No era in the storied history of black music is more ignored or maligned than R&B of the 1980s. The general consensus is that there was a golden age in the 1960s through the 1970s (James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder). But by the time 1980 rolled around, pop music in general was experiencing a massive paradigm shift. The biggest pop artists in the world: The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Chic, Bowie, and more, all found themselves suddenly struggling to find an audience as new wave and electronica began to take over the top 40.
As someone who lived through the decade, I think it’s important to push against the narrative that the quality of R&B during this period was somehow “less than.”
Yes, there were growing pains, but 80s R&B was much more forward-looking than most people give it credit for.
Indeed, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with the most adventurous music of all time. Urban music from this time is long overdue a critical re-evaluation and this four-part series is my contribution to that. There were a great number of paradigm shifting rap and R&B albums during the decade: Control, Purple Rain, It Takes A Nation Of Millions, and Thriller are just some of them. With that in mind, what I’d like to do here is introduce young people and, really, anyone else who happens to be uninitiated to the wondrous world of 80s rap and R&B.
One thing to note: I’ve pretty much ignored the music of Prince and Michael Jackson.
That’s by design. I figure most music fans already know their work, so to go over it now is probably, for most of us, redundant. However, I will include one song by each on this list, and I encourage anyone who hasn’t done so already to dig into their discographies.
Anyway, I hope you’ll find this useful. The 80s were the cheeziest, cocaineyist, cornballyist decade in the history of pop. Not only was it a lot of fun, it made for tons of interesting music (and not just rap and R&B I’ll have you know). Here is the first installment of my favorites from the decade (the rest of the list will be published in a series over the coming days).
100) Billy Ocean – “Get Out Of My Dreams (And Into My Car)” (1988)
Safe. That’s how people remember Billy Ocean. A minor talent? Perhaps. Nevertheless, he had an out-sized presence on middle-of-the-road top 40 radio because he made undeniable feel-good jams for the suburbs like this one–and he did it relentlessly. I won’t lie, I hated Billy Ocean in the 80s. His music just felt sterilized to me. But the joke was on me, much of his work has proved to be surprisingly durable.
No, Ocean wasn’t much of an innovator and he bit the style of his contemporaries (for example, his biggest hit, “Caribbean Queen” is a pretty shameless bite on Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”). Nevertheless, “Get Out of My Dreams” is an absolute banger and I dare you to be in a bad mood while this thing is bumping—it can’t be done. I may have dismissed him in 1988 but I like Billy Ocean now, I honestly do. I don’t care that he’s a biter. His car sounds fun as fuck, so sue me. “Get in the back seat, bay-bay!” OK!
99) Janet Jackson – “Say You Do” (1983)
Until she made Control and Rhythm Nation, Janet Jackson’s music didn’t get much attention. Admittedly, her early LPs aren’t nearly as groundbreaking, but there’s gold for those willing to dig (Did you know, for example, that famed disco pioneer, Georgio Moroder, produced her second LP? Because he did and it’s pretty cool, too.).
My favorite track from her early period is, “Say You Do.” It hails from her hit-and-miss debut album, in which we find Janet in a pretty unenviable position: having to live in the shadow her older brother, Michael. How does an unproven artist live up to those standards? Well, they don’t.
Stylistically, “Say You Do” sounds like something you might find in the outtakes of Off The Wall. Still, it’s perhaps be the best Janet Jackson song you’ve never heard—and make no mistake, this is a disco barn-burner. It’s every bit as likely to start a dance party as “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” And that’s good enough for me.
98) Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five – “Scorpio” (1982)
Have you ever wanted to quit your job and become a B-Boy? I know I have. So, if you’re like me, here’s the only soundtrack you’ll ever need. I don’t know what it is, but there was something about robot voices that made people want to do The Worm in 1982. This is essentially what people thought the future would sound like. They weren’t wrong.
97) Anita Baker – “Same Ole Love” (1987)
Anita Baker’s 1987 album Rapture is a peerless example of quiet storm R&B. If you’ve never heard it, and you tend to like that sort of thing, this is one of the greatest works of the genre–a gorgeous album throughout. There were bigger hits on Rapture, but this one’s my favorite.
96) Prince Charles and The City Beat Band – “Cash (Cash Money)” (1982)
I don’t know much about Prince Charles, most of his stuff is pretty, meh, to be honest. This thing bangs, though.
95) Chaka Khan – “I Feel For You” (1984)
Khan’s cover of Prince’s “I Feel For You” was a huge hit. It even penetrated the deeply conservative suburbs of Utah where I grew up. This version is just as exciting as the original and contains the first rapped verse I can ever remember hearing courtesy of Grandmaster Melle.
94) Bobby Brown ‘ “Don’t Be Cruel” (1988)
This is the title track from Bobby Brown’s second solo effort after leaving New Edition. Don’t Be Cruel was a watershed moment in R&B. One that pointed the way for the likes of Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. Much of the production for the record was handled by the legendary duo of Babyface and L.A. Reid, and it might be their finest work. The album spawned half a dozen absolute classics (“Roni,” “My Perogotive,” “Rock Witcha,” and “Every Little Step”) and cemented Bobby Brown as a pop star.
