Blast From The Past: El Debarge On Comeback, Prison Stint & Working With RZA


El DeBarge speaks just like he sings. Controlled yet passionate. Whispery yet cool. Soft yet confident. Such attributes were front and center during his astonishing performance at 2010’s BET Awards. There he was, making one of television’s most memorable comebacks. During a medley of some of the biggest hits of DeBarge, the vastly underrated family group he fronted, the 49-year-old’s voice resembled the same heart-stirring falsetto that made such ’80s and ‘90s staples as “I Like It,” “All This Love,” “Rhythm Of The Night,” and the Quincy Jones’ produced “The Secret Garden” indelible numbers. The hip-hop generation knew every word written by the singer/songwriter/producer (the Notorious BIG’s mammoth 1995 hit “One More Chance/Stay With Me Remix” was just one of many songs that has sampled from the DeBarge catalogue over the years). And no one was more humbled by the standing ovation he received that evening than El.

Following several high profile run-ins with the law, in 2008, El DeBarge was sent to prison on a two-year bid for drug possession of crack cocaine. Battles with substance abuse have played a dark role in the otherwise rich legacy of the DeBarge family from late big brother Bobby to the youngest sibling Chico. But El plans to make the most of his return. The re-energized and clean performer is set to release his first new album in 16-years Second Chance. For El, the aptly-titled Geffen set, due out September 28, is bigger than music. It’s a resurrection. VIBE gets the story from the man himself.—Keith Murphy

VIBE: Take us back to your surprising comeback at this years BET Awards. What was going through your mind as you were performing some of those classic DeBarge songs?

El DeBarge: What was going through my head? The awesome responsibility that God had placed in my hands to bring love again to the world through music. I felt so privileged and honored that God has given me a second chance. Here I am, 22 years later, given a second chance after all of my struggles and obstacles. I just felt so blessed that night to be able to do that.

You named your upcoming album Second Chance. What is it about that title that symbolizes your struggles with drug abuse and the other personal issues you’ve faced over the years?

Like everyone else in this world, I have had struggles. There’s disappointment and obstacles in everybody’s life. I feel like I was writing Second Chance not just for myself, but also for the people who have struggled. My own personal struggles with drugs and heartbreaks in relationships are no different than what’s going on out in the world where people are losing their homes in this great recession that we are having. It’s about people wanting second chances in life. People’s children have been taken away because of their own personal issues…they want a second chance again to be good parents. The people losing their jobs, they want a second chance at life…just to live better. That’s what my album title symbolizes.

Throughout your career, you’ve written and produced some of DeBarges’ biggest hits as well as your own solo material. But on Second Chance you’re working with a diverse range of talents from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Babyface to Ron Fair, the Avilia Brothers and Michael Angelo. Were you looking for something specifically from your collaborators?

It was important when I was choosing the producers and co-writers for this album that they all had a passion for real music. Babyface brings a lot of passion to this project. We worked together in the early ‘90s. I know what he brings to the table: real music and a level of professionalism. He reminds me of myself. Next to him and Ron Fair, I’m probably the greatest perfectionist [Laughs]. But Babyface just has a different swagger about him. I think that his style of writing blends very well with mines because he is a singer as well as a songwriter. All of the people that I worked with know how to cry; how to get emotional. They know how to let music just flow from them without holding it back. These are people who are ministers of music, not just songwriters. There’s one other name you forgot…Theron Feemster. We call him Nephew [Laughs].

One of the more surprising aspects of your career is your willingness to work with hip-hop artists. 50 Cent is set to appear on Second Chance and over the years you have collaborated with the likes of DJ Quik and RZA.

Tags: El DeBarge, Music