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The Soulful Side of Rap Hiphop: Daddy B. Nice's Top 20

The following appeared on Daddy B. Nice’s Corner on September 4, 2008:

The Soulful Side Of Rap & Hiphop: About DBN’s Top Twenty

When people see the deep sockets under your Daddy B. Nice's eyes and the long salt-and-pepper beard falling halfway down to my knees, like an old Rastafarian on a back alley in Kingston, they're always surprised to hear I was into rap, not the blues, before I got into Southern Soul.

I'm just kidding about the beard, but in fact, when I first conceived this website, I planned--in addition to the Top 100 charts for Southern Soul music--yet another "Top 100" chart called "The Soulful Side Of Rap & Hiphop."

I hoped it would help the greater world of contemporary R&B realize these great, soulful rap and hiphop songs could actually be stepping stones to another kind of music, closely related--namely, Southern Soul music.

Back in the day, when friends and relatives looked at me with incredulous scorn, I told them I liked rap and hiphop because they kept classic R&B alive through sampling, and in doing so often revitalized rhythm & blues. Baby-boomers from my generation generally hated rap, although twenty years down the line (at this point), some of those opinions have mellowed. Even Snoop has a TV show and now appears harmless.

But, for the most part, I always had the privilege of hearing rap as pure music, a luxury many people my age did not. If I had had to put up with the life-style of rap and hiphop--upfront, in my face, in the neighborhood, Radio Raheem-style, for sustained periods of time, my enthusiasm might have frayed.

To me it's always been about the music, not even the artists in particular, just the music, whether I had to lock myself up in a room to listen to it, or go to the club on the week-nights when only the deejay and few other club-dancers were there, in order to hear the music.

Hiphop began to turn inward upon itself in the early 00's. It began to "technique" itself out of existence as a viable musical genre. Most of it--not all of it--is now an empty ritual, with barely perceptible differences distinguishing one artist's product from another, a form increasingly dead to all but insiders, a form moreover now hostage to its own muscles-and-thighs fashion sense.

And yet I still love the power and relevance of certain soulful rap and hiphop standards. And with the influx of hiphop-related artists into the Southern Soul scene in the last few years--Bigg Robb, Simeo, Cupid and the like--I finally took some time one day recently and played some of the old hits. After a decade immersed exclusively in Southern Soul, it was invigorating.

The irony, the thing that's hard to wrap your mind around, is that hiphop always seems like the "new kid" on the block while Southern Soul seems like the "old music," the status quo, by virtue of its more traditional form. But the fact is, "Southern Soul" is the "baby" on the R&B block--the cutting edge. And these rap songs--pinch yourself--are old-school: in some cases a quarter-of-a-century old.

Below is a list of your Daddy B. Nice's favorite "soulful" classics of rap: songs that in my opinion maintain the best rhythm and blues traditions, songs that can easily--or shall we say, tentatively--take their place beside Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and other, more conventional, verse-and-chorus R&B classics.

Readers' letters and "top" lists on the subject (the "soulful side of rap and hiphop") are always welcome. DBN



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Daddy B. Nice's Top 20: The Soulful Side of Rap & Hiphop

1. "Nothin' But A 'G' Thang" by Dr. Dre with Snoop Doggy Dog (The Chronic, Death Row 1992)

Bargain-Priced The Chronic CD

Yes, rap's number one song is also a Southern Soul song, if only you can get past the cultural connotations that have made it a rappers-only anthem. It's all in the mid-tempo, swinging-and-swaying melody underlying the rap. Fifty years from now, when all the cultural divisions of today have dissolved, people will wonder why it was significantly different from Mel Waiter's "Hole In The Wall."

Your Daddy B. Nice loved it from the moment it arrived, and time has softened much of the cultural bias that made it anathema to the older generation. Listen to it "fresh"--as music only--and you'll find an irresistible groove combined with an irresistible vocal.

The song "swings" in the most universal musical sense. Dre's song's hero is the American everyman, sauntering down the street like the keep-on-trucking guy in the R. Crumb cartoon. Ella Fitzgerald herself would have fallen in love with Snoop's syncopated drawl and Skeezicks-loose vocal--one of the most original debuts in popular music history.

