Syl Johnson, The Bluesman Behind Some of Hip-Hop’s Most Memorable Beats, Dies at 85

He had a long and unpredictable career

Syl Johnson
Syl Johnson performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 3, 1997.
Clayton Call/Redferns

For some beloved musicians, recognition for their talent is immediate and long-lasting. Others don’t get their due for years, even decades — and still they persist. That was the case with Syl Johnson, who died this week at the age of 85. Johnson first made his mark on the Chicago soul scene in the 1960s and 1970s, releasing a host of catchy and socially conscious singles and albums.

Johnson never had a breakthrough hit, but his music was a favorite of hip-hop producers. As NPR noted in its obituary, Johnson’s single “Different Strokes” was sampled by the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Ice Cube and De La Soul. In 2010, he told The New York Times, “I’m sitting in the house that Wu-Tang built with their money.”

He was also more than willing to take legal action in cases where he felt artists had not properly cleared samples; a decade ago, he sued Kanye West and Jay-Z over their use of a sample on their album Watch the Throne.

In the last 15 years, Johnson became the subject of several high-profile campaigns that elevated his profile among contemporary music listeners. Much of his early work was collected on a box set by the record label Numero Group, which was released to enthusiastic reviews. And the acclaimed 2015 documentary Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows offered a concise look at his career and comeback, with musicians like RZA providing a context for his influence.

Johnson remained an engaging, dynamic presence for the bulk of his life, and he leaves behind an impressive musical legacy — both with his own work and via the countless artists that drew inspiration from it.

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