Progression of Black Music in the 1980s


Origin of Pop

Popular, or “pop,” music developed during the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Pop music was seen as a distinction to rock in the 1960s, as its general audience was teenagers as opposed to adults. Pop music also was distinct from popular music in that any musical genre could encapsulate popularity. Black artists were especially noted for including many musical genres into pop artistry, such as jazz, R&B, soul, and funk.

Prominence and Influence of Pop in 1980s

Pop music was a defining musical genre in the 1980s. As disco of the 1970s fizzled out, pop was able to thrust itself into the general mainstream market. The majority of the most influential performers of the decade were labeled as pop artists. Black artists were able to flourish in the genre because of the vast versatility and accessibility in this genre. Many of these artists increased their popularity by reinventing their styles to align with popular measures. Their renowned success from this reinvention came from the with the broad depth of the pop audience in this decade. Pop music was able to transcend societal barriers of race, ethnicity, and class. The prominence of pop was also elevated with the launch of MTV in the early 80s. Pop artists were able to further excel with the accompaniment of music videos. Pop in the 1980s influenced later genres like contemporary pop, some R&B and elements of New Jack Swing. More notably, pop superstars of the 1980s played a larger role in influencing future black music by directly influencing later black artists (e.g. Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Usher, Brandy, etc.).

Elements of Pop seen in 80s

As a genre, pop music is particularly flexible in that it encompasses diverse styles and influences. With this flexibility comes difficulty in defining an ever-changing style of music. Nonetheless, much of the pop music in this decade followed key stylistic characteristics for recognition. Pop music contains medium-length songs with mostly upbeat and mainstream rhythms that could be danced to. Most of these songs also contained catchy and memorable hooks and choruses with 2-4 verses. As pop music borrows from a variety of musical genres, many elements of those genres are implemented into pop, such as dance tempo, vocal abilities from soul, synthesizers of disco and funk, and sampling techniques of hip-hop.

Most Popular 80s Black Pop Artists

  • Michael Jackson: Michael Jackson was dubbed the “King of Pop” for his globally commercial success within the pop arena. He remains one of the most influential pop artists and musicians overall. “Billie Jean” sparked inclusivity within MTV by being the first music video by a black artists to appear on the network. Other notable pop songs from the 80s include “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Bad.”

  • Prince had several albums and songs top pop charts during the 1980s. He found notable recognition with his award-winning autobiography, Purple Rain, and its accompanying soundtrack of the same name. Other hits include “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Little Red Corvette.”

  • Whitney Houston: Even though she gained success through teen modeling, Whitney Houston broke through as a pop superstar and legend from her long-spanning career filled with powerful vocal abilities and undaunting charm. The 1980s saw her rise to international prominence with hits such as “Saving All My Love,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and “How Will I Know.”
  • Stevie Wonder was able to transcend multiple African-American music genres with ample success in pop, R&B, soul and funk. Regarded as a living legend, Stevie Wonder and his diverse instrumentation and range were able to top pop charts in the 1980s with popular songs such as, “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” “Part-Time Lover,” and “Ebony and Ivory,” an duet with Paul McCartney.

  • Janet Jackson: Despite the unwavering international success of her older brother, Janet Jackson was able to create a name for herself in the pop and R&B markets. She became a pop icon, in only her teenage years, in the 1980s with the astonishing success of albums like Control and Rhythm Nation, and with her sultry and electric dance abilities. Notable pop hits of the decade include “Control,” “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “When I Think Of You,” and “Rhythm Nation.”

  • Lionel Richie was able to achieve commercial success with the launch of his solo career in the 1980s. His most popular pop hit of the decade is undoubtedly “All Night Long,” which brought him awards, accolades, and greater global stardom. In the first half of the decade, he was only one of three black artists (the other two being Michael Jackson and Prince) to have a number one album. Other pop hits include “Hello” and “Say You, Say Me.”

