Bel Biv DeVoe At The 1991 Video Music Awards
Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe of Bel Biv DeVoe at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards at in Los Angeles, California.
Jeff Kravitz

"Poison" Turns 30: How Bell Biv DeVoe’s Hit Reinvented New Jack Swing

Revisiting Bel Biv Devoe's classic 1990 smash single and its legacy three decades later.

In February 1990, three R&B underdogs dropped a chart-topping debut single that would be more than just their signature hit—it would become a harbinger for a new style and approach as a new decade dawned. Bell Biv DeVoe may have been unlikely trailblazers, but Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe’s classic first single charted a new course for R&B and set the stage for where the genre was heading in the 1990s.

Most R&B fans know the history: fresh off the heels of their bestselling album, New Edition’s members were looking to do other things. Former member Bobby Brown had become a solo superstar, and with the former teen act at a bit of a crossroads following the success of 1988’s Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis-produced Heart Break, lead singers Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill were eying their individual projects.

On the suggestion of Jam & Lewis, Bell, Bivins, and DeVoe decided to form a trio. If New Edition was going on hiatus for Tresvant to start his solo career in earnest (as Gill refocused on his own new album with former MCA head Jheryl Busby over at Motown), why not try to do their own thing? Bivins had been brimming with ideas and was eager to try them out in a new format.

Of course, no one was expecting much from the three former New Edition members who’d famously stayed in the background for much of that group’s tenure. Rapper/producer Kwame ghostwrote some of the raps in “Poison,” and he admitted that he wasn’t impressed with the idea of Bell Biv DeVoe as a group—or their soon-to-be-hit.

“The lyrics that ended up making the record were [Ronnie Devoe’s] rhyme,” Kwame would tell Hip-Hop Wired in 2015. “I was hanging out with Mike Bivins. It was me, Mike Bivins and Dana Dane, we were going to a club, somewhere. And [Bivins] put in a tape of the demo of ‘Poison.’ No disrespect, I love the record now, but when I heard the demo I swore it was the worst thing I ever heard in my life.”

“I was like, Y’all gonna put this out? He was like, Yeah man, me, Ronnie and Rick, we going to do a group called BBD. [I’m like], Who wanna see y’all three? I wanna see New Edition! All this breaking up, Bobby solo, Ralph doing his thing, now y’all…what happened to New Edition?!”

BBD’s sound and image was going for something harder than what New Edition or even Bobby Brown had done up to that point. Eschewing the tailored suits and dapper presentation of most 80s R&B, this act was going to set a new blueprint for R&B style with hip-hop swagger.

"The kind of style we were groomed into from our early days had this Temptations, Jacksons, Blue Magic kind of feel. That was what caught us, that whole kind of flavor,” Bell explained to the Baltimore Sun in 1990. But in teaming with producers like Dr. Freeze and hip-house duo Wolf & Epic, they guaranteed that their sound wouldn’t retread what had worked in new jack swing--it would be something unique. "We just figured we'd go in the studio and do what we've been wanting to do all along, the kind of music that we've been listening to," Bell shared. "When we'd go hang out at the clubs or whatever, that's what was happening. We were just into that.

“We wanted that hip-hop flavor, but we wanted to kind of smooth it out. We figured we'd put some harmonies, some melodies over and that would kind of smooth the whole thing out.”

Hitmakers like L.A. & Babyface, Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis had dominated the R&B charts during the late 1980s, as new jack swing took over airwaves and dance floors with an infectious blend of tuneful R&B and hip-hop beats. BBD’s manager Hiriam Hicks knew about an up-and-coming producer named Elliot Straite, who went by the name Dr. Freeze. Hicks tapped Freeze for the BBD project, which by then already featured big names like The Bomb Squad.

In a 2016 interview with Red Bull Academy, producer Dr. Freeze said the song’s lyrics were personal for him—even before he had a song to put the words to. “It wasn’t a song at first,” Freeze said. “It was a letter. When I wrote it as a song, I let a lot of my friends hear it, and they said it was weird.”

