out. Listen to Adele ‘Someone Like You,’ you feel where her heart is, it resonates with your soul. Do your homework and listen to the 90’s and 60’s huge groups, watch their videos and concerts. Laughed at Michael Jackson boo hooing on a track? Suck it up, it sold millions, cry, but keep it real. Turn around and listen to Hamilton Park or Day 26, there’s a huge difference. Be able to sing over live instruments or tracks or nothing at all. Topics can break out of the requisite sex triangle, but keep them relevant to what your audience wants or needs. Feel good music is a miss in today’s current landscape and usually equates to a hit done correctly (i.e. Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince ‘Summertime,’ Jodeci’s ‘Get on Up.”). Musicianship is working in harmony together and feeling the vibe and pulse of your listeners.
Stay current. A new group needs to feel the pulse of what the listening audience is jiving too. You go off on a musical tangent cultivating strings from Morocco, channeling monks in Tibet, and harvesting clogging from Switzerland, you’ve probably gone too far. Do be creative and push boundaries, the key is not going overboard.
Don’t let the outside world pressure where the team’s mindset is. Dance in tangent what your group is comfortable with; don’t go overboard, doing backflips and breakdances just because somebody else is. Wear what works with the group, not what’s trendy or what somebody says you should. Listen to what your advisors suggest but ultimately follow your instincts and be comfortable with how you come off. You’re a team, so communicate and take a vote on it, will avoid much of the unnecessary bickering of minor issues. Keep your mojo intact.
Let all the band members shine. Obviously everybody has talent, why let a member take a back seat while another blows up? Trade off vocals every song. A member does tenor, a member drops a rap, your bass man comes on, a member does a falsetto, keep it fresh, keep it poppin. Same as in interviews and when speaking alone about the group. Nobody is the solo star, go back to#1.
Rap. Yes, you’re an R&B group but rap took it over quite a bit ago. Rap replaced the bass man who spoke poetry over the track before a member wailed out a verse. Think dropping a fly Barry White rap before your bandmate drops his line. Most hits today flip back and forth between the two formats, its enviable. Your rap member must have good lyrics, delivery, and have street cred. This isn’t Pretty Ricky, fans can spot a fake.
A-cappella – if your crew can’t blow over pure air, you have issues. Enough said, its nostalgic and is easy to crossover. Especially an emotionally charged song. Somebody beat box? Throw it in.
Hire good management and read EVERYTHING. A team member is upset they didn’t get paid for a show in Albuquerque, then the whole team is upset. Go back to Rule #1. Your management works for you, something doesn’t seem right, negotiations broke down somewhere, you act as a team to rectify the issue. They are there because YOU have the talent, but at the same; artists need time to be focused on your talent so you need a good staff to help guide you. You are dependent on each other, so in essence they are your extended team, make sure they are right for your group.
Support your team, somebody wants to cut a solo album? It’s enviable, everybody is an individual foremostly. Somebody will feel their voice is not being heard and they want to stretch their artistic chops, it will happen. Why we have #6, but it will still rear its head. Dependent on your contract, if your group is your main bread and butter, a solo release might not be a wise career move. It gets muddy here, but a way to alleviate this when you first sign into any contract, make sure their is a clause that allows individuals, on their FREE TIME, the free range to work on side projects. See rule #1. A cohesive team member will know that in side projects, they still represent the crew and will act accordingly. Remember #1, speak about this together before anybody decides to slip off.
Have fun, like any great career, its something you want to do for a long long time. Think Isley Brothers here. Most groups don’t last longer than a few years if lucky. Try to have breaks, run away (as in vacations!), treat the work seriously but don’t take it home with you. Your family, mind, spirit and soul will thank you.
Most importantly, treat your crew as you would your fam. This is your new fam. You’re going to be doing about everything together besides use the restroom. You want your union to come off naturally. The members of TLC didn’t know each other well when first introduced. Their then manager Pebbles made sure they took a significant amount of time to get to know each other before they started cutting records, the rest is history. Off duty from recording, invite the new fam over for a BBQ, play some ball, a little Madden, have fun. Go back to #9. Also see #1.
So heres where Drake comes in. Our dream team R&B boy band.
Our young supergroup would consist of Drake, our leading man who croons with heartfelt passion, sharing his emotions right on his sleeve he is himself, not portraying a character in his music. Same time, he can flip it into a tough rhyme, flowing well over any type of beat. Fans are eating this up, he’s on to something, but his limits should influence a group to do better. Drake’s extremely limited range keeps his monotone baritone simple and in our group, his slow talk spoken word, while not actual singing, would be equivalent to our Barry White rap. Repeat – no auto-tuning!
Drakes nemesis is Chris Brown, obviously over their shared interest in pop queen Rihanna. They was obviously cool just a mere year or so ago when Drake dropped a guest rhyme on Brown’s ‘Deuces’ hit. What’s a popular group without some controversy? Two leading males battling over the same girl would make excellent stories to sing about and tension to keep the drama going. Brown’s soulful tenor fuels an emotional journey while staying safely in a middle range. He also has decent rhyme skills for them to battle rap together. In our group, the team is #1, so all drama aside, you would come back and crank out groundbreaking music together. Drama is a part of life and it fuels great stories. Keep the M.O.BS mantra.
Bruno Mars tenor would compliment the two, with his soulful crooning, light falsetto, soaring octave and note range, with overall talented musicianship. Bruno’s stamina and power range, while limited, would compliment Drakes monotone and Brown’s nasal ness. A member that could pull out a guitar or play the piano is a decent touch of a singing group. Drake has a good working relationship with soul hipster The Weeknd, but for our group we need one down home ‘sanger.’ As an after thought The Weeknd, Drake and buddy Trey Songz would make an interesting superstar trio; they keep their egos at the door and don’t play it safe, pushing the limits of their talent.
Our fourth singer needs to be that classic ‘deep throat’ baritone bass singer. That K-Ci & Jo Jo champ, that guttural from the throat, bring the whole soulful bringing down the house gospel crooning to the group. Not many of the young cats on the national scene blow like this, as it’s seen as too ‘old school’ or ‘not cool.’ They get sent right to urban contemporary formats or classified ‘neo-soul.’ Problem within a group dynamic is the baritone has to be kept tied down as they are prone to run away belting out ooh’s and ahh’s. Teddy Pendergrass comes to mind as he couldn’t be contained in Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Many have tried to copy his success but end up being the scream-o annoying singer, doing too much. That singer that about passes out on stage doing a seizure. While an important component, this singer needs to realize they need to keep their antics toned down and just dip in the kool-aid for well planned dramatic effects. The group’s hype man dropping a guttural ad-lib per-say. Youngest singer even close to this on a national level would be Bilal or Billy Porter. This person would be the hardest to tackle down into a packaged group format. It would though be very beneficial for them as they would build an audience with a hitmaking group. If they eventually want to go solo its a prepackaged audience. Keep #1 in mind while working with your team.
Unfortunately many of the leading males on R&B radio, video channels, Youtube etc; with the exception of Usher, sound awfully interchangeable. A group riding the current group’s coattails, using elements of what is popular (a la Drake) but focused on differing themselves by pushing the boundaries of popular music; would make that dent in contemporary R&B/Hip-hop hits driven formats that rule the charts today.
Written July 2012 Christopher (CJX) Joseph