“Have you ever been stabbed in the back, by someone you thought was really cool?”
That was the musical question that opened one of the dopest R&B tracks of 1989…a rhetorical question that rings as true today – especially in the era of social media – as it did then, before any of us used bff or even knew what the internet was.
It was a top-10 R&B, dance and pop crossover smash by Jody Watley simply titled “Friends,” featuring the legendary hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim.
“Friends” was one of the unlikeliest combinations of danceable pop/R&B – the genre that former Shalamar member (and Soul Train Dancer) Jody Watley had mastered as a solo artist over the previous three years – and rap…by legends in the game, Eric B. & Rakim (the latter born William Griffin, Jr.).
Even more significant than its multi-format success was what the song would mean historically to two independent music genres that up to that point had courted each other with a tryst here and there, but had never fully committed to one another. One of the earliest examples of that courtship was Chaka Khan’s biggest solo single “I Feel For You,” on which rapper Melle Mel was famously featured.
While that 1984 classic is among the very first to merge R&B and rap artists, Melle Mel’s verse wasn’t so much a collection of stand-alone rhymes as it was a hype man’s ode to Chaka Khan herself. It certainly didn’t have the transformative effect on R&B and hip-hop that Watley and Rakim’s hit would have five years later.
By the summer of 1989, while boomboxes were blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” and N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself” on urban streets everywhere, and the ubiquitous “Children’s Story” had singlehandedly turned Britain’s Slick Rick into a rap legend, R&B radio was still only dipping its toes in the proverbial hip-hop pool, not yet being fully immersed.
Instead, traditional R&B singers like Karyn White, Keith Sweat, Stephanie Mills and others still ruled the day with radio. Rarely did they mix it up with rappers, although, there had been a couple of noteworthy early exceptions, and they were both big hits, if mostly just on the R&B charts.
In 1985, René Moore and Angela Winbush teamed up with rap pioneer Kurtis Blow on the No. 1 “Black” chart single (as Billboard called their R&B /Soul chart throughout much of the ‘80s) “Save Your Love (For #1). It was the first track from their highly successful Street Called Desire album.
And in 1988, late punk-funk superstar Rick James teamed up with rapper Roxanne Shanté, the winner-by-decision of hip-hop’s Roxanne Wars from a couple years before, on “Loosey’s Rap.” That freakily appropriate collaboration, which was an ode to a fast girl named “Loosey” played in song by Shanté, also reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Black Singles chart.
But neither “Save Your Love” nor “Loosey’s Rap,” with their substantial contributions by rap legends, made the Billboard Hot 100. In the René & Angela case, it was perhaps too early as, by 1985, there had only been a handful of rap songs that had reached the pop list.
As for the Rick James/ Roxanne collabo, well, the song just wasn’t that good. (Quick, how many of you even remember what it sounds like…or bother to include it in your old-school Rick James playlists?) It was clearly a case of marketing heads squeezing the last bit of commercial relevance from James’ fading career while capitalizing on the novelty of Shante’s own fleeting popularity.
So it wasn’t until a few months later when Jody Watley released that second single from her second album, Larger Than Life, that the R&B and hip-hop courtship became a serious affair leading to a full-on marriage.
From its opening snare drum riff, “Friends” was a four-and-a-half minute R&B and hip-hop tour de force with Watley’s understatedly smooth, light vocals gliding over a new jack beat with an undeniable hook, while highly respected rapper Rakim blessed mainstream radio with not one but two killer rap verses on the song’s bridges.
The contribution by the DJ on “Friends” wasn’t insignificant either. Eric B. got some shine with a 40-second turntable scratch “solo” between Rakim’s verses that rivaled anything that had been heard before on even a straight-up rap record.
Produced by early Prince band member and protégé André Cymone (who had done the production honors on most of Jody Watley’s biggest hits to that point), “Friends” was proof of the magic that could be made when R&B and hip-hop – both with similar musical roots – were paired together effectively.
And the best part was that neither artist had to compromise who they were artistically to make it work. No one could claim that Watley had to change her dance-pop stylings to accommodate Rakim’s street edge. Likewise, the verses that Rakim spit on “Friends” stand up to any on his own tracks, as did Eric B’s signature turntable moves.
Ultimately, Watley’s & Rakim’s “Friends” scaled the top ten on both the R&B (No. 3) and pop (No. 9) charts in the summer of 1989, making it the first crossover top-10 R&B and pop song to include a duet between an R&B singer and a rapper.
Thirty years later, the cautionary tale about backstabbing friends is largely recognized as the event that finally got R&B and hip-hop together ten years into rap’s commercial existence. And now the two genres are inextricably linked.
In the years immediately after “Friends,” R&B artists began courting hip-hop acts more frequently to lace their songs with rap verses. In turn, rappers – inspired by the success of later 1989 hits like Young MC’s “Bust A Move” – began reciprocating by having R&B singers provide the hooks for their tracks.
Artists like TLC and Mary J. Blige (and many others) emerged in the early ‘90s and became superstars by embracing both genres within their own acts, with Blige being dubbed the Queen of the hybrid Hip-Hop/Soul since the beginning of her career, and TLC having both singing and rapping elements within their core membership.
Billboard, having abandoned the offensive “Hot Black Singles” title years earlier and being somewhat slow in its recognition of the increasingly blurred lines that divided the two genres, finally changed its R&B chart’s name to “Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles and Tracks” in 1999 (and to the current shortened title of “Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs” in 2005).
Fourteen years later, that joint chart title stands as the longest-running one of the Billboard R&B chart’s history. And there appears to be no change planned in its immediate future.
As for Jody Watley with Eric B. & Rakim on “Friends,” the song still sounds as dope today as it did 30 years ago.
And as the one-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee Rakim might put it, you’ll be fried in the end if you pretend not to recognize the significant role that “Friends” had on joining hip-hop and R&B in music’s holy matrimony…
… ‘til death do they part.
(This article has been corrected to acknowledge the role that “I Feel For You” by Chaka Khan – with an uncredited rap by Melle Mel – had in merging R&B and hip-hop in 1984).
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
Quiet as it’s kept, the featured turn for Shanté on Rick James’ “Loosey’s Rap” technically makes her the first full-time female rapper to top any of Billboard’s major singles charts – in this case the R&B (or “Black Singles”) list.
“Loosey’s Rap” was not only James’ last number one R&B single, it is easily his most forgettable one. The song ironically marked a low point in the singer’s career as it would be his last song to reach the top 40 on any chart.
“Save Your Love (For #1)” by René & Angela feat. Kurtis Blow reached the “Bubbling Under” list at No. 101 – just one position shy of making the Billboard Hot 100.
Jody Watley and Rakim teamed up again nine years later on a remix of her 1998 release, “Off the Hook.” The song ironically was the last pop or R&B chart hit for Jody.