I assume most music lovers believe they grew up at the best time to be a music fan. Everyone knows that the music they listened to in high school and college was the best music. I’m a child of the 80s and 90s. It was an amazing time to grow up as a music lover. I’m not here to analyze the greatness of the music of that era. Instead I’m going to focus in on one genre and uncover a hidden gem.
I’ve been listening to rhythm & blues for most of my life and I still don’t know how to define it. I always assumed it was just a lazy way to categorize popular music by black artists. However, I can think of no more popular black artists than Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Prince when I was a kid and I’m not sure I’d categorize any of them as R&B. When I was a kid R&B music was adult contemporary. Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, and Anita Baker were big but the youth wasn’t exactly digging their music. Atlantic Starr. James Ingram. Peabo Bryson. Same thing. Whitney Houston was on the pop charts but she started out on some adult shit. Go back and take a listen to her debut album. That was a 21-year-old with a grown ass woman’s voice singing quiet storm music about being someone’s sidepiece. I’m sure geography had a lot to do with it, but I didn’t know anyone younger than my parents listening to her music until she went full pop with songs like “So Emotional” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. Then New Edition – more specifically Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown – brought R&B into the hip hop era and made music that appealed to people under 40. Rappers were spitting verses on R&B tracks. R&B singers were dropping hooks for rappers. Times were good.
They got even better when artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, and Tony Toni Toné brought more live instrumentation and soul back into R&B. By the mid to late-90s we had R. Kelly, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Destiny’s Child, Usher, Jodeci/K-Ci & JoJo, TLC, SWV, Blackstreet, 112, Dru Hill, etc. I don’t want to unfairly stick anyone with the one-hit-wonder label, but you also had unforgettable tracks by artists that quickly came and went. Any list of the best songs of the 90s that doesn’t include classics like “Where My Girls At?” by 702, “Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison, or appallingly stupid boner anthem “Too Close” by Next is incomplete. R&B was overflowing with hits.
In the midst of this golden era Timbaland and Missy Elliott came out of Virginia with a mind-blowing, futuristic sound and planted their flag at the top of that mountain. They brought their crew with them, too. Missy was dropping classics and Timbaland & Magoo were the soundtrack to every party I attended during that entire era. Aaliyah was already established after her debut album under R. Kelly’s…umm…tutelage? We’ll call it tutelage. I’ve heard ugly shit about the R. Kelly/Aaliyah relationship and I prefer to leave that alone and pretend/wish it never happened. Let’s just say Aaliyah got a fresh start with Timbaland and Missy and her music was much better for it. Ginuwine took the world by storm with “Pony” and continued with a string of hits that kept him dominating the airwaves for several years.
Timbaland and Missy had their stamp all over the R&B music scene at the time with memorable music that still gets play to this day. They also had some lesser known artists who got a shot along the way. Nicole Wray dropped one of the coolest, sexiest jams of the era with “Make it Hot” featuring Missy Elliott. There was one forgotten band that dropped one of the best – and certainly most slept on – R&B albums of the late-90s. That band was a trio out of Louisville, KY by the name of Playa. Just for clarification, that’s Playa as in Player, not playa as in Spanish for beach. “What up, playa?” not, “Vamos a la playa.” Playa consisted of three gentlemen named Smoke E. Digglera, Digital Black, and Static Major. From what I gather Static Major was the brains behind the operation as he had been a member of Swing Mob or Da Bassment, a collective of like-minded R&B/hip hop artists that included Timbaland, Missy, and Devante Swing. Static was frequently featured in their music and also wrote for Aaliyah, Ginuwine, and Destiny’s Child, among others.
Playa’s debut album Cheers 2 U was released in March of 1998 in the midst of the aforementioned R&B boom. It peaked at #86 on the Billboard Hot 200 in July of that year. While it didn’t go platinum or even gold, the album produced a modest hit when the title track – a dope mellow slow jam – cracked the Billboard Top 40. Of course, I’m not here to talk about any of this. Of all the ICYMI posts I’ve written thus far, this one might be the most obscure. So obscure that the song only has 25,000 views and 334 likes on YouTube. So obscure that when I purchased Cheers 2 U on vinyl last year I was devastated to discover that this song wasn’t even included on that version of the album. So obscure that it’s not technically a song, but an interlude. That’s really just semantics, but still.
“Derby City Interlude” never achieved its destiny as a 90s R&B party anthem but my sister and I spent most of 1998 and 1999 making sure to rock it like our personal entrance music during any celebratory situation. While it doesn’t boast that signature syncopated Timbaland drum sound, “Derby City Interlude” shines elsewhere. The track features guitar arpeggios, a sick Black Sheep sample, and a wild verse from Magoo that includes references to “cognac mixed down with Five Alive” and of course people getting their caps peeled…something I’ve never completely understood, but based on context I’m led to believe means getting shot in the head. You know, normal stuff for my sister and me at a UW-Milwaukee party.
Playa’s harmonies were always on point and they sound great singing some absurd lyrics on this track. My heart longs for an amaretto sour and a party on Maryland Avenue every time I hear them sing “I got the yak, come on where’s your cup?” Hennessy would’ve been the drink of choice during a song that makes so many cognac references, but I could not afford to drink like Playa at that time. Instead I made do with amaretto sours or an occasional Alizé if I was feeling like Rockefeller.
If you dig 90s R&B I highly recommend Cheers 2 U. This album has been slept on for 24 years so I can probably give up hope that someday people will catch on to it. Maybe one of the songs will be played on a future episode of Stranger Things and people will start streaming it so much it that we’ll finally see it at #1 where it has always belonged. Max, Eleven, Mike, and Lucas will be at a college house party holding their cognac high in the air while the DJ spins “Derby City Interlude” (not on physical vinyl, of course, because the song isn’t available on the LP) and the millions who watch the show will rush to Spotify and Apple Music to stream Playa. I’ll just nod and say I told you so. I know the timeline doesn’t make sense because those kids would be in their late-20s by 1998, but maybe they’re non-traditional students. I’ll let the Duffer Brothers sort that shit out.
Playa never became one of the 21st century torchbearers like I hoped after their first album. In fact, Static Major (Stephen Garrett) passed away in 2008 from a respiratory problem after being hospitalized due to an autoimmune disorder and Playa is no more. I always dug Static’s vibe and was sad to hear of his passing. He and Playa deserved more attention for the dope music they were making. Cheers 2 U and “Derby City Interlude” are as good as any of the music from that amazing run of 90s R&B.
My whole reason for the “ICYMI” posts is to introduce my readers to music I think they might’ve missed. I started writing these a few years ago but haven’t posted one since 2019. Hearing “Derby City Interlude” recently sparked a desire to bring the ICYMI posts back. I have a lot of obscure shit to introduce to my readers. Maybe not as obscure as “Derby City Interlude” but hopefully I can recommend something you’ll dig. I’ll be back soon with another one.