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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