For today's biggest stars like Drake, The Weeknd, Cardi B, SZA and countless others, the global success and tailored sound they've established wouldn't exist if it wasn't for...
– Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, responsible for launching soul music and its unprecedented emotionality into mainstream popularity
– Pete Rock, who transformed rap production and the way samples are flipped
– Lil' Kim, a fearless pacesetter for not only the current wave of female rappers but all the "Lils" who dominate Billboard. The list goes on.
To properly celebrate the final days of Black History Month, let's take a moment to appreciate 10 of these iconic Black artists, their latest rereleases and their ties to hip-hop in 2021.
Nina Simone – Folksy Nina (1964)
Largely credited as one of the first established Black artists to infuse her lyrics with direct social commentary, it makes sense that Nina Simone is referred to as a musical "relative" by Noname. The latter being perhaps the most politically critical and outspoken rapper on a major scale these days.
Across "Blackbird," an essential track from Simone's 1964 album Folksy Nina, Simone opens up about the everyday hopelessness she carries as a Black woman facing various forms of oppression.
Though she has an unshakeable desire to spread her wings and break free from the grip society places on her, she's constantly reminded, "You ain't ever gonna fly." A very revealing line.
Baby Huey – The Baby Huey Story: Living Legend (1971)
You've heard of Lil Baby, DaBaby and Baby Keem. But what about Baby Huey? Back in the 1970s, Huey was known as the youthful-voiced lead singer for the rock-soul band Baby Huey and the Babysitters.
While he only recorded one solo album prior to his passing from a drug overdose at the age of 26, Huey's legacy eventually lent itself to hip-hop – even beyond the "Baby" moniker.
Almost two decades after The Baby Huey Story dropped, "Hard Times" made a comeback as a fire sample, appearing in high-profile records like "The Birth" by Ice Cube, "Buck 50" by Ghostface Killah and, most notably, "Can I Kick It?" by A Tribe Called Quest. Huey really is a legend!
Curtis Mayfield – Roots & There's No Place Like America Today (1971 & 1975)
In terms of discovering talent and giving new artists a platform to create, Curtis Mayfield was like Gucci Mane in his heyday. The Chicago native initially rose to fame as a singer with The Impressions in the 1960s.
But around the time he left the group to pursue a solo career in 1970, he also started his own label called Curtom Records.
Similar to Gucci and his ability to recognize Southern talent like Waka Flocka, Migos, Young Thug and Pooh Shiesty before anyone has really heard of them, Curtis Mayfield and Curtom released albums for numerous R&B and soul artists from the Chicago area and beyond, including Linda Clifford, Gene Chandler and Baby Huey.
Not to mention Curtis' own legendary run with socially-enlightening and funky records like "We Got To Have Peace" and "Love to the People," which can be heard on Roots and There's No Place Like America Today.
Aretha Franklin – Young, Gifted and Black (1972)
Born in a small house in Memphis before later relocating with her family to Detroit, few could have anticipated the way Aretha Franklin would shift the course of music forever.
The list of her accolades is nearly endless, but here are three of the most impressive: 77 total Hot 100 entries, the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and 44 Grammy nominations with 18 wins.
One of these Grammy wins was for her 1972 album, Young, Gifted and Black, securing Franklin the award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Inspired by Nina Simone's 1969 track, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," the 12-song project was ranked #388 on Rolling Stone's 2020 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time.
It also features the jam "Rock Steady," sampled by the likes of Dr. Dre ("Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat") and Outkast ("Jazzy Belle").
George Benson – Breezin' (1976)
You can either try to imagine yourself lounging at a tropical resort without a care in the world, or you can just press play on George Benson's "Breezin'."
From the catchy flute riff to Benson's wizardry on the guitar, "Breezin'" is every bit as loosening as it was when it first dropped circa 1972 on the 3x Platinum, Billboard 200 No. 1 album of the same name.
It's since been repurposed by a handful of rap acts, most notably DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince ("Time to Chill"), Girl Talk ("That's My DJ") and even 2Pac ("He Vs. She"). The offshoot genre of lo-fi beats has felt Benson's influence as well via producer Wun Two and his 2014 instrumental, "Toucan."
Jungle Brothers – Done By The Forces Of Nature (1989)
The New York hip-hop trio known as the Jungle Brothers – comprised of Mike Gee, Afrika Baby Bam and DJ Sammy B – deserve their flowers for being genre-bending trailblazers.
They fused rap with jazz and house music, laying the foundation for groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul to flourish. All three joined forces to form the Native Tongues collective and they have fun along with Queen Latifah in the video for "Doin' Our Own Dang," a time capsule to what traditionalists view as rap's "golden age."
More broadly, the Jungle Brothers and their willingness to mix and match sounds made crossover efforts from inherent hip-hop artists such as Trippie Red, who recently debuted a rock album with Travis Barker, more feasible.
Pete Rock & CL Smooth – Mecca and the Soul Brother (1992)
Speaking of the "golden age," the deluxe edition of Pete Rock & CL Smooth's one and only album together, Mecca and the Soul Brother, released in 1992, embodies all of the elements – banging drum loops, saxophone-filled samples, potent storytelling – that hip-hop heads adore about this era.
That's why it's considered one of the most essential rap projects in history.
Browse no further than the duo's most well-known song, "They Reminisce Over You," for a perfect example of what diehard fans think of when they think about hip-hop and its birthplace, New York City.
If the Jungle Brothers' "Doin' Our Own Dang" is a time capsule, then "They Reminisce Over You" is a straight-up time machine.
Ray Charles – The Best of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years (1994)
Beginning in 1952 and lasting until almost the end of the decade, Ray Charles was signed to Atlantic Records after the label bought out his previous record contract for roughly $24,000 (adjusting for inflation).
With Atlantic by his side, Charles' profile grew immensely thanks to hits such as "I've Got A Woman" and "What I'd Say," which topped the Billboard R&B chart.
Over 50 years later, however, "I've Got A Woman" became the more memorable of the two, as Charles' spirited chorus about a woman helping him out with some quick cash would be reimagined by Kanye West and Jamie Foxx for their Grammy-winning smash "Gold Digger." Fittingly, Foxx portrayed Charles in the 2004 biopic Ray.
Chaka Khan – Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan, Vol. 1 (1996)
Having delivered her newest album just last year, Chaka Khan aka the "Queen of Funk" is still dropping jewels six decades after getting her start with the funk band Rufus.
During this time, Khan has earned 10 Grammys, 25 Hot 100 hits and sold an estimated 70 million records worldwide.
Originally arriving in 1996, Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan, Vol. 1, features an array of Khan's best cuts, including "Ain't Nobody" and its classic refrain, "Ain't nobody / Loves me better!" Another notable selection is 1984's "I Feel for You," an early example of putting a rapper – Melle Mel – and an R&B singer on the same record.
Lil' Kim – The Notorious K.I.M. (2000)
Few people were as close with Biggie Smalls as Lil' Kim. Her second studio album, The Notorious K.I.M., not only represents an ode to her former lover and friend but a second act as one of the OG female rappers.
In a 1999 interview with MTV, Kim discussed how she was trying to "separate" herself from other artists "because now we have a lot of rappers doing the same thing that I did when I came out the first time."
She followed through, as The Notorious K.I.M. was the best-selling female rap album of 2000, pushing more than 1.4 million copies. Commercially, Kim set the tone for the current boom of female rappers, a trend that most recently culminated with Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP" breaking the record for the most first-week streams at 93 million.