From SOPHIE to DMX to Bunny Wailer: Here are 15 influential artists we lost this year


Scottish producer, DJ and singer SOPHIE first made a splash in 2013 with the release of “Bipp,” a peculiar but infectious track that combined heavy bass with bubbly synths and pitched-up vocals. In subsequent years, SOPHIE would help shape the emergent genre of hyperpop, while pushing the envelope of experimental and avant-garde electronic music.

SOPHIE also collaborated with other genre-defying artists like Charli XCX, Vince Staples and Madonna.

SOPHIE was for many years a reclusive artist, until the release of their debut studio album “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” in 2018. The album’s lead single “It’s OK To Cry” marked the first time SOPHIE had used their own voice and image, and for many revealed SOPHIE’s identity as a trans woman.

“Losing a light like that is crushing,” wrote Craig Jenkins in an obituary. “SOPHIE’s blend of technical excellence, childlike wonder, and ideological clarity were evidence of a generational talent. We won’t soon see a match, but we can enjoy a world forever changed by the work.”

SOPHIE died on Jan. 30 following an accidental fall from a balcony in Athens, Greece.

Further reading: Pop Producer SOPHIE on Anonymity, Honesty, and Artifice

Drakeo the Ruler

Though largely unknown to mainstream audiences, Drakeo the Ruler was one of the most revered and influential rappers in underground hip hop, particularly the West Coast scene. His dense and slang-heavy lyricism, odd cadences and drawling delivery on mixtapes like “Cold Devil” earned him acclaim as one of “the most original West Coast stylists in decades.”

In 2020, Drakeo released “Thank You For Using GTL,” an album he recorded over the phone while incarcerated in connection to a 2016 shooting death (Drakeo was acquitted). The album, which explored the role of hip hop within the prison-industrial complex in America, won critical acclaim.

“Drakeo the Ruler will stand as one of the most significant artists of his generation, a self-made millionaire who did not bend an inch toward the record industry’s preferences or the threats of his enemies,” wrote Paul Thompson in Vulture. “He was a lyrical genius who emptied his notebooks and his psyche onto records, whose most inscrutable tics were studied and metabolized by people who would never meet him. His imprint will be traceable forever.”

Drakeo was stabbed and killed on Dec. 18 during the “Once Upon a Time in L.A.” concert.

Further reading: “Thank You For Using GTL” album review

Bunny Wailer

Bunny Wailer, a baritone singer and percussionist born Neville Livingston, was the last surviving member of the legendary reggae group The Wailers, a group he formed with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in 1963.

After leaving the Wailers, Bunny — who also went by the moniker Jah B — continued to make music as a solo artist. He released “Blackheart Man” in 1976, a masterpiece that included the classic track “Fighting Against Conviction,” written about the 14 months he served in jail for marijuana possession in 1967.

Bunny lived a largely reclusive life in rural Jamaica, as captured by a remarkable GQ story from 2010. He died on March 2 following complications stemming from a stroke.

Further viewing: Bob Marley & The Wailers – Stir It Up (Live at The Old Grey Whistle, 1973)


Born Earl Simmons, rapper and actor DMX rose to fame in the mid-1990s with smash hits like “Party Up (Up in Here)” and “X Gon’ Give It to Ya.” Known for his gruff voice, fervent lyrics and outsized charisma, DMX became the first artist to debut an album at No. 1 on the Billboard charts an astonishing five times in a row.

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In many ways, DMX defined the sound of New York hip hop in the 2000s, and pushed the genre into darker and more intense territory. He also fronted the Ruff Ryders collective, which helped launch the careers of rapper Eve and producer Swizz Beatz.

DMX appeared in a string of movies in the early 2000s, including “Belly,” “Romeo Must Die” and “Exit Wounds.”

In 2012, he gifted the world with one of the greatest Christmas song renditions of all-time, (Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.)

He died at the age of 50 on April 20. In a statement, DMX’s record label Def Jam Recordings described him as a giant whose legend will live on forever: “His message of triumph over struggle, his search for the light out of darkness, his pursuit of truth and grace brought us closer to our own humanity.”

