Random J Playlist: Harpsibops | An ode to the harpsichord in R&B and Pop

Random J Playlist: Harpsibops | Random J Pop

Last week I came across a tweet from Twitter user @FLYLIKEABIRD (a Lamb, obviously) where they'd said 'I miss this sound', with a video which featured the intros to TLC's "No Scrubs", Mariah Carey's "How Much", P!nk's "There You Go" and Destiny's Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills". People replied that it was all because of Kandi (who wrote 3 of these songs before becoming a Housewife of Atlanta) or because of She'kspere, Kandi's partner in crime who produced them. These people weren't totally wrong, but this only paints part of a picture which includes more people and predates "No Scrubs". The common thing with each of these songs is the sound of the harpsichord. A sound that had been featured in many an R&B song since the mid 90s.

Here's dictionary definition of a harpsichord.

  1. a keyboard instrument, precursor of the piano, in which the strings are plucked by leather or quill points connected with the keys, in common use from the 16th to the 18th century, and revived in the 20th.

Which tells you nothing. I don't even know I put that there. But in terms of what this instrument sounds like, it's what you hear at the start of "No Scrubs", "There You Go" and "Bills, Bills, Bills". And with that sound in your mind, you can probably think of other songs with that same sound.

She'kspere is the producer behind each of these songs, but the use of the harpsichord in R&B predates he and Kandi breaking onto the scene in 1999 with TLC's mega smash post-bankruptcy song "No Scrubs". Usher fans will recall the sound in "U Got It Bad". Mariah fans will recall it from "Always Be My Baby". Monica fans will recognise it in "Angel of Mine".

The harpsichord was being used in mainstream music, particularly R&B for many years, but became a very distinct sound which shaped it in the late 90s and early 2000s, popularised massively off the back of songs like "No Scrubs", and Destiny's Child's "Bills Bills, Bills". This sound became so prominent and synonymous with R&B, that when pop started to go through it's 'cool' phase in the early 2000s and using R&B sounds and production techniques, it carried over the harpsichord. NSYNC's "It's Gonna Be Me", Britney's "Overprotected" amongst others. And it wasn't just in the US. Japanese R&B producers who were coming up also used harpsichords in their songs, to not only show how in tune they were with R&B and pop radio in the US, but also as a sign of legitimacy, because every popular R&B song had a damn harpsichord.

The harpsichord was an identifiable sound of the early 2000s. Even now when artists do songs which are throwbacks or homages to that moment, they'll throw in a harpsichord, just as Clarence Clarity did on Rina Sawayama's "Cyber Stockholm Syndrome".

Whilst She'kspere was the most notable producer to use the harpsichord due to how many hits he had on radio in a short space of time, Rodney 'Darkchild' Jerkins was using in songs long before, the use of which was also a Darkchild signature, along with the use of the harp (i.e Brandy & Monica's "The Boy Is Mine" and Toni Braxton's "He Wasn't Man Enough". And Jermaine Dupri had also used it across his career, most notably with Mariah, twice; once back in 1995 with "Always Be My Baby" and again 10 years later with "We Belong Together".

I'm not exactly sure what it is about the harpsichord that made it so popular, and why producers gravitated towards it. But it sure had a choke hold on the late 90s and early 2000s, and more often than not, if you heard a song on the radio or an album start with a harpsichord, you knew you were about to get a bop.

So, here's a playlist of songs which feature a harpsichord. Me also being a listener of J-Pop, this playlist also features some Japanese songs too.

🎧 Listen on Spotify: Harpsibops