Freeze’s beat featured a sample of hardcore rhymer Kool G Rap’s hit “Poison” as the hook, and when paired with the group’s image, it helped reintroduce BBD as something more than just “the other guys” in New Edition. Almost immediately, the trio was rebranded as something fresh and exciting. And they had a name for their unique sound and look: “mental.”

"Our music is mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip, with a pop feel appeal to it,” Bell would continuously explain. “We want to be the first to express this kind of music. We knew what we wanted to do."

The group would work with hip-hop powerhouses like the aforementioned Bomb Squad and superproducer Marley Marl, setting the table for hip-hop producers to tackle R&B projects. With the notable exception of Teddy Riley, the idea that hip-hop producers crafting R&B tracks was still novel in 1990, but over the next ten years, hip-hop heavyweights from Jermaine Dupri to Kay Gee to Timbaland would produce some of the biggest R&B records of the decade.

"We listened to Public Enemy's stuff and we were just amazed," Bell said at the time. "We just thought, 'Damn! Imagine us doing something like that.' Because we always think 'Why not?' We always ask that question. A lot of artists don't. So we'll just do anything, just go with our feelings. And that's usually what works best for us."

Bell Biv DeVoe’s uniquely “Mental” approach would prove wildly influential. Even in the new jack swing era, R&B acts mostly marketed themselves in the sophisticated, urbane mold of Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, and Freddie Jackson. BBD’s former New Edition cohort Bobby Brown had done much to shift the image of the contemporary R&B singer to something much more brazen and aggressive, but even his smash 1988 album Don’t Be Cruel featured mostly slick, romantic R&B/pop. With “Poison”s thumping beat and “never trust a big butt and a smile” refrain, it announced a brash new approach to R&B that would come to define the genre in the 1990s. When one considers the hip-hop-drenched look and attitude of everyone from Jodeci to Usher, Bell Biv DeVoe and “Poison” represent a seismic shift.

“The engine for Bell Biv DeVoe was Michael Bivins,” Shocklee explained in 2015. “He had a vision for the group. New Edition was all about wearing suits and dressing upscale. Michael brought it back to the street realm. They really brought out the hip hop element by wearing Timberland boots and sagging pants. This is what gave the group their visual look.”

Thirty years later, it may be easy to take “Poison” and BBD for granted. It’s the kind of dance floor classic that becomes ubiquitous at family reunions and wedding receptions. But the last three decades have proven its staying power—and its lasting influence. Nobody may be calling it “mental” anymore, but it’s still pretty damn cool. In 1990, nobody would’ve predicted this song would be this influential. Or this timeless. It made stars out of a trio of backup singers. Not a bad look for “the other guys.”

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Erik Umphery

Meet Ebenezer, The Crooner Poised To Restore Soul Into Modern R&B

Ebenezer is a man of few words but the purveyor of a million feels throughout his music. Before the novel coronavirus left the singer-songwriter isolated in Los Angeles, the London-born artist was at the VIBE office in New York a few moons ago playing his latest project, Bad Romantic 2.

A few laughs fill the room but what really takes over is the boptastic tune "3 am in London." With a sample from Kandi Burruss's 2000 release "Don't Think I'm Not," we get a look into his creative process. After revealing his origin story in 2018 with 53 Sundays, Ebenezer returned with the Bad Romantic series. It's a title bestowed to him by the many women he's dated. As a songwriter, engineer, producer, and composer for himself a slew of other artists like Jeremih, Ty Dolla $ign, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, Stefflon Don, K-Pop faves SuperM and Craig David, love seemed to slip through the cracks. 

"I always try to make time," the crooner insists. He might not get love right all the time, but his determination to enrich modern R&B is a sword he's willing to fall on. While sharing stories behind cuts from Bad Romantic 2, a grin comes across his face as every tale is connected to love lost.

"It wasn't like there wasn't any lack of effort. It's just the way my schedule worked," he said about the making of "Flexible," a track bound to lead a quiet storm playlist. "I remember working so hard at the time that I was sleeping in the studio. I didn't have any money to go home [to London] so I had to work until something gave. I would mention how difficult it was but maybe she didn't understand the hustle or the grind at the time."

