Simply put, the main soundtrack of the 1990s was the hypnotic hip-hop and slick soul produced in the sound factory of Bad Boy Records. Led by chief bopper Sean “Puffy” Combs—who learned well the art of blending bubbly champagne R&B with 40-ounce rap from his mentor Andre Harrell—the booming Bad Boy label was originally supposed to be a subsidiary of Uptown Records (Guy, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci), but Puff’s plans quickly changed when he was abruptly fired in 1993.
While Harrell could’ve made it hard for Puffy if he wanted, the older executive allowed the cocky young man to take the artists he’d already signed and set up shop across town at Arista Records. Under the watchful eye of veteran record man Clive Davis, those three acts Puff already signed were MCs Craig Mack and The Notorious B.I.G. as well as trio of R&B cuties known as Total: singers Kima Raynor, Keisha Spivey and Pamela Long.
Although Total disbanded in 1999, recently Kima and Pam have been doing shows and preparing for a Bad Boy reunion tour slated for next year. Keisha (arguably the sexiest member, now married to actor Omar Epps) has not been a part of the comeback thus far. “Keisha has other obligations,” Pam says by phone, “but we are still waiting for her. We would never replace her, because no matter what, she’s still our sister and can return whenever she wants.”
The trio only made two albums—Total (1996) and Kima, Keisha & Pam (1998)—and a few buttery singles, including their classic debut “Can’t You See” (featuring Biggie and Puff’s ill intro). But their sleek sound and distinctive style pushed them to the forefront of the soul sista girl group heap that included contemporaries SWV, Xscape, Kut Klose and countless others. So what exactly made Total so different?
“Those other girls didn’t have Puff!” Pam says, laughing. “Big up to the others, but they didn’t have Puff. That dude helped set it. He knew the streets and he knew what the streets wanted, for the females and the males. Puff knew the sound that he wanted. It was fun, but it was also constant work.” Originally signed in 1992, the year when they auditioned for Sean Combs in the elevator at the Hit Factory recording studios (today a million-dollar-plus condo building) at 421 West 54th Street, the future “Bad Girls of Bad Boy” were determined to blow.
Kima recalls, “We had Puff pressed against the elevator doors and we just started singing and ad-libbing a song. He just looked at us, and when the doors opened, he got off and we followed him into a room where we sang ‘Freak in Me.’ We were performing as though our lives depended on it.
“When we finished, Puff asked, ‘If y’all ever got into an argument and one disrespected the other, could you still work together?’ We said yeah and he thanked us for coming. We thought he didn’t like us, but five a.m. the next morning, he called our manager Kathy Dukes and said, ‘Don’t take those girls anywhere, I want to sign them.’ ”
When Puff transitioned from Uptown, Total was right there with him.
“We were young babies in the game, about 14 and 15,” Pam says, “but that didn’t keep us from sitting up in the club with Puffy while he planned his next move. Total was right there.”
Even before Total began working on their own material, they spent much time with their labelmates, producers, songwriters and Puffy at the Hit Factory, where everyone was working steadily laying the aural foundation.
In 2010, Faith Evans told me, “It was so hectic over there, but some great music came out of those wild nights. At one point, it seemed like Puffy had a session going on in every studio in the building. It was like a musical assembly line.” Laughing, Kima says, “We practically lived at the Hit Factory. Somebody would be in the MIDI room working, Faith was in another studio writing songs, and meanwhile Puff was asking us to add our flavor to the backgrounds of something else.”
However, the night Puffy told the girls to lace the backgrounds of Biggie Smalls’s “Juicy,” Pam wasn’t there and was left out the vocal loop. “I was in the video though,” she says. Considered by many (including ego trip and Pitchfork) to be one of the best rap records of the 1990s, “Juicy” was a hip-hop Horatio Alger tale that served as the first single released from Big’s masterful debut, Ready to Die. “When I think about Big, I think about Boston Market, because that was his favorite restaurant. Sometimes he would come to New Jersey to visit me and my mom, and we’d always go to Boston Market. Biggie was more than a labelmate, he was our brother.”
Two of the unsung women behind Total’s success were songwriter Terri Robison and stylist/manager Sybil Pennix, whom the girls lovingly call Mama Syb. “Sybil had a vision for us,” Pam remembers. “She knew our personalities so well, because we spent so much time with her. That black leather look on the first album cover, that was all Sybil.”
Back in 1996, hanging with the girls while they were on a promotional tour in Chicago, Kima told me, “I feel like I was raised twice. By my mother, who raised me to have morals, then again by Sybil, who taught us to deal with the craziness of this business. If you don’t have people to keep you in the right direction, you’ll be messed up.”
Songwriter Terri Robinson, who’d known Puff since her teenage days when she was signed to Uptown Records as one third of The Girlz, was making moves as a member of the R&B duo Terri & Monica. (Robinson co-wrote most of their material.) Wanting to be more of a songwriter, she became a part of the Bad Boy circle, where she wrote seven songs for Total’s debut (including their biggest breakout hit, “Can’t You See”).
Kima recalls, “We watched her entire process and she knew exactly what each of us could bring to the song. We were in the studio when she wrote it, when she did all the background sounds, when she did the main vocals. It was all so dope.”
With Total an instant hit, the girls were expected to promote their product as much as possible. “Once we had to go this dingy radio station in Mississippi and we missed our flight,” Pam recalls. “Our rep chartered a small propelled plane that only held about five people and we flew in that. I was scared to death and cried the whole time we were in the air!”
The following year, with Biggie dead and Puff having released the mega-collabo debut album No Way Out (becoming Bad Boy’s biggest star in the process), the King of Bling spent less time in the studio with Total, entrusting his “babies” to Missy Elliott. She helmed the majority of their sophomore project, Kima, Keisha & Pam—including the mind-blowing machine woman funk of the first single, “Trippin’ ” (which, at least to me, was not only one of Missy’s most majestic tracks to date, but one of the most innovative songs of the era). Unfortunately, Puffy wasn’t feeling it.
In 2005, while promoting her album The Cookbook, Elliott told me, “I was in the studio for, like, 22 hours at time, squirting Visine in my eyes, trying to create the best material possible for that project. But it was a mess because Puffy just came into the studio telling me how wack I was, and that I didn’t know anything about music. Later, we battled over the phone and I just had to hang up on him. Me and the girls loved the sound, and we knew it was only a matter of time before he loved it too.”
According to Pam, that was exactly what happened. “Puff wasn’t feeling a lot of what Missy was doing, but we wanted that sound. Puffy didn’t think it would hit, but when that thing crunked up and radio got a hold of it… When it hit, it hit!”
Total followed up with two more singles: the laid-back Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie-produced “Sittin’ Home” and the dope cheating anthem “I Tried,” flipped by go-go genius Chucky Thompson. But by then, the fame game became too much. “We just got tired and decided to disband. We needed to find ourselves.”
As they did their own thing, each getting married and starting families, promoters were still calling trying to get Total to reunite. In 2013, Kima and Pam went overseas to London and were so wowed by the crowd’s enthusiastic response to their show, they decided to bring the group back into the spotlight.
“A lot of things have transpired since we got back together, and we’re excited about it,” Pam says. “We’re looking forward to the Bad Boy tour next year.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also a columnist for soulhead.com. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.