This djrobblog Black History Month special tribute was inspired by the bands and singing groups of the 1990s and early 2000s who represented the last true era of R&B before the genre’s untimely demise later in the ’00s. The emphasis here is “groups” – acts consisting of two or more members who regularly recorded together (i.e., released at least one complete album or more than one single as an entity) – NOT solo artists.
First we take a look at the men – as inspired by recent interest in the group New Edition – with a ranking of the 101 Greatest Songs by Male R&B Groups From 1990 – 2001: the Last True Era of R&B. Later in February, we’ll chart the female groups.
The countdown is at the end of the article, so please read on!
The recent New Edition biopic on BET was not only an excellent documentary about a group of boys who grew to become men and overcome long odds to make it in a tough music industry. It was also an instant reminder of a time when R&B “groups” in general once ruled the airwaves and the record charts. Groups – whether male, female or mixed – were once the cornerstone of a thriving R&B genre that had produced decades of iconic hits and musical memories to last us a lifetime.
New Edition’s story was even more special because it’s not often that a group of boys start off together as teenagers from such humble beginnings, enjoy instant success with three #1 hits before any of them turn 20, replace one of its lead singers with another, have all the members enjoy huge success away from the group, then have the original lead singer return while the replacement remains, and finally all reunite to continue touring some 35 years later…all while one of the offshoot acts – Bell Biv DeVoe – releases a brand new (and damn good!) album in 2017.
That album, Three Stripes, made its entry on the February 18 Billboard 200 chart at No. 18 and the following week fell to No. 121 – a modest showing but still one that’s noteworthy considering that no other R&B group – old or new – has had a new studio album on that list since 2015 (Jodeci’s The Past, The Present, The Future).
That even one such group – much less one that has been around for four decades – is quasi-relevant in 2017 is astonishing. That’s because R&B as a mainstream genre has been running on fumes for the better part of the 21st century.
And the genre’s groups?
Well, their story has been even more dire.
Bands and singing groups – particularly black male ones – have not been prominent in the 2010s, at least based on the key metrics that measure artist popularity (and help pay the bills): music and video streaming, paid downloads, radio airplay, critical industry recognition and Billboard chart position.
As a case in point, there hasn’t been a black male singing group that’s reached the top ten of either the Billboard Hot 100 or the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts during this entire decade (2010 -2017) to date.
And the last time such a group reached the #1 position on the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart? That would be 2001 when four songs by black singing groups reached the top: one by 112 (“It’s Over Now”), one by Cameo (in a featured role with Mariah Carey on “Loverboy”) and two by Jagged Edge (“Promise” and “Where The Party At?”).
That’s over fifteen years since the last time a male singing group – once a demographic that was black music’s flagship – topped the R&B chart!
So what happened to them?
Well, several things did. First, one should note that black bands – those that actually played instruments – lost prominence long before black vocal groups did. With rare exceptions like Mint Condition, Tony! Toni! Toné! or The Roots, the 1990s were largely dominated by male groups of the vocal-only variety. That could be blamed on a number of factors, not the least of which is the reduced profit margin associated with maintaining a self-contained band of instrument-playing musicians – who actually have to get paid for their services.
There’s also the fact that music production technology has made it far easier – and much less expensive – to reproduce the sound of a full band without the added burden of having to deal with all those personalities, contracts and financial issues.
And that technology has actually improved ten-fold from what existed even 20 years ago. One person can now sit at his or her desk in front of a computer and produce the sound of a full band in a matter of hours with today’s music production software, rendering true musicians practically unnecessary.
As for vocal groups, it amounts to more than just the simple matter of mathematics or ease of music production. Record labels have simply given up on developing and investing long-term in R&B acts because the genre has been so devalued over the past 10 to 15 years. Otherwise, how does one explain the continued relevance of other genres of musical groups, like OneDirection, DNCE, Maroon 5, Chainsmokers, etc., while R&B groups have floundered?
Also, today’s R&B has been diluted with other genres, like hip-hop, dance-hall, pop and EDM (electronic dance music). Even the remaining “R&B” acts – solo superstars like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Usher as well as more contemporary acts like Frank Ocean, Anderson Paak, Solange, The Weeknd and others – may start with an R&B base, but their music is often infused with other elements that make them more accessible to a broader, usually pop or hip-hop audience.
But at least those acts – all solo stars – are doing their best to carry the torch and keep R&B or its hybrid sub-genres relevant. Groups, however, have been missing from the picture for the better part of the millennium.
It’s gotten so bad that even awards shows now include “featured” collaborations as contenders in “group” categories because groups by the truest definition don’t really exist anymore. The most recent case-in-point: the “Best Group” winner at the 2016 BET Awards? Drake & Future, two solo rappers.
