by Malaika Jabali
The BET Hip Hop Awards has long been an event that represents an institution that Black people, the Boondocks, and a fictional Martin Luther King love to hate—or just hate-hate.
But recently, it gave us this moment...
This performance was a throwback to a golden era in popular music, when black female musicians, were indeed celebrated in all their fullness. To prove it to you, I am bringing you a list of 35 hitmakers and music icons from the 90s, many of whom you probably forgot were as great as they were. These women span a plethora of genres. Some artists’ names are likely very familiar, while others may be virtually unrecognizable. Regardless, these women -- hip-hop, R&B, soul, pop, and a few one-hit wonders -- made bona fide hits.
This is a reminder of how talented and diversified Black women music artists can be.
The list is limited to Black women who had a popular hit song between 1990 and 1999. To qualify, the song must have been charted on a major Billboard music chart during this time. No exceptions, which is why you may not see some of your favorites. I have also broken the artists up by the genre they performed in.
Dionne Farris- “I Know.” One of the few black alternative rock ladies of the era, Dionne Farris found a major hit in “I Know.” A bit of a departure from, “Hopeless,” her soul hit featured in Love Jones, “I Know” spent 10 straight weeks as the number one song on Top 40 radio. (Wikipedia). Along with Monstsho Eshe of the group Arrested Development, Farris also lent vocals to the group’s top 10 hits “Tennessee” and “People Everyday.”
Des’ree- “You Gotta Be.” While “Kissing You” was another popular song of Desiree’s and featured on the R + J soundtrack, “You Gotta Be” became a mainstream hit, reaching #5 in the BIllboard Hot 100.
Amel Larrieux of Groove Theory- “Tell Me.” Like other alternative R&B artists of the 90s, Groove Theory was worried its label wouldn't be able to sell this hybrid of soul and traditional R&B. That concern was easily overcome by the fact that “Tell Me,” with Amel’s leading vocals, reached #5 on the Hot 100.
Les Nubians- “Makeda.” Despite their single being entirely in French, Les Nubians’ successful single landed in the Top 50 of Billboard’s R&B/hip hop charts in 1998.
Contemporary/Adult R&B/aka Grown Folks Music
Oleta Adams- “Get Here.” While this was not an original-- it was a cover of a modestly successful song that debuted previously on R&B charts-- Adams took this song and wrangled it to a top 10 Billboard hit that would probably be the damn national anthem if we didn’t already have one.
Toni Braxton- “Unbreak My Heart.” Some may forget just how huge Toni was back in the 90s. While Toni had numerous successful singles, “Unbreak My Heart” was a phenomenon. It reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent 11 weeks at the top. It also reached number one on the Hot Dance Club Songs and Adult Contemporary component charts, and “[i]n Europe, the song reached the top five in more than ten countries while peaking at number one in Austria, Belgium (Wallonia), Sweden, and Switzerland.”
Chante Moore- “Chante’s Got a Man.” Barely squeezing into the 90s with this hit, Chante reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1999, a peak higher than Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life (#15), Shania Twain’s country hit “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” (23) and Juvenile’s ‘99 to the 2000’ ratchet classic “Back that Azz Up” (15).
Pebbles- “Love Makes Things Happen.” Aside from being your favoritest ever, super generous TLC manager, Pebbles gave us this major chart topper (#13 on the Hot 100) with superproducer Babyface.
Vanessa Williams- “Save the Best for Last.” According to the handy Wikipedia, “‘Save the Best for Last’ was ranked fourth in the Billboard Top 100 hits of 1992, becoming the biggest success of Williams' music career. The song also went to #1 on the U.S. adult contemporary and R&B charts; it remained atop these charts for three weeks apiece.”
Thea Austin of Snap!- “Rhythm is a Dancer.” “Reached the top 5 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the US Hot Dance Music/Club Play Singles,” and spent 6 weeks at “the top in the UK where it was the second biggest selling single of 1992, surpassed only by Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You." (Wikipedia).
