Ten Songs From the Late '80s that Kicked Off R&B & Rap Collaborations
Nowadays, Rap and R&B go hand-in-hand. But this wasn’t always the case. Let’s go back to the late ’80s when rappers and R&B singers never collaborated
The year 1988 was when R&B’s sonic aesthetic officially switched to New Jack Swing. This occurrence sent a ripple effect throughout black music. Prior to 1988, R&B kept the rising influence of New Jack Swing at bay while traditional R&B/soul artists still dominated the Hot Black Singles and Top Black Albums charts. The combination of the Minneapolis Sound, spearheaded by Prince, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Andre Cymoné and Jesse Johnson, and innovative production from the likes of Full Force, Nick Martinelli, Larry Blackmon, Foster & McElroy, L.A. & Babyface, and more, had a hand in changing the sound of black music forever.
This sea change opened the door to R&B artists finally doing collaborations with rappers. Many of black music’s gatekeepers weren’t fond of rap, including Don Cornelius, Frankie Crocker, and Donnie Simpson. Older Black music executives never embraced the genre, but when they saw how many rap singles and rap albums topped the chart in 1988 they began to suggest established R&B acts collaborate with rappers to stay relevant and make hits on black radio both old and young fans could enjoy.
Most early R&B/rap collaborations were either forced or orchestrated by record executives. Very few were organic, but the success of these early pairings ensured they’d become standard as the years passed.
A couple of things to note: I won’t be including songs where the artist themselves rapped either part of or an entire verse themselves (example: Bobby Brown on “Don’t Be Cruel” or Vanessa Williams on “The Right Stuff”). I’m also leaving out early forced collaborations, like Chaka Khan’s cover of Prince’s “I Feel For You” with Grandmaster Melle Mel. Chaka hated it and it didn’t lead to more pairings of the sort.
With that being said, here are the first 10 R&B/Rap collaborations on record:
Rick James Feat. Roxanne Shante “Loosey’s Rap” (1988)
Rick James left Motown after the failure of his 1986 LP The Flag, and signed with Reprise/Warner for his 1988 offering Wonderful. Rick hadn’t had a hit since his 1985 project Glow, so Warner paired him with Roxanne Shante of the Juice Crew. Cold Chillin’ was on Warner Bros, and because of the success of Big Daddy Kane-penned albums for people like Biz Markie, a collabo seemed like a definite home run.
Rick James begrudgingly agreed. On the single sleeve, both Roxanne Shante & Big Daddy Kane are credited in small type so as to not deter rap-hating radio programmers/DJ’s or older music fans from playing or purchasing it. The song began to take off. Inexplicably, Roxanne Shante was nowhere to be seen in the video once it hit BET and MTV. In August 1988, “Loosey’s Rap” hit number one on the Hot Black Singles and would be the last number one of Rick James’ music career. Sadly enough, he never once acknowledged Roxanne Shante’s role in making the song a hit. The success of this experiment ensured there’d be more collaborations with rappers in the future.
Midnight Star Feat. Ecstacy (of Whodini) “Don’t Rock The Boat” (1988)
Midnight Star were in the process of starting over. They lost their hitmaking songwriters/producers in founding duo Reggie & Vincent Calloway after their smash 1986 LP Headlines, once the accompanying tour ended. They needed a hit lead single to provide momentum for their album in a foreign black music landscape in 1988. James Brown was made relevant again by production from Full Force. And a rapper feature on Rick James’ first single resulted in a hit so SOLAR’s Midnight Star tapped Ecstacy from Whodini to appear on “Don’t Rock The Boat”.
In this particular case, Ecstacy wasn’t going to alienate their core fan base or make consumers or radio DJ’s shy away from a Midnight Star song. Further proven by the fact they didn’t give Ecstacy’s name the small type treatment on the single cover. As a result, “Don’t Rock The Boat” peaked at number three on the Hot Black Singles chart in November 1988 but never cracked the Hot 100. This ensured that more established Black music acts would employ a rapper in hopes of securing a hit as the sound of R&B switched over to New Jack Swing.
Levert Feat. Heavy D “Just Coolin’” (1988/89)
In the case of Levert, both Gerald Levert and Marc Gordon were young enough to have grown up with Rap. In fact, Levert was adept at making hits as the sound of R&B shifted. Their 1987 jam “Casanova” being proof of this. Just Coolin’ is the album-defining cut, the titular song. Heavy D wasn’t placed on here as an afterthought and no A&Rs or executives had to force Levert into collaborating with him. If anything, “Just Coolin’” didn’t sound too far off from the Eddie F, Teddy Riley or Marley Marl production Hev would’ve rapped on for one of his own singles.
As to be expected, “Just Coolin’” hit number one on the Hot Black Singles charts in March 1989 but never crossed over to the Hot 100, further cementing the inevitability of R&B acts doing more organic collaborations with rappers or raps groups. More importantly, Hev appeared in the video and performed the song live with Levert on multiple occasions.
Al B. Sure! Feat. Slick Rick “If I’m Not Your Lover (Remix)” (1989)
Al B. Sure! had come off the 1988-89 Heart Break Tour with New Edition and Bobby Brown, a bonafide superstar. His final single off In Effect Mode was “If I’m Not Your Lover,” the remix featured Slick Rick whose voice he imitated on “Off On Your Own (Girl).” On the single cover you practically needed a magnifying glass to see Slick Rick’s name as the featured artist. Surprising no one, the single peaked at number two on the Hot Black Singles charts in May 1989 but again failed to cross over to the Hot 100. We were only about a year deep into the world of R&B and Rap collaborations but they were about to become more frequent between spring and summer 1989. There was no video, but Slick Rick did perform the song with Al on multiple televised occasions.
O’Jays Feat. The Jaz “Have You Had Your Love Today?” (1989)
Gerald Levert and Marc Gordon of Levert were responsible for teaming the legendary O’Jays up with an up-coming MC and EMI labelmate The Jaz. The O’Jays have been hitmakers since 1963 but in a post New Jack Swing R&B climate, Eddie Levert put his trust in his son Gerald to craft the sound that would continue their streak of success.
Of course, the pairing between the O’Jays and fast rap aficionado The Jaz resulted in yet another number one hit on the Hot Black Singles chart in June 1989. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the song failed to cross over to the Billboard Hot 100. Nonetheless, it helped the O’Jays’ 1988 LP, Serious, become yet another hit album on their already impressive resumé.