The month of June has been designated as Black Music Month since 1979. President Jimmy Carter introduced the month as a way to pay homage to all of the Black musicians who have inextricably changed the United States through their numerous musical contributions. Upon coming into office, President Barack Obama has changed the name to African American Music Appreciation Month. The extraordinary impact that Black musicians have made in shaping America’s social and political conscience is immeasurable. In recognition of honoring African American Music Appreciation Month, Ebony.com has tracked down some of the most prolific music producers past and present to get their thoughts on the state of Black music in today’s society. Together these musical stalwarts have amassed multiple Grammy awards and nominations as well as contributing their talents to sell over 200 million records worldwide. EBONY will be featuring six of these producers in a two part series. The first part will feature interviews from living legends Narada Michael Walden, Teddy Riley, and Larry Dunn. The second part will feature interviews from current standouts Salaam Remi, Bryan Michael Cox, and 9th Wonder.
EBONY recently sat down with Walden, Riley, and Dunn to discuss their beginnings in music and the state of Black music today.
EBONY: How did you first fall in love with music and why did you want to pursue it as a career?
Narada Michael Walden: I first fell in love with music when I was a little boy. When I first heard music, I felt the beauty in it. Then, being able to tap along on a table top and box was great, but my favorite thing to do was to watch records spin. I would almost get hypnotized by it. These things are what drew me in initially. I was born into a musical family. On my mom’s side, they all played an instrument and there was always music around. They had a really deep love for music. As far as making a livelihood from it, music is in my soul. I feel like before I came to the planet I asked God for the gift of music. I didn’t want to come here without the gift of music and God granted it to me.
Teddy Riley: I fell in love with music at the age of three. I started playing instruments at the age of three. I was raised right around the corner from the Apollo Theatre on 125th street. I was raised on 129th street in the St. Nicholas projects. I used to go to Harriet Tubman P.S. 154 and in the backyard of the school was the backstage of the Apollo. When I would see artists backstage doing sound checks for their shows, it made me say, ‘I’m going to be there one day.’ It’s crazy how my thoughts back then actually came into fruition. When I was five, I went to the Apollo even though I was under the weather, but I still went because I loved music and Gladys Knight and the Pips. That night I was the lucky kid who was able to go on stage with Gladys Knight. When she picked me up, she was singing ‘Neither One of Us.’ After holding me, she gave me back to my babysitters. My babysitters would always take us to the Apollo because I never wanted to anywhere else. They wanted to take us to Coney Island, the park or the amusement parks to do fun things, but the fun thing for me was going to the Apollo to see the performances. Later on, I had to find my niche because I was trying to play every instrument. I ended up sticking with the keyboards and the piano. It was a complicated thing staying with the piano when I could’ve stayed with the drums. To me, the piano was the beautiful sound of music. I was able to speak my mind through playing the piano.
Larry Dunn: I actually started playing music very young. I remember being two years old and hearing Ray Charles and Bobby Vinton on the radio. I loved the music I was hearing. When I was four years old, I began banging on that old raggedy upright piano in our living room. By the time I was five years old, my father taught me “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. It was on from there. Playing piano and keyboards was my thing. I made an attempt to play other instruments like baritone horn, guitar, bass, trombone, but violin was a disaster. Eventually at the age of 15, I started playing keyboards at nightclubs. Thanks to my mother, she allowed me to play the 21 and over nightclubs seven nights a week because she knew it was in me. I really had a love and respect for the art of music. I still have that love and respect for it and I thank God for it.
EBONY: Do artists and producers have an obligation to progress the genre of music they represent?
NMW: I believe as musicians and artists we have an obligation to our souls. What that is? Only each one of us knows. I can speak for myself and say my obligation is to be happy. When I’m happy, I make great music. When I’m unhappy and my heart is broken, I may make brokenhearted music, but it still sounds good. To be in touch with my own heart and soul, is the most important thing because when I’m in touch with my own heart and soul I can hopefully uplift and touch someone else’s heart and soul so that’s the most important responsibility I have not someone saying I need to make five more number one records because only the Creator knows our future in that regard. A big part of success is just showing up. It’s one of the things that made Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince and many others great.
TR: Yes, I do, but I feel that many of them are afraid of helping the music to grow. It’s one thing that I’ve never been afraid of. When I came into the industry, I came with things that were different in order to make the music grow. Nowadays, people are just following trends. Everyone always ask me, ‘Teddy, what are you doing next? We need some music with substance again.’ It’s just the same old thing today. Back in the day, we had many artists and they had different styles so I had to create my own style, which I’m proud to say that I’m the only producer in the world with his own genre of music. And that’s Black music for you. I do Black music first and foremost. I make music because of people like Bill Withers, Booker T, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Earth, Wind & Fire, Heatwave, and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson.
EBONY: What has happened to the group concept in Black Music?
