These 10 artists came through and changed the game, either with their creativity, their commercial success or a combination of both. Throughout time, they’ve remained inspirational or influential even though there are some newer artists who might not consider the impact they’ve had on their own careers. Here’s our list of the 10 artists who changed black music forever. No, they are not the only important artists of the past, but these are the ones most responsible for the current trends and, in their time, were essential to the making of other artists and/or influencing black music overall.
Years Active: (1959 – present)
Diana Ross established the benchmark for the modern American solo black female multimedia superstar, a blueprint that Beyonce and Rihanna have run with in this decade. Ross was herself preceded by singers/actresses like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott, but Ross was able to take the mainstream success of Motown and establish a successful solo career. Ross was also careful to brand herself as a megastar and lived and looked the lifestyle. The twice-married superstar not only had the cars and the furs, she had a secret liaison with Motown head Berry Gordy that resulted in their daughter Rhonda. Ross may not get her just due these days as people have short memories, but at one time, she was the biggest black female superstar in the world. Her transition from popular girl group to solo superstardom absolutely influenced the way Matthew Knowles directed his daughter’s rise to icon status.
Before Michael Jackson, there was Motown and James Brown. After Michael Jackson, there was little competition for the well-deserved title of King of Pop. Jackson singlehandedly changed the game for black artists, becoming the first to be played on the then fledging music channel, MTV, in the 80’s. And how could they deny him? Jackson grew up in front of America with his brothers in the Jackson 5 and his 1982 “Thriller” album is still the best-selling album in music history, a feat not likely to ever be repeated in the digital era. Though black artists had achieved mainstream popularity before, none had done so to that extent. Jackson helped break the black artist glass ceiling that still existed, and in doing so, became a global phenomenon. Sadly, Jackson also helped usher in a tabloid era that would be fed by the advent of the Internet. That kind of constant scrutiny haunted Jackson most of his life until his untimely death at age 50 in 2009.
The artist born Prince Rogers Nelson didn’t have the head start that Jackson did, as Jackson was in a group as a child. Though he would never attain his worldwide record sales either, Prince became a global artist in his own right, with a multi-racial fan base of several different generations. Prince’s musicianship was certainly influenced by his predecessor Stevie Wonder, but Prince was able to use the newest technology to even greater creativity as he continued in his career. By making the hit film “Purple Rain” in 1984, Prince also established himself as a multimedia celebrity. His famous removal of the bass line from his hit “When Doves Cry” made him an artist for whom innovation would be a hallmark. Despite some erratic public moments, Prince has enjoyed career longevity and a musical output that few others have equaled.
LL COOL J
Hip-hop was still a marginal genre when 17-year-old LL Cool J signed to Def Jam. A few albums later and LL was arguably the genre’s first male solo superstar. James Todd Smith was born in Queens, N.Y. and became a star of the urgent new music form emanating from the New York City streets. His impressive physique, powerful rap style and catchy songs helped him to bring rap to the masses, as other areas of the country started producing their own stars. LL was one of the first rappers to star in his own TV show and in movies, making his acting debut (as pretty much himself) in the seminal film “Krush Groove.” Though he’s hosted the Grammys and performed on the nomination show, these days, Smith’s day job is on “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
Joseph “Run” Simmons
Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell
Darryl “D.M.C” McDaniels
Three young men from Queens, N.Y., set the tone for hip-hop’s future with their genre-blending form of hip-hop. Run DMC was hip-hop and rock mashed up and that combination helped them to become rap music’s first supergroup in the 80’s. For awhile, Run D.M.C. were the biggest stars in hip-hop with songs like “Sucker M.C.’s” “My Adidas” and “It’s Like That.” Their style – black leather jackets, hats and their trademark Adidas sneakers, made them one of rap music’s most recognizable acts and set the trend for years to come for rap and fashion to coexist. As the biggest group in early hip-hop history, Run DMC was one of the most influential groups in the genre’s early years and their impact on hip-hop is still evident.
