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Syl Johnson, Chicago soul singer widely sampled in hip-hop, is dead at 85

Syl Johnson performs at the 32nd Annual Chicago Blues Festival in 2015.
Paul Natkin
Syl Johnson performs at the 32nd Annual Chicago Blues Festival in 2015.

Chicago soul singer Syl Johnson, whose song "Different Strokes" was frequently sampled in hip-hop, has died at the age of 85. Director Rob Hatch-Miller of the 2015 documentary about Johnson's work, Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows, confirmed his death to NPR.

"Producing Syl's Complete Mythology is one of our proudest moments as a label," tweeted the archival record label Numero Group, which released a box set of Johnson's music in 2010. "We'll treasure the hundreds of hours spent together over 17 years. Open, yet cagey, humble but with a swagger. When caught in a lie he'd pause, shrug, and say, 'Gotta keep some mysteries unsolved.'" Johnson's brother, the blues artist Jimmy Johnson, died last month, according to a statement posted to his website.

Born Sylvester Thompson in Mississippi, Johnson was known for his contributions to the Chicago soul scene in the 1960s and '70s, releasing records for the labels Twinight Records — originally named Twilight Records — and Hi Records.

In 1969, he released what would then become Twinight's biggest hit, the poignant "Is It Because I'm Black," inspired by the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I didn't want to be a militant," Johnson told The Los Angeles Times in 2012 of writing the song. "I didn't want to make something that alienated the white audience that I played for a lot." The songclimbed to No. 11 on Billboard's R&B chart where it stayed for several weeks, solidifying Johnson as Twinight's star performer.

But it was Johnson's song "Different Strokes," from his 1968 debut Dresses Too Short, that would have the most influence in decades to come. As one of the most widely sampled songs in hip-hop, "Different Strokes" has been borrowed by dozens of artists, including Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Ice Cube, and Kanye West and Jay-Z.

In 2011, Johnson filed a lawsuit that was ultimately settled against West and Jay-Z for using an unauthorized sample of "Different Strokes" for their track "The Joy."

"He would tell people in the neighborhood, 'If you find any rapper who has sampled my music, I will pay you,' " Johnson's daughter, Syleecia Thompson, told The New York Times in 2010 of her father's pursuit of unauthorized samples. "And so all the kids, we would go buy cassettes and listen to see if we could hear his 'wow!' and his 'aw!' "

"I'm not a star or nothing like that, and I'm not bragging that I'm so rich, cause I'm not Bill Gates," Johnsontold The Village Voice in a 2010 interview. "But I'll never have to worry about money again because of the rappers."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hazel Cills
Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.