Babyface turns 30 this year. Sure, the Man Who Would Be Babyface — Kenneth Edmonds — was born in 1959, but the singer, songwriter, producer, and all-around hit maker extraordinaire began taking baby steps up the Billboard charts the year Michael Jackson’s Thriller dominated every chart. Join Robert Cass, Jeff Giles, and Mike Heyliger as they take a look back at the first three decades of Babyface’s career, with various detours along the stream of consciousness.
Before we get to “Whip Appeal,” we should admit that last week’s ‘Face Time selection, “Love Fool” by Nightliners, was indeed an April Fool’s joke. The quality of “Love Fool,” however, is no joke — try getting that chorus out of your head even after only a couple of listens — and we have Terje Fjelde to thank for it. In February we asked the Norwegian Renaissance man if he’d be interested in writing, arranging, producing, and performing a fake Babyface-penned song from the early ’80s for April Fool’s Day, and in less than a week he’d come up with an excellent homage to “P.Y.T.” that also falls “somewhere between Midnight Star and a George Benson/Arif Mardin album,” as he described it after sending us the “demo version.” Terje also designed the ‘Face Time banner you see at the top of each week’s post. In general, anything you’ve seen in this space that’s involved actual creativity was originally outsourced to Scandinavia. Thank you, Terje!
Robert: Babyface turns 54 on April 10, so let’s celebrate by talking about “Whip Appeal,” a ballad he made in the late ’80s that probably led to a lot of babies being made in the early ’90s. (Frank Ocean released a song of the same name last year, but he was born in ’87.) It’s a seduction song, but one that conveys the message that romantic commitment to one person is sexier than anything else. In fact, monogamy seems to be on Babyface’s mind throughout Tender Lover, his second solo album, and it was certainly a buzzword in the late ’80s once AIDS became a public health crisis; even James Bond was cutting back on one-night stands in The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989).
Babyface’s writing and production partner, L.A. Reid, married Pebbles, a.k.a. Perri Smith, as she’s credited in the original liner notes of Tender Lover, around the same time the album hit record stores. According to a 1995 article in Jet magazine, ‘Face cowrote “Whip Appeal” with the future Mrs. Reid after hearing how she talked about L.A. However, that anecdote is the last sentence in the article — its focus is the Reids’ impending divorce after almost six years of marriage. “Till death do us part” isn’t for everyone, after all.
Mike: I hope the Reids kept the warranty on that whip appeal.
Actually, Pebbles would be a great person to have on an Unsung-type show: She was the shit for a minute, got married to L.A., and discovered and managed TLC. Then TLC went bankrupt, she got divorced, and a few years later she became a woman of the cloth.
Jeff: Whoa, I just realized that I don’t think anybody from this season of Unsung has done the come-to-Jesus thing in the final act!
Mike: You might be right — they flipped the script on us this season. Well, Isaac Hayes did go to Xenu …
Robert: Has Pebbles ever told her side of TLC’s “we wuz robbed” story?
Mike: Nope. I think she’s waiting for Jesus to answer.
Robert: A little rain must fall in every life. I mean, look at Holly Robinson — she was part of the ensemble cast of 21 Jump Street in 1990, but as we see in the music video for “Whip Appeal,” she had to moonlight as the emcee at Club La Coco just to pay the bills. Were Johnny Depp and Richard Grieco spending the majority of the show’s budget on hair gel, leaving little in the way of rent money for Robinson and Dom DeLuise’s son? Sad.
I like the finger snaps that were added to “Whip Appeal” for the video. Finger snaps, handclaps, Fender Rhodes piano, and jazz flute — every song could use more of those elements.
Jeff: Can we add clavinet to that list? I’d put it right under Fender Rhodes.
Jeff: I admit finding “Whip Appeal” dreadfully dull during its initial chart run, but it’s grown on me quite a bit over the years, due in large part to whatever freaky synth setting ‘Face favored back then to create that background sound. You know the one I mean — it’s part “strings,” part “background vocals,” all awesome. It’s a variation on the sound he used for After 7’s “Ready or Not,” and it makes me happy inside.
