R&B record producers often represent a musical force that is significant in the success story of many celebrated black artists. Their productions change the face of R&B music. On these pages the author gathered some of the 1980s hottest producers and songwriters of the American black recording industry along with their musical achievements in Soul, Funk, Boogie and Disco music during the exciting young ’80s and beyond.

In the ’80s Soul and Funk got smoother and less live and acoustic than in previous decades. The orchestral Philly sound was fading away and large funkbands restructured into smaller economical entities. Music became more keyboards-minded and soon turned high-tech as it gradually evolved into sophisticated Urban Contemporary towards 1983. Many artists who had dominated the previous twenty years struggled to find a place in this new chapter. Their place was taken by a slew of fresh stars bringing fine tunes with the help of a new generation of record producers and composers.
The early ’80s is one of the most overlooked and prolific eras of R&B music and reflected a very refreshing time. Musicality was on the rise again after the monotonous reign of the Disco queens. At the end of the ’70s, Disco’s pulsating four-on-the-floor beat was wearing thin and R&B music was finding its way to the next rhythm. The music industry was no more focused on the massive exploitation of Disco but shifted towards the new profits of mainstream Pop culture. It seemed to be a period when audiences, as well as radio DJs, were wide open to receiving all kinds of music. As a reaction to the Disco over-saturation people were looking for alternatives and this musical climate was perfect to explore new styles of dance music. This new situation implied a welcome deathblow for the brainless sort of Disco. At the same time it was a blessing for true R&B dance music that was refueling musical energy and regaining credibility after the Disco craze.

Commercial success for many Disco-related artists indeed rapidly declined in the ’80s. The dance music industry was in turmoil by that time. Sales were disappointing and record labels announced cutbacks in the number of dance records they would release. The problem started with the major record companies that were late getting into the Disco scene. When they woke up, they released loads of Disco records and flooded the market which soon led to the so called “Death of Disco”. But of course there were still buyers and radio stations playing many of the Disco songs. There exists a misconception that “credible” Disco music wasn’t being made and released during the early ’80s. Apparently only the silly Disco emanations had reached their expiration date. In fact, after the Disco overkill of the late seventies, this type of music was still popular during the year 1980 and even to a limited extent until the summer of 1982. If Disco was dead, why then did R&B acts as George Benson, Earth Wind & Fire, The Brothers Johnson, Diana Ross, The Whispers, Kool & The Gang or Stephanie Mills score some of their biggest “Disco” hits in 1980 and 1981? Soulmusic aiming for the dancefloor got rid of the choking Disco trauma and was given the opportunity to excite again! Disco wasn’t really dead, it was in a continuous evolution, as was music technology and music culture.

A different type of songs and productions shifted the sound genre towards black R&B/Soul music. This renaissance mainly occured in the thriving and hip underground clubscene where black dance music evolved into what we call Boogie today, electronic dance music marked out by its soulfulness and integrity. The early ’80s was actually an exciting period in dance music history, where all the seeds of now flourishing contemporary forms of Hip-Hop, R&B and Dance music were really planted in the form of technology. The Boogie dance tunes, with their super-catchy layers of vocals and synths on top of machine-driven beats, totally redefined how dance music would sound into the next decades. The Boogie phenomenon can largely be summed up by the output of the larger New York Disco labels like Prelude, Vanguard, SAM, West End, Salsoul and Radar in the early ’80s. It took a long-time for Boogie to surface from the underground. It had been largely ignored or regarded as Disco’s poor cousin, perhaps too slow, too electronic, too R&B too black even. But it kick-started a musical groundswell which would see club music topping the charts all over the world again, just like Disco had.The post-Disco era represented by Boogie was a turbulent and creative time for independent dance music in general and one where the early trends in music technology are easy to spot. It was still a continuation of Disco, though dressed up differently. Its rhythms weren’t always the ubiquitous four-to-the-floor. Boogie was all about the groove: tempo down or up, the rhythm had to groove. It was a heady blend of Disco, Funk, Jazz, Soul/R&B and Electro, fused by and for the party-heads of the day.

