Bobby Brownâs âDonât Be Cruelâ Turns 25

It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the release of Bobby Brown’s groundbreaking Don’t Be Cruel. New-jacking the title from an old Elvis Presley song (of which most of his fans couldn’t care less about), in 1988 Brown’s brilliant sophomore album changed that decade’s R&B game, making the music more youthful and aggressive.

Dropping from Black pop heaven in June of that year, the entire album would go on to become the one of the main soundtracks of the summer. From the bouncy title track produced by L.A. Reid and Babyface—which also severed as the first single—to the hard-hitting “My Prerogative” constructed by Teddy Riley and Bernard Belle, the disc took Bobby Brown out of his R&B pigeonhole and elevated him to an international superstar.

As a budding music writer, I was impressed with Bobby’s macho swagger and slanted flattop Gumby haircut. He was on stage grabbing his nuts and looking menacing; off-stage he was hanging-out and partying. I respected Michael Jackson, but he only sang about being bad; Bobby Brown was a bad boy for real. As rock critic Chuck Eddy once wrote in Spin, “Bobby slayed anybody who got in his way.”

Steve Manning, Bobby’s first publicist, recalls: “Bobby knew he had talent and he wanted everybody else to know it too.” But having been kicked out of New Edition in 1986, and releasing a lukewarm solo album, King of Stage, the same year, not many consumers or record executives had much anticipation for Brown’s 1988 follow-up.

King of Stage wasn’t the blockbuster that chocolate cities across America expected. Instead of highlighting Brown’s rebellious side, songs like “Girlfriend” and “Girl Next Door” weren’t all that much different from New Edition’s material. While “Girlfriend,” written and produced by Cameo leader Larry Blackmon, soared to number one on the R&B charts, King of Stage failed to generate much buzz. “The album sold about 500,000 copies, but Bobby fans didn’t feel the record represented him,” says former MCA Records publicist Juanita Stephens. “They kind of dismissed it.”

A newly hired young executive named Louil Silas Jr. was determined to mold Brown into the soul sensation he believed him to be. With no one at the company really paying attention to Bobby’s career, Louil put relative newcomers L.A. Reid, Babyface and Teddy Riley in the studio with the underdog singer.

Babyface and Antonio “L.A.” Reid were the musical beacons behind their own group, The Deele, as well having produced the Whispers’ classic, “Rock Steady.” The duo had also worked with Silas on tracks for upcoming MCA acts Pebbles and The Boys. “Louil was one of the few people who wasn’t afraid of [SOLAR Records boss] Dick Griffey, which was the reason we got our shot to do Bobby,” Babyface says.

Bobby Brown, “Every Little Step”

Bobby Brown, “Every Little Step”

Visiting the production duo in their Hollywood apartment, Bobby listened to the Babyface-sung demos of “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Every Little Step.” Says Babyface, “We wrote songs that were sweet and nice, but they also had a little edge to them. Bobby was pretty agreeable when he heard the material.”

Not long after that initial meeting, Brown began recording with L.A. and ’Face at Silver Lake Studios in Los Angeles. “Bobby had a pure vibe and a passion that was unmistakable, but he just needed a little guidance,” says Babyface, who cites Don’t Be Cruel’s third single, “Roni,” as his personal favorite. “We just went in and recorded without problems. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the studio. But listening to Bobby Brown record those songs, it was obvious that he had star power.”

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, a Harlem-raised youngster named Teddy Riley was preparing his own brand of funk to present to Brown and Silas. “I came from the streets, so I made street music,” Teddy Riley says of the New Jack Swing sound that he invented in his living room in the St. Nicholas Houses.

“I also added in a little gospel,” he says, “as well as the groups I had seen at the Apollo when I was a kid”—groups like Parliament and Al Green. Having experimented with this new sound on Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her,” Al B. Sure!’s “Nite and Day” and his own group Guy, Teddy was ready for the New Jack Swing sound to gain worldwide popularity.

Screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper—who coined the term “new jack swing” in a 1988 Village Voice article and also wrote the screenplay for New Jack City—says, “On Don’t Be Cruel, both Teddy and L.A./Babyface propelled soul into the digital age: New Jack Swing. Teddy invented it, and L.A./’Face refined it. The music was an amalgam of soul, hip-hop, jazz, gospel and fusion. It was an operatic soundtrack to the street cinema of their collective existence. And it worked.”

Having worked alongside Teddy on the amazing tracks “My