“Different Strokes” soul singer Syl Johnson passed away at the age of 85
The voice behind the 1967 classic “Different Strokes” has died, as Chicago soul singer Syl Johnson passed away on Sunday, confirmed by his family in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Through samples taken by some of the highest acclaimed producers in hip-hop, Syl Johnson left an everlasting effect on the genre’s community and was 85 years old at the time of his passing.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Johnson earned a name for himself as a Chicago soul singer for Twinight Records. Recording soul and blues tracks, the music label issued Syl’s debut album Dresses Too Short which featured his popular single “Different Strokes”, a track that became heavily sampled decades later by many rappers of the 1990s and 2000s including Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Kanye West, and Jay-Z.
Similar to other black songwriters of his time, Syl wrote songs about social challenges and themes of being African-American. His 1969 release of “Is It Because I’m Black,” hit number 11 on the Billboard R&B chart and was dubbed “among the most affecting of the civil rights era”, and eventually became the title of his sophomore album.
Before soul singer Syl Johnson passed, the hip-hop community celebrated his work for decades, but it didn’t sit well with Syl. He was adamant that stealing music from an original artist without compensation was considered theft, and following the widespread use of his material in hip-hop, Syl went on to sue the musicians for copyright infringement.
For measure, “Different Strokes” was sampled in “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, “Shame on a N***a” by Wu-Tang Clan, “I Know You Got Soul” by Eric B. & Rakim, “The Magic Number” by De La Soul, and “The Joy” by Jay-Z and Kanye West. According to the website WhoSampled, more than 300 tracks have been identified to sample elements of Syl’s original work, marking him as one of the most influential artists in history for hip-hop.
After Chicago soul singer Syl Johnson passed away, a statement was released by his family: “A fiery, fierce, fighter, always standing for the pursuit of justice as it related to his music and sound, he will truly be missed by all who crossed his path. His catalog and legacy will be remembered as impeccable and a historical blueprint to all who experience it.”