Some of the most distinct and soulful vocalists have been the singers who enhance and refine our favorite rap songs. Hip-Hop and R&B may collaborate often, but there's a musical synergy beyond the high-profile team-ups between platinum-selling emcees and hitmaking singers. There is something more organic, something earthier; those pairings that are less about marketing and more about musical richness. This is about celebrating those singers who elevate rap records even when some may not know who that voice is on the hook.
Despite the history of frosty relations in the beginning, it should be noted that R&B and Hip-Hop weren't totally mortal enemies. Cross-genre collaborations began as far back as the mid-1980s; when artists like the Force M.D.'s and Whodini began melding rapping and singing; and hitmakers like Rene & Angela collaborated with Kurtis Blow and Chaka Khan (reluctantly) featured Melle Mel on a Top Ten pop hit.
By the end of the 1980s, the new jack swing era ushered rap/R&B amalgamation into full bloom. In the 1990s, Hip-Hop and R&B would become seamlessly integrated, and so many classic Hip-Hop tracks feature the soulful vocalizations of some of the best singers of our time. Obviously, icons like Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey are easy to spot on rap records, but there are those voices who don't belong to superstar names who have elevated so many great rap tunes.
Vocalists like Vinia Mojica, who became a household name amongst Native Tongues fans in the 1990s. As with so many serendipitous occurrences, the New York City native came into that famed collective's orbit accidentally.
"I met the Jungle Brothers one night when my friends and I were going to a party on a boat ride," she recalled in 2012. "One of my other friends who wasn’t there said she knew people who were performing and she told us to look out for them because they were “brand new.” So that’s what we did, but the boat ride didn’t happen because as soon as we left the dock a fight broke out, which was normal for back then [laughs]. So we never got to see any performances. The group that was gonna perform was The Jungle Brothers."
Active in NYC's jazz, rock and soul scenes, Mojica had a varied musical background. And her easy chemistry with the Native Tongues made her a fixture on some of their warmest records; like De La Soul's hit singles "A Rollerskating Jam Named 'Saturdays,'" and "Keepin' The Faith."
Death Row Records was an infamous boys club in the 1990s, but women more than made their mark. Of course, The Lady Of Rage was one of the label's top emcees, and Michel'le was the chart-topping R&B vocalist who'd come over from Ruthless Records with Dr. Dre; but it was Jewell whose sultry vocals wound up all over major Death Row albums The Chronic and Doggy Style. The Chicago native became the label's go-to singer, and had the full protection of impresario Suge Knight.
"Back then he used to say I was his sister," Jewell shared in 2011. "It was a blessing for me to be introduced to people that way. He also kept me sheltered, back then I thought that was a good thing because I was not burnt out like some of the other acts on the rota but when Death Row broke up that’s when that really began to affect me as an artist because the powerful players wouldn’t give me a deal because I was ‘Suge’s Sister’ so they wouldn’t fuck with me."
Jewell dropped her own hit single, a cover of Shirley Murdock's "Woman to Woman," in 1994. As things famously turned sour at Death Row, Jewell was left in the lurch. The murder of Tupac Shakur, Knight's imprisonment and Dr. Dre's defection all combined to throw Death Row Records into limbo, and Jewell wound up in dispute against her former label.
"Of course, Death Row never paid me the money that I was supposed to get in order to keep up my livelihood and take care of my kids," she would note later. "So it was a bitter situation for me and I was very angry and hurt."
Prior to her re-christening as Blue Raspberry, New Jersey-born Candi Lindsey was singing to herself at work when her life suddenly changed forever.
"I was working at Bally's Park Place," she shared in an interview with #BelieveTheHype. "This was probably around '93. I was getting off of work and walking across the casino floor with a couple of cousins of mine. I'm walking along and I'm singing, and I'm not really thinking about if anyone is paying attention to me. And then these three guys stopped me; I believe it was Raekwon, Ghost and I believe it was Meth. And RZA was standing [over there]."
She said she sang for "these four dudes in bandanas" and the confident up-and-comers promised her that they would bring her along once they landed their deal. As the Wu-Tang Clan's first single "Protect Ya Neck" began generating widespread buzz, the Clan reached back out to the aspiring singer they'd heard in Atlantic City.
