If you want to know what age bracket a Black woman falls into, pay attention to the way she responds when a New Edition song comes on. Play “Mr. Telephone Man” or “Can You Stand the Rain?” and wait to see if it mentally transports her back to a time when she recorded songs from the radio onto cassette tapes and watched Video Soul with ardent religiosity. The question is usually not if she is a New Edition fan but rather which member she staked passionate claim to: Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, Ralph or Johnny. They are forever the heartthrobs of a generation, the boy band descendants of supergroups such as the Jackson 5 and the Temptations, progenitors who mixed classic R&B with the flavor of early hip-hop to create a sound uniquely their own.
Because of New Edition’s longevity as a group, its fandom rarely dies inside of anyone who’s ever nurtured it. And it’s not only Black women, though our adoration certainly shaped and propelled their fame. Black men, White folks, even teens and 20-somethings—despite having been in vitro when the group rose to popularity—connect to the N.E. magic, too. The proof is in ticket sales and the tour schedule the group maintains, annually headlining some 30 shows and festivals around the country. People still go crazy for New Edition: the smooth choreographed dance steps, the dapper, satin-lapel suits, the songs they know word for word.
How to multiply a legend
When BET announced that the group’s narrative would be turned into The New Edition Story, a three-day, six-hour miniseries airing this week, social media went wild. The trailer was shared thousands of times. Invitations for viewing parties circulated. It was a project 10 years in the making, says Abdul Williams, the writer behind the screenplay, and fans were thrilled to finally see the details of the N.E. story played out in living color. “If we got this wrong, I would disappoint every girl I went to high school and college with, and they would come for me,” Williams says with a laugh. “We definitely felt the pressure. It had to be big because we know what New Edition means, and we’re all fans.”
The group’s iconic rise embodies genuine tenacity, intelligence and talent. It takes those qualities and then some to have music-industry staying power for more than 30 years, through legendarily bad contracts, internal squabbles and the vicissitudes of six conjoined personal lives. Johnny Gill accurately describes New Edition as one of the most multifaceted groups of all time, and the trajectories of the members’ careers support that belief. “When you look at the Beatles, all of them had their own successes, both in and apart from the band. We might be one of the only other groups who’ve been able to attain that level,” Gill says. “We’ve created our own identities in and out of the group, and we’ve all been successful, individually and collectively.”
In fact, N.E. recently received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Plenty of artists have gone it alone, splintering from their original music outfits to seek their solo moments in the sun; history has shown that few go on to really shine. New Edition is one of the only groups to produce six individual stars. Bobby Brown flexed his prerogative, Ralph Tresvant showed his sensitivity and Gill became Mr. My, My, My. Gill recently released a new single, “This One’s for Me and You,” featuring his groupmates, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Adult R&B chart. Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe forged Bell Biv DeVoe and, in so doing, added to the N.E. legacy by carving out one of the premier groups to define the sound, the look and the feel of the colorful 1990s. They are legends two times over.
The birth of a new style
It’s one thing to hype a crowd of ready-to-party adults at a concert or a show, but when you can make the first Black president and his dignified first lady dance—not a conservative bob and sway, either, but a full-on head nod and two-step with hip movement—you have succeeded in your craft as an artist. Before the Obamas made their official exit from an eight-year tenure as the coolest people to ever live in the White House, BET aired Love & Happiness: An Obama Celebration last November. It was a two-hour musical tribute to the first family, and when Bell Biv DeVoe hit the stage and the instantly recognizable drum intro to “Poison” cracked the air, everyone in their audience—including Barack and Michelle—was on his or her feet and in motion. It was a moment of peak Blackness.
“That was amazing and nostalgic, with some nerves. We were so excited when we got the call, and not being able to tell anyone was crazy. We had to hide it from our families until the last day,” Bell says of the experience. “We were so happy and grateful that we had a chance to rock with them. It’s definitely one of the highlights of our career.”
And what a career it has been. Following Brown’s unceremonious departure from New Edition, the trio that would become BBD set out to do something new by embracing a more around-the-way approach to its look and music. “We wanted to take off the suits and leave that for New Edition, so when people saw us, they could see the offstage side of us. We ran with an attitude that was a little bit more street,” Bivins explains. “People didn’t know what to expect from us. They didn’t know if we were going to deliver or what it was going to sound like, but we infused R&B and hip-hop together like a science. To us, it was important we each play a pivotal role. I think that’s what makes it Bell. Biv. DeVoe.”
What came from the tripartite of fresh creativity was a cultural explosion. Released in 1990, the group’s first album, Poison, was a phenomenon like its title track. The video was strategically released before the single, giving folks a look at the style behind the sound, which in turn made the sound that much more magnetic: the overalls, the mismatched sneakers and, most of all, the Timberland boots. Bivins is clear that we have the trendsetting of BBD to thank for peeling male singers out of cummerbunds and hard-bottomed shoes and setting the standard for an edgier look. “We definitely put boots on the R&B map, before Jodeci, before anybody else. We showed you how to rock a boot if you were an R&B dude.”
The move helped finicky R&B audiences accept BBD not as an extension of New Edition but as an expression of themselves. It also gave Bivins the added confidence to develop and manage upcoming artists, including boy band Another Bad Creation and rapper MC Brains.
The future is now
The 10-song collection that is Poison spawned five follow-up singles, including “Do Me,” which hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100; “I Thought It Was Me,” rising to No. 1 on the R&B charts; and a video treasury that documented it all. The whole record was a memorable contribution to the new jack swing movement that dominated the sound of the early ’90s, aligning BBD alongside pioneers of the genre such as Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Ultimately, the project went four times platinum and established the platform that demanded three follow-up albums, including the latest, Three Stripes, released in January. Its lead single, “Run,” is BBD’s first new song in 15 years, and it’s been well-received. Fans still love the group, and they’re showing it.
Some of those same devotees will likely turn out when BBD goes on tour in April, accompanied by fellow ’90s powerhouses SWV, En Vogue and special guest Bobby Brown. A euphoric feeling accompanies music that encapsulates a stretch of the past, even for the people who created it decades ago. Ronnie DeVoe doesn’t usually dance when a New Edition or BBD song is played when he’s out; instead, he likes to stand back and soak up the excitement that goes along with it.
“You see the reaction from the club or from the party, or you could even be at somebody’s house and they just kicking it and they got 10 or 15 people there, and ‘If It Isn’t Love’ or ‘Poison’ comes on, the party erupts,” he says. “The energy changes in the room, you just feel a sense of pride and you’re proud to know that you have a joint that has stood the test of time.”
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Senior Producer, EBONY.com