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Remembering Syl Johnson: 5 Essential Tracks From The Soul Great And Self-Proclaimed "Most Sampled Artist Ever"
Is that true? Who cares! Syl Johnson was a titanic force in soul and blues, creating classics like "Is It Because I'm Black" while incontrovertibly changing the hip-hop landscape.
Syl Johnson proclaimed himself to be "the most sampled artist ever." Was he right? Depends on how you look at it. Quantifiably, he might not even be close: the WhoSampled database has the soul singer tallied at 414, while James Brown — the most-sampled artist on the site — has accumulated a whopping 14,353. But what if you take the word "most" spiritually — in terms of impact — and consider his braggadocious persona? Who could deny this cheeky king his crown, scepter and sash?
Whether or not the Godfather of Soul lapped him several times in the number of samples, it's undeniable that Syl Johnson's work has appeared in some of the greatest hip-hop songs ever. He's sampled on Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and "Fear of a Black Planet" — does it get more monumental? — to say nothing of cuts by Boogie Down Productions, Wu-Tang Clan, Kanye West and Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, N.W.A. and Cypress Hill. The list reads like a history of hip-hop, even if that last artist was a bone of contention.
In the crate-digging omniverse there's an ocean of options, so why did all these hip-hop heavyweights clamor to sample Johnson? Because his songs ruled. "Different Strokes," "Come On Sock It to Me" and "Concrete Reservation" are classics of the nexus of blues, soul and R&B.
Sadly, the singer/songwriter and record producer passed away Feb. 6 at age 85 of congestive heart failure, according to his daughter, Syleecia Thompson. And as CBS Chicago reported, he died just days after his older brother, Jimmy Johnson, passed at 93.
In a statement, Johnson's family described the singer as "a fiery, fierce fighter, always standing for the pursuit of justice" whose musical legacy "will be remembered as impeccable and a historical blueprint."
Even if one were to remove his many samples from the picture, Johnson's legacy would be ironclad. Born Sylvester Thompson in Holly Springs, Miss. to farmer parents, he moved to Chicago with his family in 1950. By the end of the decade, the guitarist was accompanying bluesmen like the mighty Junior Wells and Jimmy Reed. He released his first single as Syl Johnson, "Teardrops," in 1959.
In 1967, Johnson signed to Twilight (later Twinight) Records and recorded those aforementioned enduring tracks. But his biggest hit came in the following decade: after signing to Hi Records in Memphis in 1971, his 1975 cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" brought him his widest exposure to date. Johnson later became popular among hip-hop producers, though he was often rankled by unauthorized sampling and compelled to legal action.
When the dust settled, though, Johnson emerged as a true soul great with a noteworthy ability to create popular funk and soul dance music as well as topical, poignant message songs. In 2010, Numero Group released a lavish boxed set titled Complete Mythology, thus constructing a modern-day entryway to his catalog. In 2015, he got his own Rob Hatch-Miller-directed documentary, Any Way the Wind Blows.
Even though he may not be a household name — can everybody be? — Johnson's inimitable songbook, charmingly cocky attitude (he humbly deemed himself a "multifaceted genius") and hip-hop legacy shine on forevermore. Here are five essential tracks by the late soul man.
"Come On Sock It To Me" (1967)
While a little milder than the volcanic singles that would succeed it, "Come On Sock It to Me" is a groovy, appealing slice of soul with an excellent, call-and-response chorus between Johnson and the horns. (Sidebar: why are there no modern songs about "socking it to" somebody?)
"Different Strokes" (1967)
First, you hear Johnson's wolfish "Unngh!" and some giggling in the background — then, the irresistible, slamming rhythm section, with a whipcrack snare sound. Featuring stabbing horns and an uber-confident vocal performance, "Different Strokes" is Johnson at full bore. The song was sampled in songs by Wu-Tang Clan, Kanye West and Jay-Z, and featured in Public Enemy's "Fight The Power."
"Dresses Too Short" (1968)
Did these lyrics about a catcaller who can't help himself ("Why do you blame me, baby?/ I didn't tell you to put it on!") age particularly well? No, but does everything need to? Dig "Dresses Too Short" for its infectious funky soul groove and impressive horniness.
