Does Mary J. Blige’s “What’s The 411?” & “New York Hip-Hop” still matter in 2017?
Mary J. Blige’s debut album is 25 years old (and sadly irrelevant) this year.
HOW AND WHY NEW YORK RULED HIP-HOP CULTURE (AND DOES IT STILL ANYMORE?)
Hip-hop started out in the park (in places like Queens, New York), and for years was largely defined by the beats and breaks that made New York City’s urban culture the world’s urban culture dating back to the Harlem Renaissance. At present, hip-hop is caught somewhere between the trap, the strip club and the bottle service table, and it’s Atlanta’s — not New York’s —urban culture that defines the world’s urban culture. Thus, in listening to Mary J. Blige’s 1992 debut album What’s The 411?, it’s an amazing time to hear a sound and feel a vibe that’s now moreso than ever before, ancillary to the genre it once best defined. In remembering what was, there’s a bittersweet sense of burying things, that for reasons that will be discussed, may never be again.
This story begins not in 1992, but 13 years prior in 1979 when Kurtis Blow, a DJ promoted by a 22-year old nightclub owner named Russell Simmons, released a gold-selling rap single entitled “Christmas Rappin’.” Given that this success allowed Kurtis to become rap’s first iconic star and Russell to become one-half of the creative genius behind Def Jam Records, this is the best place to note as the genesis of the pop crossover of New York’s take on hip-hop culture.
By 1991, New York’s hold on hip-hop had fused with pop-aimed house music and four of the year’s best selling singles (Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” C & C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat,” Hi-Five’s “I Like The Way,” and Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly”) reflected this evolution of the culture. There’s a 500% jump in sales between “Christmas Rappin’”’s 500,000 and “I Wanna Sex You Up”’s three million sales. This sets the table well for the hip-hop meets pop-rap and smooth soul explosion that was Mary J. Blige’s What’s The 411?
ANDRE HARRELL, PUFF DADDY, AND SETTING THE STAGE FOR MARY J. BLIGE
Key in this story as well are Andre Harrell, Sean Combs, Uptown Records, and Bad Boy Records, the linear hip-hop mogul progeny borne of Russell Simmons and Def Jam’s outstanding success.
By 1992, Andre Harrell was 32 years old and had already been a rap star with three hit singles, a Vice President at Def Jam Records, by 1988 had founded MCA-released Uptown Records, signing Mary J. Blige as the label’s youngest and first female solo artist. As well, he had hired and fired Sean Combs, a Howard University dropout-turned party promoter-turned unpaid Uptown intern-turned stylist and creative director-turned person who eventually “[became] so big it was time for him to do his own thing,” Harrell told Radio.com.
However, before Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs could leave Uptown Records, found Bad Boy, and do numbers that doubled what was to that point the best work of Def Jam and Uptown combined, he had to work with Andre Harrell and a team of super-talented producers, engineers, and a once-in-a-lifetime artist like Mary J. Blige to create What’s The 411?
WHAT IS HIP-HOP SOUL, AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
The key to this album’s success is actually the very thing that’s missing from modern, Atlanta-driven hip-hop culture: hip-hop soul. In the same aforementioned radio.com interview, Harrell says, “‘Puff came with the sound. He came with the hip-hop and Mary came with the soul. That was the hip-hop soul,’ Harrell commented as he explained the direction of the label. ‘Attitude plus style plus talent was really what Uptown Records was about. We really wouldn’t sign the person who had talent but didn’t have style or attitude. You really had to have the whole package.’”
The hip-hop soul attitude is an intriguing mix that lies at the confluence of the most mind-bogglingly anguished of circumstances. The “hip-hop” half of the equation comes from a culture of aspiration driven by partying in basements and on street corners using stolen electricity and manipulating their parents’ record collection on jerry-rigged turntables. This, of course, occurring while boroughs away in the same city, the eras most famous people danced, snorted, and fucked the night away in the most ostentatiously opulent surroundings of the era.
