Senior Year, 1983: Black Radio Jammin
by Mosi Reeves | July 20, 2011
The year 1983 must have been a crazy time to be a black teenager. Michael Jackson was blowing up big time, whether it was rocking that ultra-fresh red zipper jacket in the "Beat It" video or slaying millions of Americans with his "Billie Jean" performance on the Motown 25 broadcast. Prince was creepin' up, too, thanks to his coyly suggestive "Little Red Corvette" and 1999. Lionel Richie got love, too, even if "All Night Long (All Night)" was kinda corny. Luther Vandross was still making post-disco hits with a fury, from his own "I'll Let You Slide" to producing Aretha Franklin's "Get It Right." The funk was still strong, whether it was George Clinton's massive "Atomic Dog" or The Gap Band's nonstop "Party Train."
In retrospect, the year seems so exhilarating and confusing. Yes, the synthesizer ruled the charts, leading critics like Nelson George to declare it "the death of rhythm and blues." But what about electro stars like Afrika Bambaataa and the Jonzun Crew? Hell, what about David Bowie's "Let's Dance," The Human League's "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" and Madonna's "Holiday"? Incredibly, all this stuff found a home on Billboard's Black Singles chart (which wasn't retitled R&B/Hip-Hop Singles until years later). There was even space for the odd novelty jam like Sexual Harrassment's "I Need a Freak."
Eventually, the black music world would sort itself out, and playlists narrowed. Quiet storm vocalists like Luther Vandross, Peabo Bryson and Anita Baker would share heavy rotation with funk vets like Cameo, and then both would cede ground to younger hip-hop and R&B stars like Run-DMC, New Edition and Janet Jackson. Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Prince and Kool & the Gang epitomized the industry's big '80s crossover moment. Meanwhile, the era's delirious experimentation, and the chance to hear a quirky electro instrumental like Cybotron's "Clear" on a late-night mix show, quickly dissipated.
But that's another story. As for 1983 itself, the year included so many great tunes that this list encompasses over 70 tracks and nearly six hours of old-school madness. Apologies to those that didn't make the cut, including Freeze ("I.O.U."), Royal Cash ("Radio Activity"), Melba Moore ("Keeping My Lover Satisfied") and dozens of others.