And that’s only for music awards that still bother to even honor groups at all.
The Grammys decided to pull the plug on the dying entity five years ago. They no longer offer an award for “Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal,” opting since 2011 to lump all solo and duo/group contenders into one category for “Best R&B Performance.”
The last winner of the Grammy’s duo/group award? That would be Sade (the band) in 2011. Before her – I mean, them, – the last duo/group winner was Jamie Foxx featuring T-Pain for “Blame It.” Yeah, that group.
The last time a true group won it was in 2006 when Take 6, a contemporary gospel sextet (unlike male R&B groups, gospel ones still exist), won in a collaboration with Stevie Wonder on a remake of his classic “Love’s In Need Of Love Today.” In true Grammy fashion, that year’s winners were recognized well past their primes and arguably reflected a typical sympathy vote (see this year’s five David Bowie wins) more than anything else.
Thus, the last time a contemporary male R&B group won the award without requiring the aid of a solo superstar or his 30-year-old classic song? That was 1998, when BLACKstreet won for their #1 pop and R&B smash “No Diggity.”
So needless to say, R&B groups – male and female, but male in particular – have not been a major presence in today’s musical landscape. They’ve certainly seen their better days. But New Edition’s (and Bell Biv DeVoe’s) recent renaissance serves as a reminder of a time that once was the greatest era for R&B…and of the groups from back in the day that helped make it so.
The rest of this article is thus a tribute to those groups – as part of a special djrobblog Black History Month celebration. This week, I feature a countdown of the 101 Greatest Songs By Male R&B Groups from 1990 – 2001: R&B’s Last Great Era. Next week, I’ll do a similar countdown featuring the women.
To come up with this, I combed through hundreds of songs recorded or released by over 70 different male R&B duos or groups between 1990 and 2001, and came up with a ranking of what I considered to be the best ones. I used a combination of factors, including chart performances, critical acclaim, influence, and endurance over the years. Of course, a not-so-objective opinion (mine) was factored into the equation as well.
No two people could ever come up with identical lists of this type, and I know readers will disagree with the order or inclusion of some of these songs…and that’s fine. So please keep that in mind when surveying the list and feel free to vote the songs up or down or provide comments telling me where you’d rank them.
Now get ready to enjoy this trip down memory lane and a journey that I hope will be as memory-filled (and even heart-warming) for you as it was for me to put it together.
Oh, and all 101 entries include a video link and story for each song. Plus, you can hear all the songs on my special djrobblog Spotify playlist by clicking the link.
Jam on – and remember, the women are next!
The best way to begin any countdown is with a song spreading inspirational messages about love, and so this one begins with a vocal a capella group best known for its blend of spirituality and uplift. Take 6 is one of the few acts to have albums that scored simultaneously on the R&B, pop, jazz and gospel charts. The album that generated this top-20 R&B single in 1990 was no exception.
This 1991 hit's lyrics give about a half dozen reasons why the singer is feeling so broken - all centered around the fact that his love has left him. Yet the main refrain is "I wonder why I feel like my heart is failing me." Really? Is there any wonder?
The legendary soul group The Whispers were no strangers to the top ten of Billboard's R&B singles charts. They had fifteen top-tens throughout their career, including four in the '70s, eight in the '80s and three in the '90s. "Innocent" was the first of those '90s hits, reaching #3 in the spring of 1990. Check out what they sounded like during the new jack swing era in the video above.
This R&B vocal group from Brooklyn were signed to Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis' Perspective record label in the mid 1990s. The song had an old-school '70s soul vibe, and the lyrics - despite the provocative title - were relatively subtle, as the band never really had to spell out what "it" was. We all knew, lest we had to ask.
"Viiiiiiibe, Viiiiiiibe, Viiiiiibe!" How many of us remember where we were when we first heard those words wailing over a generic new jack beat in 1992. It was R. Kelly and his band the Public Announcement's first hit. Little did we know then that it would launch the career of the '90s biggest R&B solo artist - and one of the most controversial.
These two Gerald Levert protégés hailed from his hometown of Cleveland, OH. Their names were David Tolliver and Jason Champion. The lyrics were seriously sad, but one funny line stood out for me in the second verse: "what I wouldn't give to have you cussing me out." Now, that's loneliness at its worst.
This song from Bad Boy's finest group topped the R&B chart in 2001, becoming one of the last three #1 songs by an R&B group. The other two are coming up later in this countdown.
Triple-Tony took it old-school (again!) with this funky '70s-throwback ode to dancing and partying. It featured DJ Quik handling the rap duties, which kept it '90s-relevant. Unfortunately, the Tonys - one of the last vestiges of a band with true musicians - couldn't keep it going after singer Rafael Saadiq left the group shortly after this song was a hit.