The soul comes from an era of mind-bogglingly smooth soul records that combined the blend of free jazz woodwind, brass, and string players with a flair for classical orchestration combining forces with stomping drummers like James Brown’s “J.B.’s” band era drummer Clyde “The Funky Drummer” Stubblefield and Philadelphia disco drum-meister Earl Young. This, alongside the explosion of disco as pop music and the late night “quiet storm” format in the 1970s and 1980s on stations like New York’s WBLS with iconic DJ Frankie Crocker, to showcase these records and allow them to gain a semblance of permanence in mainstream culture.
In 1992, New York City’s hip-hop culture detonated an explosion-as-album that would reverberate for a decade, then arguably be gone forever from a position of guiding the culture-at-large.
HERE’S WHY MARY J. BLIGE IS THE QUEEN OF HIP-HOP SOUL
Prior to 1992, rap was still a male dominated genre with a strong female presence, while soul was also largely the domain of men, but as 1991’s Billboard R & B charts bearing the presence of bombastic, yet suavely jazzy belters like Whitney Houston, En Vogue, Phyllis Hyman, and Lisa Fischer proves, soul had female strength present as well. Thus, there was a place where a strong female presence with hip-hop swagger and a voice that could seductively boom from the heavens. Enter Mary J. Blige.
Mary had been signed to Uptown Records since 1989, after recording a version of Anita Baker’s 1986 hit “Caught Up in the Rapture” at a recording booth in the Galleria Mall in White Plains, New York. Her mother’s boyfriend played the recording for Jeff Redd, a recording artist and A&R runner for Uptown Records, who then in turn played it for Harrell, who then signed Blige.
Blige’s transformation involves the fact that she was a southern Pentecostal church-raised high school dropout who spent many of her formative years in Yonkers, a place that Mary told the New York Times in 1995 was “there” and where you could “do it all,” the “it all” likely an allusion to the kind of issues caused via the urban blight that much of New York City’s non-Manhattan and hip-hop bearing boroughs had since the genre’s early 1970s inception, and is also the same place that birthed crime and wildness-loving emcees DMX and The Lox.
Combine that with the styling assistance of Sean Combs, who decided to put ratchet southern choirboys Jodeci in Doc Martens boots and baggy jeans, and something special is bound to occur. As Sybil Pennix, Uptown’s director of artist development, noted in 1995, Mary was put in “the everyday girl look for girls from Mount Vernon, White Plains and Yonkers,” which included “hats pulled way down on their eyes to look mysterious,” in order to “not letting the white man know where [they’re] coming from.”
Where this album came from is a place that sadly no longer exists as a driving force in modern rap. The album’s five released singles, “You Remind Me,” “Reminisce,” “Real Love,” “Sweet Thing,” and “Love No Limit” spanned an 11 month release cycle and pretty much ran both rap and soul radio formats for 18 months. Ultimately, this occurs because, between originals and a slate of remixes that doubled-down on New York-driven hip-hop flavor, this is an album that involves the direct, sampled, or re-interpolated influences of the following:
Andre Harrell, Puff Daddy, Jodeci, Teddy Riley, (Philadelphia’s) Schooly D and Stetsasonic, Audio Two, EPMD, Biz Markie, Grand Puba, MC Lyte, Nice and Smooth, the Notorious B.I.G., Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Craig Mack, Chaka Khan, Betty Wright, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Grover Washington, Jr., Patrice Rushen, the Ohio Players, and likely numerous others. In naming 35-plus people, it’s an album that’s easily the most representative audio document of New York-driven hip-hop culture, maybe ever.
Because of its influences and the unique development and style of Mary herself, What’s the 411? wins because it cut SOCLOSE to the core essence of hip-hop in such a way that it could even be possible to argue that maybe, in 1992, it was the ultimate New York hip-hop recording, and that moving forward, the genre and it’s New York space of gestation, would be less and less impacting with each release that followed and attempted to cultivate that vibe.
