Celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, Groove Theory’s self-titled debut album was a game changer in the world of Black music when it was released on October 24, 1995. Along with D’Angelo’s wonderful Brown Sugar, which dropped three months before, Groove Theory’s album was sonically constructed to sound different than anything else being played on the radio, and helped spawn the musical movement known as neo-soul.
Fusing old-school soul, ’70s jazz and a hip-hop sensibility, neo-soul became a marketing slang for record companies. But truth be told, the young bloods behind the boards and in front of the microphones were on a mission to make music that reflected their own organic passions that went beyond the limitations the gatekeepers were trying to impose.
Former Groove Theory singer/songwriter Amel Larrieux, who’d majored in voice at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, was still a teenager named Eliza Stowell when she was introduced to budding producer and future musical partner Bryce Wilson. Working in the 57th Street offices of music publisher Rondor Music in 1992, Larrieux was an assistant to creative manager Karen Durant.
“Amel was a cool young lady who could be either refined or raw, but never street,” Durant recalls. “She was also a wonderful poet who wrote these sad, maudlin poems that I thought were very good.”
Durant knew Bryce Wilson from her old job at Jive Records, when he was part of a trio trying to get signed at the home of A Tribe Called Quest and KRS-One. Having recently left his gig as a pretty boy rapper for Mantronix, he’d started playing keyboards and set his eyes on producing.
“Bryce used to come to Rondor Music to use the piano,” Durant says, “and I heard him playing a certain melody over and over. I thought Amel would be able to write lyrics for it. Their personalities were very different, but I thought they would work well together.”
A Queens native, Bryce was a rapping/beatboxing teenager when he was discovered by then-Sleeping Bag Records executive Virgil Simms in 1988. “Bryce was a smart kid who knew what he wanted,” Simms remembers. “But at the time he was just rapping. So I was surprised when he later became a producer.”
Sleeping Bag was the original label of Just-Ice, EPMD and Nice & Smooth, as well as the home of experimental electro hip-hop producer Kurtis Mantronik a.k.a. Mantronix, who was looking for a new rapper to replace MC Tee. Shortly afterwards, Mantronik—who lived upstairs from the Sleeping Bag offices on Broadway and 66th Street—jumped ship after securing a million-dollar deal at Capitol Records.
“Kurtis could act crazy, but he was the best producer I’d ever met,” Bryce Wilson said in 1997. “He was musical as hell, and I would sit on the floor in the studio and just watch him work. He wouldn’t let me touch his equipment, but he still taught me a lot of tricks.”
In 1990, Mantronix’s This Should Move Ya generated the hit single “Take Your Time,” which really took off in England. However, although he was travelling the world, Bryce eventually grew bored with both Kurtis’s erratic behavior and the dance tracks he was rapping over. Having spent his teenage years in Queens playgrounds and lunchrooms battling with beatbox pros Biz Markie and future Roots member Rahzel, he wanted to become a “real rapper” and that wasn’t going to happen with Mantronix.
Nevertheless, after buying his own keyboards and sampler, Bryce decided that producing would be his next move. Originally he was going to use the name Groove Theory for a group he’d formed with two women (his intention was to be behind the scenes), but the singers “wigged out” and left. Still, from the moment he began working with Amel Larrieux, the rhythmic rivers began to flow in ways neither could have anticipated.
Amel presented him with lyrics to a song she’d originally written for Trey Lorenz, who’s best known for his MTV Unplugged “I’ll Be There” duet with Mariah Carey. “It was supposed to be produced by the L.A. Posse, but it never happened,” says Larrieux. A few years prior, she’d appeared in a video for LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad,” a song the Posse produced. “At the time I was thinking more about being a songwriter than a singer,” she admits.
With Bryce Wilson at the piano, Amel Larrieux sang her “sweet everythings” love poetics to his smooth melody, and not long afterwards, their first song was complete. “That song was ‘Tell Me,’ which was also a song that was on the demo that would eventually get them signed,” Durant explains.