Social Implications and Commodification of Pop in 80s

Although pop music was widely accessible to its general audience, commercial success for pop artists of color was notably obstructed. In eras of social and racial turmoil, black artists found difficulty in finding legitimacy and notoriety within the genre. Segregation within the genre yielded a lack of play on part of some African-American musicians. Also, the success of pop artists depended heavily on social perception. So, black artists that did not meet certain visual appeals found further struggles within pop music. Early MTV notably denied play of black videos on its network until wide-range success of artists such as Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. Black artists were forced with the reality of having to break the glass ceiling in this genre. Large crossover artists, such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Prince, are famed with opening the doors for other black pop artists because of the wide ability to appeal to white audiences.

Despite these social implications, African-Americans were eventually provided great mainstream success in pop music. Michael Jackson was dubbed the “King of Pop” for his outstanding record sales in the pop genre. As stated previously, the creation of MTV awarded greater prominence to pop artists. Black artists achieved greater success in their music dissemination with the help of music videos. These pop music videos motivated greater sales of pop songs by creating greater popularity.


Origin of Funk

Funk music as defined by Merriam-Webster is “music that combines elements of rhythm and blues and soul music and that is characterized by a percussive vocal style, static harmonies, and a strong bass line with heavy downbeats”. The one word that is constantly seen with funk is the “groove” and the “syncopated bass, drumbeats and a host of instruments” all work together to create the groove. (Britannica) Funk has rhythmic roots in sub-Saharan African traditions and in 1940’s New Orleans due to the fact both styles of music stay true to the “two celled  onbeat/offbeat structure.” (Music BMK) What became known as the “Funk Beat” was started by James Brown and his band who notably, in the late 1960’s, diverted from traditional R&B by putting “emphasis on the first note of the musical measure” rather than on the “second and fourth” beats. (Britannica) Songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” launched this sound for Brown, however the concept of funk was no stranger to African American music as Jazz musicians often called their bands to put a little “stank” or “funk” on their music. By the 1970’s many other predominantly soul artists adopted the “funk” style such as The Temptations, Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang, Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone.

Prominence of Funk in the 1980s

The idea of funk and funky music was widely popular as many mainstream artists made the transition to a funk style of music. In the 80’s many of the artists who were popular like the Gap Band were already formed and making music but huge success didn’t arrive until they adopted funk. Rick James’ Street Songs album not only was number three on the Pop Charts but spent twenty weeks as number one on the R&B Charts. It was platinum by 1981 and he became the first African American male to be nominated for best male rock vocal for Super Freak at the Grammys. And George Clinton Atomic Dog reached number one on the R&B Charts as well. The Gap Band also saw huge success as their albums Gap Band III and IV reached number one on the R&B Charts with singles such as Outstanding, Burn Rubber on Me, and You dropped a bomb on me.

Elements of Funk in the 80’s

By the 1980’s some of the elements of funk had changed.

    • Artists like Rick James and Prince emerged giving funk a raunchier and more explicit nature.

    • Funk by the 80’s had also become very electronic. The 80’s saw the boom of the synthesizer, electric instruments, and drum machines.

    • Large horn sections were done away with and instead artists used keyboards and the TR-808, programmable drum machine was widely used.

    • The 80’s was the birth of electro funk.

    • Another feature that was used during this time was the “talk box” which was used by Zapp and the talk box distorted the voice much like autotune of today.

    • Songs could still be up to about 8 to 10 minutes as they played until the groove was done.


      Social Implications and Commodification 

      Socially funk reflected the state of African Americans. The name funk means an unpleasant unsettling odor and in that sense funk music especially in its early days had lyrics that had social commentary and reflected the “Unsettling undeniable truths about life.” (Britannica) However by the 80’s it is just as free and explicit as it wants to be. It is the most raw and that translates to performance.In the 80’s groups like the Gap Band and artists had truly extravagant live shows that have not been surpassed in today’s time. Some of the most notable live shows comes from George Clinton who is known for his use of the “Mothership Landing” and outrageous out of space costumes and most funk acts of the time followed suit and played large shows with costumes to match.  Live performance was huge during this time and many of the artists such as Rick James and Prince and George Clinton were number one artists in the country translating to huge record sales and ultimately money. The influence of funk is wide reaching to rock and even Jazz artists like Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis leading to Jazz Fusion.