In 1992, Entertainment Weekly referred to What’s The 411? “as one of the most accomplished fusions of soul values and hip-hop to date,” “solidly [connecting] with an audience that has never seen a woman do new jack swing but loves it just the same.” The Los Angeles Times noted, that “You Remind Me” was “one of those perfect singer-to-song matches,” while Rolling Stone noted that the torch song love ballads provided “a gritty undertone and a realism missing from much of the devotional love songs ruling the charts at that time,” with BBC Music stating that the “sweet, soulful vocals” and Puff Daddy’s “rough, jagged, hip-hop beats,” “made for a winning combination that remains remains one of Blige’s finest albums.”
HOW AND WHY “NEW YORK HIP-HOP” LOST ITS WAY
2016’s biggest “New York” hip-hop record was “All The Way Up,” a Grammy nominated posse cut featuring the Bronx trio of Fat Joe, Remy Ma, and French Montana. Instead of the boom bap-laden bombast of KRS-One’s battle cut “South Bronx” that defined the best of New York three decades prior, this was a trap record produced by a Miami-based trio (Edsclusive and Cool and Dre)
Intriguingly, the Grammy competition for “All The Way Up” shows where the power lies when it comes to hip-hop in the modern era. Memphis and Houston-adoring Toronto native Drake, South Central Los Angeles’ ScHoolboy Q, viral internet sensation Desiigner (who’s arguably more from “the city of Soundcloud” than Brooklyn), and the eventual winning trio of Chicago’s Chance the Rapper, Atlanta’s 2 Chainz and New Orleans’ Lil Wayne. There were EIGHT places named on that list before New York, and the “New York” record that was nominated wouldn’t historically be called a “New York” record. This may mean that for as amazing as What’s The 411? and what followed it for a decade was, it may no longer ever be as relevant to hip-hop, and thus likely “mainstream pop” culture as a whole.
There’s an argument to be made that selling tons and tons of music, aka the very thing that built New York hip-hop’s dominance, can actually be the very thing that killing it.
In 1999, the music industry sold nearly $20 billion in units. Hip-hop inspired artists in the Top 100 singles of that year include Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey, whose respective collaborations with Busta Rhymes for “What’s It Gonna Be” and “Heartbreaker” aren’t too far removed from what Mary J. and Puff Daddy concocted seven years prior. To albums include DMX’s Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood, which includes yes, a Mary J. Blige collaboration, DMX’s Ruff Ryders label posse album Ryde Or Die, Vol. 1 which includes EPMD and Parliament-sampling, plus Eve-featuring “Ryde or Die Chick.” As well there’s I Am, Nas’ third studio album that has an Aaliyah duet, plus the influences — sampled or otherwise — of hip-hop in the form of Eric B. and Rakim, Biz Markie, Main Source, and Cam’ron, plus the jazzy soul of Roy Ayers, Diana Ross, Idris Muhammad, and Donald Byrd.
In July 1999, Napster, a service described by Wikipedia as a “pioneering peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing Internet service that emphasized sharing digital audio files, typically songs, encoded in MP3 format” emerged, and by February 2001 peaked with nearly 30 million regular users worldwide. The initial impact of Napster was more mired in a level of angst an controversy that led to Napster as a free-to-use service shut down in July 2001. However, a slew of Napster-style clone services including Gnutella, Freenet, Kazaa, BearShare, LimeWire, Scour, Grokster, Madster, and eDonkey2000 emerged in Napster’s wake. These outlaw services, when coupled with Apple’s groundbreaking iPod and iTunes services allowing for collections of MP3s to supersede needing physical cassettes, records, or compact discs, led to a place where, in 2017, there’s been a nearly 100% dip in unit sales in the music industry in the past 20 years.
