R&B and Influence: The Producer as Ephebe

There has been plenty of coverage in the press in recent months about the history of hip-hop and R&B. Channel 4 and The Guardian have commemorated 35 years of hip-hop as Def Jam release their chronicle ‘Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label’. This marks a resurgence of the influence of an R&B sound within contemporary alternative music. Acts from James Blake and Brenmar to Nguzunguzu and Frank Ocean are marked by a reconstitution of R&B tropes. By looping a vocal over house synths or draping a track in a codeine haze, for example, these acts are using this influence in a way that few have done before. But what is the effect of this? Does this recycling of a previous movement lead to a creative dead-end, or is the conflation of R&B with bass music, dance and indie creating something entirely new?

It is helpful to first look at the history of R&B to understand what this new wave of artists is doing. While the culture of R&B is littered with narratives; the development of vocal performance, its role in the civil rights struggle, the commercial aspect, it is the history of production which suits the purposes here. R&B contains a string of incredible producers handing on influences over time. The roots of R&B lie in the late ‘40s marketing of blues records by record company RCA Victor, and developed to cover most black music – particularly the electric blues and soul records of Otis Redding, Little Richard and Bo Diddley. Moving into the ‘60s, the term encompassed Motown artists such as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes. Producers such as Norman Whitfield took the soul vocals and simple hooks of earlier records and added strong back beats, orchestras and vocal harmonies to thicken the sound. Later Marvin Gaye moved on the sound with his self-produced ‘What’s Going On?’, with jazz influences contributing to a looser feel.

Following the disco era, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones added more electronic elements to create a smoother dancefloor-friendly sound. That was the precursor to the modern R&B sound. This was created when Teddy Riley began adding hip-hop beats underneath a more typical soul sound and gospel harmonies. A track he produced for Johnny Kemp, ‘Just Got Paid,’ developed this. Following on, Riley formed the group Guy with a sound that fused previous R&B elements with hip-hop and gospel vocals. The opening track ‘Groove Me’, of their eponymous debut album showcases the new style, now known as new jack swing. The track features a well-used sample from The Mohawks ‘The Champ’, a song that also contains samples from The Temptations and Otis Redding. It was new jack swing that eventually mutated into contemporary R&B. By the 1990s groups such as Jodeci, Blackstreet and Tony! Toni! Toné! had gradually incorporated the developments of G-Funk as well as the Notorious B.I.G.’s cinematic sound. Sean Combs then fused these elements together to form tracks with artists such as TLC – songs that are the blueprint for the classic late ‘90s sound. This was a direction followed by Rodney Jenkins with his smooth productions with Destiny’s Child. In different tangents, Tony! Toni! Toné!’s Raphael Saadiq created dryer, clipped music, particularly with D’Angelo. It was this that became known as neo-soul, illustrated by Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. At the other end of the scale, Timbaland was making jittery beats, while emptying out tracks with a more electronic feel and obscure samples. His work with Ginuwine, Missy Elliot and Aaliyah is particularly strong. The Neptunes continued his work, creating extremely minimal grooves.

It is this late ‘90s sound that has been particularly mined by today’s artists. Burial, James Blake and Mount Kimbie have been busy chopping apart and reforming vocals, while wonky artists such as Hudson Mohawke and Débruit are indebted to the off-kilter feel of Timbaland.

With so many influences being drawn in by today’s producers, it is worth considering how influence actually works. Harold Bloom wrote on this subject in his book ‘The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry’.  This is problematic though. Bloom was writing about poetry, in particular the distinction between mediocre and ‘true’ poets. However, his conclusions are not without relevance in other arts, and so the principle still holds. A larger concern is his ignorance of any other element having an impact on an artist. Bloom focuses only on the poet’s relation to previous poets, he does not mention any biographical or historical aspects in the creation of art. Nevertheless, as long as caution is observed, his theories are of use. Bloom highlights the importance of the interaction with the canon of literature for any poet. He traces a lineage of influence from Keats to Tennyson, Arnold, Hopkins and Rossetti and on to Ezra Pound. Bloom declares that an ephebe, or adolescent poet, must clear imaginative space in the canon of prior poets. This means he must interact with what has come before by misreading and mutating previous poets. Through this misreading, the strong poet forces his predecessor to be read through the filter of the new poet. The interaction between poets is explained with his six ratios of misprision, or misunderstanding. Only two of these need outlining.

First is ‘clinamen’. This is a swerve away from the previous poet, a misreading by the ephebe that sees the original poetry as only partially correct. Generally ‘this appears as a corrective movement in [the ephebe’s] own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved in precisely the direction that the new poem moves.’ Next is ‘tessera’, a completion and antithesis, taking a segment of the previous poet’s work and creating something new out of it. The new poem should ‘complete’ the previous ‘by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough.’ We can see how this works contemporaneously in James Blake’s ‘CMYK.’ The overarching influence in this track is Timbaland. He takes the jittery nature of Timbaland’s production, as well as the textured percussion, but he ‘misreads’ this for his own ends by taking the bpm up to 140. This is clinamen, a swerve away from what Timbaland was doing. Then, Blake takes a tiny snippet of an Aaliyah vocal, from the Timbaland produced ‘Are You That Somebody?’ and works his track around it – tessera. He has ‘completed’ Timbaland, taking the frame of an Aaliyah vocal whilst using it to his own ends.

Bloom has something to add to help understand why current producers are working with R&B influences. He states that we all emerge into a cultural environment that is pre-created. The canon of art that has come before is entrenched and thus we are only able to create art in relation to what has been before. We are forced to re-work it otherwise stasis occurs. The current wave of producers began listening to music around the late ‘90s when classic R&B was at its peak. Those who heard it are bound to be influenced and to respond to what was heard at such a young age. This is one of the reasons why R&B is undergoing its renaissance of sorts.

There is a problem with this. Given the saturation of music available to be accessed now, and the excellence of samplers such as Akai’s MPC, sampling has become extremely easy (this is one of the reasons why samples have become shorter. Rather than a bar, a sample is now typically half a second or less). When tracks are too reliant on an unknown sample plucked from the ether it becomes too simple to be successful and to overshadow the original track. In the hands of an unsubtle producer such a use of samples descends into cliché and is antithetical to creativity. This is clear in the number of dreadful tracks around at the moment in which an R&B vocal is cut-up and thrown over the top of a mediocre dubstep beat.

The answer to this problem lies in a move away from sampling toward an original vocal. By doing this they are less indebted to their precursors and are able to mutate R&B influences in more ways than just a change of context. Listen to Creep’s track with Nina Sky, ‘You.’ By conspiring with Nina Sky, who had a hit in 2004 with ‘Move Ya Body,’ Creep have changed the direction of Nina Sky’s career. Rather than summery, dancehall inflected tracks, ‘You’ is dark, woozy trip-hop. This is becoming a recognisable trend of underground dance producers collaborating with singers. Blake has come from behind the producer’s desk to unveil his own voice, and is now working with Bon Iver. Burial is teaming up with Thom Yorke; even Ne-Yo is collaborating with jj. As this generation of producers matures, R&B continues to be a magnet and malleable template for new influences.

David Ward