Chucky Thompson was the architect of hip hop soul
The successful music producer, who died on Aug. 9, provided a template for 90s R&B and Hip Hop that continues to resonate decades later.
When Mary J. Blige’s My Life documentary hit Amazon Prime two months ago, fans were able to get a glimpse into how one of the greatest R&B albums of the last quarter-century was created.
If Mary J. Blige is the queen of Hip Hop Soul, then Chucky Thompson is its architect. His production and composing on My Life codified Black music production for decades to come and his imprint on Black popular music in the 90s cannot be overstated.
Thompson died on Aug. 9, reportedly from COVID, per theGrio. Although My Life as a full body of work reigns as his magnum opus, his influence as a producer gave a generation of composers and beatmakers the permission to put samples front and center on records as well as smooth things down in the face of rapid rhythms.
Although he is not always referenced among his peers of the time like DeVante Swing, Trackmasters, or Rodney Jerkins, Thompson was the bridge between new jack swing and neo-soul.
As the kinetic fusion between hip-hop dance beats with gospel-influenced R&B vocals was being perfected by Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis, and dabbled with by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and LA Reid, Dr. Dre was forging a new style of production and sampling that gave rap a more deftly melodic-based sound.
Thompson, a D.C. native who’d cut his teeth playing with go-go legend Chuck Brown, was the East Coast answer to that. However, he opted to incorporate the grit and analog sound of 70s soul with the anguish and slick lyricism of 90s hip hop.
Thompson introduced classic soul music to an audience that didn’t even realize how much it already had a connection with songs that were over two decades in the rearview.
He was an inaugural member of Sean “Diddy” Combs production team The Hitmen, a group that would go on to take the Billboard charts hostage for the rest of the decade. Thanks to the groundwork he laid, the team had a blueprint to work from.
Soon, songs like Total’s “Can’t You See,” Mase’s “Feel So Good,” and Puffy’s “Been Around The World” would dominate both Black and white radio with ease and frequency, all by drawing from the example first set by Thompson’s work.
“A lot of music happening at that time reflected 20 years back, which was the 70s which was just a lot of Blaxploitation films and just that energy of street music and street life,” Thompson said in Mary J. Blige’s My Life documentary.
The paradigm would shift with My Life. While sampling on R&B records had already commenced in the late 80s, Thompson’s approach of crafting new melodies of familiar soul classics was as radical and unorthodox as it was revolutionary and effective.
He added new sheen to songs like Barry White’s “It’s Ecstasy When You’re Next To Me,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love” and Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” giving birth to new R&B classics from Blige: “You Bring Me Joy,” “I’m The Only Woman,” and “My Life.”
“Just like the My Life album is medicine for a lot of people, as we were pulling in Curtis Mayfield and Barry White samples, that was medicine for Mary to expose herself the way that she did,” Thompson told the Recording Academy last month to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the album.
She’s a soldier. Imagine writing a letter talking about the most personal stuff, then it ends up on MTV. She was in the studio crying a couple of times, but she’d wipe the tears and go back to work. I’m just happy that things turned out the way they did.”
Sampling soul classics would morph from being the exception into the rule after Thompson crafted crossover rap hits for The Notorious B.I.G. with “One More Chance” and “Big Poppa.” Leaving the sample source of The Isley Brothers’ “Between The Sheets” virtually unaltered on the latter, Biggie was able to do what Blige did with My Life; lend his indistinguishable voice and way with words to a song most were already familiar with.
We would see it again when Thompson collaborated with Nas on his 2001 Stillmatic album. Thompson transformed Phil Collins‘ “In The Air Tonight” into “One Mic.” Inspired by, and retaining the spirit of the slow, foreboding emotional build of the original, Nas’ gradual vocal crescendo throughout each of the first two verses as the beat built to an explosive climax took Thompson’s sampling and production skills to new heights.
“One Mic” remains a critical jewel in Nas’ catalog; another perfect marriage of sample source with an artist lyrically and vocally expressing profound desperation and fearlessness.
But Thompson wasn’t confined to sampling. As a composer, he was able to instigate Black radio’s evolving sound. His high-hanging synth notes floating over liquid, muted bass lines with whip-cracking snare drums soon became the new standard as the game was transitioning out of the urgent, dance-driven new jack swing.
It was this sound that made Usher’s “Think Of You” catch everyone’s attention as a young teen R&B up-and-comer. Co-writers Faith Evans and Donell Jones would learn from Thompson and elevate as artists themselves with his production as a backdrop and prototype.
It was that sound that catapulted Evans’ 1995 debut into an instant classic, thanks to Thompson’s compositions and production of hits like “Soon As I Get Home,” and “You Used to Love Me.”
But Thompson’s influence extended beyond the Bad Boy camp. Had it not been for songs like Evans’ “Ain’t Nobody” and “You Used To Love Me,” we may have never gotten Whitney Houston’s “Heartbreak Hotel” from Soulshock and Karlin, Case’s “Touch Me, Tease Me,” (co-written by Blige and Case, among others) or Donell Jones’ “Shorty (Got Her Eyes On Me)” co-written and produced by Jones.
Those same funky, mid-tempo snare hits and muted bass would lead to the creation of songs like Brandy’s “Baby” and “I Wanna Be Down,” (co-written and produced by Keith Crouch) “Like This and Like That,” from Monica, co-written and produced by Dallas Austin, or Immature’s “Watch Me Do My Thing,” co-written by Kel Mitchell with a sample from Average White Band.
The sub-genres languid blend of soul with hip-hop rhythms played with the facilities and subtleties of jazz musicians may have never gone beyond being a niche movement if Thompson’s reintroduction of 70s soul to 90s consumers hadn’t been accepted so openly.
More recently, Thompson was able to show off his skills in the neo-soul realm with Raheem DeVaughn’s Grammy-nominated 2007 single “Woman,” featuring his signature snare and bass technique. At the time of his passing, he was also working on Diddy’s latest project Off the Grid Vol. 1 and a documentary on the D.C. go-go scene called Chucky Thompson Presents D.C. Go-Go.
It’s a shame, yet again, that it took someone’s death to recognize what they gave to the world. Thompson’s mark on Black music and culture is indelible, and it’s time he gets the attention he deserved.
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