Further listening: 60 Songs That Explain the 90s: DMX – “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem”

Charlie Watts

Often considered one of the great drummers of all-time, Charlie Watts spent nearly six decades as a member of the Rolling Stones, and appeared on all 30 of the legendary band’s studio albums.

Watts’ drumming style was largely influenced by jazz music — he recorded and toured extensively with his own jazz group, the Charlie Watts Quintet. He’s also regarded for his composure and steady presence amid the tumult of the Stones’ career.

“Drumming is often ugly — belligerent and combative, all jerky elbows, exaggerated grimaces, and sweat-soaked shorts — but Watts looked so beautiful when he played,” wrote critic Amanda Petrusich. “His style was not animalistic but, instead, almost pointedly reserved. His posture alone suggested a preternatural elegance. He quickly became known for his effortlessness and discipline, the way he never did too much —there is always poetry in restraint, and one miracle of Watts’s playing was how it called so little attention to itself.”

He died on Aug. 24 at the age of 80.

Watch the Rolling Stones’ tribute to Charlie Watts

Lee “Scratch” Perry

The eccentric music producer and songwriter Lee “Scratch” Perry was a towering figure in Jamaican music, who worked with a broad range of artists, from Bob Marley to The Clash to the Beastie Boys.

Perry was also one of the key pioneers of “dub” music — a sub-genre of electronic music that grew out of reggae in the 1960s and 1970s. The genre, which involves using various studio effects to reshape and manipulate existing recordings — often stripping them of their vocals and emphasizing the rhythm section — was extremely influential, paving the way for dance hall, drum and bass, dubstep, post-rock, hip hop and more.

“The loping tempos of Perry’s work established the roots reggae sound that Bob Marley made world famous, while his dub production, with its haunting use of space and echo, would have a profound influence on post-punk, hip-hop, dance music and other genres,” wrote Ben Beaumont-Thomas in a tribute. “Along with his gnomic pronouncements and mystical air, he became one of Jamaica’s most unusual and esteemed artists.”

Perry died on Aug. 29 at the age of 85.

Further viewing: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry: The Last Visit With The Legend

Mary Wilson

When she was only 15 years old, vocalist Mary Wilson co-founded a vocal group, called The Primettes, with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard in a Detroit housing project.

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In the early 60s, the group rebranded as the Supremes, the extraordinarily popular Motown trio that recorded 29 albums and 12 number one singles, becoming the most influential and important girl group in American music history, and one of the most popular groups of the 1960s.

“Although she had to wait more than a decade before taking the lead on one of their hit singles, Mary Wilson was the force that held the Supremes together through the episodes of tragedy and internal strife that marked the history of the most successful female pop group of the 1960s,” wrote Richard Williams.

Wilson remained a member of the Supremes until its dissolution in 1979. She would also become a best-selling author with the release of her memoir in 1989, titled: “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme.”

She died on Feb. 8 at the age of 76.

Further reading: Mary Wilson, an Original Member of the Supremes, Dies at 76

Joey Jordison

Drummer Joey Jordison was a founding member of Slipknot, the heavy metal juggernaut that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The band gained notoriety for their aggressive sound and theatrical live shows — the group performed in matching jumpsuits and horror-movie masks.

Jordison’s “explosive, virtuosic playing and elaborate solos, sometimes performed atop a hydraulic riser, made him a fan favourite,” wrote Christine Hauser in a New York Times obituary. Indeed, in 2010, Jordison was voted the best drummer of the past 25 years in a poll by UK magazine “Rhythm.”

Jordison also played with several other metal groups, either as a member or a session musician. He died at the age of 46 on July 26.

Further reading: Joey Jordison, 1975 – 2022: founding Slipknot member who held the key to the band’s success

Chick Corea

In the 1960s, pianist and composer Chick Corea worked alongside artists like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to pioneer “jazz fusion,” a technically progressive genre of music that incorporated elements of jazz, rock, funk and R&B.

In the decades since, the prolific artist has recorded dozens of albums, composed several jazz standards and amassed 25 Grammys.

“A pianist whose crisp touch and clarion tone were always buoyed by an effervescent way with rhythm, Corea loomed large in a jazz landscape that branched in many directions,” wrote Anastasia Tsioulcas and Nath Chinen.

