Who Killed the R&B Group?

There was a time when vocal groups ruled, from the Temptations to TLC. No more. What happened?

En Vogue (Getty Images)
En Vogue (Getty Images)

At Washington, D.C.’s DAR Constitution Hall, the crowd — a mix of distinguished salt-and-pepper goatees and shellacked updos — awaits Charlie Wilson, former front man for the Gap Band. But first En Vogue, the once ubiquitous, platinum-selling R&B group from the ’90s, is opening the show.

Fifteen minutes past the scheduled start time, they emerge — minus Dawn Robinson — to muted applause. In a style that is all but extinct, they strut in unison, dressed in matching gold-lamé blouses, performing über-modified versions of the provocative choreography that once accompanied their award-winning singles. Time may have taken a toll on their two-step, but it’s done nothing to their pipes. En Vogue sound as pristine as they did 20 years ago.

Two men stand in the audience, iPhones held aloft, mouthing the words to each and every song. As soon as En Vogue exit stage left, the duo makes a beeline for the exit.

“I thought they were amazing,” said Renee Watson, 40, of Washington, D.C. “Especially considering that they had been gone for so long. I think they could make a comeback.”

But could they? 2004 was the last time an R&B group made anything close to a comeback. That’s when Destiny’s Child reunited after a short break to release their fourth and final studio album, Destiny Fulfilled. Since then, unless you count the middling success of P. Diddy’s male quintet, Day26, R&B groups and duos — male and female — have gone the way of the compact disc.

And their absence isn’t easy to miss. From the beginning, vocal groups have long dominated R&B. Both the Supremes and the Temptations made the R&B group a mainstay of ’60s pop music. The tradition continued with the Jackson Five in the ’70s; DeBarge, New Edition and Guy in the ’80s; and Dru Hill and the record-busting girl group TLC in the ’90s. From 1991-2001, every month, you’d see an R&B group hanging out on the Top 10 Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Jagged Edge, 112 and Destiny’s Child continued the popularity of R&B groups into the new millennium. But not for long. 

For one thing, the music changed. Today’s version of chart-topping R&B, hijacked by techno-club production, overdubbed vocals and hip-hop cadence, has sparked a fierce debate about the state of popular soul music. So which came first: the demise of the singing soul group or the deterioration of R&B music?

Who — or what — killed the R&B group?