Dwight " Heavy D" Myers, who passed away November 8 from a heart attack at the age of 44, was part of hip-hop's original "New School," a wave of artists that brought the genre its first real critical attention. Previously, most music fans casually dismissed rappers as singles-driven electro artists and black-music novelties. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, N.W.A., Public Enemy and others forced the world to accept them on their terms instead of the rockist criteria used to judge Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. With the New School's emergence, hip-hop grew from a fad to a generational force to be reckoned with.
However, radio programmers were reluctant to program "hardcore hip-hop," as it was called back then, for fear of upsetting older listeners. Heavy D & the Boyz were one of the few among this pioneering group to cross the generational divide and land hit singles. Beginning in 1987 with Big Tyme, the Mount Vernon, Queens crew -- Heavy D, underrated producer Eddie "Eddie F" Ferrell, and backup dancers Troy "Trouble T-Roy" Dixon and Glen "G-Whiz" Parrish -- dominated video shows like BET's Video Vibrations and Video Soul with funky New Jack beats and plenty of dancing. These were the kind of joints that taught you new moves to practice before the party and the latest fashions to cop at the mall. During the next several years, Heavy D & the Boyz recorded some of the best songs of the New Jack era, including " We Got Our Own Thang," " Mr. Big Stuff," and " Gyrlz, They Love Me."
When older folks reminisce about how hip-hop used to be fun, they're referring to artists like Heavy D, Salt-N-Pepa, Kool Moe Dee, Kid-N-Play and others. These artists didn't use profanity -- Heavy D. & the Boyz made a track called "Don't Curse" for their 1991 album Peaceful Journey -- and no one expected them to. Sadly, those days are over, and we demand that clean-cut teeny-bop acts like Soulja Boy Tell'em and New Boyz talk sh*t in order to earn their hip-hop badge. Twenty years ago, those credentials came at a higher price than potty talk: artistic creativity.
But this isn't a broadside against current hip-hop. Heavy D enjoyed a long career because he kept up with trends. His hits stretched from 1987's "Mr. Big Stuff" to 1997's " Big Daddy," and included three platinum and two gold albums. When house music infiltrated the R&B scene in the early '90s, Heavy D and the Boyz scored their biggest hit with a hip-house remake of the O'Jays' " Now That We Found Love." On the group's underrated 1992 album Blue Funk, they tapped then-new innovators like DJ Premierand Pete Rock to create a jazzy hip-hop sound; "A Buncha Niggas" featured an early verse from the Notorious B.I.G. (back when he called himself Biggie Smalls). In fact, Heavy D had a major impact as a behind-the-scenes player. He brought his cousin Pete Rock into the music industry. He mentored Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs as an A&R rep at Uptown Records. (And later served as the label's president.) The death of Trouble T-Roy from a freak accident in 1990 not only inspired Peaceful Journey, but also Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's seminal "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)."
It's tragic that two members of a classic feel-good rap group passed away at such a young age. But it's comforting to know that Heavy D continued to evolve right up until his death, from his forays into jiggy hip-hop (1997's Waterbed Hev) to his passion for dancehall music (which led to 2008's Vibes). After performing at this year's BET Hip-Hop Awards, he released a new album in September, Love Opus. Surprisingly, he created a sound similar to the ambient R&B of Drake and The-Dream. Amid appearances from Carl Thomas and Anthony Hamilton, Love Opus's best track is " Love in a Bottle," a song about a man who uses alcohol to ease the pain of an unfaithful girlfriend. Its topic is more realistic and universal than Drake's caterwauling about the price of fame. Then again, as Heavy D told us on "We Got Our Own Thang," "There's always meaning in a Heavy D statement."