New York’s hip-hop culture, and namely its hip-hop soul evolution, was driven by a thing that, after 1999, existed less and less in hip-hop culture and well, music overall: physical units being sold in mass quantities to mass quantities of actual people. Historically, million-selling classic R & B records were spun on actual turntables by actual people who played records that were heard by tons of people who were gathered in outdoor or “underground” spaces. These people were in outdoor or “underground” spaces because they lacked the money to go to indoor and “mainstream” spots, but yet had enough money to support the artists releasing cassette tape versions of them reciting rhymes over these million-selling classic R & B records that were being spun on actual turntables by actual people.
WILL TRADITIONAL NEW YORK HIP-HOP CULTURE MAKE A COMEBACK?
Compared to needing to do any of that to gain relevance in rap music, Atlanta’s Soulja Boy Tell’Em explained to HipHopWired that he promoted his home-computer produced and non- classic soul nor epic drum break sample-based debut single “Crank Dat” via Limewire by naming the MP3 file for “Crank Dat” on the service “the new 50 Cent or Britney Spears song.” The article continues that, “after initial disgust and confusion, the listeners eventually kept listening and became fans of the song.” As well, his rise was keyed by not a slew of nightclub performances recorded to cassette, but rather the viral spread of performance clips — not by Soulja Boy, but by his fans — on then nascent video service YouTube.
Even more entertaining than using YouTube is how YouTube artists and strip clubs allowed Atlanta’s soulful trap records — and not the more traditional “hip-hop soul” songs, became the songs that define Atlanta’s dominance of hip-hop culture. In a 2015 DQ article entitled “Make It Reign: How An Atlanta Strip Club Runs The Music Industry,” City Dollars, noted as a “hustler and a player and a manager of rap artists” (a far cry from Russell Simmons as an entrepreneur, producer and author, or Sean Combs as a rapper, singer, songwriter, actor, record producer and entrepreneur) who was hanging out at the Magic City strip club stated, “You have to be in here every week if you want to do something in the rap game. You get the finest females in the state of Georgia. You get the Who’s Who of the streets in here. You can have Young Thug, Future, 2 Chainz in here on the same night. ” he said, naming three of the hottest rappers in America right now, all of whom came out of Atlanta. “And you get DJ Esco. If Esco play your record…? Everything Esco touch out here is off the charts.”
From a culture housed within an industry where sales are nearly down 100%, and the hottest records ascribed to said culture now have a two-decade history of coming from free sharing, YouTube hits, and strip clubs, it’s entirely possible to believe that an album like What’s The 411? could never truly exist again. What’s The 411? is amazing because it’s derived from an industry and culture where massive sales from expensive and heart-felt records shared via human interaction, block parties and discotheques were the norm. Moreover, Mary J. Blige, the woman who sang the songs on What’s The 411?, does not have a corollary in modern Atlanta, nor do pop-friendly records exist that are produced, sampled, and/or remixed in a manner consistent with what allowed Mary J. to shine 25 years ago.
None of this necessarily means though that we should stop listening to Mary J. Blige’s now 25 year old masterpiece. In 2012, Erika Ramirez noted in Billboard that “Mary J. Blige has sung the block’s blues from the pit of her heart since the birth of her career in the early 90s. [T]wenty years ago, the world was introduced to the singer’s vocal prowess and honesty — inner to outer appearance — through the songs of harsh reality and heartbreak that composed her debut album, What’s The 411?. With such talent and sonic elements of hip-hop and new jack swing, What’s The 411? earned Mary J. Blige the crown of Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.
In an era where we’ve nearly completely depreciated the value of music and devalued the impact of human interaction in the viral spread of popular culture, it might be important to listen to an album that values and venerates the importance of top-selling pop music and the importance of people and how they connect as their most honest, earnest, expressive, and best selves. Maybe these notions will never return, but their remembrance, just like Mary covering Chaka Khan, is forever bittersweet.