The Distillation of R&B
Written by: Cassandra Galiwango
Just to set the scene; mid 2015, in a student geared nightclub in Canterbury. For my own personal reasons, outside of the timeless "Ignition Remix", I can't say R.Kelly and his music are the top of any of my playlists. In the past, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the context of his music, which still applies today. That being said, he is without a doubt one of the most well recognised and accomplished R&B artists. A pioneer, if you will. When I heard the intro to his classic Bump n Grind being played, I was a bit taken aback. The songs being played just before didn't carry the same tone, nor genre, nor tempo. But then it continued to play and transform into some sort of house song, where a vocal sample was repeated over and over to create something more - in the eyes of the DJ, and evidently the crowds at the club - more danceable.
Depending on who you ask, the original Bump n Grind is indeed danceable as it is, but yes, it did seem as though this dance/house remake that I was hearing for the first time was somewhat of a refinement, a filtering, a buffed up take on what many people in that club may have viewed as not lively or exciting enough to stand on its own two feet. And sure, like I said, depending on who you ask, their culture, their taste in music, where they grew up, even their ethnicity -- it may not be the most moving thing to play at a party or in a club. But in the case of Waze & Oddessy, why play around with a song like that and test its malleability to see how far it can reach and touch a crowd that would not take kindly to it in its original form? On what basis is it decided that a song, a recognised classic like that moreover, requires that kind of revival? This is just one example. R.Kelly is not the only one whose music has gone through this -- let us call it, dance distillation.
Listen to Kygo's version of Marvin Gaye's definitive Sexual Healing, and see for yourself how it is stripped of all the R&B intricacies that characterise it. It's as if the well known chorus and vocals are thrust in simply for visibility and recognition, because if you listen closely the disposition of the song itself is completely dead. One might argue that that is how the cookie crumbles when you remix a song; but why aren't hip hop and R&B DJ's and producers rushing to put their own spin on Armand Van Helden's U Don't Know Me or something else of the sort? The most recent (and most pointless) example of 'dance distillation' I can show you is Diplo's Be Right There. I love both Jade and Diplo, but can safely say in this instance the original has a lot more knock, more 'danceability', and a lot more presence in any party setting.
I do believe there is a lot more at play here where the European party scene is concerned. I see this distillation process as somewhat of an adaptation technique. By repackaging a very obviously American R&B song -- which serves as somewhat of a musical artefact for Black American culture -- in a certain way that it meets the characteristics and tone of what is enjoyed within the four walls of a contemporary dance club in a European city. In other words: "If it is not meeting the current standard of what moves our crowds, then it is not powerful." It is akin to the general concept of cultural assimilation, just on a less politically alarming scale, and that R&B audiences are not the ones trying to, figuratively and literally, join the club. Rather than the likes of Waze & Oddessy, Diplo and Kygo having to directly express their qualms with the current structure and disposition of [inset classic R&B song], they can just chop it up, throw a more watery or spacey beat over it, and cite Marvin and co as inspiration under the guise of a 'remix' or 'revival'. And the current penchant in clubs and on Spotify for songs like the above ups the figures for streaming points, iTunes sales and popularity for the DJ's. It is the perfect set up, and begs to ask the question again of why the opposite is barely happening. Why don't R&B lovers want to hear a 90's or early 2000's European dance song redone with high note hooks and backing singers to sooth more soulful palettes?
I'll say that when you are open minded and you love a lot of different music for its power, then there is no truly no limit on the type of music you are able to dance to. If it doesn't move you, you can always move on to something else that moves you. But never undermine the power of the most unforgettable R&B. You dug it up for a reason.