His hard work led to his latest single, "Flaws And All." The track speaks of his efforts to make love work no matter what, a notion anyone can relate to. As we continue to talk about love, one thing is for certain–Ebenezer is in love with creating. His eyes light up while breaking down each track and his shoulders ease up when he speaks about his versatility. In addition to the world hearing Bad Romantic 2, he's used social distancing to produce songs via his "Quarantine Studio Sessions."

 

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A post shared by Ebenezer (@ebenezersworld) on Mar 27, 2020 at 10:56am PDT

Below, get to know a little more about the elusive artist, the making of Bad Romantic 2 and some of his biggest inspirations.

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VIBE: With you producing at a young age, did you have support from your family?

Ebenezer: I'm a London boy but my parents are originally from Nigeria. They were on the run from immigration at one point but after things calmed down there was a big focus on education. They were like, "No you, can't. Education first." There would be big arguments and fights but eventually, I chose music. Or maybe it chose me? I started working and producing while on the phone with artists and things came together.

But I owe everything to my mum because she is the biggest cheerleader I've ever had. This woman had three kids and did everything to get by. She held it down. I had cousins who called immigration on us and they're supposed to be family–immigration comes kicking open the door and raiding the house. So I believe that the blessings I'm getting now are from God and our prayers.

What do you enjoy the most: producing/engineering or writing? 

I don't know if I can choose. I just use different parts of my brain for producing and writing. It is fun to split them up and bring them together at times.

What's your voice in R&B today? 

From childhood to the present, I've been in piece of s**t relationships and my songs reflect that. It's not be being vindictive to my exes. I take full responsibility for the things I've done and I try to be honest as I can in my music. The worst thing I could do is be one-sided.

There's that aspect of accountability missing in R&B these days so I get it. How is creating R&B-pop music for K-Pop artists? You worked with SuperM recently and it seems like they really enjoy the era of 2000s R&B. 

It's easier because they let you do whatever you want. You want a variety of harmonies because there's a lot of people in one group. But I like creating for K-Pop artists because you're able to let every individual stand out and have their own moment. It's dope they're adopting that sound.

Who are some of your inspirations? 

Kanye West for sure. My brother was a big hip hop head so I grew up on Rakim, Big L, Big Pun, Tupac, Biggie, Jay Z, Wu-Tang, but my decade has the Drakes and the Kanyes, so they were my biggest inspirations. College Dropout was the album that had me say, "I'm doing this music thing, I don't care."

My sister is a big R&B fan. She played a lot of Jagged Edge, Jodeci, stuff like that. So I was lucky to have the hip hop side and the R&B side presented to me all at once.

In addition to love and relationships, what else drives your creative process? 

It comes in stages for me. I like to make projects with a theme. For example, 53 Sundays was a project about growing up in London as an immigrant and the adversity we experienced racism and gang violence. It's how I overcame it and how my family dealt with it.

There's a lot of self-love in those songs because nothing is free, especially coming from having nothing. You have the Bad Romantic projects that are pretty self-explanatory in the title [Laughs]. I'm going to make it all tell a story so when you look back at the projects, it's a timeline and you'll see who I am.

What makes a "Bad Romantic and a "Good Romantic?" 

My exes are bad romantics. [Laughs]

So it's their fault? 

Nah, my exes would say there are some things that I'm good at and some things I'm terrible at. There are different love languages and what someone may require, I might not speak it. I like to provide gifts because growing up with nothing, you never want to see anyone without.

But I struggle with time because I'm always working and they had it. I have this thing called "The Okay Attitude." You can write me a novel in a text and I'll say, okay. Life expectancy for us is low as it is and we spend most of our time arguing about trivial things so if that's how you feel, that's how you feel.

And a "Good Romantic?"

Being attentive, caring, not being so selfish. I don't know, everyone is different. Some people require a lot. They say, "Shower me with gifts." But others say, "I just want your time, whenever you can afford it."