Anyone who came after her has to give credit to Whitney Houston, one of pop music’s biggest superstar acts. Yes, Diana Ross and others had their success, but Whitney’s run through the charts during the 80’s established a doorway for others to walk through. Houston also followed in Diana Ross’s cinematic lead, making movies like “The Bodyguard” and “Waiting to Exhale” as well as keeping the hits coming. Unlike Ross, Houston was possessed of a singular voice with near perfect tone and pitch; arguably one of the most flawless voices in music. Unfortunately, Houston’s troubled marriage to singer Bobby Brown and her struggles with drugs would derail her career in the 90’s and drug abuse would lead to hear untimely death earlier this year. Despite that, Houston retains her accomplishment of becoming one of the world’s greatest vocalists, achieving a level of pop superstardom that others would learn from.
Rihanna should probably be writing Janet a check or two, because before Janet, explicitly sexual dance music wasn’t an option for black female artists. If you were singing about love, OK, but sex for sex’s sake, masturbation and bondage? Jackson sang about all that and more, and she rightfully earned her title as the black queen of pop dance music, a title that a certain young lady from Barbados would take up years later. As part of the Jackson family, Janet learned the musical lessons well from her famous brothers. Her first two albums were poorly received, but after hooking up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson found a creative partnership that served her through several platinum albums, including “Control” (1986) and “Rhythm Nation 1814” (1989). During the 80’s and early 90’s, the only solo female artist in her league was Madonna. Jackson’s career set the tone for many of today’s pop divas, whether they give her credit for it or not.
Hill’s reign at the top my never be duplicated as she’s been the most successful singer/rapper of this generation. She, like many a superstar, started out in a group, The Fugees, but the New Jersey based singer/rapper and actress was destined to shine on her own. Her 1998 solo debut “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” seamlessly blended hip-hop, R&B and elements of jazz and funk as well. To say that Lauryn was influential was an understatement. She was the first female solo artist to win five Grammys, though that feat has now been duplicated several times. Her album was iconic and it has influenced many other artists since, though no one has yet to duplicate her creative success in both genres. To show you how towering the CD was, Hill’s continued reputation is based largely on that project as well as her work with The Fugees, as she left the business behind to raised her six children.
JAZZY JEFF AND THE FRESH PRINCE
The deejay was once the bigger superstar, but these days most of the world knows Will “Fresh Prince” Smith better that Jeffrey “DJ Jazzy Jeff” Townes. But that’s just most of the world, because in music circles, Townes is still one of hip-hop’s most influential deejays, credited with bringing the “transformer scratch” into wide usage. Will, of course, is one of the world’s biggest movie stars. These two, along with picking up hip-hop’s first Grammy (although they boycotted the show) have proven that you can parlay a rap music career into other areas and achieve longevity. Jeff and Will were the first to have charting pop hits and among the first to get onto TV. They set up careers for the many hyphenated rapper/actors that came after them from LL Cool J to Queen Latifah. Along the way, they made some pretty good music including their classic 1991 hit “Summertime,” which remains a warm weather classic.
Teddy Pendergrass, R. Kelly, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Trey Songz, Ne-Yo, and all R&B sexy crooners, bow down to the master. He may not be known in certain (young) circles anymore, but all these guys owe a debt to Motown’s Marvin Gaye. The man was so ahead of his time that his music still sounds current. Although he’s revered for his socially conscious work on the “What’s Going On” (1971 )album, he’s also known for his lovemaking songs including two entire albums of sexy songs “I Want You”(1976) and “Let’s Get it On.” (1973). Gaye’s multilayered vocals and complex arrangements also made him ahead of his time and he was one of the rare artists who could sing about serious social issues as well as sexual topics. Anyone who truly loves music is familiar with his body of work, but most of today’s popular singers should know who he is, since their careers are based on the example he set.