LD: In today’s society, there are far too many people who have fallen into the ‘What about me?’ syndrome. It may have something to do with it. There are more people who are self proclaimed solo artists as opposed to groups. Back in the day, there was only one prerequisite to become a member of a band – you had to be able to play your booty off. No one cared about if you were tall or short, fat or skinny, ugly or cute, black or white. If you could play and knew your acts, then you could become a member of a band. It kind of trips me out when I hear people say, ‘What a great boy band,’ but I don’t see them playing any instruments. Nothing against them, but in our day they were called a singing group.
NMW: There a couple of things that are happening. Number one groups are expensive. You have to have some budget behind them to keep them together and going. For many companies, money has gotten really tight. Promoting a whole group has become tougher than promoting just one singer. It’s budgetary thing to some to degree, but also the times have changed a bit. You have to think back to when groups were hot in America The Temptations, The Four Tops and on the White side of things The Four Seasons and The Beatles. Even in the 1950s, there were many doo-wop groups coming out. Some got their start singing in the subways of New York City. So many of these vocal groups were important to the sound and how they expressed themselves. We got away from all of that by more artists performing solo. I think groups can rise again, but it really is a budgetary issue and you have to work really hard to keep a group together. When you have a group, there’s always someone in the group looking to get out to do their solo thing. Nowadays, being in a group is more of like a learning ground rather than something that goes on for a long time. This generation seems to be more of the ‘I’ and ‘me’ generation than a group generation.
TR: Many artists are competing with each other instead of competing with themselves. That’s the reason why everything sounds the same. They’re trying to do the better of the same record. Our great genre is rap music because we created it. The problem is we’ve stopped creating it. Let’s reinvent it every time so we can keep it fresh. R&B music is lost. I think that when we get together and start reinventing the sounds R&B music will have multi female and male groups again. There are not a lot of R&B solo artists either because everyone wants to go Pop. I really admire Kanye West.because he comes with something new and he doesn’t care if people like it or not. He expresses what the next level of music should be. I admire Musiq and Maxwell because they’re real artists and architects of the music.
EBONY: When did music audiences become infatuated with buying "McDonalds" music (music that is hot for a minute and then grows cold)?
NMW: There are a couple of things at play here. First, music changed a lot once people really wanted to go out to nightclubs and dance. Then, all of these dance records became hits on the radio so producers are now making hits to become popular in the nightclubs. The records reflect what’s going on in the nightclubs like poppin’ your Cris and trying to get the next hot girl you see in the club. And this is what you begin to hear on the radio every day and that may not have the long lasting value as something that is a little deeper in meaning. I think our lyrical content is knocking things down a bit. But now I’m finally starting to hear records that have some meaning to them. Look at rap and hip-hop, those records are great records, but you don’t want to rock with them for weeks at a time. It gives off that disposable feeling. One thing that really bothers me is the lyrics. I hope we can clean up the lyrics in our music. I know it affects these kids because a lot of these records are on top Pop radio stations. I’m hearing a lot of cursing and now it’s becoming the cool thing for kids to do. I think back in the day we did a better job of policing radio. I think deeper subject matter in lyrics is slowly starting to come back around. People are getting to a point where they want something deeper again.
LD: Back in the day with Earth, Wind & Fire, we did it the old fashioned way. We got together with some wonderful musicians and composers and we worked. We rehearsed and rehearsed and really honed our craft. We hit every college up and down the east coast, the west coast, the Midwest, and overseas. There wasn’t any rapid media like there is now. Nowadays with all of these various hi-tech things we have at our disposal, you could be a virtual unknown on Monday and on Thursday you’ve reached superstar status. I think there is something to be said about being shot into the limelight in that way then it becomes of situation of easy come, easy go. One of the reasons Earth, Wind & Fire has one of the most faithful followings is because we went out on the road and touched so many people and places. Now their kids and grandkids know our music and like it. I think because of rapid media and overnight successes people tend to forget about the flavor of the month and like you said its McDonalds music. I don’t think artists of today have a chance to build a solid foundation.
Many people don’t remember, but back in the day at Motown they had a separate entity within the company and they called it Artist Development. Even when Earth, Wind & Fire were signed by Clive Davis in 1972, the thing was if you didn’t come out of the gate selling a million or 500,000 records you weren’t kicked to the curb. Clive and some of the executives back then recognized special talent. They allowed the artist to actually develop because if they didn’t there would’ve been a lot of artists you would’ve never heard of. But nowadays you have fast food, fast music, fast drugs and everything is too fast. The reason why Motown’s artists were phenomenal was due to the fact they took them to the side to show them how to dance and perform but also etiquette and speech.
TR: This fly by night music is for people who are living for today and not thinking about tomorrow. Whatever sounds good to them now they go for it. It’s honestly hurting the music industry. This type of music means that it’s not going to be considered classic years from now. This whole fly by night music craze started in the late 1990s where people started not to have a care for music. Online piracy sites like Napster really messed up the music industry. It’s going to take an army of people to really jump on board to reinvent music. We have to become architects again.
