It’s almost the middle of summer and instead of dance music, I’m thinking about gospel. As a child gospel music was one of the few things I remember liking about the dreadful all-day-church services on Sunday – that and the meatloaf sandwiches with grape Big K soda. My parents sang in the choir in church and in the car it was not uncommon to hear Walter Hawkins, Andrae Crouch or Shirley Caesar.
By the beginning of the ’90s, gospel music for me had become all but a distant memory. All wrapped up in various grunge, EDM and hip hop, I had nearly forgotten about the music that kickstarted a lifelong interest in music. That changed with the first Sounds of Blackness (S.O.B. ) album The Evolution of Gospel. As its namesake implies, the album was a landmark in the evolution of black gospel from backwaters of segregated churches to the pop mainstream. It proved that there was a place in modern secular life for gospel music.
The Sounds of Blackness were just the precursor to others who would take a similar approach like John P. Kee and Kirk Franklin. So when S.O.B. tightened up their formula, relying on Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis more for an infusion of new jack swing into postmodern gospel, another hit and template for gospel was born.
Like the album before it, Africa To America: The Journey Of The Drum loosely follows the development of rhythm from African to European fusion to become the uniquely American phenomenon of gospel. While it’s arguably not front loaded with the kind of hits exemplified by the catchy swinging energy of “Testify” or “Optimistic”, there is a kind of consistency that makes Africa To America: The Journey Of The Drum more enjoyable overall.
Out of the gate “I Believe” is the kind of track that invites joyus singalongs. With a heavy dose of new jack swing styled percussion, its the albums most recognizable pop and dance hit. Had this song been on the debut, it would have stood out alongside a few other excellent singles. Here it’s just another great song in a collection where the bar is moved higher. That might be in part due to the Jam/Lewis production that aimed to move Sounds of Blackness closer to (then current) R&B.
Even as contemporary R&B conventions were embraced, there was still room for classic soul influences like the Al Green inspired “The Lord Will Make A Way”. Alongside the occasional ’70s influence were more traditional touches from old standards like “Ah’ Been Buked (Part 1 and 2)”. Even with the mix of old and new material, great examples of the fusion of quiet storm, new jack swing and classic gospel are peppered throughout the album. Sometimes the fusion happened in one track as in “Black Butterfly” (a song written by Denise Williams in the ’80s).
For some fans of gospel music it was easy to get excited about the potential direction of gospel that S.O.B. advanced. Yet a disconnect with some aspects of tradition would develop as the ’90s progressed. The traditions of black gospel was what made S.O.B. so special even as they advanced it into the realm of the secular. The rest of the industry would diverge further into a fusion with R&B and later hip hop. It was hip hop that killed gospel (and R&B to some extent) for me. So as it stood, what started with Shirley Caesar as a toddler ended with The Sounds of Blackness as a young man.
Interestingly, as the Jam/Lewis production team left, so would the promotion and widespread notoriety for S.O.B. Subsequent releases were still successful, by gospel standards. New S.O.B. music would no longer be featured on R&B radio next to the likes of Janet Jackson or Teddy Riley. On occasion you might hear later stand out material like “Hold On” with Rodger Troutman. By then the S.O.B. was as much a hip-hop/R&B collective as gospel group.
It could be argued that after years of innovating S.O.B. was simply appropriating and fitting in – losing its influence as a result. Ironically, the transitional future hinted at on the first two albums had arrived and as a result I lost interest in most contemporary gospel.