Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jeffery J. Taylor

Committee Members

Ray Allen, First Reader

David Grubbs

Patrick Rivers

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Popular Culture | Arts and Humanities | Audio Arts and Acoustics | Cultural History | Musicology


R&B, Soul, Funk, Technology, Record Production, Popular Music


This dissertation examines developments in the production practices of black popular music in the recording studio from 1970 to 1990. The year 1970 marked a transition in the recording practice of popular music that had a distinct impact on styles marketed as R&B, soul, and funk. Multitracking in the 1950s and 1960s had paved the way for a transformed production process, one initiated by Les Paul’s and Sidney Bechet’s overdubbing experiments in the 1940s. The collective sound of instrumentalists and vocalists heard on records no longer resulted from live-to-tape recordings of group performances, but was increasingly the product of constructed representations, as separate layered events were cut to multitrack tape.

When mixed together, these overdubbed tracks presented the listener with the impression of collective, interactive performances. Features central to the ethos of R&B music making – vocals in call and response, instruments in apparent rhythmic dialogues, and funky syncopation usually resulting from interactive group dynamism – were increasingly the product of the technologically mediated process of overdubbing, and performed often by one musician singing all of the parts or layering several instruments. By 1990, in part due to the popularity of newly developed drum machines, MIDI sequencers, samplers, and digital synthesizers, to record collectively in R&B-based black popular music was the exception rather than the norm.

This study considers new practices of record production that developed in this era of multitrack recording and electronic experimentation through an examination of four case studies: Stevie Wonder’s recordings in the early 1970s; Prince’s recordings from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s; Michael Jackson’s composition and recording process from this same period; and the mid-to-late 1980s sampling and sequencing processes of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production collective. The producers of these recordings, well aware of the collective ethos of earlier black music styles, conceived imaginative ways to imbue overdubbed recordings with the vibrancy of multiple performative voices. One-man band practices employed by Stevie Wonder and Prince, the recording studio experimentation and vocal composition of Michael Jackson, and the layered sampling of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad represented different innovative techniques that developed in the recording studio. These methods considered and staged features of collectivity in different ways, and in doing so, used recording studio technologies such as overdubbing and synthesizer programming to reimagine collective performance.

Although the historical narrative of black popular music often focuses on large funk ensembles and interactive performance styles during the l970s, the period represents a shift for many musicians from a social, interactive means of music making to a personal, introspective, often isolated process of sonic experimentation. This process transformed and reinvented the collective interaction and improvisation common in many African American music styles into a technologically mediated process of constructing recordings through layering. Although these musicians continued to perform in traditional collectives in live concerts during this period, the recording studio and the live concert increasingly represented distinct sites of music making, as the studio became a locus for introspection and experimentation. The tradition of group performance became the muse for increasingly un-collective methods in the recording studio, while producers developed different technological and performative methods to reimagine the collective.