The truth is no one expected the musical and cultural phenomenon that would become Bell Biv DeVoe. When Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe, the three inconspicuous members of the legendary Boston R&B group New Edition, made a fateful decision in early 1989 to form a spin-off trio, the news was met with intriguing bewilderment by both music scribes and fans. Decades later, an optimistic DeVoe still recalls the eyebrow-raising reaction the group received when they first announced one of pop music’s most improbable gambles.
“There were times when people would say, ‘Well, Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill will go on to be solo stars…’” he muses of his tightknit New Edition brethren and standout lead vocalists. Despite being advised by studio visionaries Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (the Grammy-winning duo produced New Edition’s landmark 1988 work Heart Break) that the three talents should become a group, not everyone shared the Grammy-winning hit makers’ intriguing idea.
“That’s when we would hear, ‘But what are the rest of them going to do?’” continues DeVoe. “It was like we didn’t even have names at all [laughs]. But the one good thing about that is we had no pressure. People didn’t really know what to expect from a BBD. We had a goal initially of selling just 500,000 copies of our first album Poison, but we ended up selling 500,000 copies in our first week. We could do nothing but smile.”
In fact, there is plenty to smile about these days for the dynamic band-of-Beantown-brothers. “Run,” the intoxicating yet haunting Erick Sermon-produced first single from Bell Biv DeVoe’s highly anticipated reunion album Three Stripes, backed by the acclaimed Entertainment One Music label, has been warmly received by music critics, industry tastemakers, and longtime followers. Slated to drop on January 27th—the same night the much-anticipated BET mini-series The New Edition Story concludes—Three Stripes is vintage BBD. “So tell me what I’m supposed to do/When I can have any other, but girl, I want you,” emotes a heart-on-his-sleeve Bell on “Run,” which brilliantly dissects the pitfalls of unrequited love.
There’s a lot going on here: Sermon’s bottom-heavy studio swagger; melancholy melodies over a slyly frenetic beat that gives more than a nod to the Notorious B.I.G.’s classic 1997 club banger “Hypnotize;” and the witty, two-fisted rhymes of Bivins and DeVoe (“Got the power baby girl had to run it like Ghost…take notes/I chase you, look how long it took me/Built an empire, Lucious-Cookie…”). After 15 years away from the proverbial spotlight, BBD is back.
“While we were on the road with New Edition in 2015, we kept trying to reach Erick Sermon because we wanted to get that Green Eyed Bandit’s funk,” Bivins details of the genesis of the Three Stripes project. “EPMD is one of our favorite hip-hop groups, and they always had the funky basslines and BBD has the funky basslines. ‘Run’ just felt special, but when we decided to record it we thought we would do just one song to test the waters. Once we got the right melody with Rick over the top, it was a perfect marriage. That one song sparked so much interest and acceptance that we ended up moving to the next phase of recording an album.”
Adds Bell of BBD’s ambitious return: “It’s a challenge to connect with what you’ve done in the past, but at the same time still feels new and relevant. I think for BBD we just try to put together sounds that are natural for us, fit our personalities, and that we feel good dancing too during a performance. We are working hard to make this album something our fans will love.”
Indeed, Bell Biv DeVoe still matter. They matter because 1990’s Poison stands as a revolutionary musical statement that brazenly defied strict genre guidelines. Know this: before unleashing their influential release, which would go on to sell a remarkable five million copies worldwide, hip-hop and R&B largely operated on mutually exclusive turf. But BBD took the new merging of sounds to expansive, glorious heights.
Poison’s two-fisted title track, an omnipresent single that went on to reach no. 3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, was harder than anything New Jack Swing could have ever imagined. “We were struggling with the idea of following the same R&B sound we had done with New Edition,” DeVoe recalls. ‘But we always wanted to bang like some of the emcees that we were listening to back in the days, whether it was rappers like LL Cool J or Rakim. We loved their aggression. As a group, that’s how we wanted to hit the club. But we could also give you a great ballad.”
A relentless music video for the bold “Poison” (“Never trust a big butt and a smile!!!”) became a staple on both MTV and BET, introducing BBD’s trendsetting, devil-may-care fashion: graffiti-tagged baggy jeans, Timberland boots, Starter caps. Rugged rhyme giant Kool G. Rap got a shout-out. On a BBD record Ricky Bell could sing as unguarded and tenderly as Smokey Robinson (“When Will I See You Smile Again,” “I Do Need You”) while his cohorts Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe traded lines like they were in a Brooklyn rhyme cypher with Big Daddy Kane (“B.B.D. I Thought It Was Me?”). Public Enemy’s storied production unit, the Bomb Squad, injected its frenetic sound into the diverse mix. This wasn’t your big brother’s R&B group.
“I equate BBD’s Poison to watching the battering ram scene in the first scene Straight Outta Compton,” describes Bivins, the group’s outspoken visionary. “You didn’t see us coming. We knocked down the door with something groundbreaking, and we were risqué. When we were shooting the “Do Me!” video, we were in bathtubs with naked girls. Nia Long was in a bathing suit playing bass [laughs]. We had the slickest dance moves. People not only started feeling BBD’s music, they were also captured by the lifestyle we were portraying through our music.”
The ballsy, censorship-defying BBD were officially superstars. Two follow-ups, the relentless 1991 set WBBD – Bootcity!: The Remix Album and the ‘hood-stamped Hootie Mack, both sold one million copies. Amid sold-out concert tours, a string of unavoidable radio hits, and wild, epic times, the enterprising Bivins became a respected music mogul, guiding the multi-platinum career of record-breaking Philadelphia vocal phenoms Boyz II Men and kiddie rap sensations Another Bad Creation.
So when it came time for Bell Biv DeVoe to re-enter the game a decade plus after their 2001 self-titled fourth effort, the group teamed up with E1 Music, a union that BBD excitedly describes as seamless. “It’s a great marriage with E1,” says Bell. “It feels like Poison all over again. That same energy and passion that we had back then is back around. The label has thoroughly embraced our vision. It feels good.”
Of course, there’s always more to achieve for BBD. After selling millions of albums, becoming international style icons and innovators, and even performing at the White House for President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama at BET’s tribute Love & Happiness: An Obama Celebration, what else should fans expect from Bell Biv Devoe? Michael Bivins doesn’t miss a beat.
“They can expect more of that hip-hop smoothed out on an R&B tip with a pop feel appeal to it,” he says, referencing BBD’s trademark musical mantra. “Ricky, Ronnie and I are definitely cooking up something special.”