Robert: Yeah, “Whip Appeal” didn’t have listener appeal when I was 14, but I love the chorus now, especially the way it builds steam in the final lap, making the song feel like an arena anthem for longtime couples. Make sure you don’t leave your lighters in your minivan before entering the stadium, everyone, or you’ll be sorry during the second encore.
Jeff: As for the video, THUMBS UP. It has so many wonderful ingredients: the intro that features a previous hit by the artist; the swanky nightclub; the buppie high-rise, including the requisite bubble-bath shots; and the patently fake “live” version of a recording that obviously never got anywhere near a band (right down to the fake horn section!). I also like this particular mix of “Whip Appeal”; I think it opens up the arrangement a little and breaks the monotony of the “official” version.
Robert: The video reminds me of a phrase used to describe the output of Philadelphia International Records in the ’70s: “soul in a tux.” Genuine class all around.
Mike: The video’s mix is definitely an improvement over the album version. I wish it’d been released as the seven-inch version or even on Babyface’s godforsaken remix LP, A Closer Look (1991).
Robert: If the version labeled “Single Mix” on Sony’s S.O.U.L. compilation is any indication, it was released in some sort of seven-inch “single” form, but that mix doesn’t include the finger snaps. There’s another verson of “Whip Appeal” that’s subtitled “The Ultimate Whip”; it appears on The Other Side of Cool, Sony’s belated 2005 collection of Babyface remixes from the ’90s, and the 2001 reissue of Tender Lover, but for some reason it’s just called the “12-inch version” there.
Speaking of remixes, it was pretty frustrating 20 years ago to hear an R&B or rap song you really liked, whether on the radio or MTV, then go to a record store and buy the CD, cassette, or “cassingle” from whence it came only to discover that the version you liked so much was nowhere to be found! Once MP3 blogs started popping up around 2005 it became easier to track down some of those remixes and single mixes, including the “Clark Kent Super Mix” of Troop’s “Spread My Wings” that leaves out the midsong rap, the “All the Way Live” version of Tony! Toni! TonÁ©!’s “It Never Rains (In Southern California)” that I’m pretty sure isn’t live at all, the “Soul IV Seoul Edit” of Tyler Collins’s “Girls Nite Out” (in case you don’t remember, it helped end the seldom mentioned African-Korean War of 1990), and the remix of Ice Cube’s “Check Yo Self” that samples Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message.”
Until five minutes ago I was still searching for the “clean” version of Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” and the “Hey Girl Remix” of LL Cool J’s “6 Minutes of Pleasure,” but wouldn’t you know it, there they were on an MP3 blog I’d never seen before.
Jeff: All of a sudden I’m craving a Robert Cass-curated Weekly Mixtape.
Mike: I’m pretty sure that Cube remix was on the cassingle or CD single. Not sure about all the others, though there’s a Clark Kent remix of “Spread My Wings” — with the midsong rap — on one of Universal’s Gold compilations. (New Jack Swing: Gold, in case anyone’s wondering. They threw a lot of remixes on it.)
Jeff: That sounds like the first Gold compilation I need to own.
Mike: It’s pretty fucking good. Robert, you should come to Boston and help curate Popblerd Club Night with me!
Robert: Guys, if you want the “Pop Goes the Gangster Mix” of “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” you just have to ask — no need to bribe me. By the way, the mix I remember hearing on Macon’s Foxy 100 in the fall of ’91 is the “Rond B Mix: ‘Original.'” Now we can all sleep better at night.
Mike: I think Jeff Redd might have been an NYC thing — he was pretty popular around those parts. He had two hit singles, “You Called and Told Me” and a cover of the Fatback Band’s “I Found Lovin’.” I believe he’s in A&R for Universal these days.
That Al Green song was released in the early part of ’89. Al B. Sure! coproduced and was featured in the video.
Jeff: After all this time I’m still discovering hidden corners of the new-jack universe. That’s it — I’m buying this.
Robert: Mr. Redd didn’t make it onto Foxy 100’s playlists, as far as I know. Did the following song find its way into your neck of the woods in 1990, Mike? Straight from a VHS-cassette recording of the Jukebox Channel, it’s Success-N-Effect’s “Roll It Up My Homeboy” (though that’s not its original name).
Mike: I made it through almost four minutes. I … I can’t.
Jeff: Listening to “I Want Her.” Don’t bother me with this silly noise.