And for rap fans, it's just a "hiphop" away from "Nothin' But a 'G' Thang" to Southern Soul hits like Bob Steele's "Yo Dress Is Too Short" and Nellie "Tiger" Travis' "If I Back It Up."

2. "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince

Bargain-Priced Homebase CD

The last song I would take to a desert island with me would be Kool & The Gang's "Celebration." For a guy who spent far too many hours in the discos of the world, it would be sheer torture. The Kool & The Gang track I would take to a desert island is "Summer Madness," one of the greatest soul classics of this or any era, transcending any George Benson or Herbie Hancock or Deodato smooth-jazz soul concoction of the early seventies by miles. (Bargain-Priced Kool & The Gang's Funk Collection)

And yet, it took Will Smith--and the rap form itself--to provide the chunky peanut-butter to Kool & the Gang's ultra-smooth jelly. Kool & The Gang must have recorded dozens of versions, but the finest and basic version was the funk-synthesizer instrumental that Will Smith sampled on his terrific "Summertime" song. The Fresh Prince's rap brought out a funky, streetwise, optimistic atmosphere unusual for hiphop--comfortable and familiar in an inner-city kind of way.

I used to queue the two songs in succession, Kool's "Summer Madness" followed by "Summertime," for a slow jam in the middle of an otherwise fast set, and that's what I'd recommend to people constructing their own play lists. "Summer Madness" forms an extended "intro" that makes DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's rap sound like a million bucks.

You'd be surprised how many phrases from The Fresh Prince's monologue have entered the language--at least the "soul" language--of a couple of generations of R&B lovers--for example--

"What about a groove that soothes and moves?"
"Back in Philly we'd be out in the park. . ."
"Chillin' in a car they spent all day waxin'". . .
"She turns around to see what you're beeping at/ It's like summer's a natural aphrodisiac. . ."
" 'Cause basketball courts in the summer got girls there. . . "
Along with the Rascals' "Groovin'", "Summertime" can lay claim to being the laid-back national anthem for summer in the USA.
3. "Lovers And Friends" by Lil' Jon & The East Side Boyz (w/ Ludacris and Usher) (Crunk Juice, TVT 2004)

Bargain-Priced Crunk Juice CD

The piano riff could be Burt Bacharach. The harmonies are heavenly--celestial barbershop. The raps do just what the voice-over monologues do on the best Southern Soul songs. They authenticate. They make sunlight-and-shadows.

I loved this song long before I knew it was brimming with the current scene's heavyweights, Usher being R&B's reigning crooner and Ludacris one of the few innovative geniuses in current hiphop. But it makes sense. Everything on the record--from the unparalleled, straight-ahead singing to the flawlessly rough-and-crazy raps--is so perfect, and so generous and lavish. You just want to hear it, over and over again.

"Lovers And Friends" stands right up there with the best ballads Southern Soul has to offer, including Ronnie Lovejoy's "Sho' Wasn't Me," for example, or Glenn Jones' "Baby Come Home." It may well be the absolute pinnacle of slow-jam hiphop.

4. "Beautiful Skin" by Goodie Mob (Still Standing, La Face, 1998)

Bargain-Priced Still Standing CD

1998 was rap's banner year--the annum overflowed with hiphop of originality and longevity--and Atlanta's LaFace studio and production group Organized Noize (including Sleepy Brown) was the place and the people to be.

"You're my beginning and my end.
You're my sister and my friend."

One of the strangest, most mysterious rap ballads ever came from the Goodie Mob, featuring the very gravel-voiced, rural-sounding Cee-Lo and associates T-Mo, Gipp, and Khujo. Obscure to this day, even among rap aficionados, the roundelay-structured "Beautiful Skin" positively dripped with character and peaceful, candid emotion.

The song is equally divided between a long rap monologue and a searingly-beautiful chorus focused on the words, "I hope you understand/ That you got to respect yourself/ Before I can."

