Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey and Joel “JoJo” Hailey—whose forthcoming My Brother’s Keeper is the duo’s first American release in over a decade—ain’t new to this touring business. They got their first taste of life on the road as the teenage gospel singers Little Cedric and the Haily Singers, when they sang in churches and wailed in revival tents throughout the south.
A few years later, on the other side of righteousness, the brothers won acclaim for their performances as members of the 1990s R&B powerhouse quartet Jodeci, which took them past the Mason-Dixon Line and made them international superstars. But on a Saturday afternoon in September, with their new single “Knock It Off” spinning on the radio, the brothers sit on a tour bus headed for Dallas.
Later that night, they’d perform at spot called Medusa’s, introducing the audience to their latest tracks. “We recorded My Brother’s Keeper all over the country,” JoJo (the youngest by two years) says via telephone from their tour bus. “New York, L.A., Jersey City. Our only thought before making this record was, we didn’t want to change our sound in any way. We’re old school and we want to stay old school.”
Indeed, that old school flavor even spilled over to the video concept for “Knock It Off” (below), a black-and-white clip that depicts the brothers as 1940s gangsters fighting against a rival crew for a femme fatale who’s fallen for K-Ci. “We were inspired by Harlem Nights, which is one of our favorite movies,” K-Ci explains. “Although we didn’t know it at the time, the leading lady was played by Philip Michael Thomas’s daughter.”
While K-Ci and JoJo are known for their stellar harmonies and baby-making hits, they’ve also famous for their rah-rah ways when it comes to drinking and drugging. Their 2010 TV One program K-Ci & JoJo Come Clean showed the brothers at their worst, as they struggled with alcohol and addiction.
Soul legend Charlie Wilson, who’s had his own battles with drugs and drinks to the point of homelessness, visited K-Ci and JoJo on Come Clean in hopes of giving them some guidance. “Along with Stevie Wonder and Al Green, Uncle Charlie has always been a big influence on our music,” JoJo says. “He came to school K-Ci and myself about the problems he faced, and how the Lord moved him to get himself together.”
However, the question is, have they gotten themselves together? “People think we’re party animals, but we handle our business,” K-Ci says. Adds his brother, “Hey, who doesn’t like to have fun? Who doesn’t want to take off their shoes and socks and just relax?”
K-Ci and JoJo weren’t always party boys. Raised in Monroe, North Carolina, they sang in the Pentecostal church where their mother was a minister. “Even today, you can hear the gospel in our voices,” K-Ci says. “The gospel will never leave us.” As teens, the Hailey boys were introduced to another set of brothers: Donald (who dubbed himself DeVante Swing) and Delvin DeGrate. With the DeGrates (especially DeVante) doing most of the writing and production, and the Haileys doing most of the singing, Jodeci was born.
After putting hours and days into making a demo, the boys drove the loft on Clinton Street in Brooklyn, where the original offices of Uptown Records were located. Operated by former rapper Andre Harrell—previously known as Dr. Jeckyll of the rap duo Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde—Uptown was founded in 1986 and made its name with a new type of sound. From new jack swing to hip-hop soul, Uptown’s roster included Al B. Sure!, Heavy D & the Boyz, Guy, Jeff Redd and Father MC. “Uptown was the Motown of our generation and that was where we wanted to be signed,” K-Ci says. Later, Mary J. Blige, Soul IV Real and the Lost Boyz also joined the Uptown family.
Singer Jeff Redd, who later became an executive at Uptown, recalls the day in 1989 that Jodeci came to audition without an appointment. “Andre and I were downstairs arguing about something and all of a sudden we heard this wonderful singing coming from upstairs,” says Redd. “We went to the office that they were in, and Andre asked them to sing again. When they did, we were all blown away. Andre signed them to the label that same day.
“Jodeci had used the last of their money to come to New York and they didn’t even have a place to stay. Andre still had his old apartment in a Bronx housing project, so he took them up there. Andre wanted them up in the Bronx so they could dirty up a little, get a little swag. They were scared at first, but once we got them some equipment and they could make music, they were fine.”
Harrell’s former intern Sean “Puffy” Combs was assigned to develop the act, helping them with styling, profiling and trying to find their way creatively. “We were church boys from down South,” JoJo recalls now. “Besides learning how to take the train to 125th Street so I could hang out in Harlem, we didn’t know a lot about the city.”
While developing the lush Jodeci sound, DeVante also produced tracks for Jeff Redd’s 1990 debut The Quiet Storm while the entire group sang background on Father MC’s single “Treat Them Like They Want to Be Treated.” “DeVante was a genius in the studio,” Redd says. “He was very creative and could play various instruments. He never had any formal lessons; he taught himself how to do it all.”
That same year, Andre Harrell decided it was time to share Jodeci with the media. In December 1990, Harrell planned to unveil the boys at the company’s annual holiday bash. With music writers and tastemakers in attendance (this writer included), that year the party was held at a downtown club called The Building. “What the hell is a Jodeci??” more than a few people joked before the soulful quartet hit the stage.
Walking into the men’s room perhaps an hour before show time, I saw the four sharp-suited boys rehearsing while glancing into the mirror to make sure they were right and tight. Harmonizing with heavenly voices, they danced across the wet floor like the second coming of the Temptations.
Taking it to the stage later that night, they performed “Stay,” “Come and Talk to Me” and the title track of their 1991 multiplatinum selling debut, Forever My Lady. “Jodeci became trendsetters,” JoJo remembers. “We were doing our thing” for the next four years, releasing two other best-selling records, Diary of a Mad Band (1993) and The Show, the After Party, the Hotel (1995).
Former Uptown executive Virgil Sims toured with Jodeci in 1993-’94 and remembers, “Jodeci were no longer church boys, they were like rock ’n’ rollers. Trashing hotels, being wild. When they were on stage singing ‘Feenin’’ or ‘Cry For You,’ they were on. But off-stage, it was chaotic. They were always respectful to me, but there was also a crazy side.” Unfortunately, as long as they sold records, nobody seemed to care how crazy things were.
With Puffy having been fired (retreating to Arista Records to start Bad Boy while Andre Harrell jumped his own ship to run Motown), things began to fall apart for the group. Much money was being spent on studios, but DeVante just stopped showing up to sessions. If K-Ci and JoJo wanted to survive, they had no choice but to go solo. Working with their friend Jeff Redd, who was hired to do A&R for MCA, K-Ci and JoJo released their first solo joint, Love Always, in 1997, which sold over two million units.
Although it’s been 18 years, K-Ci and JoJo haven’t given up hope that on day Jodeci will return. “Jodeci never broke-up,” K-Ci says. “DeVante is in the lab, doing his thing and getting it together. When we come back, we got to come back right.” In the meantime, they’re back on the road promoting My Brother’s Keeper and doing what they do best: filling the room with the sound of soul.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.