When talking about the origins of Neo Soul, most people immediately refer to Erykah Badu. They credit her and also D’Angelo for the style and sound, and Kedar Massenburg, the person who discovered them, for coining the term “neo soul”. Although Kedar gets credit for popularizing the genre of neo soul, and Erykah and D’Angelo definitely solidified it and brought it to mainstream, the style and sound was not uniquely new.
Before discussing its origins, lets first define what neo soul actually is. Its usually defined as a “revival” and “resurgence” of soul music, but those terms are really vague. Some neo soul artists refuse to define the genre, stating that it is all soul music. But there is definitely something very distinctive and different about the sound which sets it apart from regular soul or R&B music.
As a fan, and after studying the genre intently, I have concluded that the best way to describe neo soul would be “the perfect fusion of jazz music, over hip hop beats, with soulful vocals and intelligent lyrics. Think Roy Ayers meets Kanye meets Marvin Gaye. The use of live instruments is key, and elements of all types of music can be found. Usually melodic and laid back, it can also be uptempo and there’s often a very prominent bass line that also makes it distinctive.
D’Angelo – Jonz In My Bones
It can be called “eclectic” or “intelligent” music. But any combination or derivation of the main three elements (jazz, hip hop, soul) can predict a neo soul song, and these elements are what makes it far different than anything that has come before or after it.
So back to Erykah and D’angelo, we can definitely look to the Brown Sugar and Baduizm albums as the flagship albums for the neo soul style of music. However those albums came out in 1995 and 1997 respectively. In my opinion, there were three albums prior to that which had the early underpinnings of neo soul.
The first album that could be considered neo soul is Zhane’s first album, Pronounced Jhay-nay”. It was such a refreshing contrast to mainstream R&B when it dropped. It had such a mellow, musical groove to it, and songs like Sending My Love, Sweet Taste of Love, Vibe and La La La, were some really smooth, jazz-laiden tracks, some using direct extracts from jazz greats. The hip hop element was also always present, and the music and lyrics represented a mature approach to love. Genius.
Zhane – La La La
After that, a jewel of a neo soul album was released from a group that basically came out of nowhere and changed the game, Groove Theory. The sound of their debut album was indeed its own lane. It created new perspectives on music and life, and opened up our minds to the different possibilities of good music. It was feel good music that both r&B and hip hop headz could get into to.
Groove Theory – 10 Minute High
The style of the groove theory album was kind of prophetic, because little did we know that there would be more of this to follow from future artists such as Jilly from Philly, and Nat and Marsh from across the marsh bka Floetry. It put us all in a new zone, changing the tone of music and our lives for years to come.
Groove Theory – Didja Know
Prior to GT however, the first album to perfectly blend funk, soul, jazz and hip hop elements with live instrumentation and smart lyrics ( i.e. i’m digging you like an old soul record) would be MeShell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lulabies. Her hit singles “If thats your Boyfriend” and “Dred Loc” could possibly have put a stamp on Neo soul early in the game. Released in ’93, the album was a masterpiece, however it could not be classified as jazz or R&B or hip hop. It merged the three, and created a new lane which may have been the humble beginnings of what we call neo soul.
MeShell NdegeOcello – Call Me
MeShell NdegeOcello – Dred Loc
MeShell does credit another group who influenced her sound, a group that could very well have started this whole neo soul phenomenon. That group is A Tribe Called Quest. Ali and Tip as producers basically mastered the whole fusion of hip hop and jazz. The only element they were lacking was the use of more live instruments over use of samples. But Low End Theory could very well have been a neo soul album if they were singing instead of rapping.
Without the aforementioned producers, who were brave and creative in expressing their definition of hip hop music, there would be no neo soul today. But Meshell with her ability to infuse live instruments and that powerful bass, with hip hop style beats (and scratches from Primo), plus her smooth, non-overpowering vocals, soulful lyrics and style, if Erykah’s the “Queen”, Me’Shell is the wise elder and most respected in the village.