Anita Doth of 2Unlimited- “Get Ready for This,” Heard in probably every sports arena in America, this jam and “Twilight Zone” from Dutch frontman and woman Ray Sliinjgard and Anita Doth were among the group’s 16 internationally charting hits.
Tania Evans of Culture Beat- “Mr. Vain.” With a slew of international hits, Tania’s group found American success with “Mr. Vain,” which reached #1 in 13 countries.
Rozalla- “Everybody’s Free.” This Zimbabwean artist found chart gold with her record, as it was a top 20 single in a dozen countries.
Robin S.- “Show me Love.” Robin Stone had major beginner’s luck. Her debut single was a top 5 hit on the Billboard 100, #1 on the Hot Dance/Clup Play chart, and reached the top 20 in 8 other countries.
Shanice- “I Love Your Smile.” Shanice was only 18 when she was deemed the “newest shining star in pop/R&B” (USA Today, 1992). Her hit record peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US and the UK Singles Charts; it hit the top of the Dutch Top 40 and it peaked within the top ten on the charts in France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Australia and Austria.
Olga Souza of Corona- “Rhythm of the Night.” The Brazilian singer cranked out a platinum selling, internationally charting single, which remained #1 on the Italian charts for 13 weeks.
Melanie Thornton of La Bouche- “Be My Lover.” This song, along with Sweet Dreams by German-American outfit La Bouche, featured Thorntan on lead vocals. Both songs landed in the top 20 in at least 8 countries, certifying their status as global hits.
Martha Wash- “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Considered the “Most Famous Unknown Woman of the 90s,”(WBAI, 2014). Walsh was victim of an odd feature of dance music in this era. Marketing and videos of many singles eliminated any trace of the lead vocalist. Instead, the promotional posters would feature a model (interestingly, that model was usually black) who would lip-sync the vocals in the respective video. Martha Walsh—famous in the prior decade for gay anthem “It’s Raining Men”—was unfortunately a casualty of this Milli-Vanilli abuse. However, she won her day in court for vocal credits and her campaign led to federal legislation on the subject.
Ya Kid K- “Pump Up the Jam.”Her lyrics were lip synced and fronted by a model in the video, and her contribution initially went uncredited in “Pump up the Jam.” However, the Congolese-Belgian artist-- who would fall right in with the tumblr blipster crowd-- lent lead vocals on what was one of the most popular, iconic dance and house songs of the 90s.
Hip Hop Honies
Da Brat- “Funkdafied.” She might be more famous now for being related to Lisa Raye and somehow connected to Mariah Carey, but Da Brat was the first female solo rapper to have a platinum-selling album, and her single was a top 10 Billboard hit. (Wikipedia)
Gangsta Boo- “Where Dem Dollas At.” A successful hit below the Mason-Dixon, Gangsta Boo’s single landed her a place on Complex’s list of the “Top 50 Rap Songs by Women.”
Eve- “What Ya Want.” Eve’s debut album, Let There Be Eve...Ruff Ryders' First Lady, was “an unprecedented success, making it the third album by a female rap artist to top the Billboard 200, behind Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) and Foxy Brown's Chyna Doll (1999)(Wikipedia).
Queen Latifah- “U.N.I.T.Y.” Latifah’s single “won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. It remains Latifah's biggest hit single in the USA to date, and her only one to reach the Top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100.” (Wikipedia).
Lady of Rage- “Afro Puffs.” This joint, which made me proud of my au natural naps, charted #57 on the Billboard Hot 100. To give that some perspective, “Afro Puffs” charted higher than a slew of hits from our current twin towers of black lady singers. Yes, higher than Rihanna’s “Pour It Up,” “Looovesong,” and “Stay” and beating out Bey’s “Video Phone,” “Partition,” and “Countdown.”
MC Lyte- “Keep on, Keepin’ On.” While this hit became Lyte’s highest charting single, reaching #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, she also found major success with the Grammy nominated “Ruffneck” and “Cold Rock a Party.”
