Bill Withers Supercharged Hip-Hop’s Crossover Appeal

Teddy Riley and Will Smith would cosign

Marcus K. Dowling
LEVEL
Published in
3 min readApr 6, 2020

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Photo of Bill Withers at the Rainbow Theatre in 1973.
Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

LLast week, the musical landscape changed forever with Bill Withers’ death from heart complications. The legend with an instantly identifiable baritone supplied timeless American music, from the enduring vocal break on his 1971 hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” to the fresh, optimistic vibes of “Lovely Day.” Withers’ genius lived in his ability to create sublime joy in music that seemed effortlessly commonplace — and that joy forged a natural path for rap and hip-hop culture to become universally beloved pop staples.

In the late ’90s, samples of two Withers songs — 1971’s “Grandma’s Hands” and 1980’s “Just the Two of Us,” a duet with Grover Washington Jr. — provided the foundation for two tracks that to this day remain in the pop zeitgeist. Blackstreet’s 1996 single “No Diggity” and Will Smith’s 1997 track “Just The Two Of Us” sold three million singles combined, and you can easily hear them played anywhere from dance floors to radio stations decades later.

“If [songwriter William ‘Stylez’ Stewart] hadn’t played [the Bill Withers ‘Grandma’s Hands’] sample for me, there would never be a ‘No Diggity,’” Teddy Riley told Fact Magazine in 2017. As Riley notes, “No Diggity” works because of the breakbeat created by Withers’ guitar strums and his heavy, low tenor hums. Combine that with Riley’s loose piano playing style and Blackstreet’s seductive four-part harmonies, and you have a classic ’90s R&B track that people of all generations know and love.

Blackstreet’s only hits that come close to the chart success of “No Diggity” are popular collaborations, but they bear no sonic comparison to the Withers’ sample-driven classic. The xylophone-guided “Take Me There,” off 1998’s The Rugrats Movie soundtrack, features a bubbly Mya handling lead duties. Janet Jackson’s “I Get Lonely” remix is unquestionably magnificent. But neither contain the party vibe of “No Diggity.”

Bill Withers created a style and sound that, if crystallized to even the smallest element, could replicate that success tenfold.

As for “Just the Two of Us,” Will Smith reinterpreted Withers’ lovelorn classic as a song…

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