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Underground Songs & Unsung Icons

by Yasmin Daguilh & Asia Clark

As with any part of Black culture, Black music isn’t defined by one thing. However all Black music can be considered “a miracle of sound, an experience that can really happen only once…you’re not capturing the arrangement of notes, per se. You’re catching the spirit.” (Moris, The New York Times, “Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music”). Black musicians have influenced so many aspects of music, especially what we consider “American music” since folk songs were first heard on plantations and developed into Blues and Rock n’ Roll to Atlanta rappers propelling the creation of newer genres like trap which are still popular today.

Below, we outline some of our favorite songs from unsung icons of the past — lesser known musicians who deserve to be recognized for their contributions to music history, to underground musicians breaking barriers with unique sounds today.

1. Willie "Big Mama" Thornton, Hound Dog (1952)

“Hound Dog” is a record recognized for being one of the most famous songs in Rock n' Roll history, however like many Rock n’ Roll tracks, the original by Big Mama Thornton is lesser known than the Elvis Presely cover. Despite selling 500,000 singles, this was Thornton’s only hit record — the Elvis Presley cover which topped the charts and went on to sell 10 million.

2. Martha and the Vandellas, (Love is Like a) Heatwave (1963)

This song is not forgotten by any means, but Martha and the Vandellas — a quartet comprised of Annette Beard, Rosalind Ashford and Gloria Williams and lead singer Martha Reeves — aren't the first group that comes to mind when thinking about the legacy of Motown Records. This song was actually the first Motown Record to be nominated for a Grammy Award and helped popularize the "Motown sound" that came to be synonymous with performers like The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and The Jackson 5.

3. Labi Siffre, I Got The… (1975) Labi Siffre is British performer from the disco era. He was one of the first openly gay and Black artists on the scene. He broke barriers while his songs transcended genre. This song, while not his best known, is unique in that it was sampled in Eminem's famous hit "My Name Is.”

4. Gwen Guthrie, Larry Levan Peanut Butter (1983) Labi Siffre is British performer from the disco era. He was one of the first openly gay and Black artists on the scene. He broke barriers while his songs transcended genre. This song, while not his best known, is unique in that it was sampled in Eminem's famous hit "My Name Is.”

5. Blaque, 808 (1999) The girl group Blaque was formed in the early 90s by members Natina Reed, Shamari Fears and Brandi Williams. They catapulted into fame with cameos in Lil’ Kim music videos and collaborations with the Backstreet Boys, but their career was shorter lived than other popular groups of that time, like TLC. Despite this, they are forever cemented in culture for playing iconic roles as Clover cheerleaders in the cult classic "Bring It On."

6. Teedra Moses, Be Your Girl (2004) A wardrobe artist turned musician, a lot of Moses' most famous works are songs she wrote for other people (like Mary J. Blige), but this song has taken on a second life for the 44-yr old musician due to the popularity of DJ Kaytranada’s 2018 remix.

7. Phony Ppl, Compromise (2015)Musicians to their core, Phony Ppl is a five-piece Brooklyn-based band best known for playing intimate venues in the city like Mercury Lounge, but their collaboration with Megan Thee Stallion and incredible NPR Tiny Desk concert should have them headlining mainstages soon.

8. Rosehardt, Fall Into You (2017) Caleb Eberhard is the self-produced one-man band behind Rosehardt. His 2017 solo EP showcases his West Coast roots and East Coast influence, having studied at SUNY Purchase. This track made it to popular indie channel "Colors".

9. Madison McFerrin, Shine (2018) Despite the weight of her last name, her father is folk-jazz legend Bobby McFerrin, Madison is earning her own reputation in the industry. This track is built entirely of her own vocal samples and a loop to create layered harmonies and the beat.

10. Chika, SONGS ABOUT YOU (2020) If you were in Soho in May 2019, it would have been hard to miss Chika in the Calvin Klein billboard on Houston Street, but she is more than a model and influencer, the singer and rapper has lyrics that are as tongue-in-cheek as they are catchy.

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11. Thundercat, Funny Thing (2020) The music video for this quarantune features footage from the 1970s, but despite its disco roots, the track has gained traction with the new kids on TikTok. Thundercat is a Los Angeles based musician who wields humorous lyrics and an epic bass.

Listen to these tracks and more replay-worthy music from the past and present in our playlist here. For more information on the history of Black music in America, listen to the 1619’s podcast on “The Birth of Black Music”.