… and they’re super bad.
The year was 1988. I was six-year-old second grader. My mom picked my sister and me up from school in her beige Plymouth Horizon. We said our hellos, put on our seat belts and she turned up the radio. Unconsciously, we all started to sing:
“Heeeeyyyyyy little Wal-ter, heeeeyyyyyy little Walter listen, heeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyy little Walter, something’s gonna get ya little Walter …”
Of course, that wasn’t the first time we’d heard that song, but it is the first time I remember hearing it. That day, I think, was the start of my love affair with neo-soul.
It hasn’t always been called neo-soul. In fact, until the “boom” of neo-soul artists in 2000, nobody knew what to call it. From what I understand, they just stuck it in the R&B category because the artists were black and well, black folks listened to their music.
The term neo means recent or new. And, soul, well, soul has several different definitions. My favorite is the principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans, regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable in existence from the body; the spiritual part of humans as distinct from the physical part.
I took it a step further and looked up the meaning of soul music and this is what I got: a fervent type of popular music developed in the late 1950s by black Americans as a secularized form of gospel music, with rhythm-and-blues influences, and distinctive for its earthy expressiveness, variously plaintive or raucous vocals, and often passionate romanticism or sensuality.
We can go in several different directions with this but we won’t. To me, soul music is just that, it’s music for your soul. And I don’t know about ya’ll, but music for me is one of the best things in life.
To me, soul music inspires some of the same feelings I get when I’m in church. Sometimes, it makes me want to cry. Sometimes, all I can do is wave my hand in agreement. And there are other times when the voices or the instruments simply send chills running through my body.
Really, the definitions could imply that soul music is necessary for life. I know it’s necessary for mine.
While 1988 was my first memory of this “neo-soul,” it is certainly not among my most vivid. In fact I have several that date back to the eighth grade. Come with me as I go back down memory lane.
Shortly after the Tonies, Mint Condition took over the airwaves sending everybody “swinging” with one of my favorite songs til this day, “Breaking My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes).”
In 1995, D’Angelo burst onto the scene with this “Brown Sugar” CD with the title track that my sister and I still argue about. We can’t agree whether he was talking about a chick or some weed. Anyway, the CD was all that.
That’s the same year that Amel Larrieux and Bryce Wilson, also known as, Groove Theory, came out with that banga “Tell Me.” The song was a one-hit wonder but it did introduce us to Ms. Larrieux who has an awesome voice.
Enter Eric Benet and Maxwell in 1996. I call it the year of the sexy brown brothas with falsetto voices. Benet got his break singing “Let’s Stay Together” from the “A Thin Line Between Love & Hate” soundtrack. Maxwell’s “Urban Hang Suite” was awesome too. But I have to be honest, I was a little late catching onto it. The single was “Acension” and hey, I was in the eighth grade and I couldn’t pronounce it so I wouldn’t listen to it.
Around 1997, Erykah Badu emerged on the music scene with a unique voice, singing the sweet melodies of songs that bordered on the serious and the silly. Between my sister, my brother and me, we knew every single word of the “Baduizm” CD. Here’s a tid bit of useless information from my life. That’s the first CD I had to replace because I wore it out.
Then of course comes Lauryn Hill, before she went through her hiatus and her Miss Hill phase, with “The Miseducation …” and she shattered the mold. She had a blend of soul and hip hop that just made sense together.
After that, it was pretty quiet until my freshman year at A&T when I had the great fortune of hearing Jill Scott’s “Gettin’ In the Way” and India.Arie’s “Video.” I can’t begin to describe to you how much I was feeling these songs when they came out.
Jill Scott’s voice was just so sweet and rich. I swear if pecan pie had a sound, it would be Jill Scott’s voice. And “Video,” ya’ll, that song is responsible for putting me on the path to self-acceptance and I will always be grateful to her for that song.
In that same year, Musiq, that’s when he was the Soulchild, came out with “Just Friends (Sunny).” The thing I remember most about that is when that song came out, there was a listening party on campus and one of my favorite professors, Dr. Myra Shird, started talking about that song in class.
“You know, I like that. There’s no pressure, no games, it’s ‘let’s just be friends’.”
Man you gotta love Dr. Shird, ain’t that right Eb?
Now here we are eight years later and we’ve seen artists like artists like Anthony Hamilton, Goapele, John Legend, Van Hunt and my current favorite, Ledisi, have all surfaced.
Hamilton hit the ground running with his debut CD “Comin’ From Where I’m From” while Goapele has kept us groovin’ with her singles “Closer” and “First Time.” Legend is quickly becoming the very thing his name suggests, a legend, with his sultry voice and smooth tracks while Hunt’s music sounds like the soundtrack to our favorite blaxploitation films.
But Ledisi, this sista is in a class all by herself. I’ve heard her compared to the likes of Scott and Etta James. I say she embodies all of the great qualities of her predecessors and a whole lot more. I’d only heard one song by Ledisi when I brought her CD in October. After I got it, I swear I didn’t stop listening to it everyday until about February. That thing is fiyah, everybody should have one – a real one, not one you burned from somebody.
To show you how bad this sista is, watch her skat with the incomparable Rachelle Ferrell:
Neo-soul has given me a new outlook on music as a whole. In this sub-genre of music lies real musicians, singers and just artists period. It’s been neo-soul that kept me from losing my mind in the abyss that is commercial music. And finally, I can go to a concert filled with like myself. You know, the urban, black, neo-hippies who wear natural hair, dress in old Army fatigues, burn incenses and smell like patchouli. I finally fit in! Well, musically anyway.
They’ve got soul …
… and they’re super bad.