The post-Disco era represented by Boogie was a turbulent and creative time for independent dance music in general and one where the early trends in music technology are easy to spot. It was still a continuation of Disco, though dressed up differently. Its rhythms weren’t always the ubiquitous four-to-the-floor. Boogie was all about the groove: tempo down or up, the rhythm had to groove. It was a heady blend of Disco, Funk, Jazz, Soul/R&B and Electro, fused by and for the party-heads of the day.
Boogie also introduced the creative and brilliant mixing techniques of legendary DJs/mixers/producers like John Morales, Shep Pettibone, Larry Levan, Jim Burgess, Nick Martinelli & David Todd and Francois Kevorkian: alchemists who turned even basic tracks into complex sonic masterpieces which can still turn heads now. Obviously the Boogie beat didn’t remain the fresh vibe of the underground scene only. Also the major record companies adopted the slick, crisp and synthy club sound for their R&B artists and engaged the services of a new batch of popular producers and mixers.

Throughout the early ’80s, Disco music would not only reincarnate into Boogie but also into other forms of dance music like Dance, Rap and even New-Wave and Pop. The term “Disco” was banned but the phenomenon and its energy remained alive and kickin’!Bit by bit as the ’80s era progressed, R&B (dance) music entered the field of Urban Contemporary music: technically advanced and sparkling USA-Soul/Funk fabricated by very sollicitated producers and production companies as Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ Flyte Tyme Productions on Tabu records (S.O.S. Band, Alexander O’Neal), Vincent Calloway & Reggie Calloway (Midnight Star, Teddy Pendergrass), Kashif’s New Music Group Productions (Melba Moore, Stacy Lattisaw), Paul Lawrence Jones’ Stone Jones Productions (Lillo Thomas, Freddie Jackson), Lonnie Simmons on his Total Experience label (Gap Band, Yarbrough & Peoples), Keith Diamond (Billy Ocean, Melba Moore), Dennis Lambert (Commodores, Natalie Cole), Barry Eastmond (Freddie Jackson, Jonathan Butler), Leon F. Sylvers III and his Silverspoon Productions (Rockie Robbins, Glenn Jones), Nile Rodgers (Madonna, Al Jarreau), Richard Perry on his Planet label (Pointer Sisters, Greg Phillinganes), Nick Martinelli’s Watch Out Productions (Loose Ends, Phyllis Hyman) and The System’s Science Lab Productions (Jeff Lorber, Pauli Carman). Also important in the ’80s was Hush/Orpheus Productions, the innovative company of the brothers Beau and Charles Huggins that was highly successful through collaborations with an impressive array of top producers (Kashif, Howard King, Keith Diamond, Barry Eastmond, Rahni Song, Paul Laurence, Morrie Brown, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead, Amir Bayyan) and elite artists (Lillo Thomas, Freddie Jackson, John White, Ray Goodman & Brown, Meli’sa Morgan, The Controllers, Melba Moore, Beau Williams, Eric Gable, Najee, Alex Bugnon, Vaneese). Especially in the second half of the ’80s Hush/Orpheus Productions was largely responsible for adding the classy Soul vibe back into R&B music.

