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Issue 1084

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Feature

OF BOYS II MEN; GROWING PAINS AND LONGEVITY

BOYS II MEN
BOYS II MEN

When four teenage students of Philadelphia`s High School for Creative and Performing Arts nervously snuck backstage after a 1989 Bell Biv DeVoe concert in their hometown to serenade BBD member Michael Bivins with an a cappella rendition of New Edition`s `Can You Stand The Rain`, nobody could have predicted the groundbreaking, history-making success that was to follow in the course of the next decadeâ¦

⦠With a suitably-impressed Bivins signing the quartet in question - Boyz II Men - to Motown Records the following year, the foursome (baritone Nathan Morris; deep bass Michael McCary; smooth tenor Shawn Stockman; and vibrato-heavy tenor Wanya Morris) would immediately go on to top the US R&B chart with their 2001 anthemic debut single `Motownphilly`. Yet, while the drum-heavy, hip hop/soul-infused new jack swing sound-of-the-day would dominate the group`s nine-million-selling first album `Coolyhighharmony`, it was their penchant for soulfully emotive balladry which would find Boyz II Men prestigiously going on to become officially the biggest-selling R&B male vocal group of all time. Indeed, between the years of 1992 and 1997, not only did the Philly quartet score five US Number One pop hits and sell over 60 million records worldwide, but - even more significantly - three of those number Ones (1992`s global chart-topper 'End Of The Road'; 1994`s 'I`ll Make Love To You'; and 1995`s 'One Sweet Day)' in turn set, and then broke, the record for the longest-ever stay at the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 (the sixteen-week reign of said Mariah Carey duet 'One Sweet Day' still holding the record)!

Nevertheless, groundbreaking statistics aside, with internal label politics gradually leading to disappointingly-decreasing sales, 1999 would see the once-world-conquering, eight-time Grammy-winning foursome leaving Motown for relatively low-profile stays with both Universal and Arista Records. Meanwhile, with distinctive bass singer Michael McCary retiring from the group in 2003, 2004 would find the group releasing their first album as a trio ('Throwback') independently. Yet is it the release through Universal/Decca of their latest LP 'Motown: Hitsville USA' (an album of covers from the Motown catalogue) which has finally catapulted the now-threesome back to the international forefront. Its transatlantic Top 10 success this month resulting in an extensive 14-date UK tour, which has seen some dates literally selling out with the hour! In turn prompting focused and affable Boyz II Men founder-member Nate Morris to take (literally!) 10 minutes out from the group`s hectic London promo schedule to reacquaint himself with âB&Sâ.

The thinking behind the group`s current `Motown: Hitsville USA` covers album;

âWe decided to do the album because we thought the industry today was missing traditional good music and understanding the history of where modern R&B COMES from. I mean, a lotta kids these days listen to records that feature a buncha samples from years ago. And, while a lot of it is Motown stuff, the kids themselves often think it`s new original songs. So we thought that, in this day and age, we should home back to where that music originally came from. And, with us being a group from the Nineties, we felt that we could bring those classic hits from the Sixties and Seventies especially a bit more up-to-date. The basic idea was definitely to create a truly unique mixture of the classic Motown sound with today`s R&B/Soul, by putting our own Boyz II Men spin on it.â

Selecting which songs to cover;

âWe actually selected the songs along with our current record label, Universal. Although Motown is such a classic label, a lot of people still don`t really know ALL the stuff that Motown has been involved in. They know most of the classic stuff from the Sixties/early Seventies like the Four Tops and The Jackson 5. But many don`t realise that, say, a group like DeBarge was on Motown in the Eighties. So we definitely wanted to cover songs that spawned the whole four decades, so the project wouldn`t be focused on just one generation. And, as far as the different styles of music that involved, we just enjoyed the challenge of tackling hit records, period. We just wanted to make sure we did everything in our power to preserve what people were accustomed to listening to - and fell in love with - about the songs, while at the same time adding our twist to where the Boyz II Men fans would understand why they`d want to listen to the album as well.â

Covering their own 1992 global chart-topper 'End Of The Road' as an a cappella;

