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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 February, 2004, 00:36 GMT
The rise and rise of urban music

By Ian Youngs
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Rap and R&B artists Beyonce, Jay-Z and OutKast dominated the nominations for this year's Grammy awards, confirming urban music's place at the heart of popular culture.

The Neptunes' Pharrell Williams (left) with Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake's sound has been shaped by producers like The Neptunes
In little more than 25 years, a new style of music that began as a fringe scene in inner-city America has risen to become arguably the most popular and influential movement in global pop.

The urban scene - broadly covering hip-hop, rap and R&B - is firmly at the heart of mainstream culture in 2004, with its music and imagery impossible to ignore.

Urban music is officially the most popular style in the US - overtaking rock in 2002 and now accounting for 25% of sales.

Another landmark was reached in October 2003 when, for the first time, all the artists with top 10 singles in the US were black.

Producers like The Neptunes, who have worked with the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, have shaped the modern pop sound.

Graph showing rise in US urban music sales

And urban artists have dominated the charts, with hip-hop duo OutKast recently spending two months at numbers one and two in the singles chart and on top of the albums chart.

It is not just a US phenomenon - new urban stars have won the UK's Mercury Music Prize for the best album of the year for the last two years, while even Prince Charles is getting in on the act, hosting an urban music festival in May.

Middle America has totally embraced urban music in the last 12 months, according to Toussaint Davy, editor of Tense magazine.

"When you have people like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera working with rappers and prominent producers, it's only a matter of time before it starts filtering down to everyone else," he says.

"The thing about hip-hop is that it's a very dynamic form of expression and you can't really hold back progress."

The music's pace and style suits today's fast consumer-led culture, he says - and it is now the musical heritage of all America, not just young black inner-cities.

Beyonce Knowles with Prince Charles
Prince Charles is to host an urban music festival in London
Chris Blenkarn, deputy editor of urban magazine Touch, says a new generation of fans is now coming through.

"They've obviously grown up listening to hip-hop and R&B and they're doing their own thing with it."

While more established styles like pop and rock have few new ideas to explore, this young street music is still evolving and experimenting.

"It's the most exciting thing out there, it's doing fresh things, it's not just some guys with guitars moaning about their girlfriends," Mr Blenkarn says.

"That's why people like it - because it's doing something fresh and it's always pushing boundaries that other types of music aren't."

This pattern of evolution - with black music being adopted by the mainstream - has been around since jazz and blues spread in the early 20th Century.

Victoria Beckham with Damon Dash
Victoria Beckham has teamed up with hip-hop producer Damon Dash
But modern hip-hop music was born in the mid-1970s when the vibrant funk, disco and soul scenes collided - helped by rapidly developing technology that spawned synthesisers and drum machines.

R&B music has taken a different path, growing out of the soul of the 1960s and 70s, with a more sleek and romantic sound.

But the two styles have now come together, giving R&B a harder edge and, in turn, making hip-hop more polished and commercial.

Beyonce, a R&B singer, and rapper Jay-Z found this formula worked very well when their collaboration Crazy in Love became a global smash in 2003.

'Rewrites the rules'

And the excitement and innovation is likely to last for some time, Mr Davy says.

"Sometimes I think 'has it all run out of steam?'" he says.

"And then you hear something like Beyonce's tune and it rewrites the rules. And it transcends all barriers.

"It's never going to stop - the more people get involved with the dynamism of the music, the more the music will move on."


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