Lauren is a former Deputy Editor of The Root.
The Way They Made Us Feel
Let's look back 15, 25, 35 and 45 years to take stock of black music's most memorable and pivotal moments. In part two of our four-part series, we revisit 1987, a moment in time for some music legends of the '80s — Whitney, Michael, Janet and Prince — and a year when hip-hop reached a new peak. Tell us what you loved most about black music 25 years ago in the comments below.
Captions by Lauren Williams
The Golden Age of Hip-Hop
Whether it was the release of Eric B and Rakim's classic Paid in Full — on which Rakim, with his lyrical gymnastics and use of internal rhymes raised the rap bar forever more — or the official debut of Public Enemy and their patented brand of socially aware music, 1987 launched a roughly five-year period that's considered by many as hip-hop's golden age, when MCs like Rakim and Public Enemy's Chuck D helped to define and refine the genre.
Michael Jackson, that's who. Bad, his third solo record, released in August of 1987, was the first album to spawn five consecutive No. 1 hits: "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," "Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Man in the Mirror" and "Dirty Diana." His Bad tour had 123 stops worldwide and sold 4.4 million tickets. The success of Bad pales in comparison to that of his Thriller, the best-selling album of all time, but the music and videos (not to mention the introduction of one of Jackson's signature ad libs) make this one of the most important entries in the late King of Pop's iconic catalog.
Sign o' the Times
Like Michael Jackson, Prince really knew how to make an event out of his albums. He followed his Sign o' the Times, released in March 1987, with a concert movie (his third feature film) of the same name. The most notable tracks from one of the eclectic artist's most soulful artist are "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "U Got the Look," and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man." In December of the same year, he canceled the planned follow-up release, The Black Album, for unconfirmed reasons (although speculation in Prince-obsessed circles runs rampant). That album didn't officially hit stores until 1994.
The Bridge Wars
Before Jay-Z vs. Nas and Biggie vs. 'Pac, there were the Bridge Wars — a beef that played out in the mid-'80s among New York rap rivals and centered around whether the Bronx or Queens was the birthplace of rap. In late 1985, Queens rapper MC Shan's song "The Bridge" — an ode to the Queensbridge projects — launched both the rivalry and KRS-One's career. In 1987, KRS and his Bronx-based Boogie Down Productions released Criminal Minded. Its single "The Bridge Is Over" will go down in history as the quintessential rap dis track. The undisputed winner of the Bridge Wars is KRS-One, who became a respected rap pioneer, while MC Shan faded into obscurity.
When Whitney Houston Had it All
Who didn't have a private Whitney Houston listening party after her tragic death in 2012? No doubt some of the songs people sang — or cried to — were from her 1987 sophomore release Whitney. Her first four singles from the nine-time platinum album — "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional" and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" — peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She was the first artist to have seven consecutive No. 1 hits (she had three from her first album), a feat that no one has been able to top since.
New Jack Swings In
Keith Sweat's classic 1987 debut Make It Last Forever is heralded by many as one of the first New Jack Swing albums, mainly because of its Teddy Riley-produced hit dance song "I Want Her." New Jack Swing, distinguished by its mix of R&B, hip-hop and dance beats, was invented and popularized by Riley (who also formed his group Guy in '87) and was a force in popular music from the late '80s to the early '90s — with everyone from New Kids on the Block to Michael Jackson adopting the style.
Putting the Romance in Rap
When LL Cool J earnestly rapped, "When I'm alone in my room sometimes I stare at the wall/And in the back of my mind I hear my conscience call/Telling me I need a girl who's as sweet as a dove/For the first time in my life, I see I need love," he was doing more than making a generation of teenage girls swoon. With "I Need Love," from 1987's Bigger and Deffer, he popularized a softer style of rap — the hip-hop love ballad — which he would perfect in later hits (think 1990's "Around the Way Girl" and 1995's "Hey Lover"). Proving that romance sells, "I Need Love" was LL's first Top 40 hit in both the U.S. and the U.K.
Janet Jackson Takes Control
Although she had been on the scene for a while — either as an actress or an up-and-coming singer — the youngest Jackson didn't really come into her own until the release of 1986's Control. Its Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced R&B dance tracks — their sound a precursor to Riley's New Jack Swing — netted her several top-five hits, including "Nasty," "What Have You Done for Me Lately" and "Let's Wait Awhile." At the Grammy Awards in 1987, where Jam and Lewis won Producer of the Year but Jackson went home empty-handed, she gave an iconic, unforgettable performance.
A Singular Single
How could the R&B group Atlantic Starr follow up their megahit, the 1985 song "Secret Lovers"? With 1987's "Always," of course. Topping the charts after its June release, the memorable love song became the signature of a prolific group, which, despite departures and additions, still performs today.
Jody Watley's Solo Breakthrough
Watley wasn't new to the game in 1987 — she'd already found success in the 1970s and early 1980s as part of Shalimar — but this was the year that she launched her solo career. The effort — in particular, her single "I'm Looking for a New Love" — earned her a Best New Artist Grammy. And although Arnold Schwarzenegger gets all the credit, props to Watley for coining the Spanglish phrase "hasta la vista, baby" (a refrain in "New Love") years before Terminator 2: Judgment Day hit theaters.
Rock & Roll Royalty
In 1987, Aretha Franklin was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the same year that B.B. King, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, among others, were also granted the honor. But the induction certainly didn't mean that Franklin was done topping the charts. She had a Billboard Hot 100 hit with George Michael — "I Knew You Were Waiting" — that April.
Goodbye to a Reggae Legend
Peter Tosh is known as a member of the reggae group The Wailers, along with Bob Marley, but he also made a name for himself as a solo artist — starting with his 1976 album Legalize It. Despite his popularity among reggae fans, he would never achieve the mainstream success of his former bandmate. On September 11, 1987, he was shot and killed during an armed robbery at his home in Jamaica. He posthumously won a Best Reggae Performance Grammy for his last album, No Nuclear War.
Ice-T's debut album Rhyme Pays earned the distinction of being the first rap record to warrant an explicit-lyrics sticker. Often highlighted as the album that put both gangsta rap and West Coast rappers on the map, it's still significantly less hardcore and controversial than some of Ice-T's later offerings ("Cop Killer," anyone?).
Additional gems from 1987:
*DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released Rock the House, which included their hit from the previous year, "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble."
*Although Terence Trent D'Arby changed his name to Sananda Maitreya in 1995 and later became an actor, in 1987, he was wishing on a "Wishing Well."
*Club Nouveau topped the charts with their funky rendition of Bill Withers' "Lean on Me."