R&B, or “rhythm and blues,” as we know it today, is a soulful, expressive genre with laid back beats that serve as the background music for millions of couples around the world. The r&b genre really took off during the 1990s, giving us legendary icons like Lauryn Hill, Usher, and TLC. But despite its relatively recent widespread popularity, the origins of r&b can be tracked all the way back to the 1800s.
Blues & the Inception of R&B
Before we can look at where r&b started, we need to look at blues. Blues was originated by African Americans in the deep south in the late 1800s, who combined spirituals, field hollers, and work songs into simple ballads. The lyrics speak of troubles faced by the black community and are typically narrative.
Many of the characteristics of blues, such as the call-and-response format and the use of “blue notes” are directly traceable to Africa. The first documented instances of blues put its official origins as after slavery ended, and much of the early subject matter centered around freedom. Blues continued to gradually expand and transform from unaccompanied vocals to using a number of instruments and spiderwebbing off into several sub-genres over the subsequent several decades.
Despite the gradual growth of the blues, come the 1940s, most music made by black people was still referred to as “race music.” This was a designation primarily with negative connotations, meant to describe music that was primarily marketed to “urban” African Americans. In the late 1940s, after the title of “race music” was deemed offensive, the term was replaced with “rhythm and blues,” a term coined by Billboard magazine reported Jerry Wexler.
Early Days of R&B
Rhythm and blues continued to develop through the 1950s and 1970s, though the lyrics continued to maintain storytelling vibes that illustrated the black experience. In addition to vocals, the music was heavily characterized by the presence of piano, guitars, bass, drums, and saxophones. It had influences of pop, gospel, blues, and jazz with a powerful backbeat.
In post-WWII America, r&b music was often dismissed by the mainstream as a lowbrow form of Black expression, particularly when compared with jazz. But as time went on the genre gained steam, and by the 1970s had started to grow into the soulful, funky, and often romantic genre we know today.
R&b’s popularity exploded in the 90s and early 00s, with most of the more successful songs and artists maintaining the classic narrative format. The Boy is Mine by Brandy & Monica, Burn by Usher, Waterfalls by TLC; these classics and so many others are all a nod to the storytelling origins of the genre. From its humble start, today r&b is one of the most widely enjoyed and respected musical genres in the country.
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