By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Even without Starr, New Edition flourished, hitting the charts with "Count Me Out," "A Little Bit of Love (Is All It Takes)" and "Once in a Lifetime Groove." So solid was the group's foundation that Brown's decision to go solo in 1986 didn't prove fatal; Johnny Gill came aboard as a replacement and helped the group to another Top 10 hit, "If It Isn't Love," in 1988. This, however, was a last hurrah--at least for a while. After a tour to support the album Heart Break, the various players went off on their own.
In many ways, the music that followed was better than anything by New Edition. Brown's second solo album, 1988's Don't Be Cruel, made a huge impact thanks to its breakthrough single, "My Prerogative"--but its import goes beyond mere sales. Producer Teddy Riley's work on the long-player became the most persuasive salvo to that point in a burgeoning R&B movement dubbed New Jack Swing. And while this term is now exhausted, the sound itself continues to inform virtually all the material put out by contemporary soul artists.
Bell Biv DeVoe was part of the New Jack Swing wave, too: Poison, from 1990, combined Riley's smooth sound with a hip-hop orientation provided by guest producers such as Hank Shocklee, who helped give early Public Enemy tracks their propulsive menace. For a while, "Poison" and "B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me)?" ruled the radio, and although they've been forgotten in most quarters, they deserve better. On New Edition Solo Hits, a compilation put out last year by MCA to capitalize on the arrival of Home Again, they're every bit as enjoyable as Brown's groovers.
Of course, Poison's reputation has faded in large part because Bell Biv DeVoe couldn't top it: Hootie Mack was mere product whose relative commercial dive went unmourned. But it's still mildly unfair that neither BBD nor Brown has been given credit for helping to usher in a new era in popular soul. DeVoe admits to being rankled by this slight.
"As far as the community is concerned--the people who buy our records and come to our concerts--the respect is there," he says. "But sometimes in the media, they really don't allow us to take our rightful position as trendsetters. The mixture of hip-hop and R&B that Bell Biv DeVoe fused together shows up all the time now, with groups like TLC and Immature. But the writers and so on don't usually mention us when they talk about them.
"It's too bad, but growing up in the business, you get so you can look past those kinds of things. You want to get good write-ups and everything, but what's more important is having the people on our side. As long as they're coming to our concerts and screaming and letting us know after the show that they think we're really humble guys, then that's what it's all about for us. And when we talk to these other groups personally, they let us know what we meant to them."
It's doubtful that Home Again will serve as an inspiration to a new generation of soulsters; it's simply too familiar. But DeVoe sees New Edition's live dates as an opportunity to remind people that it's no sin to put on a show.
"We pride ourselves on that," he stresses. "I think that's one of the reasons we're still around. Now the industry gauges your success on how many records you sell. When a new artist comes along, they're like, 'Let's bring in this producer so we can make a slammin' record,' as opposed to, 'Let's find a group and groom them to be the next Temptations or the next Jacksons or the next Beatles--a group that's going to stand the test of time.' And I think that attitude has already hurt things as far as touring is concerned. People expect a lot when they go to a show and see an entertainer that they've seen on video and heard on the radio five or ten times a day. And when that person comes out and just walks around and has no stage presence, it makes people not want to go to concerts anymore. But we're trying to change that. We're trying to bring back entertainment the way it's meant to be."
This mission won't go on indefinitely. DeVoe says New Edition will probably go back into hibernation following its current jaunt, with the various members returning to separate endeavors. How this all will shake out is unclear at present, but Gill has a solo record, Let's Get the Mood Right, in stores now; Bivins is working behind the scenes with signees to his company, Biv10 Entertainment (he's the man responsible for foisting Boyz II Men on an unsuspecting planet); and Brown plans to busy himself with film and music ventures in between denials of problems in his marriage to Whitney Houston and tabloid-friendly arrests. (In November he paid a settlement to a man who'd accused him of battery following a 1995 scuffle in a bar at Disney World.)
As for DeVoe, he and his Bell Biv DeVoe cohorts are readying material for inclusion on the soundtrack of an upcoming Tommy Davidson comedy, Booty Call. "That's perfect for us, because we've always been about the booty," he crows. But he insists that he's not allowing extracurricular pursuits to blind his eyes to the prize.