An incredible (and programmed--sorry, blues purists) rhythm track of minimalist dimensions, and a light-as-a-feather, acoustic-guitar accompaniment give this centered ballad an atmosphere of reverence and piety that wouldn't be out of place on Sunday in a weathered chapel in north-central Mississippi.

5. "Slippin'" by DMX (Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood, Def Jam, 1998)

Bargain-Priced Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood CD

One of the darkest and most uncompromising of all rappers, Baltimore-born Earl Simmons' spiritually-honest, personal ballad was a masterpiece of soul and a road map of an artist's descent into failure and despair. (All accentuated, one might add, by the hyperbole of youth.)

"You know I'm slippin', I'm fallin' / I can't get up." A really fine oboe-like synthesizer, abetted by a female chorus, carries the sweetest melody, and it is that atmospheric, swirling melody-line (contrasted, of course, by the gnarly DMX vocal) that makes this cut so soulful.

6. "Rosa Parks" by Outkast (Aquemini, La Face 1998) / "The Way You Move" by Outkast w/ Sleepy Brown (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, La Face, 2003)

Bargain-Priced Aquemini CD

Bargain-Priced Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

One of the most original and soulful songs to come out of the South (Atlanta) in a couple of decades, "Rosa Parks (Move To The Back Of The Bus)" put Big Boi and Andre (3000) Benjamin on the musical map. The song had everything: melody, rap, overlapping rhythmic textures, harmonies, not to mention a gospel-slash-hoedown, harmonica-accented stanza leading into a hypnotic chorus. Those TV viewers who were lucky enough to see the video with smiling, honey-throated Andre dancing in a hoop skirt will never forget it. Far from looking like a male cross-dresser or just a "wuss," he looked like the most charismatic guy on the planet.

With the help of singer/producer Sleepy Brown, Outkast followed it up with the amazing, vintage-soul-sounding "(I Love) The Way You Move," which sounded so sixties-soulful (The Miracles, The Impressions) that it seemed impossible that it wasn't a sample. No one to my knowledge has ever found the music it sampled or even imitated. It was a fresh melody, as pristine and perfect as The Spinners' "I'll Be Around." (And, incidentally, just a hiphop-and-skip away from new Southern Soul artist Mose Stovall's current hit, "Groove U, Baby.")

7. Cadillac On 22's by David Banner (Mississippi: The Album, SRC/Universal, 2003)

Bargain-Priced Mississippi; the Album CD

Now we're getting very close to Southern Soul. Mississippi-born Lavell Crump (David Banner) dredged up a nifty riff and fused it with his love of cars and the street, then had the fortitude to showcase the song in an acoustic-guitar arrangement. Although there's never any doubt it's a rapper's tune, Banner's brooding vocal is curiously vulnerable and self-deprecating for a rap artist. That's what makes it so Southern soulful.

8. "Doo Wop (That Thing)" by Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, Ruffhouse, 1998)

Bargain-Priced The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill CD

By now it should be obvious that the most soulful hiphop tunes combine great rapping with great singing and harmonies reminiscent of sixties and early-seventies R&B, and one of the finest examples is "Doo Wop (That Thing)."

"Girls, you know you'd better watch out,
Some guys are only about that thing. . .

"Guys, you know you'd better watch out,
Some girls are only about that thing. . . "

Lauryn Hill, the female member of the incredible rap/reggae trio The Fugees (remember their remake of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly"?), successfully reprised the girl-group sounds of vintage sixties soul music with hair-tingling accuracy on "Doo Wop."

Those lucky enough to catch the video were mesmerized by the split-screen sixties-video and the late-nineties video, complete with contrasting hair and clothing styles. I remember staring at Lauryn Hill in the two time-shots (set in the same park), refusing to believe it was the same person. The video reinforced the song's conscious attempt to recapture the good-times of rhythm and blues.

Lauryn's rapping had a steady, everyday, feet-on-the-floor confidence that fused perfectly with the romantic lushness of the arrangement and chorus. Her singing recalled the best of Dusty Springfield and Gladys Knight.