Widely considered one of the great masters of contemporary jazz, Corea died of a rare form of cancer on Feb. 9.

Further viewing: Chick Corea & Gary Burton: Tiny Desk Concert


Born Ewart Beckford, Jamaican vocalist U-Roy was a major figure in the world of reggae and Jamaican music, and is considered a pioneer in the art of “toasting,” a vocal technique in which a DJ speaks or chants over a reggae rhythm or dance hall beat. Also known as the Originator, U-Roy released 20 records in his lifetime, and has been referred to as the “godfather of rap.”

“U-Roy and fellow Jamaican toasters provided a foundation for hip-hop in the early 1970s,” a New York Times obituary explains. “DJs at parties in New York City, notably the Jamaican-American DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx, picked up the idea of Jamaican toasting and adapted it to rapping over disco and funk instrumentals.”

He died on Feb. 17 at the age of 78.

Further viewing: U-Roy Live Heartland Reggae

Don Everly

Don Everly was one half of The Everly Brothers, the pioneering country-rock duo formed with his brother Phil in the 1950s. The duo’s acoustic guitar playing and unique style of singing in “close harmony” influenced several major acts of the 1960s, including the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees and Simon & Garfunkel.

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“The most successful rock ’n’ roll act to emerge from Nashville in the 1950s, Mr. Everly and his brother, Phil, who died in 2014, once rivalled Elvis Presley and Pat Boone for airplay, placing an average of one single in the pop Top 10 every four months from 1957 to 1961,” the New York Times reported.

He died on Aug. 21 at the age of 84.

Young Dolph

Born Adolph Robert Thornton, Jr., rapper Young Dolph was a fiercely independent artist, who released five studio albums in the span of five years, including the critically-acclaimed 2020 project “Rich Slave.” Dolph was a beloved figure in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, and was known for his local philanthropy.

“Dolph made music to hustle to, less a celebration of wealth itself and more of the work ethic it takes to endure in a cutthroat capitalist world,” wrote Nadine Smith. “There was always a single-mindedness to his craft, and an understanding of the fact that all this success could be gone in an instant, so he may as well luxuriate while it lasts.”

Dolph was shot and killed at a cookie store in Memphis on Nov. 17.

Further reading: Remembering Young Dolph, a Rapper of Uncommon Generosity

Michael Nesmith

Sometimes referred to as the “quiet Monkee,” Michael Nesmith was one-quarter of the pop-rock band that exploded to fame — largely through “The Monkees” television show — in the 1960s. Often sporting a wool cap, Nesmith was a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, and the only member of the band with prior recording experience.

Nesmith was also an influential figure in the development of the music video, NPR explains: “As the ‘70s went along, Nesmith turned more toward production, founding the Pacific Arts Corporation to manage his music and television projects, including, in 1979, a show called PopClips, which combined music videos with commentary from a ‘veejay,’ which later became one of the models for MTV.”

Nesmith died from heart failure on Dec. 10. He was 78.

Further viewing: Rio, sometimes considered the first music video

Biz Markie

Born Marcel Theo Hal, the affable rapper and DJ known as Biz Markie is best known for the smash 1989 hit “Just a Friend.” He released five studio albums, and appeared in several movies, including the role of a rapping alien in “Men In Black II”

Biz Markie “developed his own style unlike any other rapper at the time,” according to a Rolling Stone obituary: “a mix of half-sung (and intentionally off-key) choruses, riveting beatboxing, and silly humour that would earn him the nickname the ‘Clown Prince of Hip-Hop’ and pave the way for gloriously bizarre rappers like Ol’ Dirty Bastard.”

He died on July 16 at the age of 57.

Further reading: Biz Markie, the ‘Clown Prince of Hip-Hop,’ Dead at 57

Leonard ‘Hub’ Hubbard

Hub played bass for Philadelphia-based hip hop band The Roots from 1992 to 2007, working with drummer Questlove to provide the rhythm section for classic albums like “Things Fall Apart” and “The Tipping Point.” Often rocking a hoodie, Hub was rarely seen without a chew stick in his mouth.

He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2007, and died at the age of 62 on Dec. 16.

Further reading: The 7 Best Leonard “Hub” Hubbard Bass Lines For The Roots

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