Bit by bit as the ’80s era progressed, R&B (dance) music entered the field of Urban Contemporary music: technically advanced and sparkling USA-Soul/Funk fabricated by very sollicitated producers and production companies as Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ Flyte Tyme Productions on Tabu records (S.O.S. Band, Alexander O’Neal), Vincent Calloway & Reggie Calloway (Midnight Star, Teddy Pendergrass), Kashif’s New Music Group Productions (Melba Moore, Stacy Lattisaw), Paul Lawrence Jones’ Stone Jones Productions (Lillo Thomas, Freddie Jackson), Lonnie Simmons on his Total Experience label (Gap Band, Yarbrough & Peoples), Keith Diamond (Billy Ocean, Melba Moore), Dennis Lambert (Commodores, Natalie Cole), Barry Eastmond (Freddie Jackson, Jonathan Butler), Leon F. Sylvers III and his Silverspoon Productions (Rockie Robbins, Glenn Jones), Nile Rodgers (Madonna, Al Jarreau), Richard Perry on his Planet label (Pointer Sisters, Greg Phillinganes), Nick Martinelli’s Watch Out Productions (Loose Ends, Phyllis Hyman) and The System’s Science Lab Productions (Jeff Lorber, Pauli Carman). Also important in the ’80s was Hush/Orpheus Productions, the innovative company of the brothers Beau and Charles Huggins that was highly successful through collaborations with an impressive array of top producers (Kashif, Howard King, Keith Diamond, Barry Eastmond, Rahni Song, Paul Laurence, Morrie Brown, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead, Amir Bayyan) and elite artists (Lillo Thomas, Freddie Jackson, John White, Ray Goodman & Brown, Meli’sa Morgan, The Controllers, Melba Moore, Beau Williams, Eric Gable, Najee, Alex Bugnon, Vaneese). Especially in the second half of the ’80s Hush/Orpheus Productions was largely responsible for adding the classy Soul vibe back into R&B music.On the threshold of the ’90s, R&B music welcomed a new musicstyle called New Jack Swing that introduced new artists and producers. Simultaneously the importance of Rap music and Hip Hop culture firmly increased and ultimately gained worldwide recognition, achieving the status of a vital part of today’s R&B music.

Technology in the ’80s played a bigger part, synthesizers and music computer systems were getting cheaper and allowed musicians and producers to experiment with innovating ways of musical expression. Although the influence of electronic instruments was already immense at that time, early ’80s Disco/Funk music still retained the warmth and charm of artists really playing the instruments. That was the period in which musicians still took the lead in actually embroidering music, as opposed to fully programming it.
It was also an amazingly productive era for R&B music in general. It wasn’t unusual that hot R&B acts cut two albums in the same year as did the Whispers, Fatback, Ozone, Skyy, Gene Dunlap, The Detroit Spinners, Starpoint, Richard ‘Dimples’ Fields, The Dazz Band, Bill Summers, Con Funk Shun, One Way, The Isley Brothers, Lakeside or Cameo. The abundance of quality output during this time was to a large extent the merit of a new generation of producers/songwriters who would mark the ’80s and even the ’90s sometimes. They helped constructing the matrix of sophisticated Soul, a formula whereby Soulmusic could be massive on the dancefloor while still maintaining the highest standards of composition and musicianship.

The dawn of ’80s R&B was clear when Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall peaked the black album charts during the whole of 1980. It was the perfect record to introduce the post-Disco era with an impeccable production, brilliant songs, tasteful arrangements and a captivating artist to truly give them life. The man behind this project was the legendary producer Quincy Jones who proved pivotal in connecting post-Disco to the present. But he wasn’t the only figure who redefined the sound of Disco/Dance and R&B. A bunch of young, busy studiocats who surfaced in the late ’70s also contributed to the new outline of Black Dance Music. The likes of Randy Muller, Dexter Wansel, Nick Martinelli, Kashif or the partnership James Mtume/Reggie Lucas employed an efficient synthesis of Soul, Funk and Disco, new recording technologies and synthesized instrumentation on top of a strong musical foundation. Remember the luminous work of writer and producer Leon F. Sylvers III. His fusion of guitar, strings, tight harmonies, infectious melodies, funky bass lines, handclaps and a smattering of synthesised sparkle created the fresh Solar sound.
Some long-established producers as Michael Stokes, Arif Mardin or Allen A. Jones, who all started their careers back in the deep seventies, stayed in the game. They distinguished themselves by the soundness of their ’80s output and the bright adaptation of their production patterns to a contemporary standard.
Whereas most of the instrumentation on the earlier productions was live and authentic, drum programming, synthesizer arrangements, sequencing and overdubs entered the picture in the ’80s, and certainly in a big way around the mid ’80s. Soulmusic became increasingly keyboard-based and computerized. Not everyone was keen on this electronic and digital turnabout but the application of revolutionary music technology was an inevitable phase on the way to the the R&B music of the next generation.

