As a child growing up in the 1980s I looked forward to watching ‘Soul Train’ every week. Simultaneously watching the moves of the dancers on the screen and the joy on my mama’s face as she sang along was my special treat. When she married my stepfather, a fellow sailor five years her junior, in 1985 the hip-hop that he loved joined our household melodies. Back then I could say that I loved their music equally.
By 1991 my mother and stepfather were separated, but their respective favored genres were getting quite cozy. A foreshadowing of the merging of the heavy, thumping rhythms of East Coast hip-hop and velvet and sweet stylings of R & B that would take place in the 1990s could be found in Father MC’s song “I’ll Do for You”:
I was in the Fifth Grade when “I’ll Do For You” came out. At that time AM radio stations still had a place in the market. In Seattle African-Americans turned to local AM station KRIZ for the best in contemporary urban music. Looking back I had no idea how blessed I was to grow up at a time when diverse and talented performers across a various genres of African-American music were consistently played on the radio. For me there was nothing special about radio playing such music; it was simply my world.
I first heard Father MC while listening to KRIZ. Thanks to the informal schooling I received from my mama on R &B, disco and funk I immediately knew that they’d sampled Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real”. I smile thinking back on the complaint my mama would voice as the 1990s wore on. She pointed out that my generation lacked the ability to understand and compose music, instead sampling what was innovated and created by artists from the golden era of here generation’s artists. Later I would come to see her point, but at eleven years old I wasn’t trying to hear that. Father MC’s suave New York accent and debonair style made me swoon, and I listened along eagerly as he rhymed about what he would do for his lady:
I wanna treat ya like a queen, cook and clean
Get yo bubble bath ready so I can rub you where not seen
And watch how gentle I’ll be when I rub your back
And after that there’s aradiant, cognac
A little romance for the quiet storm
And ah, lotta lovin’ for the whole night long
I’m gonna caress ya body and give you a kiss
And ah rub you down where you’ve been missed
Nibble and your navel and kiss your thigh
Play with your hair ’cause I’m on a love high
Well I don’t know it’s the way that I am
Introduce me to yo’ mother and I’ll say, ‘Hello ma’am”
Before long I knew the entire song by heart. And when a group of boys performed a dance routine based on the video for our end of the year talent show in June 1991 I rocked in my seat, imitating the singing and attitude of a then-young and unknown Mary J. Blige on the chorus.
I wasn’t a teenager yet, and I was still far away from adulthood. But as I watched videos of fly young brothas performing elaborate dance routines while rocking hi-top fades and clad in chains and matching outfits in the late 80s/early 90s I thought of the future. To me the music of the time was a party that I would fully join when I came of age. I had no idea of how quickly and deeply things were going to change.
By the time I turned 15 years old it seemed like I was too late for that party. The girls and women of my community were still dancing, but the boys and men were not. Cutting a rug, getting down on the dance floor-whatever you want to call it, it was off the list of acceptable masculine behavior for urban young men. Gangstas don’t dance, and in 1995 some of my male counterparts were more concerned with living up to that false standard than having a good time. Adhering to that rigid, toxic sense of masculinity also meant that the smooth, gentlemanly attitude Father MC showed on rhymes four years earlier was out as well.
Now I know that each generation tends to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. We tend to be harsher on those who come after us. But when I look at the hip-hop and R & B that my daughter will have to contend with I do feel sad for her. It makes me even more grateful that I have options like Pandora and Apple Music, as they allow me to both relive the golden era and discover newer artists who are keeping the fire burning.