From the classic black comedy 'House Party' came this new jack swing gem from one of Motown Records last successful soul acts, Today. Frederick "Big Bub" Drakefored and company pumped up this jam for moviegoers nationwide in 1990.
Dru Hill, out of Baltimore, was inescapable in the late 1990s, with several songs that will be coming up later on this list. This "beauty" of a ballad was their last entry of the decade, coming at the tail-end of 1999. They'd have a few more low-charting singles in the 2000s before the hits stopped coming altogether.
"ABC" was the name of a famous Motown single from the Jackson 5 in 1970. Some 20 years later, it was also the acronym for another kiddie Motown group who found success with songs like "Playground" and this first hit, which was co-written by New Edition's Michael Bivens.
After the two years that the members of New Edition had between 1989 and 1991, where four different incarnations of them charted nearly two dozen top-ten R&B hits, half of which topped the chart (and many of which charted top-40 pop as well), their reunion effort was primed to be huge in 1996. The song and video for "Hit Me Off" didn't disappoint. All six members got a key lead part - the likely result of Ronnie, Ricky and Mike proving they could hang with the best of 'em (Bobby, Ralph and Johnny).
Here's yet another offering from the Tonys. Remember that streak of 11 (out of 13) top-ten hits I mentioned earlier? Well, this tune was one of those that didn't make it, stopping at #27 in 1991. It hailed from the 'Boyz In The Hood' soundtrack.
The vocal group Hi-Five hailed from Waco, TX and had three huge crossover R&B/pop hits from 1991-92, including this mid-tempo ballad, which topped the R&B chart and reached the top ten on the pop list in '91. It was the follow-up to their first hit, which topped both charts and is coming up later in this countdown.
The group 112 were the good boys of Sean "Puffy" Combs' Bad Boy Entertainment empire, but this song skated on the edge with some very tantalizing lyrics crooned by several of the group's members. The video demonstrated just how sexy a wet slice of peach can really be when placed in the right hands. The video (above) also included a snippet of another single from their critically acclaimed Part III album, "Dance With Me," which just missed this 101 Greatest List.
This may be the most popular soul band to come out of Charlotte, NC. You'll believe me by the time you scroll through this whole list, in which Jodeci is very well represented. This is the first of their songs here, a 1994 R&B burner from their classic album, 'Diary of a Mad Band.'
Gospel acts like Kirk Franklin, Sounds of Blackness, BeBe & Cece Winans and others made dents in the R&B charts during the 1990s and early 2000s, but one all-male group that significantly represented was the Winans brothers, who teamed up with two members of Guy in 1990 for separate R&B crossover hits: "It's Time" featuring Teddy Riley, and this beautiful song featuring Aaron Hall.
This mid-tempo jam from 1994 was the follow-up to "Anniversary" (coming up later) and continued a hit streak for the trio out of Oakland, CA. It was their eleventh top-10 R&B single in 13 tries from 1988-94. No other group had as many during those years. The streak would come to an end soon afterwards, as only one more of their singles reached that echelon of the chart.
The group Shai, from Washington, DC, broke with three out-of-the-box smash singles in 1993, including this ultra-slow tune - the title track to their debut album - which reached the top ten on Billboard's pop chart.
Color Me Badd had some big pop hits in their all-too-short career. Some of those did equally as well on the R&B chart, and they'll be coming later on this list. "Choose" - a Jam & Lewis-produced single from 1994 - was a relatively low-charting hit by comparison, but it's a great tune nonetheless... and highly underrated I might add.
This heartfelt ode to joy was brought to us in 1995 by the same group that gave us "Booti Call" the year before and "No Diggity" the year after. Indeed, BLACKstreet's versatility helped them land several songs on this list, three more of which are coming up later.
This gracious third single from the Philly band's second album had the unenviable task of following two huge #1 singles, "I'll Make Love To You" and "On Bended Knee." It failed to duplicate their success, but it still did respectably well, reaching the top-25 on both the R&B and pop charts.
Jodeci could bring you bedroom burners one minute, then turn around and surprise you with a party anthem like "Get On Up." Okay - admittedly - that didn't happen often. They'll be more remembered for the steamier bedroom fare than songs like this one. Still it was damned good and had us moving our a**ss in the spring/summer of '96!
The movie for which their debut album, CooleyHighHarmony, was named featured the original version of "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" by G. C. Cameron. The boys from Philly covered it in acapella form and watched it become a top five pop and #1 R&B smash in early 1992.
R. Kelly & the Public Announcement were actually a group, although Kelly was the clear leader and received named billing. Before he went completely solo, this was the band's second chart-topper - after "Honey Love," which appears higher on this list.