In the 90s, something strange was happening in R&B music. A European instrument associated with snootiness and English aristocrats, the harpsichord, all of sudden snuck its way into Black American music. How did this happen?
It’s not unusual for cultures to collide. And for Black people, that collision normally entails Black musicians taking instruments of European origin and using them as the foundation for a completely new genre. Then white people “appropriate” that sound and capitalize off of its mainstream success. (As Little Richard would say, “Y’all ain’t never gave me nothing.”) For instance, the banjo is often associated with an “authentic” bluegrass, American sound. However, its origin is African. Just look at its name – ban-jo. Then there’s the organ – most commonly associated with Black gospel music. However, the instrument’s origin is in Europe. All of these are examples of ingenuity and the ability to manipulate the sounds of instruments of different origins. Yet, somehow, I still find it a peculiar happenstance for the harpsichord sound to become a prominent component of mid-to-late 90s R&B.
I wish someone could explain how the harpsichord (an instrument from the Middle Ages) got a brief surge in popularity again in 90s pop and R&B music. It’s never made sense to me.— Chris Salih (@salihdotchris) February 18, 2018
At first, I thought the use of the harpsichord in modern music was a phenomenon of the late 90s. It may have accelerated in the 90s. However, its use in modern music stretches back to the 60s. So, I tried my best to jog my memory of the oldest record I’ve listened to that used a harpsichord. Was Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” the first record that used a harpsichord? Nah. That’s a harp. Isn’t it? Or was it the classical inclinations of soul superstar Issac Hayes? I don’t recall him ever using the harpsichord.
According to Contributor Magazine, the first R&B artist to use the harpsichord was Sam Cooke in 1961. Ironically, the article did not mention which song it was. So, I spent about an hour listening to songs released by Sam Cooke in 1961 and still don’t know what song they’re referring to. Yet, this still doesn’t explain the prevalence of the harpsichord’s use from the late 90s to the early 00s R&B. The first song that came to mind with a prominent harpsichord sound is the She’kspere produced, Kandi and Tiny-written “No Scrubs” sung by Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes and Rozanda “Chili” Thomas (TLC). I remember when this song came out. All the girls were singing it to the top of their lungs on the school bus. I set befuddled trying to process it all, “What is a scrub? And why is there an entire song about it?” (Bonus – check out Kandi’s “Don’t Think I’m Not.”)
Then there was the song “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child. In addition, before it veered into a guitar’s revenge, there was the traditional sound of the harpsichord on Janet Jackson’s “Trust a Try.” (Thank you Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis!) Yes, these examples lean towards the attributes of pop music. But there were also the gospel chords and vocal inflections on songs like Kelly Prices’ “Should Have Told Me” and Mary J. Blige’s “Share My World.”
After many Google searches for why this happened, my Google search came up void. The use of the harpsichord in R&B just reflects the imagination of Black art – taking the most strait-laced instrument made in history and twisting its original purpose to create a sound of our own that plucks the strings of our heart and soothes our soul.