Neo Soul Today

Neo Soul Today is an authoritative source for informed and intelligent opinion, reviews, news, and other content about neo soul music, its artists, culture, and industry.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Neo Soul Lexicon: The Controversial Phrase "Neo Soul"

By Sean
Editor-in-Chief, Neo Soul Today

Neo Soul Today is devoted to sharing information and opinion on neo soul music. The Neo Soul Lexicon series is devoted to establishing consensus around terminology to describe different aspects of the artform. Thus, we find it fitting to kick off the series with our position on the phrase "neo soul" itself.

The Origination of the Phrase "Neo Soul"
According to Wikipedia, the then Kedar Entertainment founder and Universal Records senior VP Kedar Massenburg coined the phrase "neo soul" in the late 1990s. However, according to a November 1998 Essence article titled "Brothers on the Move - Successful Black Men Under the Age of 40," the same Kedar Massenberg coined the phrase "neoclassic soul" to describe the then-budding R&B sub-genre during this same timeframe after discovering "original and self-contained" artists with "vision" such as D'Angelo and Erykah Badu.

"Neo Soul" or "Neoclassic Soul"
It turns out that Massenburg himself used both phrases -- "neo soul" and "neoclassic soul" -- interchangeably when interviewed about the new sub-genre by different media outlets. In a February 27, 2002 interview with The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on the eve of that year's Grammy's, Massenburg himself used both terms in the same interview. When asked by the program's Gwen Ifill to explain what "this neo soul movement" is, Massenburg did not correct her usage of the term and proceeded to characterize the sound, its current artists, and how they're reminiscent of older artists. After making comparisons of Erykah Badu to Billie Holiday and D'Angelo to Marvin Gaye he went on to say, "That's where you basically get the term from. You know, neoclassic soul. Because it's new soul music today from the classics."

So which one is it: "neo soul" or "neoclassic soul?" Granted, the phrase "neo soul" implies a new type of soul while the latter phrase, "neoclassic soul," is more specific and -- in our opinion -- more appropriate. Nevertheless, Neo Soul Today's investigation shows, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the two phrases were intended to mean the same thing. It is no secret that the "neo soul" moniker stuck. A simple analysis proves this. A Google search on the phrase "neo soul" returns over 219,000 hits compared to only 21 hits when searching for "neoclassic soul."

It is unclear to us exactly why the phrase "neo soul" caught on so strongly. In our opinion, it's rather unfortunate. However, in all fairness to Massenburg, we'll simply dismiss it as an honest oversight assuming that he didn't anticipate the impending controversy.

The Controversy Around the Phrase "Neo Soul"
Ironically, many of the artists who make neo soul what it is strongly dislike the phrase and dismiss it as merely a marketing label affixed to the artform by large record companies. Rather, they prefer for them and/or their work to be referred to as soul, art, music, or any other similar adjective that they deem appropriate. The following quotes are evidence of this.

"I know people are gonna categorize me as 'neo soul,' and I wanted to stay away from that as much as possible...I sort of came up with my own way of how it should be called. I don't think 'neo soul' fits me at all."
- Raphael Saadiq, VH1, June 2002

"Neo-soul is just another label...We don't make up those labels. Who knows where they come from? Probably from somebody who can make money by boxing it and selling it."
- Erykah Badu, Denver Post, February 2004

"Well nobody in Philly likes that term."
- Vikter Duplaix on the term "neo soul", Know The Ledge, April 2004

"I was really glad to hear her say that, although I've been saying the same thing for years...None of us like that whole 'neo-soul' tag. We understand that writers like these terms, and they pick them up. I'm a soul singer, period."
- Angie Stone on Chaka Khan adding her name to the list of artists critical of the term "neo soul", Nashville City Paper, September 2004

