100 & Single: The R&B/Hip-Hop Factor In The Music Business's Endless Slump


Usher feat. Lil Jon and Ludacris, "Yeah!"

One perennial problem has been what to call this music that's primarily recorded by, and aimed at, African-Americans. Billboard has been charting it since the 1940s, when it was still called "race music." When the magazine launched a black music chart in 1942, it went by the colorful name "Harlem Hit Parade."

After a few years with the wince-inducing name "Race Records," starting in the early '50s the chart adopted various forms of the coinage "rhythm and blues" (thought up by legendary record executive Jerry Wexler). But it took Billboard a while to get the data behind the R&B chart right. During one strange period in the early '60s, the chart was studded with dozens of decidedly nonblack records by such acts as the Four Seasons, Lesley Gore and the Kingsmen; it got so bad that Billboard eliminated the chart for a little over a year in 1963-64 to overhaul it. Finally, in January 1965, the chart was rebooted with a reliable sales-plus-airplay methodology, and the modern R&B chart was born.

There have been a bunch more chart names since then, including Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles (1965-69), Hot Soul Singles (1973-82) and Hot Black Singles (1982-90—my favorite, for its brevity and lack of pretense). The current name, adopted around the turn of the millennium, is Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs—very precise, if a bit of a mouthful. To this day, the chart still has a sales-and-airplay methodology, similar to the one established in 1965; and since 1973, it has been 100 positions deep.

That makes Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs the only Billboard chart with a size and formula similar to the magazine's 54-year-old flagship, the Hot 100, which also combines sales and airplay. It's an indication of how vitally important R&B music has been to the music business; most other Billboard song charts are either all-sales or all-airplay, and few are larger than 50 to 75 positions.

The difference between the Hot 100 and the R&B/Hip-Hop chart is that the latter's 100 songs are all (broadly) the same format. While the Hot 100 is nominally a pop chart—a term the public generally equates with "white music"—it is actually an all-genre chart of current music. Anything receiving airplay on a radio station that plays current hits can chart on the Hot 100.

Hence songs on the Hot 100 range from pure pop to country and rock. And, of course, R&B and hip-hop: Throughout the Hot 100's history, black music in all its forms has been a key element—at times, the dominant element.

The very first No. 1 hit on Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles in 1965 was the Temptations' "My Girl," which was also a chart-topper on the Hot 100. By 1970, half the songs that topped the R&B chart also went on to top the Hot 100. The number of double-chart-toppers fluctuated year to year for the next few decades, but it never dropped below at least two songs a year (and often ranged as high as seven or eight).

By the early 2000s, urban music was pop music. In 2004, 80% of the songs that crowned the R&B chart did the same on the Hot 100. That was the year of Usher's streak, as well as "Slow Jamz" and "Lean Back" and "Goodies." In the Hot 100's penthouse that year, all 12 songs that reached the top, from "Hey Ya!" to "Drop It Like It's Hot," were by persons of color (including that year's American Idol winner, Fantasia). This early-naughts period was the all-time peak for R&B and hip-hop on the Hot 100, and hence on Top 40 radio.

The ratio of urban-to-pop crossover began sliding back a bit in 2005—and then it just kept sliding. In 2010, for the first time since Billboard established the modern R&B chart, not a single R&B chart-topper reached the top of the Hot 100. The same thing happened again in 2011.



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10 comments
Jen
Jen

Usher's new album is on sale for Amazon's Summer Deals. No excuse as to why you don't have it now!  http://amzn.to/LMMKpX

PaulCantor
PaulCantor

Really enjoyed this breakdown. One thing I think you're seeing with Chris Brown and Usher, this time around, is that neither artist really has a smash record. They were lucky on their last LPs, because they both had songs that worked at top 40 radio and on urban radio. So they were both seemingly inescapable. Certainly Usher, he caught that wave of electronic music as it was just beginning to work its way into pop on a large scale, with "DJ Got Us Fallin In Love," and Chris had "Yea 3x." These songs were inescapable. They're still on top 40 stations now. But they also had songs on the urban side as well. It was a nice mix, and it allowed both artists to tap into two audiences. Now, neither of them have songs out that are any good. Usher's had a single out for months, I still couldn't tell you what it's called. It plays on the radio, but you can tell it's a programming move. Nobody likes it. A new Chris Brown song leaks on the internet every 3 days. I was surprised he even had an album dropping. Just seemed to come out of nowhere. The other thing is, on the urban radio side, mixshow has taken over and destroyed playlists. With respect to a station like Hot 97, for example, I couldn't even begin to tell you when they have air time that ISN'T mixshow. The whole thing just seems like a mixshow.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

This is a good question, Johnsomer. When I was doing the research into R&B-to-pop crossover for this piece, the other period I turned up in my research where crossover was at its lightest was in the very early '80s just before Michael Jackson and Prince broke wide (so, 1980–82, roughly). During that period, R&B radio was very much its own thing. Before Jackson broke (obviously Off the Wall had done very well, but compared with Thriller it wasn't exceptional), about the biggest star in black music was Rick James, who didn't make the Top 10 of the Hot 100 at all, not even with "Superfreak." I actually love this period of R&B (acts like Raydio, Zapp and Patrice Rushen), but it feels very separate from what was going on in mainstream rock (REO Speedwagon, Asia) and pop (Rick Springfield, the Go-Go's) at the time. After Jackson's big breakthrough, black acts went deeper into new wave–style sounds and sought Top 40 crossover: think mid-'80s acts like Ready for the World and Billy Ocean. But to come back to the argument of my piece, even during this period, you didn't have to completely alienate the core R&B radio audience to cross over—not the way, say, Usher these days feels the need to record a "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love" or "Scream" for pop radio at the expense of his home-base audience; meanwhile, his slow-jam single "Climax" tops the R&B list but doesn't break the Top 10 at pop radio. Everything's much more bifurcated now.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

About as much as Nielsen matters for TV ratings—i.e., as long as the medium being measured (TV in the case of the Nielsens, music in the case of Billboard/Soundscan) matters, measuring it properly will matter. If what you're implying is that popular music itself is less important in the context of an array of wider media choices ranging from video games to social media to podcasts, then sure...but I'm not sure how that's relevant to the specific issues on offer here.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

And for "reductive," you should read "about as well-informed as the drunken dudes who burned disco records in Comiskey Park in 1979 and thought they were killing dance music forever."

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

I want to make sure I'm hearing you right: You're saying that hip-hop, the music that has reshaped the sound of popular culture since the early '80s and is now going on 40 years old...is a "novelty"? I mean, I must be misinterpreting you, because that would be a really reductive opinion.

Swytch
Swytch

The artists have no choice except to seek out crossover success. Going to the same Svengali producers over and over again obviously hasn't resulted in forward motion for urban music. I care less about this than the fact that acts like TV on the Radio will never have the level of support from people who look like them that Jay-Z does. Even rock is considered dead, and everyone wants the EDM sound. Maybe we can get some new genres out of the bargain instead of longing for what's been done to death already.

TS
TS

It's the negativity and the lack of originality in the material. There is nothing good happening for at least 10 years now. Hip-hop was only good as a novelty, no one wants to pay for it. R & B has always had a smaller audience, it's not every ones cup of tea...The problem in a nutshell is the wrong people are running the music business.

Selfenchanted
Selfenchanted

How much does Billboard REALLY matter now in the much larger media buffet?

Johnsomer
Johnsomer

Chris, keeping in mind that artists of color are represented highly on the Hot 100 (Rihanna, dancey Usher, Flo Rida) - it's just with songs deemed too pop for r&b playlists - has this phenomenon ever happened before? I would suspect not.

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