Unfortunately, I can't afford it.

What do you want listeners to get from your music?

That I'm just a bad romantic that's trying to better himself.

Stream Bad Romantic 2 here.

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Pony Boy

Slim Thug On His Coronavirus Diagnosis, Holistic Remedies And New Album, 'Thug Life'

Slim Thug, born Stayve Thomas, is a relatively healthy being. His daily regimen includes three-mile runs and keeping his diet in tip-top shape. Since he was 27, the rapper has battled high blood pressure and switched up his lifestyle for the better. Thirteen years later, the Houston native is hip to holistic methods like oregano oil to lower cholesterol levels, spirulina to reduce blood pressure and absorbing good vibes only.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has reported 1,303 people in the state have tested positive for novel coronavirus, one being Thug. The rapper and businessman was slighted after learning of his positive diagnosis on Tuesday (March 24).

Thug fell ill with a headache and a slight fever after running errands last week. While his symptoms were mild, his doctor provided him with a 24-hour test that confirmed it all. "Some people think I'm making it up," he tells VIBE over the phone Thursday (March 26). "Some people think I'm working for somebody, it's crazy."

As conspiracy theories permeate through social media, the 39-year-old is focused on keeping fans informed about the virus. His social distancing wasn't the best as he got a haircut a week before he was diagnosed, which is why he's firm on it today. "It's real and people should take it seriously," he said. "Especially for young people. You could pass it on, it could be deadly to somebody you love. You have to be a human and say, 'I have to protect others by not being reckless.'"

This hasn't changed Thug's plans to release his forthcoming album, Thug Life, Friday (March 27).  The veteran rapper who dropped classics like, "I Ain't Heard of That" and guest verses on Mike Jones' "Still Tippin," and Beyonce's "Check on It" wants his new music to be a safe haven for the times.

Released last week, his single, "This World" highlights today's ups and downs, with a telling sample from the late Charles Bradley.

The silver lining continues to glisten for the rapper. After sharing his diagnosis with fans, many began sharing black-owned businesses that specialize in holistic medicine. They include Soul Food Vegan and natural herbs from Jinka Premium.

In our conversation below, Slim Thug highlights the importance of social distancing, why rappers should stay connected to their fans and how the late Tupac Shakur inspired his new album, Thug Life.

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Just found out I got Corona virus

A post shared by Slim Thug (@slimthug) on Mar 24, 2020 at 10:14am PDT

VIBE: How have you been coping with this? Take me back to your initial thoughts when you found out all of this was happening.

Slim Thug: I was definitely surprised because I was trying to be precautious way earlier than a lot of people. I started to feel a headache and a fever and I've never had those symptoms so I thought, 'Man this Corona time, it's got to be something.' But at the end of the day, I haven't felt severe sickness or nothing.

I have high blood pressure, I already do this. I run three miles at the park and go to the gym every day, so I'm pretty healthy. You know, I never felt like I wouldn't be able to fight this off, I never really felt really sick or crazy sick, just kind of felt like a sinus infection.

With you being a healthy person, what has this told you about the virus?

It's serious and it can be deadly, but at the end of the day, if you're young and healthy and don't have any other underlying conditions, then you should be able to fight it off. My doctor shared how the only thing you can do is stay home and let it run its course. He said to drink a high volume of fluids like vitamin c to keep your immune system up.

Have you ever been interested in holistic practices?

I believe in medicine, I'm not gonna lie if I need a Z-Pack, I'm gonna get it (Laughs). But there's a lot of people around me who shared some things. I'm on a lot of herbs right now. They done gave me all types of kits and stuff that I posted on Instagram. I've been on oregano oil, black seed oil, and it's working. I'm trying everything from boiling orange peels to elderberry. I'm trying to stay on it, I feel good. I go outside and post up in the sun and try to drink hot tea during the day.

Hip-hop artists haven't said too much about the virus, but some are engaging more with fans on social media. What else do you think your peers can do with their influence during these times?  