"Is It Because I'm Black" (1970)
Johnson got more topical and resonant with "Is It Because I'm Black" — with the help of a major kick from the drums. "The dark brown shades of my skin, only add color to my tears/
That splash against my hollow bones, that rocks my soul," he croons poetically. "I didn't want to write no song about hating this people or hating that people," Johnson later told Numero Group. "It's a sympathy song."
"Take Me To the River" (1975)
This easy-breezy soul classic inspired renditions by everyone from Foghat to the Grateful Dead to Bruce Springsteen — and Johnson, too. This superb version serves as a reminder of Green's bulletproof writing — and Johnson's ability to inhabit another's tune with panache and attitude.
Today, give Johnson a few spins — whether it's a tune that sampled him or one of his unforgettable singles. Does this "fiery, fierce fighter" — his loved ones' words — deserve any less than a royal sendoff?
Let Freedom Ring With The March On Washington GRAMMY Playlist
Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington with a song
On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and declared in his landmark "I Have A Dream" speech, "Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood."
In 2012 The Recording Academy recognized King's speech for its historical significance by inducting the recording into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. Delivered before 250,000 people, "I Have A Dream" culminated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a rally organized by a coalition of civil rights organizations that called for the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation and a program to provide jobs, among other demands.
Several artists have used music to call for a solid rock of brotherhood and sisterly love over the years. GRAMMY winners Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul & Mary; and Mahalia Jackson were among the performers who stood beside King at the March on Washington and dared to dream of a better America. On Aug. 28 President Barack Obama — joined by fellow GRAMMY winners such as LeAnn Rimes and BeBe Winans and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — will deliver his own speech at the Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action bell-ringing ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
As bells toll throughout the country, we encourage you to let freedom ring by marching to the beat of our March on Washington 50th anniversary GRAMMY playlist.
"Blowin' In The Wind"
Peter, Paul & Mary, Best Performance By A Vocal Group, Best Folk Recording, 1963; GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2003
Peter, Paul & Mary's cover of Bob Dylan's popular protest song was one of two songs performed by the trio at the March on Washington. The two-time GRAMMY-winning track fittingly asked marchers, "How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?" The answer, of course, was blowin' in the wind.
"A Change Is Gonna Come"
Sam Cooke, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2000
Considered one of the defining anthems of the civil rights movement, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released in 1964 by R&B singer Cooke as a response to Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind." Cooke's harrowing track was voted No. 12 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list and epitomizes the hope and change King called for 50 years ago.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2009
Although written by Canadian Neil Young, "Ohio" spoke to the outrage many felt over the Kent State shootings in Kent, Ohio, in 1970. The song openly questioned the deaths of four unarmed students who were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a campus Vietnam War protest.
"Get Up, Stand Up"
Bob Marley & The Wailers, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 1999
Written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, this classic reggae tune was featured on the Wailers' 1973 album Burnin'. The group's signature call to action demanded people "get up, stand up/Stand up for your rights." In 1999 the track was the first reggae song to be inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.
"Born In The U.S.A."
Bruce Springsteen, Record Of The Year nominee, 1985
Though often misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem, "Born In The U.S.A." actually speaks to the desperate flip side of the American dream encountered by some Vietnam War veterans. Still, the album of the same name garnered a GRAMMY nomination for Album Of The Year, spawned no less than seven Top 10 hits and was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2012.
"Fight The Power"
Public Enemy, Best Rap Performance nominee, 1989
It might take a nation of millions to hold back listeners of Public Enemy's confrontational and controversial hit "Fight The Power." Chosen by director Spike Lee as the musical theme for his 1989 film Do The Right Thing, the track calls out everyone from Elvis to the American government, imploring people to "fight the powers that be."
Rage Against The Machine, Best Hard Rock Performance, 2000
Featured on Rage Against The Machine's 1999 GRAMMY-nominated album The Battle Of Los Angeles, "Guerrilla Radio" is the band's call to cut off the lights, turn up the radio and tune out those they describe as "vultures who thirst for blood and oil."
