If you listen to any radio station these days, it’s easy to hear how much the lines between R&B (and pop to a certain extent) and hip-hop have blurred. While it’s no big deal to hear the two genres combined in popular music nowadays, it was a different story 20 years ago for sure. The “new jack swing” movement of the late Eighties (as exemplified by music from the likes of Keith Sweat, Bobby Brown and Al B. Sure!) opened the door slightly when it came to public acceptance of soul music with a youthful, somewhat street aesthetic, but the door that separated the two genres didn’t get kicked down until the spring of 1990, when the music-buying public was introduced to…the three scrubs from New Edition?
Yep, folks. Although a lot of folks may think of Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison and chuckle, that album (and its smash title track) has turned out to be more influential than most people will give it credit for. From the risqué lyrical content to the uncompromisingly hip-hop production, these dudes were as street as pop music got back in the day. Not bad for a project that essentially started as an accident.
The year was 1989. Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe were best known as the Tito, Jackie and Marlon of teen idols New Edition (lead singers Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill were Michael and Jermaine, respectively). The tour in support of N.E.’s multi-platinum 1988 album Heart Break had just ended, and Gill and Tresvant had made the decision to concentrate on solo records. As legend has it, the other three group members were trying to figure out what to do with their idle time when legendary production team Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis suggested that they record an album. Dumbfounded that they hadn’t thought of that themselves, Bell Biv DeVoe was born, and wound up selling more records than Tresvant and Gill’s subsequent solo efforts — combined.
Pop music was still in its lollipops-and-roses phase back in 1990. The most “urban” your local Top 40 station got was probably Bobby Brown, and despite his future legal and assorted other image woes, rapping about Ghostbusters wasn’t exactly threatening. So songs like “Poison” and its’ even more ribald follow up “Do Me!” were legitimately shocking at that time. Not only was the production (courtesy of a raft of newcomers and Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, then at the top of their game) more funky and coarse than the shiny Babyface-helmed Brown records, but these guys managed to score smashes with the most sexually explicit-some might say misogynist- music of its’ time. “Never trust a big butt and a smile”? “The low-pro ho was cut like an Afro”? Talking about underage sex and condoms? “Smack it up, flip it, rub it down”?!?!? While Britney Spears singing “If You Seek Amy” may get shrugged off these days, BBD raised more than their share of eyebrows back in the day with Poison’s lyrical content.
It also opened BBD up to a fan base who otherwise would have turned their noses up at anything associated with New Edition’s “soft” image. The group’s forthright lyrics and fashion sense (wearing customized hip-hop gear at a time when most R&B singers were still wearing glittery suits) made them the acceptable face of R&B for the first generation to be raised in hip-hop culture. They also tacked two New Edition-styled ballads onto the end of the album, as if to make sure their faithful legion of suburban female fans (the ones who hadn’t already defected to New Kids on the Block) wouldn’t be completely freaked out.
At any rate, the evolution of hip-hop soul had a lot to do with BBD’s success, in more ways than one. It’s hard to imagine acts like Mary J. Blige and Jodeci existing without Bell Biv DeVoe’s success. Hell, TLC was created as a female answer to BBD. By himself, Michael Bivins also pretty much created the artist/mogul template that most current R&B/hip-hop big willies aspire to these days, discovering and grooming acts like Another Bad Creation and Boyz II Men. It’s hard to imagine there being a Jermaine Dupri or a Puff Daddy without there being a Michael Bivins. The influence that Bell Biv DeVoe had on the contemporary scene in their brief time as hitmakers (Poison’s follow-up album flopped HARD) lingers despite the fact that parts of the album haven’t exactly aged well.
However, that shouldn’t take anything away from the fact that Poison, for better or for worse, is easily one of the five most important R&B albums made in the past 20 years. It took two genres that were fairly autonomous and blurred the lines to the point where you couldn’t really tell what was what anymore. They also taught us two very important lessons: don’t underestimate the scrubs, and never trust a big butt and a smile.