      Popular Performers  


Contemporary R&B

During this time also traditional R&B morphed into contemporary R&B. Anita Baker found major success during this time as her first release The Songstress was in 1983. At this time Luther Vandross also broke through and became a solo act and his first solo effort Never Too Much was released. Chaka Khan who also saw huge success with Rufus as a funk act saw major success as an R&B artist in the 80’s releasing Ain’t Nobody in 1983. She also released I Feel For you in 1984 which went platinum and spawned the hit Through the Fire. Patti LaBelle broke away from LaBelle and began her solo career where she saw huge success in the 80’s especially with hit If You Only Knew in 1984. Marvin Gaye also released Midnight Love with the single Sexual Healing which earned him his first two Grammy Awards. This is just to name a few but the 1980’s for traditional R&B was very soulful and sultry. It is important to note that R&B at this time was used just as an abbreviation rather than for its full meaning as R&B morphed into contemporary R&B and infused soul, funk, and pop. It is also referred to as urban contemporary and “is distinguished by a slick, electronic record production style, drum machine-backed rhythms, and a smooth, lush style of vocal arrangement. Uses of hip hop inspired beats are typical, although the roughness and grit inherent in hip hop are usually reduced and smoothed out.” (New World Encyclopedia)

Hip Hop

Origin : 

Local circulation of recordings happened in and before the 70s, hip hop was really thrust into the mainstream scene from 1979 into the 80s. The first commercial hit was “Rapper’s Delight”,  by a New Jersey group called Sugar Hill Gang on Sugar Hill Records. This song used an accompaniment from the song “Good Times” which was released earlier that year. The first official greatest hits of the 80s were Rapture and “the Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”. This featured a turntable technique of scratching which was used as a percussive whooping sound.  

Elements in the 80’s: 

    • Scratching– Grandmaster Flash
    • Mix: to collage several sings, with the goal of maintaining a consistent danceable rhythm; a new song that the DJ or producer assembles from brief sections of current hits
    • Bambaataa’s group, the Soul Sonic Force helped in redefining hip hop by introducing an electric vibe through percussion and keyboards. Producing songs like “Planet Rock” (1982). This used programmable synthesizers and drums creating a sound of electro-funk. This was preferred from the youth to perform pop locking dances in breakdancing compared to the older songs.
    • Planet Rock also introduced the concept of sampling, which is using snippets of a pre-recorded song as the foundation of a new song or as a short thematic reference.
      • Another example of this sampling is the drumming taken from James Brown song “Funky Drummer” in 1970 and was used in songs by Public Enemy , N.W.A, and LL Cool J.
    • As the decade progressed, the attention was taken off of the DJ and toward the MC which was typically a male figure who was seen as the spokesperson for hip hop culture.

Social Implications and Commodification: Stylistic and economic shift occurred in hip hop as labels reached larger markets. Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin were major influencers and business tycoons who saw the venture in hip hop creating the business Rush Management and eventually Def Jam Records. This was also a time when the public first saw overtly political artists such as Public Enemy. Their group was one of the first with a different message other what was known as gangsta rap, but pushed its audience and public to take part in political confrontation through its militant messages. Def Jam played a significant role in exposing hip hop to the mainstream audience by incorporating it with hard rock.

Important Performers :

New Jack Swing 


The term “New Jack Swing” was created in October 18, 1987. The Village Voice, an American news and culture paper, did a story on Teddy Riley. "New Jack" was a slang term (meaning ~'Johnny-come-lately) and it was used in a song by Grandmaster Caz. The author of the story used “swing” to depict an “analogy between the music played at the speakeasies of F. Scott Fitzgerald's time to the crackhouses of Teddy Riley's time." Teddy Riley had originally named the music he produced, 'sophisticated bubblegum music.' Riley was a R&B/hip hop artist and a producer. He let the band “Guy” (1980s) and “Blackstreet” (1990s). The defining element of Riley's music was the introduction of swing beats, "a rhythmic pattern using offbeat accented 16th note triplets." In a 2017 interview with Revolt TV, Andre Harrell called Riley the inventor of the sound, hailing him "the king of New Jack Swing, because he invented it." It was said that "hip-hop and R&B are kissing cousins," producer Teddy Riley and his label boss Andre Harrell fused and sold the two sounds “in a sexy, exclamatory music that critics termed new jack swing.” He was able to bring the two worlds of rappers and singers together, bringing the soft sounds of the singer and the street noise of the rapper. Riley's collaboration of the styles would forever change pop music/hip-hop music pairing and was further popularized with Bad Boy's in the late '90s through much of the same techniques. The aesthetic of the culture also spread to mainstream white audiences through popular groups such as New Kids on the Block.

