90s Nostalgia, Day One: New Jack Swing
Spring is here and it’s time for WAM! Prom 3, which is Friday night at Littlefield in Brooklyn. You can find the details and directions here, as well as RSVP. The theme is the 90s. Nostalgia for the 90s, unlike the 80s, was hard for some of us organizers to accept initially, because most of us spent some or all of that decade in post-pubescence, but as Atrios noted recently, the relentless march of time is a fact of life that cannot be wished away. Marc and I found, however, that it’s been super fun digging into the past. Just because it’s our past doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed or that we hadn’t forgotten a lot of stuff we were delighted to remember—and will delight in reminding attendees through the music, the mash-ups, and the video reel.
Atrios’s post reminded me that the 90s are as far back from today as the 70s were when I was in high school. Nevermind is as far in the past for high school sophomores now as as Led Zepplin IV was for my sophomore self. With that in mind, I thought I’d do a short post every day leading up to WAM! Prom exploring a different musical phenomenon of the 90s, for those who need a refresher and for those who literally weren’t old enough to remember. Today I’m starting with new jack swing.
It’s hard to believe it now, but straight hip-hop actually struggled throughout the 80s and into the early 90s to make it to the top of the charts. A lot of it was the lingering racism that had been a problem in music marketing since roughly forever, but a lot of it was that hip-hop still felt odd to a lot of ears. Unsurprisingly, hybrid forms—like the rap-rock of the Beastie Boys, who have the distinction of being the first rap group with a number one record in 1986—tended to perform better at first. In the late 80s/early 90s, a form of hip-hop-tinged R&B dubbed “new jack swing” had a spree of chart dominance that arguably softened up audience ears for the hip-hop sound that would start to dominate in the mid-90s and still does to this day.
The phrase “new jack swing” isn’t commonly used now, but you know the music the second you hear it. So, without further ado, some of the most popular tracks from the era:
As with many musical forms, it didn’t die so much as morph into something else. Hip-hop broke down the remaining barriers to chart dominance, and its influence on R&B stopped sounding new. Now hip-hop-tinged R&B is just called “R&B”. Not that the transition was made without at least one major loss, which is the awesome way people danced in the early 90s. We will never get that back, but I imagine we’ll pump some drinks into some folks at WAM! Prom and they’ll bust out the moves they perfected in junior high school. If you don’t come, you won’t get to see that.