If you're a rapper, you should be taking advantage of this time and giving content out to the world as much as possible. I've seen so many different artists be creative. Look at DJ D-Nice. About a year ago, I started spinning. I'm not really a DJ, I'm just having fun. But for D-Nice to have 150,000 people on his Live? You would never go to a club and DJ for that many people or never "see" Oprah and all of them. It's a whole new wave, a whole new world we're stepping into. You're reaching over 150,000 people and this is elite people at the same time.

It's inspired all the real DJs to get on. I'm seeing DJs from Houston like Mr. Rodgers spin for 12 hours straight and he had the whole city in his Live. We were all just in the comments, it's crazy, but it's amazing though because you have thousands there and you won't see that many people in a real club.

 

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After Hours Vibes are DIFFERENT in #ClubCorona. That 7am hour had me hella delirious and in rare form. Went in the bag and dropped that OutKast Spottie and brought the LIVE band out during my LIVE set. From 9p-2PM (17hrs nonstop) we went crazy. Long story short, don’t miss 2nite!! - s/o @honeyboneshawty for capturing this moment!

A post shared by DJ Mr Rogers (@djmrrogers) on Mar 25, 2020 at 1:11pm PDT

It's a new experience, so you have to be creative with it. My album Thug Life is out today [March 27th], but I've hosted a live listening on my Instagram. It was inspired by [2]Pac. Back in the day, he had a project called Thug Life and with Slim Thug being my name, I just had to use it.

I even saw Swae Lee [of rap duo Rae Sremmurd] do a whole concert. You just got to be engaged with your people and they will appreciate that because everyone is sitting at home bored with nothing to do. If they're busy now, they will have time to tune in later. All artists should be taking advantage of this moment, stay at home and give the people as much content as they can watch because they all want to see something right now.

What do you think it is about music that has people wanting it more than ever?

Music is just therapy to your body and soul. Whenever I'm stressed out, I got a playlist for that. I got a playlist for anything and any mood I need to be in. Music is very important because of a lot of Black people/minorities, don't go to therapy, they don't have a lot of access to resources that can help ease stress.

A lot of the times, a good song can do that for you, it can make you feel good. All of that. So it's very important. I feel like my content is good for these times. I have a song called "This World" that's about real-life stuff.  I got a record with [veteran Houston rapper] Z-Ro I'm finna drop that's like a gospel song to me. When I hear it, it just takes me there and I think people are going to feel the same.

Lastly, you mentioned you're getting into DJing. If you were to throw a Quarantine Party, what are the Top 5 records you have to play no matter what?

At my Quarantine Party, it's going to be the real playing. I've done a few mixes for the last ten days. I would say the go-to records are 90s R&B. It's just therapeutic feel-good music.

Hearing people singing really calms you down. Jodeci, Babyface, all of it. Guy, Keith Sweat. If you want to turn up and take it what's good now, Travis Scott is perfect to get lit to.

For those who want the real throwback rap, you might want to hear some Tupac. There's something for everybody, whatever you like, there's a playlist that will put you in a great mood and I think everyone should tap into that for real, it's real therapy.

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The History Of The Scottsboro Boys

Decades before the Exonerated Five became one of the biggest-known examples of Black and brown youth being targeted and falsely convicted, there were the Scottsboro Boys. The group of nine black teenagers, ranging from ages 13 to 19, were wrongly convicted of raping two white women on a freight train in 1931.

Haywood Patterson, Clarence Norris, Charlie Weems, brothers Andrew and Leroy "Roy" Wright, Olin Montgomery (who was nearly blind), Eugene Williams, Ozie Powell, and Willie Roberson (who suffered from severe syphilis and could barely walk) were arrested on rape charges, which began a years-long battle for freedom. Four of the nine teens knew each other prior to being falsely accused and convicted.

On March 25, 1931, the teens boarded the Southern Railway freight train in hopes of finding jobs, along with other Black and white passengers. As the train made its way through Alabama, a fight broke out after a group of white passengers attempted to attack a group of Black passengers. Patterson was one of the passengers targeted which triggered a melee, that led to the white passengers getting kicked off the train in Skottsboro, Ala.