New School R&B
Brandy- “That Boy is Mine.” Since she’s the inspiration of this list, let’s take a moment to reflect on Brandy’s 90s popularity. The pace of the entertainment industry can induce collective amnesia, so we have to be mindful of the black women who really paved the way in music. As Wikipedia tells us, “since her 1994 debut album, [Brandy] has won over 100 awards as a recording artist and sold over 30 million records worldwide.” She had 7 top 10 hits, none more renowned than “That Boys is Mine.” This duet with Monica “became the best-selling song of the year in the US, spending 13 weeks on top of the US Billboard Hot 100 during the summer of 1998.”
Changing Faces- “Stroke You Up.” Reaching #3 on the pop charts, “Stroke You Up” was just a couple paces behind “Whoomp There it Is” and ahead of Snoop’s “Gin and Juice” in the year end Billboard chart for the most popular songs of 1994.
Divine- “Lately.” This platinum-selling single from the girl group peaked at #1 on the Hot 100 and beat out Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playing Games with My Heart” in Billboard’s list of most popular songs of 1998.
Jade- “Don’t Walk Away.” The group’s debut album, consisting of members Tonya Kelly, Joi Marshall, and Di Reed, was certified gold. It scored Jade two top 10 R&B hits and two more top 20 singles. The biggest among those was “Don’t Walk Away,” which peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart and #7 in the Top 40 Official Singles Chart UK in 1993. That year also happened to be incredible for black music artists, as 13 of the 15 biggest singles in 1993 were by black artists, a feat practically unfathomable today.
Michel’le- “Something in My Heart.” Michel’le followed her 1989 megahit “No More Lies,” with the R&B jam that charted in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100.
Monifah- “Touch It.” Monifah’s song “... became a world wide hit, and was a top 40 hit in several other countries. In the US it went to No. 9 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B charts.”
Mya- “Case of the Ex.” Mya may have disappeared in the 2010s, but this singer/trained dancer had 8 songs reach the Hot 100, with her biggest hit, Case of the Ex” reaching #2 on the Hot 100 and spending 30 weeks on the charts.
Nicole Wray- “Make it Hot.” Wray’s 1998 debut single was a major hit, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, which was hotter than N’Sync’s “I Want You Back” (#13), Wyclef’s “Gone Til November” (#7), and the Mother’s Day staple “A Song for Mama” by Boyz to Men (#7).
SWV- “Weak,” “I’m So Into You.” Two of SWV’s many charting songs, “Weak” and “I’m So Into You” were among the group’s most famous. The former was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two consecutive weeks.
These 35 women are just some of the black solo artists and groups on mainstream radio within that 10 year window. In compiling this list, I found there were at least 75 black women and groups who had major, charting hits in the 90s.
Now let’s think about that. How many black lady musicians have debuted and been successful in the same 10-year time frame between 2004 and 2014? Beyond the standard nods to Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, it’s hard to think of many new artists. In less than twenty years we have all but disappeared from mainstream radio.
There are myriad reasons for this decline. A big factor is due to an economic system that continues to put pressure on companies to maximize profits at the expense of everything else. When the FCC passed the landscape-changing media consolidation rules in 1996 , it encouraged mega-companies to buy out indepedent, locally owned radio . And Black radio was among the primary victims.
This means that today, artists like Dionne Farris and Erykah Badu would be too hard to market in today’s climate, because their sound would be deemed “too risky.” And for record companies, reducing risk means more trotting out of formulaic tripe.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever see another decade in music like the 90s given our economic landscape. Until the day comes that we invest in independent channels to promote the wide array of black music effectively and successfully, we must rely on our memories to remind ourselves that our voices carry many rich, diverse tunes.
Malaika Jabali is a regular contributor at For Harriet. Her J.D. does not preclude her from communicating with cleverly placed emojis and on instagram @missjabali.