9. "Ha" / "Back That Ass Up" by Juvenile (400 Degreez, Uptown/Universal, 1998)

Bargain-Priced 400 Degreez CD

Another Dirty South native (New Orleans), Juvenile discovered the rhythm track from heaven on "Ha" and (with Manny Fresh and Lil' Wayne) he put out the gold-standard version of "backing that ass up" that would inspire Southern Soul artists like Nathaniel Kimble, Jason Little and--up to the present day, although he may never have heard it--even new Southern Soul star L. J. Echols ("From The Back").

"Soulful" doesn't only mean slow. Juvenile's "Ha" is the unequalled champ of funky rap dance music, a distinction evidenced by the fact that just about every rap star of the day--Jay Z., Missy, Tupac, Biggie and more---worked their way onto one or another of "Ha's" many butt-churning mixes.

I have never listened to a word of this song--consciously anyway--(a practice I recommend, by the way)--beyond the words, "You're a big chief." This song is all about the groove, which is after all the heart of any song, and Juvenile and his mates could be talking about tiddly-winks or pensions-and-annuities and it wouldn't make any difference. The bass line alone, only one of many overlapping rhythm track elements, is a primer to fascinate any bassist.

What "Back That Ass Up," Juvenile's follow-up hit single, lost in locomotion it gained in a more orchestral, string-laden arrangement and a theme with a "handle"--namely, "Backing that ass up." Many people tried to get rich on this theme or concept--"slogan" might be a more modest and appropiate word--but Juvenile did it better than anyone else, and is pretty much universally recognized for his claim to doing it best. His (and his mates') rowdy vocal was like a flurry of graffiti sprayed on the surprisingly lush melodic backdrop on this carnal chant.

10. "Mind Playin' Tricks" by Geto Boys. (We Can't Be Stopped, Rap-A-Lot, 1991)

Bargain-Priced Best Of The Geto Boys CD

"My Mind Is Playing Tricks On Me" is a perfect example of why rap is simultaneously loved and hated. The lyrics are despicably violent and juvenile, depending on your context, but the music--the groove and the arrangement--are steeped in soul.

"I've got a little boy to look after,
And if I die he'll be a bastard."

That's a sample of the most acccessible and common-sensical of the lyrics. So if you're interested in just basking in the music, which is first-rate, you'll have to blank out a lot of the confused macho posturing, or somehow try to reconcile the teen angst with the incredible musicianship. All I know is that the wondrous guitar lick and the contrapuntal pull of the rapping and the hook stays with you just like the old R&B classics. To sum up, even the lyrics can't drag down the beautiful sound of this record.

11. "Wanna Be A Baller" by Lil' Troy (Sittin' Fat Down South, Uptown/Universal 1998)

Bargain-Priced Sittin' Fat Down South CD

It's truly amazing how much soulful rap bubbled out of the Dirty South, home base of Southern Soul music. Houston-based Lil' Troy's "Wanna Be A Baller" was a magnificent song, fusing a symphonic, reverb-laden arrangement with gritty rapping by Troy and friends, including Scarface and Willie D. from the Geto Boyz. First-rate. May very well be rap's best anthem.

12. "I'll Be Missing You" by Faith Evans w/Puff Daddy (Bad Boy's 10th Anniversary: The Hits, Bad Boy 2004)

Bargain-Priced Bad Boys' 10th Anniversary. . . The Hits CD

I know. The discerning reader will instantly say, "You got the names reversed, Daddy B. Nice." Well, not if you're looking at it from a Southern Soul-ful perspective. Then you realize this great track is all about Faith Evans and her luminous, stripped-down, R&B vocal, not about P. Diddy (Puff Daddy when this song was made) and his mumbling, barely-adequate rap. But give Sean Combs credit for creating the song.

Wait a minute. "Create?" Police fans will say.

This song prompted an outcry heard around the world from all of the fans of Sting and The Police, whose "Every Breath You Take" it sampled. People loathed it--although I never could understand why, if you liked the original, you couldn't also like the new version, especially with Faith Evans singing the melody. She was even better than Sting; she was in the league of Ann Peebles singing "Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down."

"I'll Be Missing You," by the way, was a tribute to the late Notorious BIG, and Faith Evans was Biggie's widow.