Before focusing on the ‘Producer facts in short’ and the ‘Producer discographies’ it’s important to know what a record producer really is. Most people imagine that this is the musicbiz equivalent of a film producer, a person who finances projects and invests in upcoming artists with the ultimate motivation of generating money. This perception is wrong because the word ‘record producer’ is a misleading term that can be confused with the function of an ‘executive producer’. The word ‘record director’ would be far more accurate. The record producer has three simultaneous functions. He’s a director, a consultant and a catalyst. To know when to switch from one role to another becomes the record producer’s primary goal in the studio. Some artists will require far more of one aspect than another, but the producer should always be ready to give enough creative space to let the unexpected happen. His challenge is to bring out the best in an artist and to improve the chance to have a successful if not an outstanding product. Therefore he can often rely on a team of trusty collaborators like musicians, songwriters, vocalists, arrangers and engineers who make up the keystones of a characteristic production sound. Complementary to their role of studio captains, producers are often qualified musicians, arrangers, songwriters (e.g. Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis, Nile Rodgers/Bernard Edwards) or even artists themselves (e.g. Prince, Narada Michael Walden, Ray Parker Jr.).

The creative control enables the producer to develop a personal style that eventually becomes his trademark sound. Black music has always played a major role in the field of commercial dance music. Because this type of music is still regarded as a producer’s medium par excellence it is quite common that the artist’s position is inferior to the production concept. Also during the ’80s the actual artists were often an instrument of the producer’s creativity. The success of Solar Records was mainly based on the production and songwriting wizardry of one influential musician: Leon Frank Sylvers III. Leon Sylvers and a tight knit crew of Solar associated musicians and writers effortlessly provided quality music for a stable of seemingly interchangeable labelmates. They were the vehicles of the glorious Solar sound. Morrie Brown’s company Mighty M Productions, that at a certain time comprised the triumvirate of Kashif, Paul Lawrence Jones III (a.k.a. Paul Laurence) and Brown himself, developed a ground-breaking sound that played a significant role in the careers of Howard Johnson, Lillo Thomas, Kashif, Evelyn King and Melba Moore as well as in the evolution of urban electronic contemporary music in general. The fact that a recognizable production style was shared by different artists wasn’t necessarily a minus as long as the artists benefited from an inspiring collaboration with skilled top producers who had a clear vision.Self-contained R&B bands and autonomous black acts beyond compare such as One Way, Prince, The Isley Brothers, Zapp, Maze or Earth Wind & Fire followed a more personal course. The evolution of their unique styles was an inner process of natural renewal subtly influenced by the trends in the world of black music.

Self-contained R&B bands and autonomous black acts beyond compare such as One Way, Prince, The Isley Brothers, Zapp, Maze or Earth Wind & Fire followed a more personal course. The evolution of their unique styles was an inner process of natural renewal subtly influenced by the trends in the world of black music.
The achievements of all these remarkable sonic architects gave R&B music a new zest, lifting it up to a higher level of sophistication and enjoyment. The ’80s R&B producer’s craft was individual, private and behind the scenes. An obscure control room job virtually unknown to the general public. Their under-appreciated contribution to the development of black music was so substantial that they deserve an introduction. All to be discovered in the following digest that brings the merits of the often unsung ’80s heroes of the black recording industry into the limelight…

The author wishes to emphasize that the following survey doesn’t intend to be complete. Any suggestion, comment, idea, remark or additional info regarding this article is more than welcome.