In the late '90s, singer Faith Evans asked Sean “Puffy” Combs, the head of her label, Bad Boy Records, if she could tour with a live band. A true singer’s singer, Faith had grown up performing with musicians in church and in the studio. She’d attended concerts where the artists had a full live band and she wanted to bring that feel to her shows. Combs shut her down. There was no way. Touring with a band was too expensive—and with technology, it was just completely unnecessary. With the touch of a button, the sounds of a live band could be anywhere.
One of the greatest things about hip-hop music and culture is that it leveled the playing field and allowed young people to express themselves without the burden and expense of instrumentation. Instead of having a live band—we learned to sample those very bands and produce music with soul without having to deal with the cost. But that benefit we received from hip-hop also led to the demise of another integral part of Black music.
The concept of an actual band has slowly eroded over the years, as the cost of making music has dropped. Platinum-selling artists can record entire albums in complete solitude. Today, those who make music never have to actually learn how to plan an instrument. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it definitely changes the face of music, particular in R&B and soul music, which has its roots in musical bands.
And so, the recent death of Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White is more than just a loss for the group — it’s an extreme loss for live bands and instrumentation as whole.
The Gap Band, Kool and The Gang, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly — live instrumentation has always been part of the best of Black music. But by the 1990s, the concept, (with a few exceptions, including Tony Toni Toné), was fading away.
Of course, these artists still live on in music created by Generation X and Millennials. According to whosampled.com, which tracks hip-hop tracks that sample older songs, Earth Wind & Fire has been sampled a whopping 434 times. It’s proof positive that even if the music isn’t being created from scratch, it’s still being validated and appreciated.
Interestingly, one of the most sampled tracks from Earth Wind & Fire is also one of their most musically intricate and complex.
Brazilian Rhyme, (Beijo Interlude) was borrowed over fifty times by a broad sample of hip-hop artists over the years, from Eazy E, Big Pun and Mary J. Blige to A Tribe Called Quest, The Fugees and Joe Budden.
It’s a beautiful thing that Earth, Wind & Fire’s music will still be a force that lives on — both in their music and that of the hip-hop generation that used it to create their own sound.
However, the death of Maurice White also serves to remind us that the era of live instrumentation remains ever closer to also resting in peace.
(Photo: Rob Verhorst/Redferns)