93) Midnight Star – “No Parking (On The Dance Floor)” (1983)
I wish I had more space here to get into Solar Records, the indie R&B label that put birthed the careers of an astonishing number of R&B greats. But it will suffice to point out that Midnight Star’s “No Parking” is a prime example of the goofy, but undeniably fun, dance music the label was producing in it’s prime.
92) Daryl Hall and John Oats – “You Make My Dreams” (1981)
This is the only example of blue-eyed soul on our list (sorry Teena Marie fans), but it’s a good one. As you’re no doubt aware, Hall and Oats had a long string of cheesy, yet brilliant, hits in the late 70s and early 80s. For those of you interested in more like this, check out Michael McDonald’s “What A Fool Believes” or any number of hits by Kenny Loggins.
91) Change – “Paradise” (1981)
I had to include Change on our list. There is a certain contingent of music critics who laud them as the most underrated R&B group of the 80s–these folks are the R&B equivalent of that guy you know who insists Steely Dan is the best rock band of all time. I am not here to disagree with any of that. I’m just here to point out that Change is some really, REALLY, proggy R&B. Nothing wrong with that. Truth is, their albums were quite solid, if mostly forgettable affairs. Change’s first LP also offers a chance to hear a young Luther Vandross (So does Bowie’s Young Americans BTW). This tune (vocals by James Robinson and Deborah Cooper) is my favorite cut by the group. My only quibbles: clearly this song would have benefited from a radio edit (it’s at least two minutes too long) and Change’s Chic worship shows, perhaps a bit much.
90) The Barkays – “Freakshow On The Dancefloor” (1984)
I want you to pause for a moment and really ponder the existence of this song. Believe it or not, it lives up to it’s name. The very fact that it exists at all is a miracle, frankly–dancefloor freak shows are a beautiful thing, there ought to be at least one great pop song dedicated to them. Also, the only reason you haven’t heard “Freakshow” at every wedding you’ve attended for the past 30 years isn’t because this song sucks. It’s because no one is aware of it. And yeah, that is probably a fatal flaw, but definitely not a good enough reason for you to skip over it. This is yet another one of those absolutely ridiculous dance songs from the 80s that is so unbelievably, infectiously, cornball that it couldn’t have happened in any other decade.
89) Patrice Rushen – “Haven’t You Heard” (1980)
Patrice Rushen had the misfortune of being an world-class jazz musician during a time when no one could give two shits about jazz. So it makes sense that she gave up on the jazz fusion of her early years and eventually focused her skills on making undeniable, unrelenting, unforgettable, dance music. Still, for anyone who cares, her earlier jazz work remains phenomenal.
88) N.W.A. – “Straight Outta Compton” (1988)
A classic that needs no introduction. I will tell you this: as a youth I hung out with a bunch of hooligans from a nearby trailer park. There was a little secluded spot on the railroad tracks behind the trailer park where we crowded around a portable boombox, smoked dirt weed, and bumped this shit pretty much daily. I wonder if our Playboys are still there hidden under that greasy cardboard box?
87) Big Daddy Kane – “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” (1988)
Do you like “smoove lyrics” and “being dope”? What am I saying? Of course you do. Also, by my count there’s at least one “word to the motha” on this thing. Nuff said.
86) The Egyptian Lover – “My House (On The Nile)” (1984)
As someone who slept (exclusively) on a waterbed throughout the 80s, I can tell you with some authority: they’re sexy as fuck. The Egyptian lover had a waterbed, too. It’s “fifty feet long” (just sayin’) and that’s only one of the many pleasurable amenities at his home, which just so happens to be situated on none other than the fertile banks of the motherfucking Nile! Now, I’m sorry, but that’s baller.
85) DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince – “Parents Just Don’t Understand”
Before Will Smith was a famous alien-punching movie actor (“Welcome to Earf!“) he was a massively maligned rapper. Yes, his raps were so sanitized you could bump them in your Sunday school class without so much as raising an eyebrow, but that was kind of the point, actually. He and DJ Jazzy Jeff brought rap music into white, Christian households–places where rap music had never previously been allowed. The same kids bumpin’ “Girls of the World Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” grew up to buy Tupac and Biggie records a few years later. Whether you like Smith’s music or not–and I happen to think it’s, you know, “funky fresh,”–that’s quite an achievement. The verse about trying to get down with a 12 year-old notwithstanding, I honestly think I might appreciate this song more now than I did when I was 12.
84) Shalamar – “Night To Remember” (1982)
Inexplicably forgotten by time, Shalamar was a fearless R&B outfit. Their work, perhaps more than anyone else on this list, deserves a second look. They made some very good, but admittedly not great, albums and launched the career of Jody Watley. If you have no idea who that is—lucky you—I wish I could hear her again for the first time.