However, in that early ’90s era dominated by the sounds of Jermaine Dupri and Jodeci, it would take a few years and many rejections before the rest of the world heard the aural valentine the duo composed. While in 1995, the lush single and album would go gold, there were many industry vets who doubted that either would make a dent.
“People just weren’t ready,” Bryce told me later. “Nobody believed in me as a producer or Groove Theory as a group.” Still, with Karen Durant’s assistance, the duo was given a publishing deal that gave them enough funds make a four-song demo. “Karen Durant saved our lives,” Bryce recalled. While Amel was living uptown in East Harlem with her grandmother, Bryce relocated to New Jersey, where he’d built a studio in the basement and pushed himself to become the type of producer he’d always wanted to be.
“The record companies were asking me to make records that sounded like Teddy Riley,” Wilson said. “I was down with that new jack swing sound, but I didn’t want to do that. I was studying artists like Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. I listened to his Extension of a Man album a lot when I was working on Groove Theory. Every chord Hathaway played put you in a different mood. It was just incredible. That album had so many types of songs, and that was what I wanted to do on our album. Working with Amel, our heads was in the same place musically, and she just made it all make sense.”
Like many of the songwriters who’d come to be known as neo-soulsters, Amel had eclectic musical tastes that included Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Prince… and Sade. “Her music is just so rich,” Larrieux said in the spring of 1995, “and that’s what I wanted to do. It wasn’t about copying her style, I just loved her.” Like Amel’s shero Sade, her voice had a silky softness that separated her from the gospel screamers many thought of as real soul. Singing from the time she was a babe in the crib, Amel also took piano lessons as a child. But it wasn’t until she was an adolescent that she began putting her troubled thoughts on paper. “I was one of those depressed teens who would fill notebooks with my poems,” Amel confessed.
Raised in New York City until her mom moved to Philly when Amel was 12, Amel was an avid reader of Maya Angelou, Judy Blume and Toni Morrison, writers who first inspired her to pick up the pen. “Sometimes I would go sit in the park and make up stories about the people walking by and write their fictional biographies. I liked to people watch, but I also had a vivid imagination.” When Larrieux began thinking of turning her poetry into lyrics, it was a steady diet of voodoo man Hendrix that helped her transition. “Jimi wrote songs that were like short stories, and that was what I wanted to do.”
Both Larrieux and Wilson were also fans of the jazzy, bohomian hip-hop trio A Tribe Called Quest, whose masterful The Low End Theory was a sonic avatar for the neo-soul children. A beacon of black light that led the next generation towards a promised land of new soundscapes, The Low End Theory also served as inspiration for Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Bilal and countless others.
“Before Tribe and Gang Starr, hip-hop was kind of stiff,” Tribe producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad explained in 2010. “I don’t mean stiff in a bad way, but the music we created just had a different kind of movement and flow to it. Be it the bass lines, chord structures or the different time signatures, the music always moved.” According to former EMI Records A&R man Gary Harris, who signed D’Angelo, the album was in constant rotation during the making of Brown Sugar.
“Tribe is one of the only hip-hop groups that attracted everybody,” D’Angelo told me in 1995. “Young and old, Black and White, and they’re just being themselves doing their dope sh*t.” Groove Theory’s Tribe moment came when they were working on the track “Good 2 Me.” Smiling, Amel said, “That is my favorite song on the album because of the aura it creates. It’s the perfect blend of smooth soul with a raw hip-hop beat. I felt so good for what we made.” Her other favorite, “Baby Luv,” eventually became Groove Theory’s third single.
Although both Wilson and Larrieux were laid back and cool with one another, they had their shares of verbal confrontations in the studio. “I could be very opinionated while working, but Bryce taught me to be tactful,” said Amel. Easily frustrated when the words weren’t coming, sometimes she would take off to Philly for a couple of days to work at her mother’s crib. “Sometimes I just needed to sit with a track for a little while before it clicked. Also, my mom had a piano, which made it easier.”