The Beatles, The Beatles, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2000
A year before John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously held a two-week bed-in for peace in 1969, the Beatles released this Lennon/McCartney penned tune featured on The Beatles ("The White Album"). The song spoke to Lennon's skepticism about some of the radical tactics used to protest the Vietnam War, offering the tongue-in-cheek guarantee that everything was "gonna be alright."
Edwin Starr, Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male nominee, 1970
Written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield in protest of the Vietnam War, "War" was originally recorded by the Temptations. Starr's version of this classic track helped him achieve legendary status on the soul circuit. His cover was intense and direct, simply stating: "I said, war, good gawd ya'll/What is it good for?/Absolutely nothing!"
"The Times They Are A-Changin'"
Bob Dylan, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2013
After the release of "Blowin' In The Wind," Dylan provided another anthemic protest song with "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Since its release in 1964, the song has been covered by artists such as the Beach Boys, Joan Baez, Phil Collins, Billy Joel, and Nina Simone, among others, during both challenging and ever-changing times.
"What The World Needs Now Is Love"
Jackie DeShannon, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2008
After all the protests, marches and calls for change have quieted down, arguably no song should be cranked up as loud as DeShannon's 1965 hit "What The World Needs Now Is Love." Per DeShannon: All we need "is love, sweet love/No, not just for some, but for everyone."
Know a song that changed the world? Let us know in the comments.
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Chuck D's Hip-Hop History Book "Could Have Been 3,000 Pages Long"
Learn what the iconic rapper has to say about his latest written overview of hip-hop's storied roots
"The first hint I got of the music itself was as a teenager in New York," Chuck D told Billboard of his first encounter with rap in the mid-'70s, "I was like 'What is this Muhammad Ali-type stuff on top of music?' The technology aspect of it bit me."
Chuck previously wrote at length about his thoughts on the state of rap in his 1997 book, Fight The Power, but the idea of distilling the collected history of the musical form and its associated subgenres into a definitive play-by-play of its progression and development — and making it approachable and accessible even to the uninitiated or casual fan — has remained on his bucket list. Chuck D Presents This Day In Rap And Hip-Hop History seeks to do just that.
"It could have been a series," he said regarding the breadth of ground he had to cover. "But the thing you learn when doing something like this is the gift of truncating and balance."
"The book could have been 1,500 to 3,000 pages," he adds.
With so much history condensed into just 352 pages, Chuck D confessed that part of the difficulty was remaining neutral and not allowing personal nostalgia to shift too much focus to the early years of rap history, when so much change and development has taken place in the past decade.
"You can't have any biases," he said. "You've got to be astute enough and have respect for all periods of the music in order to make great parables and comparisons to the classic stuff that’s already revered."
Chuck D Presents This Day In Rap And Hip-Hop History is out now, and is available in print or digital version wherever books are sold.
GRAMMY Insider: Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi, Jay-Z, Barack Obama, Kanye West, Madonna, Taylor Swift
All the GRAMMY winners news, including who made the cut on Forbes' Celebrity 100 list
(The GRAMMY Insider keeps you up to date about news on your favorite GRAMMY winners, including new album releases, tour updates, notable TV appearances, interviews, and more.)
Forbes has released its annual Celebrity 100 list, ranking the world's most powerful celebrities in 2013. Several GRAMMY winners made the top 10, including Lady Gaga (No. 2), Beyoncé (No. 4), Madonna (No. 5), Taylor Swift (No. 6), and Bon Jovi (No. 7). GRAMMY nominees Justin Bieber and Ellen DeGeneres landed at No. 9 and No. 10, respectively. To compile the list, Forbes factored in celebrity earnings over the last year as well as online, TV and print impressions.
The Eagles are taking it to the music subscription limit as fans can now stream the group's entire catalog on services such as Rhapsody, Rdio and Spotify. Among the titles available for streaming are 1973's Desperado and 1976's Hotel California, both of which have been inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.