Prominence and Influence of New Jack Swing in 1980s: 

A lot of shows and movies helped influence the sound and popularity of new jack swing in the late 1980s. In 1989, the film Ghostbusters II helped spread new jack swing with its theme song, “On Our Own” by Bobby Brown (who was also nicknamed “The King of New Jack Swing”). The family sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air also supported the spread of this music culture, Will Smith, was known initially for his hip-hop duo with DJ Jazzy Jeff. During the first episode of the series, Will Smith dances to the Soul II Soul new jack swing single “Back to Life”. A Different World and In Living Color are other popular television programs of the time which demonstrate influences from the new jack swing style. Video Soul, Soul Train, Showtime at the Apollo as well as the late night talk show The Arsenio Hall Show also helped to promote these acts. These shows featured live bands that would play a variation on new jack swing songs, as the guest and host arrive of stage or any other musical needs for the show. New jack swing was also used in many soundtracks for movies; House Party, Poetic Justice, and Above the Rim, just to name a few.  To date the most successful new jack swing album is Dangerous, released in 1991 by Michael Jackson, produced by Jackson and Riley, which has sold 30 million copies worldwide.

Elements of New Jack Swing in 1980s:

New Jack Swing evolved when urban contemporary soul artists began incorporating hip-hop rhythms, samples, and production techniques into their sound. Some songs had hip-hop beats, others had rapped sections and sung choruses, but the overall result was an edgier, more street-oriented sound that seamlessly blended both the melodic qualities of soul and the funky rhythms of rap. It paved the way for what would later become ’90s soul.“New Jack Swing is a sound of music that doesn’t have a color line. And it doesn’t have an expression, it fits the occasion.” New Jack Swing is a collaboration of rap and singing together. It’s a collaboration of different genres of music ( Rap, Disco, R&B, Soul, Pop, Funk, Hip Hop, and Jazz) and styles (synthesized percussion) put all together in one sound. New Jack Swing is said to be heavy R&B, heavy rhythm and blues, all in one.  

Social Implications and Commodification of New Jack Swing in 1980s: 

White people were quick to try and create their own version on new jack swing. “New Kids on the Block was a blue band created and discovered by the same man who worked with New Edition. Maurice Starr and his partner cut ties with New Edition and decided to create a white counterpart group. Their goal was to find a “white replacement for all the vocal and rapping elements of new jack swing, that the black group had. This genre did influence many legendary movies, tv shows, talk shows, and the entire music industry. New Jack Swing was a huge catalyst in to 90s music and 90s culture in general.

New Jack Swing later heavily influenced Michael Jacksons smash album "Dangerous" which featured hits like "Jam" and "Remember the Time" produced by Teddy Riley.

Concluding Opinions

If one word could describe the 1980’s especially in black music it would be innovation. Not only was technology on the rise outside of music but in black music in particular new technologies created a whole new sound. The uses of synthesizers, 808’s, and drum machines changed the way that traditional popular music, rhythm and blues, and soul music sounded creating different variations of pre-existing genres. The 80’s spawned new genres such as New Jack Swing and Hip Hop primarily took off in the 80’s. This decade also gave new life to funk and traditional R&B. Everything about the 80’s no matter the genre sounded computerized and fresh as live instrumentation was on its way out of studios because these machines were easier to work with and much more cost effective. The 1980s also was the era that birthed many of the solo careers of black icons such as Michael Jackson and Prince. Not only was the music stellar cementing their legacies but the popularity of music videos and their visibility in this era allowed for these stars to become much more than just household names especially for black people. You didn’t have to go to a concert to see your favorite artists you could now see them on MTV thanks to Michael Jacksons Billie Jean being the first black music video on the network. 

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