Syl Johnson: Different Strokes

An icon of blues, soul, funk and R&B, Syl Johnson has passed away at 85. Born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago, Johnson was a singer, songwriter, musician and producer whose lyrics often delved into complex social and political issues. His 1969 song “Is It Because I’m Black,” inspired by the murder of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, was a piercing statement on race relations and politics in the US. But it’s “Different Strokes” (1967) that made the biggest impact. The song (opening with Johnson’s grunts and Minnie Ripperton’s laughs) wasn’t just popular upon release, it’s also one of the most sampled tracks in hip-hop—with Public Enemy, De La Soul, Wu Tang, Kanye West and Jay-Z, EPMD and others all using it in their music. This often led to copyright disputes, about which Johnson stated, “I’m not Bill Gates, but I’ll never have to worry about money again because of the rappers.” Johnson retired in the ’80s after releasing 10 albums, but returned to work with his daughter Syleena Johnson. A family statement released about Johnson’s death refers to him as 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. To his fans around the world, he loved you all. A lover of music and a Chicago icon, Syl Johnson lived his life unapologetically.”