Sample School: The Stylistics

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The amazing thing about so much of modern music, from hip-hop and out beyond, is that you’re never really listening to just one album or just one track, you’re skimming the surface of musical history. Most hip-hop artists are as much archivists as they are musicians and if you look a little deeper you’ll find a mind-boggling back-catalog of genius staring back at you. Spend more than a few minutes on WhoSampled.com and you’ll quickly become entranced, digging out track after track to find out which 70s funk hooks, film score overtures and Malcolm X quotes built the flesh around the skeleton of the beat. The purpose of this feature is to give you an insight into a particular band or artist who helped to shape that world, an artist you’ve likely been listening to for years without even realising it.

If you’ve never taken the time to have a proper look into the 70s Philadelphia soul scene, I would heartily recommend it. More legendary soul acts might have emerged out of New York, Chicago and New Orleans, but the Philly scene was (and continues to be) so unique and so rich that it’s almost a genre unto itself. Grover Washington Jr. remains probably the most well known artist to come out of it, but there were dozens more, many of them still active today. The brass and string laden Philly style set the standard for everything that came after it across America and beyond, heavily influencing the emergence of disco. The Stylistics are an important chapter in that story.

They originally formed as a supergroup, consisting of members from The Monarchs and The Percussions when those bands ran out of steam. After an early signing to the then very young Avco Records, the band partnered up with producer Thom Bell and lyricist Linda Creed, creating a string of hits for the band, before they moved onto even greater success with The Spinners, who famously teamed up with Elton John on ‘Are You Ready For Love’. Creed also wrote two of Whitney Houston’s most well known hits, ‘Greatest Love of All’ (originally performed by George Benson) and ‘Hold Me’, a duet with Teddy Pendergrass. Working with Bell and Creed, The Stylistics released a string of top 10 hits, a trend which only continued when they jumped labels in 1974. Ultimately, they amassed 12 top 10 hits in less than 5 years, of which 5 singles also reached the top 5 in the UK.

The Stylistics are widely regarded as one of the earliest groups to really build the Philly soul scene into the juggernaut that it became. Bearing that in mind, the entire Philly music scene owes them a massive debt, given how it’s exploded since then. Aside from a budding electronic output and a small but vital neo-soul scene (Jill Scott is by way of Philly and John Legend has strong ties there), Philly also boasts one of the earliest, most influential hip-hop movements. One of the first widely successful female MCs, Lady B, came from Philadelphia, recording her first single there in 1979. Beyond that, DJ Jazzy Jeff (with Will Smith), Jedi Mind Tricks, Boyz II Men, The Roots, Bahamadia and Eve all owe some allegiance to Philly. Many of them drew heavily on home-grown soul for their track production, but the vibe laid down by The Stylistics and their contemporaries didn’t stop on the East Coast.

You Are Everything – The Stylistics – 1971
Appears in Everything by Mary J. Blige

This first self-titled album really started the revolution, introducing the world to vocalist Russell Thompkins Jr.’s incredible voice for the first time. His striking falsetto massively influenced funk and soul bands that followed; you can hear a lot of Thompkins in guys like Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White. You Are Everything was one of the slower, shorter tracks on the album, but the tone and potency of it have made it prime real estate for hip-hop producers. It appears very prominently on ‘Everything’, a track from Mary J. Blige’s massively successful third album and her first top 10 single in the UK. The hook has gained a reputation as an R&B mainstay, used to similar effect by Jennifer Lopez, but more straight-up hip-hop tracks have made inventive use of it too. Grand Puba used it, MC Shy D used it and more recently Childish Gambino even sampled it on his bewildering awesome 2010 mixtape, Culdesac.

 

Maybe It’s Love This Time – Hurry Up This Way Again – 1980
Appears in Baby by J Dilla feat. Madlib and Guilty Simpson

Moving on from the album that thrust The Stylistics to massive acclaim (and obviously missing out a huge chunk in the middle), this cut was pretty much their swansong. By the beginning of the 1980s disco had gained a tight foothold and the kind of sweeping soul, marinated in string and brass was fast losing its popularity. Thankfully the band were able to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. While it wasn’t massively well received at the time, Hurry Up This Way Again tends to be recognised as a classic and nowhere is that more evident than on this track. It’s not particularly heavily sampled at all, but the fact that it appears on Baby, one of the best tracks from his towering posthumous album The Shining means it demands attention. The genius that he was, Dilla built the track almost entirely out of two vocal hooks and a short little waft of brass. The track itself is a lovely, versatile piece of quintessential soul.

 

People Make the World Go Round – The Stylistics – 1971
Appears in It Wasn’t Me, It Was the Fame by EPMD

While their most famous single, ‘Betcha, By Golly Wow’, has been sampled almost as much, this track remains the more significant and influential of the two. As well as being sampled by dozens of hip-hop producers, it’s been covered by everyone from Michael Jackson to Freddie Hubbard. There’s a distinctly tragic, melancholic feel to this track, with Thompkins Jr. (giving perhaps the best vocal performance of his career) reflecting on pollution, poverty and trash strikes. This kind of grim social reflection became a huge part of soul music as the genre matured and, by extension, hip-hop. Dark themes perpetuate many of the tracks which sample it, from EMPD’s reflections on the influence of fame to the toxic, unrelenting fighting talk on West Side Connections’ ‘Gangstas Make the World Go Round’. In 2013 though it might have found its most effective conduit yet. Flying Lotus sampled the track extensively for Thundercat’s ‘Lotus and the Jondy‘, a touching, surreal track which pays tribute to the aforementioned producer as well as the late, great jazz pianist Austin Peralta. It’s a magical cross pollination between classic Philly soul and modern LA soundscaping. It also features an amazing solo from former Mars Volta drummer Thomas Pridgen.

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