13. "The Power" by Snap w/Penny Ford, Turbo B. & Jocelyn Brown (World Power, Arista 1993)

Bargain-Priced World Power CD

Rap "purists" may howl that this song isn't really rap (they can join the blues "purists" for cocktails on the patio), but it is. If if looks like a duck (it samples) and quacks like a duck (it raps), and steals from every conceivable source in sight (like rap), it's rap.

And what a magnificent sound it is. It's not called "power" without a reason. Featured in countless movies, "The Power's" rhythm track and R&B chorus and rapping are fused into an overwhelming, drug-like rush of energy. If music was nuclear, this song would literally be the "bomb."

A couple of Germans produced and arranged "(I've Got) The Power." I knew a "big" woman (Penny Ford) did the gutsy R&B singing on the record, and I also knew that she was replaced in the video by a slimmer fashion plate. But I did not know that the phrase "I've got the power" actually came from Jocelyn Brown's "Love's Gonna Get You," nor did I know that the rap was lifted from an American rapper (Chill Rob G) and the rhythm track from an electronic band (Mantronix).

The history of this song, including its rocky introduction into the U.S., where it had failed to get licensing for its samples, is interesting reading, and I recommend the Wikipedia entry for Snap's "The Power".

"The Power" represents for the international community's love of R&B and rap. Other great hiphop-related electronica came from Blackbox, K.L.F. and Malcom MacLaren.

14. "The City Is Mine" by Jay-Z w/ Blackstreet (In My Lifetime: Vol.1, Def Jam, 1997)

Bargain-Priced In My Lifetime: Vol. 1 CD

Jay-Z sampled Eagle Glen Frey's "You Belong To The City," the hit which in 1985 helped to propel the "Miami Vice Soundtrack" to number one on the "Billboard" charts. The classic sound of the record owes much to the work of Blackstreet, a soulful hiphop crew in its own right (famous for their hit single, "No Diggity"), who do a terrific job of harmonizing on the chorus, which goes like this:

"You belong to the city,
You belong to the night. . . "

But, as with all rap records, it's the sand (Jay-Z's rap) that makes the mortar.

15. "Oh Yeah" by Foxy Brown w/ Spragga Benz (Broken Silence, Def Jam, 2001)

Bargain-Priced Broken Silence CD

This song combines two great traditions--rap and reggae--with exquisite results. The reggae bass is to die for. The rap by Foxy is the toughest thing this side of feminine. At occasional points, the Southern Soul fan can glimpse flashes of power not unlike Peggy Scott-Adams at her grittiest, doing her own "rap" in "I'm Willing To Be Your Friend."

16. "All Y'All (One & All)" by Timbaland & Magoo w/ Tweet (Indecent Proposal, UMVD Import, 2001) / "Oops (Oh My)" by Tweet w/ Timbaland, Missy Elliot & Fabulous (Southern Hummingbird, Electra 2002)

Bargain-Priced Indecent Proposal CD

Bargain-Priced Southern Hummingbird CD

Timbaland (Timothy Mosley) has been the most unique producer in contemporary hiphop over the last dozen years. He has an unerring ear for rhythmic innovation, and he's supplemented that talent with a love of exotic international beats and musical motifs, especially Middle-Eastern and Indian. He's worked with all the "name" artists of hiphop, including (most prominently) Missy Elliot and Aaliyah.

However, his most seductive tracks have often been with second-tier artists such as Magoo, Ginuwine and Tweet, whose "Oops (Oh My)" is perhaps the most flirtatious and sexy track in modern hiphop. "All Y'All," with a great Tweet chorus, is arguably Timbaland's best global hook ever, with an over-the-top, Indian flute that conjures snake-charmers.

A call from Timbaland collaborator Missy Elliot to Tweet in Florida at a time when she was "down and out" with suicidal depression in the late nineties reportedly led to her re-emergence, back-up vocal in "All Y'All" and subsequent hit single with "Oops (Oh My)."

Ginuwine's "Same Old G" deserves special mention.

17. "Regulate" / "This DJ" by Warren G. with Nate Dogg (Regulate...G Funk Era Def Jam, 1994)

Bargain-Priced Regulate. . . G Funk Era CD

"If you smoke like I smoke,
Then you're high like every day."