Robert: Yeah, but aren’t you listening to it while staring at pictures of Johnny Depp and Richard Grieco? Can’t say I blame you — both had fantastic hair.
As for you, Mike, shame shame shame for ignoring Success-N-Effect’s uplifting message of … I don’t know … something … I just remember there’s a lot of talking in that video. In fact, it might be the first rap song to not contain any actual rapping.
Mike: Yeah, I’m not really sure what’s going on there.
Jeff: Holy shit, I just listened to that Al Green track. It’s epic.
Mike: Yeah, it’s pretty good. Shoulda been a bigger hit. The rare gospel song I can separate from its Jesus-ness.
Jeff: That’s a gospel song? I was too distracted by the Z. Cavariccis to tell.
Mike: Yep. He was full-on Reverend Al during that period.
Jeff: I knew that’s why we lost him during the ’80s, but I figured maybe Al B. hypnotized him with his unibrow.
Mike: It was around the same time he did that duet with Annie Lennox for “Scrooged,” so I think he was dipping a pinky toe back into secular waters.
Robert: Speaking of Al B. Sure! why isn’t he on that Gold compilation? “Nite and Day” doesn’t qualify as gold? An outrage, I say! Nothing from ‘Face and L.A. Reid as producers, either, as far as I can tell, though they worked with plenty of the acts on those two discs at one point or another.
Jeff: Al B. was a Warner Bros. act, which might have something to do with it, although Keith Sweat was on Elektra, and he’s there.
Mike: Yeah, I think most of the tracks come from the Universal family. Licensing from Warner would’ve cost a pretty penny.
Robert: I see. Andy Kellman wrote an AllMusic.com blog entry the other day about his favorite R&B singles of 1990 and noted that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (I know, Jeff — I KNOW!) dominate his top 40 as far as production goes: four songs from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation album, plus Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity,” Johnny Gill’s “Rub You the Right Way” (whose stripped-down remix, included on New Jack Swing: Gold, pales in comparison to the muscular album version, if you ask me), and “Jerk Out” by the Time. But ‘Face and L.A. aren’t far behind, with five entries on Kellman’s list: Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” Pebbles’s “Giving You the Benefit,” After 7’s “Can’t Stop,” and two from Gill, “My, My, My” and “Fairweather Friend.” (But where’s “My Kinda Girl”? Or “Whip Appeal”? Poppycock, Kellman. Poppycock!)
Did I ever tell you guys how a girl in my 9th-grade class ran for student council in the fall of 1990 and one of her campaign posters said, “I’ll be your fairweather friend”? I liked the song, so I understood the reference, but I didn’t know what it actually meant to be a fairweather friend, and apparently neither did she. (She didn’t win, but I don’t think that poster was why she lost.) Gill’s phrasing in the song doesn’t exactly help: though the first line of the chorus is “I won’t be no fairweather friend,” it sounds like he’s saying “I wanna be your fairweather friend.”
Robert: Gill’s eponymous 1990 LP was supposedly the first album to feature productions by both Jam & Lewis and ‘Face/L.A. (I know, Jeff. I’ll stop now.) Oh, and I found the name of the “Whip Appeal” remix that appears in the video — it’s the “Performance Piece” mix.
Jeff: Yeah, I think the ‘Face/L.A. and Production Team Who Shall Not Be Named liner-notes mash-up was mentioned in Gill’s recently aired Unsung episode.
Mike: I thought JG wanted to be my fairweather friend too.
Robert: If only there had been some sort of website or app back in 1990 that would’ve allowed us to look up words and idioms and find out what they meant. I didn’t think so at the time, but we were really living in the stone ages back then. Wait, is that the right expression? Let me look it up on my phone. Oops, I got distracted by Mike’s tweet about Talib Kweli. Hold on, now I gotta look up Kweli’s discography. Wait, his Black Star partner Mos Def was in 16 Blocks (2006), right? Was that the last movie Richard Donner directed? How old is Donner now anyway? I need to look that up too.
… What was I looking up in the first place? Oh well, I can’t remember, but you see what I mean about how quickly we can find stuff out now compared to the way things were in 1990.
All Together Now: Happy birthday, Babyface!
For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface.