Ch. 12: R & B in the ’90s22min, 0sec

The term “rhythm and blues” has been ever-present in rock ‘n’ roll history. Its first use was to describe the sounds of African-American musicians creating and recording the jump blues and race records in the early 1950s. 

By the late 1950s, it had also incorporated elements of both gospel and soul. When mixed with country and western, it became the first sounds of rock and roll, a revolutionary sound called “rockabilly.” Shaping the sounds of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others in the late ’50s, rhythm and blues moved to help influence the blue-based sounds of the British Invasion bands such as The Rolling Stones. In the ’70s, the term “rhythm & blues” loosely incorporated the sounds of soul and funk artists such as Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and George Clinton.

By the 1980s, the term “R&B” had been broadened to include the characteristics, sounds, and artists of soul, funk, disco, hip hop, as well as an urbanized pop. With Quincy Jones as producer, Michael Jackson crafted a pop version of R&B, complete with an insistent disco-lite beat, funk-lite bass, and soul-lite vocals.

In 1985, Teddy Riley, producer and singer with the group Guy, fused R&B with hip hop, jazz, and dance-pop to craft a style reminiscent of jump blues called “new jack swing.” This hybrid centered on sampled sounds, electronic drum machines, horn sections, and infectious melodies and harmonies. The earliest artists in the new jack swing style were the vocal groups New Edition, Guy, and solo artist Keith Sweat. The most successful early group of the style was New Edition, who used the new sound to build a solid following in ’85 – ’86 with songs like “Cool It Now.”

In 1986, Bobby Brown left New Edition (not of his own choice) to forge his solo career and create some of the finest examples of the new jack swing sound. The group’s remaining members recorded a covers album of doo-wop and early R&B songs from the ’50s and ’60s. Soon after, other New Edition members, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant, also left to follow solo careers, and though they both released albums with hit singles, neither would be able to approach the overall success attained by Bobby Brown.

By the beginning of the ’90s, the remaining three members of New Edition, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe, had formed their group: Bell Biv DeVoe (BBD). The trio created a more adult-urban sound, which moved away from the teen-idol-based, romantic ballads towards a funkier sound tinged with pop/hip hop inflections and layered with more overtly sexual lyrics. Their first album, Poison, in 1990, remains their best work and an excellent example of the new jack swing sound.

At the end of the ’80s, Michael Bivens, an original member of both New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe, sought to branch out as a manager and producer of new artists. His discoveries resulted in a group of artists he referred to as his “East Cost Family.” Bivens’ most important discovery was a teenage vocal group from Philadelphia called Boyz II Men, who would become the most successful R&B artists of the ’90s.

Boyz II Men was initially a quintet formed at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and rehearsed in the echoing acoustics of the school bathrooms and on school grounds. Sneaking backstage at a local radio-sponsored concert, the five hoped to find Will Smith and audition for him. Instead, they found Michael Bivins of the newly formed Bell Biv DeVoe. On hearing the group, Bivins agreed to manage and produce the group.


Under the direction and production of Bivins, Boyz II Men, now a quartet, released their first album, Cooleyhighharmony, in 1991. Breaking from the typical doo-wop tradition, when three others backed up one solo voice, Boyz II Men spread the vocal solos among all four voices. The debut album, released by Motown Records, included the single “Motownphilly,” which reached #3 on the charts, and “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” which reached #2. In the following years, Boyz II Men had several #1 hits, including “End of the Road” (1992), “I’ll Make Love to You” and “On Bended Knee” (both 1994), and the mega-hit with Mariah Carey, “One Sweet Day” (1995). They were the beginning of a rediscovery of tight, R&B-based vocal harmonies, packaged with memorable melodies and heartfelt lyrics of love and desire.

While Michael Bivins was producing and promoting a reincarnation of the doo-wop sound of the ’50s, Boyz II Men from Philadelphia, on the West Coast, a female trio was updating the girl-group model of the early ’60s. From an auditioned group of more than 3,000 singers, producers were looking for females with solid vocals, attractive looks, and personal charisma – sophisticated, sexy, and intelligent. The result was a quartet called 4-U, then changed to Vogue, before finally arriving at En Vogue.

Under the careful direction of their management and production team, En Vogue released their debut album, Born to Sing, in April 1990. By the end of the year, four singles from the album had reached the Top 5 on the R&B charts, with some crossover success on the pop charts. The first released single, “Hold On,” was awarded “#1 R&B Single of the Year” by Billboard Music Awards. It also won or was nominated for numerous awards from the Soul Train Awards and the Grammys and signed an endorsement contract with Coke for television commercials. Periodically through the ’90s, En Vogue would appear in movies (such as 1995’s Batman Forever), television (In Living ColorA Different World, and Sesame Street), and commercials. Their meteoric rise to superstardom was a combination of a polished look, great vocals and songs, and indefatigable marketing.

Unlike the early ’60s girl groups, or those from Motown, such as The Supremes, En Vogue was not designed as “soloist with backup singers.” Instead, like Boyz II Men, each member was featured as a soloist in different songs. En Vogue was designed to build on the new jack swing sound, merging R&B with hip hop, giving the music a distinct beat, but allowing for crossover to the pop charts. Their gospel-based harmonizing and melodic hooks made En Vogue enjoyable to both R&B and pop audiences. Though their final product involved more choreography and fashion, in many ways, En Vogue and Boyz II Men were two sides of the same R&B musical coin. During the 1990s, no other R&B groups approached the success and visibility of En Vogue and Boyz II Men.

However, the incredible success of these did spawn others who followed the same pattern. The female group from Atlanta, TLC, had #1 hits with “Waterfalls” and “Creep” from their Crazysexycool album in ’95. However, poor management, bankruptcy, personal problems, and in-fighting affected their success, and they dissolved by the end of the ’90s. Their dissolution was unfortunate as their final album, Fanmail in 1999, was some of their finest work in the studio. Though they regrouped for the album 3D, the trio never completed the project together, as Lisa Lopes was tragically killed in a car accident partway through the recording process.  

Other R&B groups found modicum success on the charts in the ’90s. The male quartet, All-4-One, found a balance between soulful ballads and new jack swing sounds. Their multi-platinum albums, with hits such as their cover of two country songs, “I Swear” and “I Can Love You Like That,” were even more popular on the adult contemporary charts than on R&B charts. Another male quartet, Color Me Badd, who described their style as “hip hop doo-wop,” saw incredible success in 1991, with numerous awards and nominations, a multi-platinum album (C.M.B.), appearances on television, as the opening act for Paula Abdul’s tour, and at the Super Bowl XXVI halftime show. However, the group lacked staying power on the charts, disappearing after “I Adore Mi Amor” (‘ 91) and “All 4 Love” (’92).

While much of the initial power came from R&B groups in the early ’90s, solo artists were discovered, recorded, and promoted by the mid-decade. These soloists were different from the pop-oriented soloists of the ’80s. These artists followed the flow of gospel/R&B/hip hop that had begun at the beginning of the decade. 

After recording with different startup groups in the first years of the ’90s, R. Kelly went solo in 1993, with 12 Play, a debut album which yielded “Bump N’ Grind” and would eventually go 6x platinum. Through the decade of the ’90s, Kelly, who has been called the “King of R&B,” demonstrated his musical range – writing and producing for artists such as Aaliyah and Michael Jackson, as well as creating his hit songs. One of his #1 songs, the inspiring and heartfelt, gospel-tinged ballad, “I Believe I Can Fly,” was the theme song for the animated movie Space Jam, which starred Michael Jordan. In the decade, Kelly had nine singles and three albums that went gold or multi-platinum. Record sales of over 75 million, and almost thirty gold, platinum, and multi-platinum albums and singles, have made him one of the best-selling male R&B artists in history. With over one hundred awards and over two hundred and fifty nominations from a wide range of R&B and hip hop categories, Kelly is one of the most accomplished singer-songwriter producers globally.

Unfortunately, R. Kelly has struggled with personal problems, including accusations of sexual abuse, often with underage girls, and was arrested and convicted of a wide range of state and federal charges, including kidnapping, sex trafficking, and racketeering. He is currently in custody, awaiting sentencing and a second trial on additional charges.

Though Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds did not have the impact of R. Kelly as a solo act, he did see #1 songs in 1993 (“Never Keeping Secrets”) and 1994 (“When Can I See You”) on the R&B charts. However, his actual impact on R&B history is as a songwriter and producer. Through the 1990s, few artists in either the R&B or pop categories had not recorded a Babyface written song or been produced in the studio by him. The list of Babyface-written or produced artists is one of the most extensive of any music producer in history. In addition to writing and producing songs for Boyz II Men (“End of the Road” and “I’ll Make Love to You”), he also produced for Whitney Houston, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Eric Clapton, Michael Bolton, Mary J. Blige, En Vogue, Backstreet Boys, Mariah Carey, Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande, Phil Collins, NSYNC, P!nk, Zendaya, and many more.

In addition to his twelve Grammys, Babyface has been acknowledged as Producer of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, Outstanding Male Artist, and Pop Songwriter of the Year (7 times). He has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and had a section of Interstate Hwy 65, which runs through his hometown of Indianapolis, named the “Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds Highway.” He was ranked #20 on the British New Music Express list of “50 Greatest Producers Ever”. Few have made a profound impact on the genre of R&B, and by extension, pop music of the ’90s, as has Babyface. To listen to ’90s R&B or pop is to listen to the musical fingerprints of Babyface.

The mid to late ’90s brought several female solo artists to the R&B charts. Both Brandy and Monica released their first solo albums to great success at 15, but their careers took different paths afterward. While Monica continued to record, Brandy was cast in a sitcom, Moesha, which became her focus for several years. The two solo artists joined forces in 1998 for a duet – “The Boy Is Mine,” which became a significant hit, remaining at the #1 spot for 13 weeks. Throughout the next two decades, each of the artists found work acting in film and television and time in the studio, releasing albums.


In contrast with Monica and Brandy’s new jack swing/pop crossover sound, Mary J. Blige‘s early work in the ’90s was closer to the hip hop/urban sound, perhaps because of the influence of her mentor and producer, Sean “Puffy” Combs. Her debut 1991 album, What’s the 411? was the forging of a new hybrid, which could be categorized as hip hop/soul. More urban, more street-savvy, more authentic, Blige could weave from singing to rapping with more ease than other artists. Older than either Monica or Brandy when they first recorded, Mary J. Blige could bring a seductiveness to the smooth sound absent in other, younger singers. She is also capable of simple, sometimes explosive, vocal power, as can be heard in songs like “Real Love” from her debut album. Her second album, My Life, produced by Combs, steps back from hip hop into a more intimate, soulful expression of her personal life. With all of the songs written by Blige, save one, the album is a tortured revelation of self-reflection and introspection. Not only is it one of the finest of her career, but considered by many, including Rolling Stone and Time magazines, as worthy of being included on the list of most influential albums of all time. Since then, Mary J. Blige has only confirmed her role as one of the finest divas of R&B and a worthy successor to the likes of Aretha Franklin.

Older than Monica, Brandy, or Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton brought a smoother, more mature sound to R&B in the early ’90s. Her self-titled debut album, in 1993, followed by her second album, Secrets, in 1996 were monumental successes, each reaching 8x multi-platinum status and selling over 17 million units combined. The two albums also saw a string of successful singles, including “Breathe Again” from her debut and the massive hit “Un-Break My Heart” from her second album, which remained #1 on the charts for 11 weeks in 1996. Her ability to sing with heartfelt soul, yet in a smooth, almost consoling, manner caused great crossover R&B success with her Babyface-produced Secrets. It is filled with rich melodies, skillful lyrics, memorable choruses, and lavish, sometimes atmospheric, instrumentation. Her performances at times border the power ballads of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey and establish her as one of the foremost interpreters of the contemporary R&B genre.

The end of the ’90s brought one final group that needs mention: Destiny’s Child. Patterned stylistically after earlier female R&B groups like En Vogue or TLC, the four-voice ensemble Destiny’s Child released their debut album, Destiny’s Child, in 1998. The most successful single from the album was the lush, soulful “No, No, No, Pt. 2”, which reached #3 on the charts. The new jack swing-influenced song features producer Wyclef Jean rapping and solos by member Beyonce Knowles with tight harmonies. Though the group was reduced to a trio by the release of their third album, Survivor, in 2001, they were all beginning to look to solo careers. At the beginning of the new Millenium, Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child had gone the way of Diana Ross and the Supremes. However, the path ahead was to make Beyoncé one of the most dominant pop/R&B artists in music history.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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