Love It or Hate It: The Music Will Always Be Recognized as "Neo Soul"
Our position on this issue should be obvious given the title of this blog. Love it or hate it: the music will always be recognized as "neo soul." It is what it is. While we agree with the artists' criticisms of the moniker "neo soul," we believe that this new artform is unique to the extent that considering it merely soul does it no justice. As (predominantly) generation X-ers who absolutely love this music and who purchase it mainly for its ability to reach the soul in a way that is fundamentally different from classic soul, a term is better than no term. We understand that the phrase is not a perfect one. However, without some way for listeners to distinguish it from classic soul (or all other R&B for that matter), we will have no access to it. Without access to the music means no listener access to the artists. Without listener access to the artists means empty seats at artist performances. Ultimately, this means no money in the pockets of the artists. Without money in the artists' pockets, there will be no more albums and the artform will fade away as quickly as the New Jack Swing fad of the late '80s-early '90s did.

It should comfort the artists to know that neo soul is a niche and its listeners are knowledgeable, mature, and conscious individuals around the world who know good soul music when they hear it. We love the music for the same reasons artists resist embracing the phrase "neo soul." So long as you don't succumb to the marketing pressures of supply and demand, we will still be here. Neo soul it is!

We welcome your viewpoints.


At June 30, 2005 9:22 AM, Blogger R7 Soulhemian said...

Wow! Talk about 'brilliant minds think alike"... LOL

But, your post is definitely informative. I didn't know about the Kedar interview and some of the other facts you have. VERY NICE. I was lucky to get so close to when the term started catching on.

I will definitely be checking out your blog, though and thanks for dropping by my 'sanctuary'

At July 03, 2005 3:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Great I came across your Blog and I love it, being a Neo Soul Artist you break it all down. Pru

At July 18, 2005 1:24 PM, Blogger Conroy said...

I really want to thank Pru for directing me to this Blog... Good-lookn' out Pru!!!... and 2. Thank you to you guys for shedding light on the whole "NeoSoul" experience...

I for one like the title... In greek or Latin, dosen't Neo mean "One" or "only"? If it does, I think that describes this genre to a 'T'. I know it means 'new' in some translations.

I'm looking forward to reading your next input:)

At September 26, 2005 6:45 PM, Anonymous DJ Stylus said...

Someone sent me a link to this site and I almost thought it was a joke. But you're actually dead serious, which makes it even funnier.

The reasoning is specious at best that an established definition (quantified even, with charts!) is necessary to keep the music of certain artists from mysteriously becoming unavailable to listeners.

Maybe if I read more of your posts I'll come to understand why the term "neo-soul" is in such need of scholarly inquiry.

Even when the artists themselves reject the definition of neo-soul you know what's best for them! Gotta save the music.

I guess you're trying to be the Stanley Crouch of neo-soul, using your blog as a tool to proclaim to the world that you're the pre-eminent expert on an irrelevent kind of musical taxonomy. Good luck on that.

Thanks for the laughs!

At September 26, 2005 7:58 PM, Blogger Neo Soul Today Staff said...

DJ Stylus,

Thanks for the commentary. Although your sarcasm was rather unfortunate, I value your opinion. I'm simply a passionate neo soul listener and collector with insights that apparently differ from yours. This blog will only become more "authoritative" when it begins to receive more diverse commentary (such as yours).

Your comment is the first that vastly disagrees with one of the missions of this blog. Right now, however, I stand by my opinion (based on personal interactions) that there is widespread confusion about what neo soul is and what it isn't. Yet, I'm encouraged by your comments because, first, it means that Neo Soul Today is reaching a wider audience with differing viewpoints. And second, more commentary will give me feedback as to whether I'm completely on or totally off the mark.

Keep coming back and hopefully we can agree to agree, disagree, or meet somewhere in the middle.

At September 26, 2005 10:47 PM, Anonymous DJ Stylus said...

There is indeed confusion about what "neo-soul" means. One of my points is that you haven't made a compelling argument on why it needs to be defined. The crux of your argument seems to hinge upon this:

However, without some way for listeners to distinguish it from classic soul (or all other R&B for that matter), we will have no access to it.

