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More Than A Vocal: Kingdom, Kelela and Why Dance Music Doesn't Get R&B

"R&B has long been a guilty pleasure, and not worth investing in."

by Sophie Kindreich
20 February 2014, 5:00pm

As someone who spent the best part of her early teens working through the White Guys With Guitars canon, I like to think that my days of being a music snob are behind me. In fact, I'm now militantly pro-anything that will provoke a "How times have changed!" YouTube comment out of people who've somehow reached adulthood without growing out of it. But I've been catching myself off-guard lately, muttering about how much of a travesty it is that the only Ciara song most people know is '1, 2 Step', in a very Old Man Yells At Cloud kind of way. Whilst I don't actually have a superiority complex about knowing more than one Ciara song, I do think there's something in my half-baked theory that it doesn't work both ways. 

There is a difference between sneering at someone for not knowing all of the words to an Arctic Monkeys b-side - you might think I'm being hyperbolic, but I've been one of those pricks and if anything, I'm understating how joyless and judgemental they are - and being over the Reformed Indie Kid at the house party who's taken his first pill, and thinks you want to hear his entry-level epiphany about how Destiny's Child "actually have a couple of decent tunes". That's because R&B has long been pigeon-holed as a guilty pleasure, and not worth intellectually investing in. 

One way in which this intersects with electronic music is down to the turn-of-the-decade influx of producers sampling R&B vocals. There was a point a year or so ago where you were as likely to hear Cassie's pitched-down coo in the club as a kick drum and, while I'm not calling for a moratorium on R&B samples, the tendency to flip a Brandy or Cassie track has become seriously played out.

Kingdom, who heads up LA label Fade To Mind, agrees. Fade To Mind and its UK sister label Night Slugs have always been the exceptions that proved the rule when it comes to sampling R&B, and Kingdom has a real ear for how sampling should and shouldn't be done: "I think some people use R&B samples thinking it'll make their track more palatable, but lot of them haven't even listened to the original song and, if they have, they've done so very briefly. This is especially the case when someone's making a full remix using a whole acapella. I think there's also an instinct towards pitching it and, a lot of the time, it just sounds like they're too scared to reveal to the audience who it is. They abstract it, make it anonymous and disembodied."

As the process of rendering R&B vocals unrecognisable became ever more pervasive in dance music, so did the erasure of black female voices. Did you know there are people who think Cyril Hahn's remix of 'Say My Name' is an original song? Neither did I, until I heard someone who'd been to a recent set of Hahn's in Glasgow complaining that he "Only played a few of his big hits", and that they "Didn't expect so much R&B". Grim, considering two of Hahn's most successful tracks (his Destiny's Child and Mariah Carey edits) are R&B – that is, watered-down, pallid, sexless interpretations of R&B. Hahn too possesses the exact dismissive attitude I'm talking about: in an October interview with Mixmag, he justified his choice of source material by saying "It's not something I listen to seriously; more of a guilty pleasure."

Between the Adidas x Yours Truly 'Songs From Scratch series, to Future Brown's work with the likes of Tink, Maluca and Ian Isiah, it feels like the lines between R&B and electronic music are becoming increasingly blurred. Kingdom is critical of lacklustre mix-downs in particular: "Mixing can be a problem with some of these underground collaborations. I have more of an ear for the major-label production aesthetics mainly because their standards are really high. If you play their song in the club, or in the car or on your iPhone, you're going to get the whole package. It depends on the record, but for me it takes a lot to produce a vocal. With 'Bankhead', I spent a whole few months just going back and forth on the levels, trying to get it just right. I think some of the Songs from Scratch producers have made cookie-cutter Logic Pro sounding productions. I'm still partial to beats that have something fucked up about them."

Why does he think this the one-sided embrace of R&B has developed so strongly in current electronic music, consumed through the lens of nostalgia? "I think there's something safe about retro to those guys that are afraid of R&B", Kingdom says. "They feel safe if it's like a throwback, but the idea of actually being a fan and researching what's actually going on with the artist now would be too much. It gives them a distance from it, and allows them to package it in a certain way." Kingdom's studio time with Naomi of Electrik Red (the four-piece were Usher's backup dancers when Kanye West was opening for him, and Kanye's DJ was none other than Fool's Gold's A-Trak) allowed him a greater insight into what was required of a producer when working with a vocalist - an insight that later informed his productions for Kelela's Cut 4 Me mixtape.

As much as I've rinsed Cut 4 Me, and as much as I think she deserved her BBC Sound of 2014 nomination, I devote a healthy amount of side-eye to the way she and others are framed as the positive alternative to commercial R&B. To her credit, Kelela knows better. She's as quick to cite Brandy and Aaliyah as influences as she is Amel Larrieux and Yukimi Nagano, but that didn't stop The Guardian publishing not one, but two articles this year that name-check her as some sort of harbinger of acceptable R&B.