"RZA called me and said 'You ready?'" she shared with a laugh. "I said 'Yeah!'"
The haunting vocals of Blue Raspberry (as she was named by Wu affiliate Killah Priest) became a fixture on classic Wu tracks like "Release Yo Delf" and "Heaven & Hell." She was stunned at the phenomenon that Wu-Tang became in the 1990s.
"I had no idea," she said of her early impression of Wu. "I basically was letting the chips fall where they landed. It was a fast experience. I went to the Apollo and I won twice. When I was getting ready to go again, RZA came up the back steps of the Apollo and got me."
Before she became a mainstay of the Dungeon Family's earthy sound, Joi was already one of Atlanta's most eclectic and inspiring singer-songwriters. As the D.F. was just coming together, Joi and Dallas Austin crafted her acclaimed 1994 debut album, The Pendulum Vibe, a record that would sow the seeds for the burgeoning neo-soul movement, help shape the spirit of Atlanta's organic, rootsy approach to Black music; and the album even inspired a certain pop superstar.
Prior to working with the hitmaking producer on her 1995 album Bedtime Stories, Madonna allegedly got into Dallas Austin's production via Joi's debut.
"I believe she heard The Pendulum Vibe and decided she wanted to work with Dallas after she heard it," Joi would state in 2018. "I think perhaps she was moving in one direction and perhaps decided to move in another. Upon hearing the record I’m not super firm on that, but I do know that she definitely came to Atlanta and worked with him I think after hearing The Pendulum Vibe."
Joi's Dungeon Family bonafides run deep. The Tennessee native would guest on the haunting "You May Die" and the effervescent "Moving Cool" by OutKast; on "Fighting" and "Just About Over" by Goodie Mob; and on a host of other tracks by the beloved Atlanta collective. And she's written for superstars like TLC and Erykah Badu.
“She is the truth and the most famous person I know,” OutKast’s Andre 3000 once said of her artistry and influence.
Like Blue Raspberry, Yummy Bingham is a New Jersey native. As a teenager, she initially landed a record deal as 1/4th of the R&B group Tha Rayne.
"Kay Gee from Naughty by Nature discovered myself, Tina Jenkins out of Atlantic City and Shaquana Elam and he made a group called Tha Rayne," she explained in 2011. "We came up with the name because Kay Gee was about royalty which is still a seed that he imbedded in me to be a queen in the game. So he called us Rayne Supreme, but we just ended up with Tha Rayne, and we just wanted to be something fresh out of the Tri-State area."
Yummy wound up guesting on some noteworthy De La Soul tracks throughout the early 2000s, including "Much More" and "Baby Phat." In 2006, she would drop her debut solo album, The First Seed, but the project never saw release stateside. Nonetheless, Bingham forged a major career as a songwriter, penning "Tell Me" for Diddy and Christina Aguilera.
"Before I was an artist I just wanted to write songs and do background singing because my idea at 12 was that being artist was too hard! Since I was raised around so many greats, I felt it was too much and I just wanted to sing and dance, I don’t want to do all of this other stuff. Being a writer has a lot to do with my love for history and my love for poetry and my love for the English language and many different languages. I just try and speak a universal language which is music."
These vocalists and many more have been a part of Hip-Hop's sonic patchwork for decades. These artists range from legendary influencers like Joi to lesser-known groundbreakers like Jewell; but you've heard them all. They are a part of the sound. They are a part of the history. They are a part of the soul.
They are the voices.
In 2018, Joi explained why she refuses the label "underrated."
"I reject that idea because that would only be if you were measuring me from a stance or from a commercial standpoint or what you identify as commercial success and we all know that commercial success is very fickle," Joi said. "It’s not rooted in a whole lot but popularity and whatever the swarm is leaning towards, however; when you’re an artist like me and so many others whose been a little less visible I think the people that fuck with us, fuck with us because of what we feed them and because of what we inspire and because the music and messages hold up well overtime. The idea of being underrated is just an untruth as far as I’m concerned because I’m not underrated to the people who know about me and nor do I view myself as that. I view myself as someone who is received and taken’ in precisely by who I need to be taken’ in by at a particular time. Shit my motto is, those who have an ear to hear let them hear."