Several athletic (and improbable) leaps of reasoning are required to reach that statement.

I chose to rib you a bit rather than outright flame because there is one undercurrent in your opinion that is a pet peeve of mine.

You couch your motivations in altruism, as if meticulously defining a nebulous type of music will somehow open up the doors to success for so many worthy artists. As an artist myself, it smacks of pigeonholing, no matter how supportive it's framed.

It's the same mindset that has underground hip-hop heads defining the music they like and the communities they create around it as seperate (and superior). As soon as respected artists that fit into the narrow definition branch out with their music, they're no longer accepted by the diehards. Common's "Be" album saved him with this audience.

Everyone wants to belong to something bigger than themselves, that's another purpose I sense in this website. By defining "neo-soul", you're defining a comfortable place for yourself and for your "tribe".

The inevitable result of that is putting unnecessary constraints on the artists that you've built your circle of belonging around.

For instance, what's the point of debating whether or not Raheem is "neo-soul"? How does that help him increase his fanbase? I've known Raheem for years, he was doing demos in my basement with my roommate 6 years ago. I've seen him grow from a young kid with dreams into a seasoned professional. His shows and music appeal to the hood, to the boho/incense/nag champa set, to old heads who feel Marvin and Sam Cooke in his voice, to folks trying to shake their ass in the club... everyone! If you establish your neo-soul club by defining who is or who isn't welcome, it could easily and needlessly divide people when all that should matter is whether or not the music makes them feel good. The dreadlocked sista will sneer down her nose at the 'round the way girl because she can't partake of her precious neo-soul experience. Or the 'round the way might not even want to be bothered with the pretensions of those "conscious" folks. I see it happen all the time. Definitions breed perceptions which become reality.

All that should matter is connecting good music with people who will appreciate it. Reviews and artist spotlights are helpful in this regard, but do you really believe that rules, definitions, charts and graphs also achieve the same end?

At September 28, 2005 10:51 PM, Blogger Neo Soul Today Staff said...

Although I'm the originator and moderator of this topic, I'm going to abstain from rebutting further in this debate. Rather, I'd like for others to participate in this topic. Please express your opinions. As I've said elsewhere on this blog, at the end of the day, consensus rules; not the strong opinions of a few.

At January 30, 2007 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say that each of you have a good argument. I have created a "neo soul"(with some old soul, pop, R&B, reggae, jazz vocalists and acid jazz mixed in) playlist with over 2100 songs. I play this playlist for gatherings at my house all the time. Some guests are familiar with the "neo soul" genre but most are not. I am constantly asked "who is that?" and complimented on the music even though most have never heard any of the songs or artists. So the music definitely has a wide appeal.

However, when listening there is a definite difference between those that are generally considered neo soul and the other genres. I have to agree with the blogger that the label does aid someone like me to find artists I would never come across. For example, I can type neo soul into a search engine and find artists to add to my collection. Doing this I have found mostly pearls along with a few duds but I never would have found either without the label of neo soul.

I also understand the DJ Stylus point of view. Pigeon-holing can be a kiss of death for an artist/genre. Especially if that genre is falsely claimed by a particular demographic like Stylus illustrated. I, myself, do not feel I fit into the typical neo soul stereotype and I love the music. So do the many I have played the music for who would not know neo soul from a Dodge Neon.

In the end, I would have to say that the label should be kept to help those like me find artists that are generally not publicized. Unfortunately, I do not see the genre being passed down as the "classic" soul was to us Gen-Xers.

At May 23, 2008 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think its funny how people don't like the term 'neo-soul' but I've never heard people complain about being an r&b artist. Neo soul music really doesn't have any boundaries (which is why I disagree that Raheem is not a neo soul artist) if you make good, soul music then you can be considered neo soul. Art has no limitations. If we as fans stop limiting our artist then maybe the title wont bother them so much.


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