NBA all-star Kevin Durant is the latest signee to Jay-Z's Roc Nation Sports, a division of Creative Artists Agency. "He has a 90.5 free throw shooting rate, the youngest player in NBA history to join the 50-40-90 club [marking shooting percentages for field goals, three-point field goals and free throws for a season], a giving individual and a legend in the making," said Jay-Z. The Oklahoma City Thunder forward follows previous Rock Nation Sports singings such as New York Yankees all-star Robinson Canó and New York Jets quarterback Eugene "Geno" Smith III, among others.
A new video getting attention on YouTube posits what kind of reaction the celeb judges on "The Voice" would have if John Lennon were in the performance hot seat. The spoof pairs an early '70s clip of Lennon performing his GRAMMY Hall Of Fame-inducted classic "Imagine" with footage of the judges grimacing at his technically imperfect singing. The clip, currently at more than 1 million views, ends by promoting an upcoming contestant, Bob Dylan, who "leaves our judges speechless." … President Barack Obama's rendition of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" has gone as viral as his #POTUS nickname. The video, which pieces together clips of Obama speeches to create the chorus to the hit song, has garnered nearly 5 million YouTube views to date.
As expected, Kanye West's new album Yeezus debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 327,000 units sold, marking the third-largest sales week of the year. With 297,000 units sold, J. Cole came in at No. 2 with Born Sinner.
June 25 marked the four-year anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson and he's making news once again as testimony in the wrongful death trial against AEG Live continues to rivet fans. The latest trial news? Jackson may have set a record by going 60 days without real sleep.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame has revealed that its 2014 honorees will include Motown songwriters/producers and Recording Academy Trustees Award recipients Holland-Dozier-Holland (Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland); GRAMMY winners Jeff Lynne, Maná, Ray Parker Jr., and Rick Springfield; and GRAMMY-nominated artists Katy Perry and Tupac Shakur.
Singing a duet with Mick Jagger might be fun, but the experience can also leave you speechless. Just ask Taylor Swift, who recently joined the Rolling Stones for a performance of "As Tears Go By" in Chicago. "We were just kinda goofing around and we started dancing, like waltz — like over-exaggerated ballet moves. And then we started twirling around the room," said T-Swizzle. "And it was hilarious, because we forgot the words and we just started laughing."
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Poll: With Albums From Cardi B, BTS, BLACKPINK & More On The Way, What Fall Release Are You Most Looking Forward To?
Alicia Keys, 2 Chainz, Drake, Kylie Minogue, Public Enemy, YG and others also have big albums on the way—let us know which one you are most excited about
With Labor Day here and gone, fall is almost upon us (it starts Sept. 22). While 2020 didn't quite deliver on a song of the summer—or a galivanting poolside vibe—luckily there are tons of big album releases slated for the coming autumn months. For our latest GRAMMY.com poll, we want to know which fall album you are most looking forward to.
The rap game is set to be big, with Atlanta heavyweight 2 Chainz set to drop So Help Me God, Bronx queen Cardi B primed to deliver a follow-up to her GRAMMY-winning major label debut Invasion Of Privacy and Toronto's finest Drake serving up Certified Lover Boy. Also, Los Angeles hard-hitter YG will release MY 4HUNNID LIFE and OG New York crew Public Enemy will drop What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, to feature their 2020 update of classic protest track "Fight the Power."
Representing some of the biggest players in K-pop and the global pop landscape, BLACKPINK's debut studio album, titled The Album, is forthcoming this October, and BTS have revealed they have a new album on the way.
Sure to be odes to the empty dancefloors of the world, Aussie dance-pop queen Kylie Minogue's DISCO, U.K. dance mainstays Groove Armada's EDGE OF THE HORIZON and Irish dance music legend (remember Moloko?) Róisín Murphy's Róisín Machine will keep us grooving.
While this list of fall 2020 albums is far from exhaustive, there are two more albums we have to mention. 2020 and 2019 GRAMMYs host extraordinaire Alicia Keys will be offering up her first LP in four years sometime this fall with ALICIA, which will include "Underdog," "Show Me Love" and more glowing gems.
Finally, the expansive music of the late experimental jazz legend and Afrofuturist Sun Ra lives on with the Sun Ra Arkestra, who will be releasing their first album in 21 years, Swirling. Which one are you looking forward to the most?