Master Class: A comprehensive history of the Electro-Hop&B genre in the 90s & 2000s
The subgenre championed independent women willing to define their lives on their own terms.
Ever notice that when R&B fans are discussing the genre they will sometimes refer to a distinct period as “that girl group sound from the 90s”? Think SWV, Total, 702. The days when Destiny’s Child was the original quartet with LeToya and LaTavia. TLC’s “No Scrubs.”
That niche sound still hasn’t received a name. Sure it could be classified as electro-R&B, but that term in itself is so broad. Electro-R&B only describes the electronic backbone of an R&B song. However, the term neglects the specific feminist movement related to that late 90s-early 2000s time period.
While revisiting TLC’s music evolution for last summer, I mentioned the term “electro-hops” when referring to their FanMail cut “Silly Ho.” Today, I’m taking it a step forward and coining a new genre. Welcome to REVOLT’s master class on Electro-Hop&B.
This lesson starts with Virginia’s most innovative songwriting and producing duo: Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley. While the 90s was reaching its halfway point as a decade, with a few more years to go before the turn of the next millennium, hip-hop soul started to become a fad in R&B. The leaders of the genre were in search of the next fresh sound, one that would accurately reflect the changing times and new advancements in technology.
The first to truly place her foot on the gas with the help of Virginia’s finest was Aaliyah. In 1996, at Pyramid Studios in Ithaca, New York, the trio would record Aaliyah’s titular track from her sophomore album, One In A Million. Unlike anything else on radio, “One In A Million” stood out for incorporating London’s drum and bass electronic sound with slow-winding R&B synthesizers. The song — describing a one of a kind love — had a bounce to it, as if the track was hopping around in outer space, around a whistling satellite. Another cut from the album with a similar, but even slower feel, was “4 Page Letter.”
Aaliyah’s One In A Million proved to be a successful breakthrough for both Missy Elliott and Timbaland. It also created an entirely new visual aesthetic for the emerging subgenre: The album cover featured Aaliyah leaning on a parking lot garage wall wearing a black trench coat and shades — way before sci-fi flick The Matrix popularized that look in 1999.
The next act to tackle the signature sound with the help of Timbaland and Missy would be SWV when they released “Can We” in February 1997. The trio of Cheryl “Coko” Gamble, Tamara “Taj” Johnson, and Leanne “Lelee” Lyons ask for permission to “get freaky [and] kinky tonight” with their love interest, as the backing track had a hopping factor akin to Aaliyah’s cyberspaced tunes. Due to its lyrics, “Can We” would be an integral cut for the Booty Call soundtrack, an ensemble based rom-com starring Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, Tamala Jones, and Vivica A. Fox.
And the song’s featured guest rapper Missy Elliott would mention the name of her upcoming debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, which was released in July of that year. Although her first single, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” was more rap tilting, it too had Electro-Hop&B vibes at a downtempo pace, sampling the chorus of Ann Peebles’s 1973 single “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” and making Missy an instant household name as a solo star.
The music video for “The Rain” took cyberspace visuals to an oversized extreme, featuring the rapper in her signature garbage bag jumpsuit. The album featured two more singles, “Beep Me 911” and “Sock It 2 Me,” where Missy is singing full-on about being aware of the games her lover is playing, but wants to continue the relationship on her own terms. Interestingly enough, Da Brat would summarize the subgenre’s mission in an ad lib at the end of “Sock It 2 Me,” bragging: “It’s 9-7, it’s the mothafucking bitch era!”
From there, Missy and Timbaland would continue defining the sound of Electro-Hop&B. Bad Boy Records’ girl trio Total joined in on the fun with 1997’s “What About Us?” Throughout the song, the ladies and Missy would comment “Total, help me sing,” initiating the idea of feminine unity against troublemaking men. The song also featured Timbaland’s signature skill of beatboxing, something implemented later in 1998 on Nicole Wray’s “Make It Hot.”
Prior to the release of Missy’s debut album in ‘97, came Mary J. Blige’s third studio LP, Share My World. As mentioned before, hip-hop soul had been fading away. Being the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Blige would implement that subgenre’s vocal technique with some elements of Electro-Hop&B. “I Can Love You” (featuring Lil’ Kim and a sample of her “Queen Bitch”) had a bounce to it, as did the album’s title track and “Everything.”
Seeing Missy and Timbaland’s domination in the music market, Brandy wanted a piece of the pie to reinvent her sound. As the story goes, label politics would interfere, causing her to seek an alternative route: Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. Transitioning from a teen star to the early stages of adulthood, Brandy had also been in media-based competition with Aaliyah and Monica. With Aaliyah moving on to the next thing, in her own lane — including her Dr. Doolittle soundtrack staple “Are You That Somebody?” — Brandy and Monica were often pitted against each other as the true rivals. This resulted in the release of their 1998 duet “The Boy Is Mine,” which lampooned media’s assumption.
Listen to A Master Class of Electro-Hop&B below.
