"I don't understand why they call this new stuff R&B," a punk rock friend of mine once told me. "Isn't R&B meant to be stuff like The Who?"
Well, R&B can be The Who. It can, without breaking any genre rules, be Ne-Yo. The reason for this is that Rhythm & Blues is not a tenuously connected genre at all, but a supremely well-timed standardised description of a market segment that has managed to outlast pretty much every other. That's because it's not really a subcultural marker like Disco or Indie. It's a racial marker. R&B started out as a description for and still pretty much means only one thing: what are the African-Americans buying?
At least since the age of W.C. Handy record companies have known there was a potential market in selling records to blacks. Back in the jazz age of the roaring twenties these were usually catalogued as "race records", but marketing techniques progressed and by the time charts started to appear regularly during the war mildly less offensive terms like "sepia", "ebony", "harlem hit parade" and indeed "rhythm and blues" took over on the catalogue pages. In 1949 leading trade publication Billboard magazine picked the last term and since this pretty much coincided with when "race" records started going a little bit mainstream the term stuck. And how it stuck!
Right from the start there was no question of this being a genre in the regular sense of the word - it would include everything from bouncy dancehall blues to sweet vocal groups and gospel. The artists were mostly black originally, sure, but by the late fifties even that was no longer a factor. In 1959 over half of the records on the Rhythm & Blues charts were white! (In Britain, where they tend to take things too literally, they honestly thought it was a genre you could work out of. Therefore The Who etc.)
The term survived a brief "it's just the same as pop really" shut-down in the sixties (because tastes started diverging back). Then after the term "soul" took over the chart name in the mid sixties it returned to functioning as a collective term for the wildly diverse stylings of contemporary funk and soul. It was no stretch to apply the term to the newer sounds coming out in the eighties and once it had become that ingrained in the world of charts and radio formats it's no surprise it continues to this day.
A bigger mystery is why hip-hop was never included in the term. Billboard tried for a while (renaming the chart "black singes" in the eighties, sounds like a dating agency) but ultimately gave up and created a separate rap chart, eventually renaming the main chart "Hot R&B/Hip-hop Songs" as well. Some would say it's because the mainstream sounds of the R&B world in the eighties had such a radically different aesthetic to the hip-hop of the time the two markets were no longer compatible. But there was plenty of stuff that bridged the gap, like this wonderful Midnight Star track:
Teddy Riley, the producer credited with creating modern R&B, might well have been initially successful because he put the early recordings of his style, new jack swing, much closer to the better bits of the mainstream than to contemporary hip-hop, thus further cementing the difference between the styles. Still, his funkier sense of rhythm appealed enough to hip-hop audiences to cross over, and it certainly wasn't unheard of for the biggest hip-hop producers to do R&B on the side as an experiment. (Here's The Bomb Squad doing a Bell Biv DeVoe track.)
At this point comes a dichotomy in the historiography of R&B. Is it pointless to talk about R&B as a music separate from hip-hop past this point because they were fully integrated? Or was it the case that real, serious hip-hop producers never touch the genre because it was too feminine, leaving people like Babyface in charge? I've heard people advocate both, and obviously the truth lies in between.
It's not quite as simple as just pointing out that several high-profile hip-hop producers did R&B as well. For example, Puff Daddy's The Hitmen certainly did do R&B, but though the sound of their slower hip-hop releases would potentially make great R&B backing tracks to our modern ears, their R&B material nevertheless maintained the seemingly anachronistic stylings of new jack swing. So not the same style at all then? But other producers, like Organized Noize, practically contemporaneously did both hip-hop and R&B that sounded if not the same then fairly similar.
The issue is not a simple one, and a stylistic breakdown doesn't help. For example, there's no obvious G-funk R&B (except questionable belated entries) while there's plenty of bass R&B - and which is the supposedly more macho genre?
I'm not sure all this matters. Because in my mind there's a third possible option. Hip-hop might have scorned R&B or tried to influence it, but around 1996 it didn't matter anymore, because suddenly it was R&B that rushed far ahead of its plodding cousin.
Timbaland's sound, evolving very distinctly out of the very standard new jack swing of proteges Teddy Riley and DeVante Swing, was the hottest thing on the hip-hop scene in the late nineties. And since then, certainly, hip-hop and R&B have been on much more equal footing.
Maybe we're coming back to the position R&B started in where it was the big catch-all term for black music? Because now, absolutely, it's the same people that produce the best hip-hop and the best R&B.