This is kind of apropos of nothing but I think one thing that holds true about retro-anything (but especially in retro-soul) is an implicit – and in many cases, explicit – hostility towards its equivalent in the contemporary moment. I mean, that’s not some brilliant insight – it should be rather obvious – but one of the things I find most interesting in how retro-minded artists speak about their motivations, whether the Poets of Rhythm back 20 years ago or Aloe Blacc today, is how it’s always framed as a confrontation of sorts.

For the early “deep funk” artists back in the 1990s, they were pushing back against acid jazz and p-funk. Today’s retro-soulsters feel alienated from contemporary R&B aesthetics (which is, in my opinion,is also a reaction against how hip-hop production has changed too).

I think retro-minded music-making would happen in ANY era; that’s not surprising or unusual. But the idea of a *movement* built around a particular resurrection of the past is always going to be tied into some kind of dissatisfaction with the present. It’s not mutually exclusive – you don’t have to hate everything about the present just because you like styles of yore – but just the same, you don’t build an audience and community of artists without a strong enough shared set of interests and shared dissatisfaction/hostility makes for an awfully good kind of social glue.

Therefore, if you want to really get at the motivations for why there’s been a growth in retro-soul, it comes back to figuring out, at least partially, “what do people dislike about contemporary music?” And those opinions may certainly conform to things like age, race, class, geography, etc. but you have to begin with the attitudes and values that people place on not just the styles being resurrected but the styles of the moment that people take issue with.




  1. Oliver,

    I’d be curious about your reaction to what Boots Riley says in the first paragraph of his comments over here:

    It’s way out of context– he was talking at a 2006 Stanford roundtable– and he’s more concerned with critical acceptance than with cultural appropriation, but touches on both:

    “Ten years later, ten years from now it’s gonna be some white kids making music that sounds like lil jon and black folks are gonna have moved on, but that music is going to be called the intelligent music.”

    For my part, one thing that makes me uncomfortable with retro music is that it just seems inherently culturally conservative.


  2. Matthew,

    It’s interesting you should raise this. Don’t know if you saw this but it seems totally apropos to what you’re discussing:

    I think that post overstates things since it’s premised on the idea that “remix” culture (really, meaning contemporary mash-ups) has gotten more attention than mixtape culture and I don’t buy that argument at all. Nonetheless, it, like Boots’ comments, tries to posit how race and music can be perceived through age-old, racist tropes that usually suggest that “white musical culture” is intelligent while “black musical culture” is emotional, etc. etc. 

    This all said, while I hear where Boots is coming from, “Death Certificate” is a tough example to put out there because, *today*, I think the album is widely understood/praised for its political content. I don’t really have a memory of it being treated as less socially-conscious than Black Sheep’s album (which I don’t ever recall being thought of as socially-conscious in the same way, say, a BDP album was) but hey, it’s been almost 20 years; maybe I’m just mis-remembering. Regardless, if white kids came out with some Lil Jon-sounding music in 2016 and it was praised as “intelligent,” well…I wouldn’t be surprised so I guess I share Boots’ cynicism. I don’t think his overall idea is off; just his examples. 

    Is retro music inherently culturally conservative? Yeah, I think it is but that doesn’t make it politically/socially conservative which I think is a relevant distinction. That doesn’t negate the criticism and I do think there is an uncomfortable way in which retro soul, in particular, involves mostly white musicians and fans making judgments about which eras of black music to value and which not. Yet, I still enjoy the music which could reveal something about my own cultural conservatism but I think things like musical taste are rarely forged out of a deliberate decision of what to like. We like what we like and while we can unpack WHY we favor some sounds over others, I think it’s ultimately an emotional response that is valuable and powerful because it can’t be easily rationalized. 

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