83) Babyface – “Tender Lover” (1989)
Full disclosure, I don’t love Babyface. I’ve included him on this list anyway because even though his music doesn’t hit me in a profoundly emotional way (for reasons I don’t understand) I still respect the artistry. “Tender Lover” is, perhaps, Babyface’s most-beloved track and if you’re interested in New Jack Swing, his debut album (along with Control, Don’t Be Cruel and Johhny Gill’s self-titled album) is widely considered one of the masterworks of the genre.
82) Boogie Down Productions – “9mm Goes Bang” (1987)
Boogie Down Productions was the duo of rapper KRS-1 and his unimpeachable DJ, Scott La Rock. The group made two flawless albums before La Rock was tragically murdered. Both LPs have long enjoyed classic status among people who still remember, “Yo! MTV Raps.” It’s high time everyone else caught on, too. Though KRS-1 never again achieved the heights he reached on cuts like this one, he still keeps up a relentless tour schedule, and to this day remains one of rap’s greatest performers and free-stylists.
81) Lionel Richie – “All Night Long” (1983)
Much like Billy Ocean, it’s easy to hate on Lionel Richie. This track is the epitome of middle-of-the-road, 80s Adult Contempo smaltz. That cannot be denied but I contend the world is a better place for it. I mean c’mon! When he’s like, “Fiesta! Foreva!” How is anyone not feeling that shit? Truth is, we all are, even if it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. Richie is responsible for a whole mess of other jams that probably make you feel good as hell every time you hear them, too. Remember, “Stuck On You,” “Easy Like Sunday Morning,” and “Brickhouse.” Of course you do. You probably heard them last week at the grocery store while squeezing avocados–I bet you boogied down in spite of yourself. Maybe Lionel Richie didn’t change the word with his music, but a lot of it is solid gold, it’s stood the test of time, and it ain’t going away any time soon.
80) Guy – “I Like” (1989)
Guy’s Teddy Riley was among the more crucial innovators of New Jack Swing (the other major producers were Jam and Lewis, L.A. Reid and Babyface). It’s a genre far more important to modern-day Trap&B than anybody seems willing to admit these days. I’m probably pissing in the wind here but I’ve gotta sing New Jack’s praises in hopes that someone (anyone?) will listen. This is just one of several great cuts from Guy’s way-better-than-I-remembered and totally-worth-checking-out debut album.
79) Sequence – “And You Know That” (1980)
Quick shout out to Sugar Hill records. It should be noted, the label was vital to the development of hip hop, and not for nothing, it was a woman-owned business, to boot. The label’s founder, Sylvia Robinson, was a fairly accomplished musician in her own right (check out her classic “Love Is Strange”). So it makes sense that an all-girl self-proclaimed “gangsta rap” troupe like The Sequence was signed to Sugar Hill. For my money, they were every bit as fly as some of the other more notable artists on the Sugar Hill roster. In fact, one of the members of Sequence, Angie Brown, even went on to make a very good album with D’Angelo in the 1990s. I discovered this particular track when I found a copy of the original 12” single at Deseret Industries–I took it home and it immediately became a staple of my collection. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is, women have been a crucial part of rap music from the very beginning. So, remember that next time someone tries to tell you the genre is sexist.
78) Kool Moe Dee – “How Ya Like Me Now?” (1987)
One of rap’s first and biggest beefs was in 1987. Kool Moe Dee made a name for himself in the highly-respected early 80s rap outfit, The Treacherous Three, and he did not take kindly to “sucka MCs”. “How Ya Like Me Now” is a classic dis track. Here, Kool Moe Dee puts LL Cool J on blast for “stealing his style” and (it should be noted) LL made millions in the process, too (also note, a red Kangol hat, much like the one LL famously wore, can be seen under the wheel of Kool Moe Dee’s Jeep on the album’s artwork). In retrospect, the whole thing is profoundly ridiculous, of course. Yes, LL took the “L” on this one, but it was fleeting. By 1990, Cool James had a burgeoning acting career to hang his hat on and was still making hits (e.g. “Momma Said Knock You Out”), meanwhile Kool Moe Dee suddenly found himself struggling to find an audience amid a paradigm shift in rap culture. Ultimately, “How Ya Like Me Now” is unquestionably a relic of a bygone era, but luckily for us all it transcends time and remains one of the most classic early rap tracks.
77) Pebbles – “Mercedes Boy” (1987)
Ummm, yeah, actually, I’m pretty sure every last one of us would be more than down to take a ride in her Mercedes. Pretty please! With sugar on top?
76) Prince and The Revolution – “Kiss” (1986)
As I mentioned in the introduction, in order to make room for everyone else I’m only putting one Prince song on this list. The fact is, most of us already know all about Prince’s catalog, so I’m not going to bore you with it here. That said, no discussion of 80s R&B would be complete without at least mentioning the purple one’s supremacy. So if you happen to be someone who hasn’t quite dug in to his work yet, never fear, I’ve got you. Here’s what you need to know: Prince belongs to an elite group of hugely influential artists such as The Beatles, David Bowie, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson and James Brown. Between 1979 and 1989 Prince was basically unstoppable. Every album he made during that period is a stone-cold classic including, Parade, from which “Kiss” is one of several standouts.