Always a conscious woman with her eyes on the youth of the African-American community, Amel had no intentions of writing anything vulgar. “Often our music is looked on as pure escapism, but I didn’t want to glorify the bad things in our community,” she said. “Even when I write about making love, I’m not writing about ‘knockin’ boots,’ I’m writing about real love. People associate messages with being preachy, but I felt we needed real songs about real things. Others can run away from their responsibility, but I wanted to be a role model.”
In 1993, for all the blood, sweat and passion Larrieux and Wilson put into the project, no one knew what to do with the music. While Epic Records had given them a demo deal, they wavered on actually signing the group. The Groove Theory sound, grounded in soul, jazz and hip-hop, had a Black Brit vibe that was closer to Loose Ends. Karen Durant (having left Rondor Music for EMI Records) had set her sites on giving Groove Theory a deal, but that too fell through.
“EMI had already signed D’Angelo and Joi,” Durant recalls, “so there was no room for Groove Theory.” LaFace Records CEO L.A. Reid also showed interest in the group, but nothing ever happened. “It wasn’t until the song ‘10 Minute High’ was being considered for a soundtrack that Epic realized what they had.”
Soon after, Epic Records A&R director Paris Davis gave Groove Theory a contract. Amel married Bryce’s friend Laru Larrieux, converted to Islam, and was soon pregnant with their daughter, Sky. After the baby was born, the challenge for Epic became how to market a modestly dressed Muslim mother in the age of the video hoochie.
“In the beginning, imaging Amel was difficult,” says former Epic publicist La’Verne Perry-Kennedy. Having worked with Sade and Luther Vandross, she was no slouch when it came to working with classy artists. “Amel was gorgeous, but she had no intention of exploiting herself. She was very strict about that. We wound up finding her beautiful clothes at Prada that she liked. The record company wanted to sex her up, but Amel wasn’t having it.”
It was Prada gear that Larrieux wore on the Groove Theory album as well as the “Tell Me” video. Afterwards, when Perry served the press with album advances, the feedback she’d received was positive. “People really liked Groove Theory’s sound because it was so different, hip and cool. They were comparing them to Sade.” However, when the label sent Groove Theory on promotional tour, things weren’t always all good.
“Epic had us playing in all types of places, including hair salons,” Bryce Wilson said with a laugh in 1996. “They forced us to do things we just didn’t want to do.” Additionally, while Groove Theory had a strong buzz and “Tell Me” was in heavy rotation, their record sells were as modest as Amel’s outfits. “People thought we’d gone platinum, but we didn’t. We were grateful to go gold. It was cool, but we expected more.” The following year, Groove Theory toured with D’Angelo and the Fugees.
Surprising to all Groove Theory fans was the fact that the duo never released another album. In 1996, Wilson collaborated with Babyface on the smash Toni Braxton single “You’re Making Me High,” later producing for Changing Faces (“Thinkin’ About You”) and Mary J. Blige (“Get to Know You Better”). Although supposedly working on tracks for his and Amel’s follow up, the only song to surface was “Never Enough,” featured on the Love Jones soundtrack in 1997. Wilson has since become an actor, appearing in films like Trois, Beauty Shop and Belly 2: Millionaire Boyz Club.
Meanwhile, Amel Larrieux hooked up with Sade band members Stuart Matthewman (guitar, sax), Paul Spencer Denman (bass) and Andrew Hale (piano, keyboards) for their successful side project Sweetback, singing on “You Will Rise.” In 2000, Amel released her first solo album Infinite Possibilities. She and her husband Laru later launched their own label, Blisslife, which dropped her most recent release, 2013’s Ice Cream Everyday.
Looking back 20 years later, Groove Theory might not have sold the amount of records either they or their label anticipated, but they made music that continues to serve as a sonic stimulus for budding artists daring to be different.
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.