The first nominates Kelela (amongst) as "the future stars of experimental R&B", but the second takes a slightly more insidious tone. It implies that Kelela, alongside her Saint Records label mates Solange and Cassie, are "determined to be more than just eye candy" - and concludes that "only time will tell whether female autonomy finds its way into the R&B mainstream." It hinges on the same pearl-clutching, "think-of-the-children!" rhetoric that demonises R&B as exceptionally, uniquely misogynistic, and seemingly lets the rest of the patriarchal cesspit otherwise known as earth get a free pass.

The presumption that female vocalists are only muses to a studio of (usually) male producers is a tired one, and it's not an attitude that exists solely at the commercial end of the spectrum, either. In April of last year, Solange Knowles took to Twitter to correct assumptions made about the extent of her own role in the music-making process: "I find it very disappointing when I am presented as the "face" of my music, or a "vocal muse" when I write or co-write every fucking song. How can one be a "vocal muse" to their own melodies, story telling, and words they wrote? Y'all got it all the way wrong. Ive [sic] been writing and producing my own voice since 02, nigga. Sexism in the music industry ain't nothing new."

Solange was onto something with her Twitter tirade about dilettante R&B writers and #deepbrandyalbumcuts. Many of these writers found their way into the genre via the current breed of cool R&B auteurs; FKA Twigs, Banks, and Kelela. While that doesn't make these writers or artists untenable, it has led to a subtext of these R&B artists are good, because they're nothing like those R&B artists. This attitude has trickled down into the electronic music community, which has a fraught and problematic relationship with R&B as it is.

Many can't seem to appreciate R&B unless it plays by certain rules; whether that's appearing as a dead-behind-the-eyes vocal sample, or by working with one of "our" (read: electronic) producers. See how FKA Twigs takes as much influence from Janet as Ciara does, but she performs this influence in a way that's distinctly more compatible with the deep house bro aesthetic. Or how Kelela's expression of R&B is considered more credible than Rihanna's, because Kelela has the Night Slugs and Fade To Mind rosters on speed dial. Sure, hearing Rihanna over a Total Freedom track would be dope, but suggesting that until she does we're supposed to take her R&B less seriously, makes me want to burn a CD of Rihanna deep cuts and scrawl "bitch, please" on it in a Sharpie.

What does Kingdom consider Fade To Mind's role to be in this transitional period for R&B, where so many of its artists are being legitimised precisely because of co-signs from or collaborations with electronic producers? "I dunno what our role is per se, but I do know that we have something special to say about it, because we've been real R&B fans since day one. R&B has always been something that we have integrated, studied and talked about - and DJ'd, remixed and edited. It's not just a flash-in-the-plan interest to us."

There is definitely a racial aspect to the way that R&B (and by current extension, pop) is pretty much the only genre where women of colour are consistently running the show. Beyoncé's success is cited as often as Obama's when some libertarian fuck-boy needs to provide an example of "post-racial America", but that example becomes wafer-thin when you consider on how wide of a scale R&B is still considered inferior, or just for fun, by the people clinging onto the archaic notion of an underground/mainstream binary; as though the former isn't constantly informing, and being harvested by, the latter.

The way that R&B is dismissed as disposable by such articles and by producers like Hahn is dangerous, because it enables a low-key sexist and racist rhetoric. "It's the same thing that happens in the clubs, and with the general attitude towards R&B", insists Kingdom. "It's great that they're giving these underground people so much respect, but there is an attitude that mainstream or popular R&B just can't be credible. We have been presented with a lot of really repetitive and manufactured images of women in music. They know that a lot of the mainstream performers are not writing their songs, so I think that, in a way, does make the underground stuff a little more legitimate. That excites them."

R&B artists who eschew socially constructed notions of blackness are welcomed into the folds of dance music, and embraced more than their peers. The dominant white narrative not only controls what is and isn't thought to be a signifier of blackness, but ranks and polices them according to bullshit respectability politics - which is why Solange getting beats from Dev Hynes, or Kelela getting beats from Jam City, is considered a more legitimate creative partnership than Rihanna getting them from Mike Will.

The women of colour that are consistently written off as vacuous airheads, as "cogs in the capitalist entertainment industry", are smarter and more clued-in to the underground than you think. Acting surprised when you realise they're up on your shit reveals more about your shallow perceptions of women than it does anything else. The day the gatekeepers of dance music let go of their hang-ups about the mainstream, especially when their notions of what's mainstream are so implicitly racialised and gendered, the better.

Sophie Kindreich is way too young to be this righteous. You can follow her on Twitter here: @sophiekindreich