It’s been 24 years since teenaged singers Cheryl “Coko” Clemons, Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George and Leanne “Lelee” Lyons—better known as SWV (Sisters With Voices)—released their 1992 debut It’s About Time, but the women are still doing their thing on the road and in the studio. Although SWV originally disbanded in 1998 (a year after the release of their third and least favorite album Release Some Tension, featuring production from Missy Elliott and Sean “Puffy Combs), they’ve been back together since 2005. “We’re always on the road,” Taj says. “That’s a blessing.”
SWV’s forthcoming Still, to be released February 5, features the singles “Ain’t No Man” (a wicked midtempo tribute to the loves in their lives) and “Man Crush Everyday” (a beautiful bubble bath ballad). Recorded in Miami between tour dates, the women worked with producer/songwriter Cainon Lamb (Beyoncé, Keyshia Cole). “We recorded the album in a week,” Coko says. “We had worked with Cainon on our last project [2012’s I Miss Us], and he was just so humble and cool we had no problem collaborating again.”
Coming at a time when R&B is going through a transition, SWV hopes to be a part of that change without having to change themselves much. “People keep saying R&B is dead, but we don’t think that’s true,” Taj says. “R&B is supposed to be sexy, but nowadays you have all this cussing and people being super nasty.” Groupmate Lelee adds, “Some people like Trey Songz are putting out beautiful R&B records. When you look at him perform, you can see he is a classy gentleman.”
Listening to their new music, one hears the joyous SWV of their early days, not the bickering women seen on their reality show, SWV Reunited. Indeed, when the topic is brought up, the group groans in unison.
“That show made us look like ungrateful, lazy artists who just argued with one another,” says Lelee, “and that’s so far from the truth of who SWV is. That show was beginning to hurt our brand. People who have liked us since the beginning didn’t want to see us like that.”
In the beginning, back in the early 1990s, SWV was just three New York City girls trying to get on. While Coko and Lelee were play cousins growing up in the Bronx, they recruited Brooklyn girl Taj to form the fem trio that would soon become a sensation. “When Lelee first told me she wanted to start a group, I was like, ‘Whatever’,” Coko says with a laugh. “In the beginning we were inspired by En Vogue, so we would wear these little black dresses. We’d sing En Vogue songs, but we thought we sounded better. We figured we had something and we could make it work. Everybody didn’t get our vision at first, but when we caught on, we was fire.”
Later, even some of their fans would think of SWV as the ghetto En Vogue. “The ’90s was such an exciting time for us. It was still the new jack swing era and we were the new Jills.” However, while other amateur singers were trooping through the gritty city doing auditions in the day and performing at open mics at night, SWV bypassed the regular hurdles and hooked up with a manager named Maureen Singleton.
“She sent our demo to Kenny Ortiz at RCA,” Coko says. “The demo was recorded in somebody’s bedroom where the booth was a bathroom, but we did a nice presentation and sent the demo in a basket with bottles of Perrier water.” The girls were still impressive enough to get an invite to RCA to sing for Ortiz. “There was four of us at the time, but Kenny only wanted to sign three.”
“What happened to the other girl?” I ask.
“We killed her,” Taj blurts, and the entire room cracks up at her dark humor.
Blessed with a record deal, RCA sent them to work with producer/songwriter Brian Alexander Morgan in Sacramento. “I was the only one who could drive and I had the big titties, so I could get us in the clubs,” Taj says, laughing. “We from the ’hood, so we fit in anywhere. We knew how to survive.” When they weren’t clubbing, SWV was in the studio with Morgan, a production perfectionist who had no problem doing 20 separate takes of the same song. “He really taught us how to sing a certain way.”
Brian Alexander Morgan also penned their hit singles: “Downtown,” an aural instruction manual on the joys of oral sex; “Right Here/Human Nature,” which was famously remixed by new jack king Teddy Riley; and “Weak,” originally penned with Charlie Wilson in mind, but he gave it to SWV instead.
“I didn’t like ‘Weak’ when I first heard it,” says Coko. “I just wasn’t feeling it in the beginning. I cried; I locked myself in the bathroom. Singing it for me was very hard. I had to be very controlled. It was my first time singing like that and it became one of our biggest songs.” Released in October 1992 (the same year TLC and Xscape also put out their debuts), It’s About Time sold three million copies, received numerous award nominations and changed the lives of three New York City girls.
“Weak” was the third single from It’s About Time; the group shot a cool video for the ballad co-starring their boyfriends. “The guy I was dating who I got in the video stole all the clothes afterwards,” Taj says, cracking up. “I asked him why he did it. He said, ‘Because I wanted to.’ He’s probably still stealing today.” Meanwhile, SWV became, as Coko says, “the big kahunas” at the label. “RCA spoiled us,” she says. “They laid out the carpet and really took care us.”
However, success brought arguments over money, with Coko and Taj fighting the most. Later, according to a 2014 Rolling Stone story, “Coko gave Taj and Lelee and ultimatum: she wanted half the money or she was going to quit the group. An agreement was reluctantly struck, but the move brought group relations to an all-time low.” Before they broke-up in ’98, the friends were barely speaking to one another.
SWV has been through many trials and tribulations since those early years, going so far as to take a seven-year break from one another. During that period, they all relocated to different parts of the country. Lelee, who currently lives in Virginia Beach, says, “I’m from Forest Projects in the Bronx, the same complex where Fat Joe comes from, but I can’t say that I miss it. I like it in the country. I only come to New York for business and shopping.”
With Still on the horizon and touring in full effect (they’ll be part of the Ladies Night R&B Super Jam at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on February 12, alongside Jodeci and Faith Evans), SWV is back and, luckily, not going anywhere anytime soon. “We’re just having a good time,” says Coko. “What more can we ask for?”
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.