If you've heard that line, you've heard "Regulate" and you understand Warren G's particular brand of mellow rap.

The California version of Will Smith, Warren G is the "peach" to his brother Dr. Dre's "lemon," and it's fascinating to wonder how the future of rap would have been different if Warren hadn't introduced his band-mate, Snoop Doggy Dog, to his brother Dre, who promptly signed Snoop to Death Row and made history.

Warren G and Snoop and Nate Dogg had a group called 213 before that, and the musical sound of the two hold-overs, Warren G and Nate Dogg, on both "Regulate" and "This DJ" combines the romantic, vaguely-suburban, high-register synthesizer doodling of "Nothin' But A G' Thang" with vocals that recall--well--Snoop himself.

Both "Regulate" (which samples Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'") and "This DJ" reside in the peaceful, plentiful artistic sunshine of "G-Thang". Even the minimal violence is anesthetized by the gentle, emotionally-rich vocals.

18. "Big Poppa" by Notorious B.I.G. w/ Junior Mafia and Puff Daddy (Ready To Die, 1994)

Bargain-Priced Ready To Die CD

Biggie's most soulful song sampled one of R&B's most soulful groups, The Isley Brothers and their ballad "Between The Sheets." BIG's booming tenor rap meshed perfectly with the Isleys' Southern Soul ambience and Puff Daddy's synthesizer-steeped arrangement.

And that "East Coast" arrangement, by the way, was almost identical to the West Coast sound of the era (high-register synthesizer lines, jazzy mid-range keybord chords, laid-back medium-tempos)--more proof that rap in the nineties sorely needed the infusion of new sound that the "Dirty South" would presently bring.

"Big Poppa" was the song, incidentally, that contained the infamous Biggie line which raised the ire of the nation's feminists:

"I see some ladies tonight
That should be having my baby."

19. "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (Sugar Hill,1982)

Bargain-Priced The Message CD

Along with Sugar Hill's "Rappers' Delight" and Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," "The Message" pretty much started the whole rap thing. It's so long ago now that the words--

"It's like a jungle
Sometimes it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under. . . "

and. . .

"Don't push me
'Cause I'm close to the edge.
I'm trying
Not to lose my mind. . ."

--parsed out amongst that early-eighties, synth-funk arrangement now sounds so vintage that "The Message" would sound soulful on its historic merits alone. And if the US economy keeps going in the tank in 2008, the lyrics might be more timely than anyone today would have imagined.

20. "Top Shotter (Here Comes The Boom)" by DMX w/ Sean Paul, & Mr. Vegas ("Belly" Soundtrack, Def Jam, 1998)

Bargain-Priced Belly Soundtrack CD

As I come to the end of the top-twenty list, I realize I've barely touched the tip of the proverbial iceberg of soulful rap and hiphop--not only songs but entire soulful bands (De La Soul, Arrested Development, The Roots, Bone Thugs 'N Harmony etc.).

So why the typically idiosyncratic final pick? Simply because "Top Shotter (Here Comes The Boom)" irresistibly rocks, and your Daddy B. Nice has never been one to limit the definition of soul music to ballads. This is soul music through our Jamaican brothers, a shanty-town off-shoot of rap that wipes most of the mainland competition off the map, with the best reggae (now dancehall) rhythms and raps (mostly unintelligible) anywhere on the planet.

DMX's brawny, straight-ahead style meshes perfectly with the mesmerizing energy of the dancehall kings, who between them have enough soul to bring Sam Cooke and Bob Marley together "jammin'" in heaven.

Mr. Vegas' pungent, earthen, sinuous vocal on the underlying melodic chant especially recalls the advent of another great vocal talent: Snoop himself. Sean Paul contributes his strong, vibrato-less style as the MC of the record.

If you don't like this song's trinity of styles and rhythms, listen again and keep listening, otherwise you'll miss some of the most revolutionary beats this side of James Brown.

And it's just a hiphop-and-jump away to the controlled intensity of Southern Soul man Stan Mosley's "Man Up."

--Daddy B. Nice

 


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