“The Boy Is Mine” became a summer smash, becoming the first of this niche genre to reach the summit of the Billboard Hot 100. Ironically, it would kick off dueling sophomore eras for Brandy and Monica, with the former releasing her Never Say Never a month before the latter’s The Boy Is Mine. Never Say Never included more midtempo and quiet storm bops. “Angel In Disguise” is a standout deep cut that seemed to have preluded Brandy’s follow-up sound in 2002’s Full Moon. With the lines “in the rain” and raindrop sound effects falling in the background, it could be assumed these cues were inspired by SWV’s soothing 1997 ballad “Rain.” Never Say Never’s title track along with “U Don’t Know Me (Like U Used To)” also made for outstanding cuts, but “Almost Doesn’t Count” with the addition of a Spanish guitar stood out as the solo signature.
Monica on the opposite hand would best Brandy’s two No. 1 singles with three. In addition to “The Boy Is Mine,” her other two Electro-Hop&B charttoppers were the abstinence-regarding “The First Night” and slow jam-singalong “Angel of Mine.” “Angel” became the genre’s futuristic cover version of the UK girl group Eternal’s 1997 song. Deep cut “Take Him Back” sampled Sting’s “Shape of My Heart.”
1998 continued to heat up with Total revisiting the sound for their final album, Kima, Keisha, and Pam. The album kicks off with “Trippin’,” which revamps Electro-Hop&B with more Matrix-like sounds, as if a computer is loading data. Fully sexual in its nature, the album featured explicit moans and a “Masturbation (Interlude).” The LP also included cell phone and social media terminology that we’re used to today: “I Tried” with the lyrics “I tried to block you out my mind,” and the stylization of “There Will Be No #!*@ Tonight.”
The next girl group to commentate on technology’s influence before the start of Y2K was TLC. Their third studio album, FanMail, reshaped Electro-Hop&B as if the genre had emerged from a Windows 99 computer. In good ol’ TLC fashion, FanMail made the genre more hyperactive and a bit more pop-leaning. The eight-time Grammy-nominated album opens with an AI robot saying “Welcome, we dedicated our entire album cover to anyone that sent us FanMail” on the titular track. With distorted vocals saying “just like you, I get lonely too,” and mentions of email, TLC had been ready for hightech internet, years in advance.
The penmanship of Dallas Austin helped the group further cement their legacy of sexual confidence and divine independence on the bouncy diss “Silly Ho.” “I’m Good At Being Bad,” which was co-written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had been inspired by Janet Jackson’s angsty Velvet Rope cut “What About.” However, the standout track and what would become the group’s signature for its cyber-age music video would be “No Scrubs,” an anthem that would call out all losers “sitting on the passenger side of his best friend’s ride.”
Kandi Burruss and Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs — the co-writers of “No Scrubs” — would find more hits on Destiny’s Child’s The Writings On The Wall. “Bills, Bills, Bills” echoed a similar sentiment about “trifling good-for-nothing type of brothas,” and “Bug a Boo,” which mentions pagers and AOL email. Like “Bills,” their anthem “Say My Name” also hit the top spot on the Hot 100. “Jumpin’, Jumpin’” gave the group a single that accurately described the feeling Electro-Hop&B gave. “Hey Ladies” would be a call to arms that encouraged women to move on from toxic on-and-off again relationships.
Destiny’s Child had been no strangers to Electro-Hop&B, having experimented with the genre one year prior in 1998, on Parts One and Two of “With Me.” When the group became a finalized threesome in 2001 with Michelle Williams, they would include the sound on the Survivor deep cuts “Fancy” and “Nasty.” The album’s biggest hit “Independent Women, Pt 1.” reached No. 1 as it became the theme song for the new millennium version of Charlie’s Angels. Another trio that had represented their girl power and sticking together full force was 702, who offered the club banger “Where My Girls At?” in 1999.
At the start of the new millennium, Electro-Hop&B started to wind down as more divas got the genre’s last fills during its peak. Janet Jackson flirted with Japanese-based sounds on 2000’s “Doesn’t Really Matter.” Toni Braxton belted her way through “He Wasn’t Man Enough For Me” and “Just Be A Man About It.” Mya’s “Case of the Ex (Whatcha Gonna Do)” reflected the subgenre in the music video’s choreography. The icy tone of Faith Evans’s “I Love You” set late night moods. Ashanti’s voicemail-affected vocals made a point to be “Always On Time” for Ja Rule whenever he called. Even P!nk would discuss her “Split Personality,” call out her ex on “There You Go,” and yearn for real love on “Most Girls.” Aaliyah’s untimely death in 2001 seemed to take the wind out of the subgenre a bit as she left us with “Try Again” (her first No. 1 single) and “More Than A Woman.”
Post-Electro-Hop&B would become a rare treat, popping up throughout the later part of the aughts, and recently. In 2006, Ciara bounced her way through “Get In, Fit In,” as a special deep cut on The Evolution, and Christina Aguilera paired up with Nicki Minaj for 2010’s dancehall-tinged “WooHoo” for her cyber phase, Bionic.
Recently, three 90s babies used the sound: Kehlani’s “More Than A Woman” sampling “Too Much,” Demi Lovato’s “Games,” and Tinashe’s “He Don’t Want It,” all on Tron-activated levels. With persistent political movements for women’s rights continuing for eternity, and now a sweltering rise of Asian acts and music taking over the Billboard charts, the music industry could see a mainstream resurgence of the subgenre that once championed independent women willing to define their lives on their own terms.
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