EBONY: How can we recapture the essence of Black music for generations to come?
NMW: The cat is now out of the bag meaning what was Black music is now all music. There was a time where White kids couldn’t dance to the beat on American Bandstand. It was just hilarious, but now how big Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and other stars became it just blew it out of the water. Everyone had to be able to get down in time. Now in this generation it’s more commonplace. Black music has infiltrated the mainstream so much that it’s now become the sound of all music. Everybody who is White wants to have the ingredients that made Black music. Maybe not the ghetto fabulous vibe, but in the suburbs White kids want to hear this type of music. The really Black music that we knew once before isn’t the same anymore. White people couldn’t do Black music back in the day because they weren’t funky or bad enough. They weren’t from the ghettoes, but hip-hop and R&B changed all of that because White kids want to be down with it. They wanted to learn it so they studied the culture. It’s kind of a cool thing because we shouldn’t be so separate.
Music should be for everybody. Of the top ten records right now almost every one of those White artists has Black elements in any one of those songs. So like I said the cat is out of the bag. White people have adopted Black music and Black artist have adopted a Pop mindset to understand Pop radio so now we’re all playing with these things like tools. The only music that hasn’t resurfaced is jazz music. Jazz has taken a big back seat. Blues has also taken a back seat. Blues artists like B.B King can still make a lot of money and even the White Blues artists such as Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton make good money. Blues is Black music, but the Black people who invented Blues don’t want anything to do with it. I notice that trend with us often. We invent these things, but we grow tired of it and we go on to the next thing. Black Americans have been the great inventors. We invented Blues, Jazz, R&B as we knew it, and hip-hop. What we used to know as Black music isn’t considered Black music anymore.
LD: Pray. You can show the record company that you want change by the power of your wallet. The record companies will recognize that this is the type of music the public wants to hear. In most instances, the parents control the wallet and not the kids. Obviously, you can’t be a tyrant, but you can educate your kids on what good music is. People always say there’s a generation gap but that didn’t happen in my family. We all knew what good music was back then. We liked James Brown, Frank Sinatra and artists like that.
EBONY: What does the celebration of Black Music Month mean to you?
NMW: We, as Black people are a proud people. We have so much to be proud of. We were brought here from Africa and survived that terrible trip. We’ve survived slavery, survived racism, survived being called a nigger, survived not being able to eat in restaurants, survived being told you can sing in my hotel, but not stay in it. There’s a story of Nat King Cole singing at a hotel and being told he couldn’t stay there. If he put his toe in the pool, they would drain the whole pool. We’ve come so far because of our mothers and fathers who came before us. They paved the way for all of us. Quincy Jones can tell you all about what happened to him. We must celebrate the people who came before us who made it possible for us to have number one pop records and to play concerts where we can make lots of money and be welcomed all over the world. We must celebrate the hurdles we’ve overcome and not to say there aren’t more hurdles to jump over, but who would’ve thought we would have a Black President right now. I never thought it was possible in my lifetime.
We’ve all made some progress, which I’m proud of, but there’s still more work to do. We must celebrate each other and thank those who passed the torch down to us and worked so hard that we even have a torch to begin with. I remember Stevie Wonder telling me stories of when he was Little Stevie Wonder playing gigs down South as a blind boy. He was a big star back then too. They pulled into a gas station and asked if he could use the bathroom and they told him he couldn’t use the bathroom. His manager was a White man and he begged the owner of the gas station to let a blind boy use the bathroom and he yelled at him and said, ‘NO!’ Stevie has all kinds of stories like that and many of us do. We have to understand how much of a task it has been for them to succeed against all of those odds. These guys put their lives on the line and it wasn’t just for a top ten record. We really have to thank these legends.
TR: It means a lot because I’ll never forget our pioneers who paved the way for all of us. I’ll never forget the beauty of our Black Music. Our records are classics. I’m happy to say that my records are considered classics as well. When kids start hearing the music of our pioneers and great musicians, they begin to love it. We have to get them to this music. A lot of them don’t know what our heroes have done and some of them don’t even know my music, but when they hear it they love it. They begin to ask questions and do research on our music.
LD: It is great thing that Black Music doesn’t go unnoticed. Back in the day, if you were an artist of color you would have to go overseas to really get your props. This goes back to Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and a lot of the greats. To be able to have a Black Music Month is a wonderful thing because it puts many great artists at the forefront for people to see and examine. For every generation, they may have forgotten certain music and it gives them a chance to google it and go online to purchase it and become enlightened.
Chris Williams is an internationally published journalist that has written feature articles covering the topics of politics, race, culture, entertainment, and world events. His work has been seen in 200 different newspapers and various magazines. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites