When R&B started needing the rapper…

biggiemaryThe other day I was listening to KDAY in Los Angeles and SWV’s “Anything” remix with Wu-Tang Clan came on. The song only features ODB, Method Man and U-God, but still, it was Wu-Tang. This dropped 1994, right when the Wu burst onto the scene and “C.R.E.A.M.” was being played all over.

But it got me thinking about when R&B songs started featuring rappers with hopes that it would push the single farther. It’s obvious that SWV called Wu-Tang because they were hot at the moment. They had no rappers on their debut album.

The first time I heard a rapper on a hit single was when Rakim spit a verse on Jody Watley’s “Friends.” This was 1989 and at the time, Jody Watley already blew up with “Looking for a New Love” and “Real Love.” Her move to include Rakim on “Friends,” seemed like an artistic one. The song was a hit with or without him but as an artist it seemed like she wanted to do something different and shine a light on the hip-hop movement. I think this is what pretty much set off the desire to have rappers on R&B/Pop songs.

It’s not the first time it happened though. Of course Melle Mel rapped on Chaka Khan’s “Feel For You” in 1984. Full Force featured UTFO and The Real Roxanne on their debut album in 1985 and featured them, specifically UTFO, on later albums. Prince also had singer/dancer Cat Glover rapping on “Alphabet St.” in 1988, but the rap wasn’t featured in the video. Rick James and Roxanne Shante collaborated on “Loosey Rap” in 1988 too. Midnight Star actually featured Ecstasy of Whodini on the song and video for “Rock the Boat” in 1988. Which is probably the first time a rapper appeared in a video for an R&B track. But those songs didn’t have the impact on the music spectrum “Friends” did. “Friends” was a top 10 hit in the U.S. and a top 20 hit in Europe.

In 1990, after Janet blew up even more with her Rhythm Nation album, she dropped a remix to “Alright” with Heavy D. Significant once again because it was an artistic decision. The single “Alright” was pretty much a hit already and the original long version of the video didn’t feature Heavy (which is one of my favorite Janet videos ever). He was added as an extra bonus on the single and to add uniqueness to a shortened version video for television.

Heavy D seemed like the go-to guy at the time because after his contribution to Janet’s song, he was a co-star on Michael Jackson’s song “Jam” in 1991. Michael also had Wreckx-in-Effect on his Dangerous album. And we can’t forget when Big Daddy Kane spit a couple of verses on Patti Labelle’s “Feels Like Another One” even though it felt like a novelty song where execs were like “We need to bring in the young audience, what’s hip and hot right now?”

Even though huge stars like Jody, Michael and Janet were featuring well-known prominent rappers on their tracks, most of the raps on R&B songs were being done by the artists themselves. Bobby Brown, New Edition, BBD, Guy, Neneh Cherry, Today, The Boys, TLC and a host of others would just spit a verse during the bridge. And up until this point, having raps on R&B songs still mostly felt like artistic decisions as opposed to “let’s get a verse from the hottest rapper right now to increase reach.”

But in 1993, Sean “Puffy” Combs would change all that. Puffy, known as Diddy now, was working at Uptown Records in the early 90’s and was instrumental in the success of Mary J. Blige’s debut album, What’s the 411? (which featured a full on rap song with Grand Puba and Mary trading bars). When Uptown dropped the single for “Real Love,” it featured a remix with Notorious B.I.G. that took on a life of its own. The success of that single led to the release of What’s the 411? The Remix album. The album featured Craig Mack, CL Smooth, Heavy D, Kid Capri and Notorious B.I.G. twice.

I think from there, it started the never-ending trend of getting the hottest rapper of the moment on an R&B track. But when did it change where rappers were kind of the headlining feature on an R&B track? When did it become necessary for an R&B song to be a hit, you had to have a rapper on it? I can’t pinpoint that moment. I just remember instances.

Total feat. Notorious B.I.G. – “Can’t You See” (Of course, Diddy was going to slap Biggie on his new artists’ single to break them. He’s not dumb.)

112 feat. Notorious B.I.G. – “Only You”

Case feat. Foxy Brown – “Touch Me, Tease Me” (We all knew Foxy, but Case who? Whatever, we peeped it for Foxy’s verse)

Tony, Toni, Tone feat. DJ Quik – “Let’s Get Down” (One of my favorites of all time although it was an obvious attempt for 3T to be relevant again. But hey it worked!)

That’s just off the top. Later on Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez and other R&B artists, especially new ones, would go on to feature hot-rappers-of-the-moment prominently on their songs in hopes of breaking records to radio and increasing album sales. It’s just “we need a rap verse on this song, who’s hot right now?”

Anyway, agree or disagree? What are some more obvious rapper-headlined R&B songs that need to be called out?

About the author

Quibian Salazar-Moreno is co-founder of The Hollywood Shuffle. He's an experienced entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles, by way of Denver, Colorado.