The angry posse headed to a nearby sheriff where they claimed that they had been attacked by Black passengers. Police intern arrested every Black passenger on the train for assault. Meanwhile, two white women on the train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, told police that they had been raped by the Black teens. It’s suspected that the women lied out of fear of being arrested for prostitution. A doctor later examined the women and determined that they were not raped.

Nonetheless, police arrested the teen, who were dubbed the Scottsboro Boys. Price and Bates went to the Scottsboro Jail and identified the teens as their attackers. In the age of Jim Crow and overt racism permeating through the South, the Scottsoboro Boys never stood a chance. White lynch mobs marched to the jail where they were being held and demanded that the boys be released into their custody so that they could kill them. As a result, the National Guard was called in to escort the Scottsboro Boys from jail to court. The boys were not allowed to consult with an attorney and were instead appointed two lawyers, one of whom was 69-year-old Milo Moody, who hadn’t tried a murder case in years. A second lawyer assigned to the case was a real estate attorney.

The first round of trials took place over the course of one day in a standing-room only court room with all-white, all-male jurors. Black jurors had been systematically blocked from the jury pools through disenfranchisement that also stripped many Blacks of the right to vote.

Patterson was tried separately, followed by Norris and Weems. The defense offered no closing arguments, but prosecutors closed by urging jurors to sentence the boys to death. Within two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict against Norris and Weems, amid cheers and applause in the court room. Patterson’s trial began as jurors were deliberating the case against Norris and Weems. Despite having no evidence and conflicting stories from Price and Bates, Patterson was convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. Powell, Roberson, Williams, Montgomery and Andy Wright’s trial began minutes after Patterson’s trial ended. The jury quickly convicted them and sentenced them to death.

Prosecutors decided that 13-year-old Roy Wright was too young for the death penalty. Within hours, the case was declared a mistrial as jurors were deadlocked on sentencing for Roy Wright, although they all agreed that he was guilty, despite him being innocent.

The other eight Scottsboro Boys were sentenced to death, but the Alabama Supreme Court issued a last-minute indefinite stay of execution. The case caught the attention of the International Labor Defense, and the NAACP.

On March 24, 1932, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions against seven of the Scottsboro Boys, and granted Williams a new trial. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court later that year. In a landmark decision, the high court ruled that the boys had been denied the right to a fair trial under the 14th Amendment, and sent the cases back to the lower court.

The Scottsboro Boys were tried again, this time in Decatur, Ala., which was roughly 50 miles from Scottsboro, but still in Ku Klux Klan territory. The ILD appealed the case and hired defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz. Bates recanted her rape story and agreed to testify on behalf of the defense. Despite Bates’ cooperation, and no evidence proving their guilt, the Scottsboro Boys were convicted again, though Patterson’s death sentence was suspended.

In a unanimous decision, the Alabama Supreme Court denied the defense’s motions for a new trial, and in January 1935, the case returned to the U.S. Supreme Court for a second time. The guilty verdict against Norris was overturned and new trials were ordered for him and Patterson. Norris’ third trial ended in another conviction and death sentence along with Weems and Andy Wright. Roy Wright spent six years in prison while the case was tried several times.

Prosecutors eventually agreed to drop the rape charges against Powell, who was later convicted of assaulting a deputy sheriff and sentenced to 20 years. The remaining rape charges were also dropped against Montgomery, Roberson, Williams and Roy Wright, and they were released from custody.

Enduring back-to-back trials took a tole on the group that likely had a ripple effect on their lives. One of the accused was left disabled after being shot while being escorted to prison. Others returned to custody on various convictions over the years. Norris, the eldest and the last surviving among the bunch, evaded parole in 1946 and went into hiding for 30 years. He was found in 1976, and pardoned by Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Norris died in 1989.

After more than 80 years, the Scottsboro Boys were posthumously pardoned in 2013. See more on the story in the video below.

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