Hip-hop pioneer Syl Johnson has died
(Credit: Masahiro Sumori)

Old School Archives

Hip-hop pioneer Syl Johnson has died

Blues icon Syl Johnson has died at the venerable age of 85. His death was confirmed to Pitchfork. A family statement read: “It is with extreme sadness that our family announces the passing of Soul & Blues Hall of Fame Legend, Syl Johnson (born Sylvester Thompson in Holly Springs, MS).

“Dad, Brother, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Uncle, Friend & Artist, he lived his life as a singer, musician, and entrepreneur who loved black music.”

Johnson is arguably best known for ‘Different Strokes’, which has gone on to become a staple of 1960s soul. Indeed, it has also gone on to become one of the most sampled tunes of all time. Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Shame On A N****’, Kanye West and Jay-Z’s ‘The Joy’, Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’ and De La Soul’s ‘The Magic Number’ all sampled from the aforementioned number. 

His work had a polemical slant to it, not least on the taut ‘Is It Because I’m Black’, issued in 1969, amidst the changing geopolitical landscape in America. The song was perceived as a voice for the underheard, offering a new perspective for caucasian American listeners. 

His songcraft was praised by many, but he disliked sample culture and expressed his views on the matter publicly. And yet his work lent itself to hip-hop, which likely explains why so many sampled from his work. Indeed, much of his work grew more popular over time, amassing a wider net of fans over the decades. 

He was, according to those who worked with him, a deeply committed artist, and one who recognised the importance of his original vision. But like many other artists, he recognised the virtue of collaboration. “When I was recording ‘Different Strokes’,” he recalled in a retrospective interview, “I thought about it and decided to put in my grunt and Minnie Riperton’s laugh at the beginning of the track. I’d asked the background girls who could do the laugh and Minnie spoke up, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it.!”

As of the time of publishing, neither the family nor his estate has issued a cause of death.