Growing up in a working-class housing estate in the 1990s in London’s Camden, I loved nothing more than listening to the latest R&B hits – such as Jade’s ‘Don’t Walk Away’ (1992), Aaliyah’s ‘One In A Million’ (1996), En Vogue’s ‘Don’t Let Go’ (1996) or Lauryn Hill’s ‘Ex-Factor’ (1997) – on my battered but cherished Alba cassette player. Boyz II Men, Brandy, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and girl groups such as Destiny’s Child and SWV were hugely popular, while producers such as Darkchild, Missy Elliot and Timbaland were the key architects of the era. The sound was distinct and soulful; it had deep roots in the American South; black ’90s R&B stars created the musical pop playbook that is now everywhere. But I also loved British R&B stars such as Shola Ama, Eternal and Mark Morrison. I was obsessed; this was music that was infectious and fun. I loved its mix of slick, perfect harmonies, swagger and rhythm; the bold, deep, shoulder-shaking beats of the new-jack sound era that made you want to dance. I spent more sticky summer evenings than I can count sat inside stairwells or the playground mouthing the words of ‘Creep’ (1992) by TLC or ‘Sittin’ Up in My Room’ (1995) by Brandy, chilling with my friends.
Of course, it wasn’t just about the music; it was also the glistening sportswear, gold hoops, hoodies, kiss curls and side-part weaves. It was also a celebration of blackness – it was the era of the 1992 Los Angeles race riots following the death of Rodney King. The ’90s R&B visual playbook included bandanas and caps and street-inspired Adidas tracksuits, crop tops and shell suits and dungarees – denim was ubiquitous. Girl groups like TLC played with gender stereotypes, popularized baggy pants with colourful tomboy styling. Aaliyah’s wide jeans and irresistibly cool and breathy voice made her the princess of R&B. When she died in a plane crash in 2001, it was the end of the ’90s R&B sound.
The look was also all about the hairstyles – it was, perhaps, the best-ever decade for black hair. Brandy was known as ‘the Box-Braid Queen’; the ‘Halle Berry’ and the ‘Nia Long’ were responses to the films Boyz n the Hood (1991), Poetic Justice (1993) and Waiting to Exhale (1995) (which starred Whitney Houston); Mary J. Blige rocked platinum-blonde hair. Black, male R&B stars of the era had cornrows, locs and twists but my hairstyle of choice was the flat and high-top fade, which was inspired by Will Smith in the sit com The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990–96).
As the ’90s drew to a close, the R&B sound transcended ethnic categories. Justin Timberlake left NSYNC – a generic, white ’90s boyband – and used the R&B sound to launch himself into pop stardom. His first album, ‘Justified’ (2002), was made with Timbaland and included the brilliant single ‘Rock Your Body’.
Nowadays, hip-hop is omnipresent, although artists like Frank Ocean and Solange continue to be inspired by the ’90s R&B sound palette. But the soundtrack that defined my youth in London has not disappeared altogether: today’s commercial hip-hop sound and dance-pop fused R&B are direct descendants of the hits I loved so much.
Main image: Brandy, Brandy, 1994. Courtesy: Atlantic Records/ Warner Music Group
First published in Issue 200