âThat was one of the decisions that came towards the end of making the album. We were covering all these classic Motown records, but yet the biggest record in Motown history - honestly! - is `End Of The Road`! So it was like `how can we do an album of Motown remakes and NOT do `End Of The Road`?! You know, it was just ironic that we happen to be the group who originally recorded it! So it was a tough one for us, because we didn`t really mentally know how to tackle it - we`d been singing it a certain way for 16 years. Which is why we brought in Brian McKnight to actually produce and arrange it, just to give us a different outlook on the way the song could be done. And we thought he helped us do a great new rendition.â

Choosing `American Idol` judge Randy Jackson as the album`s main producer;

âWell, we`ve known Randy for years - back to when we were working with Mariah (Carey) on 'One Sweet Day'. Because we`d planned doing the whole album with all live instruments, we definitely didn`t wanna get what we`d term 'a studio producer'- someone who`d just come in with keyboards, plug in some samples and come up with a record. And, with Randy having a history of being able to create 'classic records', we decided he was what we needed. Because, with a lotta people only knowing him from 'American Idol', what most don`t realise is that he`s a true musician and an incredible bass player. He has a really good ear when it comes to music. And that was definitely one of the reasons why we chose him.â

The group`s own favourite tracks;

âOne that`s really special to us is our remake of the Stevie Wonder song 'Ribbon In The Sky' - I guess because we homed back to the classic Boyz II Men thing. You know, some songs are really difficult to redo. So we figured the best way to do it was the only way we knew how - which was a cappella. We went back to the style of (the group`s early `92 US smash) `It`s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday` and just created the song straight from scratch, without needing any producers or anybody at all. It was pretty much all put together by ourselves. Plus some songs stand out because we definitely tried to not stick to what people THOUGHT we`d do. Rather than do the obvious remakes of songs that had been done 1,000 times over, we tried to find less obvious ones as well as songs that took us a little bit out of the character of Boyz 11Men. Like `Money` and `War`, where we stretched the gamut a little bit. So it didn`t just sound like a traditional Motown remake record.â

How the album represented a major career challenge to Boyz 11 Men themselves

âBy the grace of God, we were able to become the biggest-selling R&B group in Motown history. So, with a lotta people always telling us `You guys are legends`, we decided to challenge ourselves by seeing what we could do as a legendary act recording some legendary music. Because not everybody can tackle Motown records like that and come out successful! A lotta people put their career on the line by DOING stuff like that! So instead we kinda looked at it like `If people are gonna look at us as legends, then we gotta take on the mentality of trying to live UP to that! By tackling some really legendary stuff and not taking the EASY way out!`! And that in itself did become our main focus in going into this whole project.â

Boyz II Men downscaling from a quartet to a trio, following the departure of original member Michael McCary

âMichael actually left about five years ago. Over the years he had a really serious back problem (resulting from scoliosis). And after a while - because we were on the road so much - it kinda restricted him from being able to travel and do all the things we did, particularly onstage. So he thought it was best that he retired from the group to pursue other things. You know, we`re still in contact and everything`s cool. And, while in live concerts as three versus four you obviously have to adjust to some things, as far as the RECORDS go musically we don`t really lose anything. At this point - as obviously you can tell with this 'Motown' record - there`s not really much missing.â

Moving from their last LP - 2004`s independently-released 'Throwback' - to signing with Universal Decca for the current 'Motown: Hitsville USA' album;

âBetween the two albums we actually put out another album called 'The Remedy', which we actually only sold on our own website and physically in South East Asia. The reason we did that was because we think the record industry has changed a lot since we were in it during the Nineties. But, having said that, for the first time in 16 years we feel we`re now signed to a label that seems to remind us of what Motown USED to be. I mean, the fact is a lotta labels aren`t made like that any more. But so far we`ve had a great working relationship with Universal Decca. Everything WE`VE asked for THEY`VE asked for, and we `ve been able to come to a lotta agreements with them to move the project along. So it`s a very, very comfortable situation for us right now.â

The significance of Motown to the group and their reasons for ultimately leaving the label in 1999;

âMotown was pioneered during the age of our parents. Their generation felt a very strong connection to it - like it was their own - and we grew up on it. So, with it being so classic and historic, when we first got signed and we had letterheads coming in the mail with the Motown logo on, we kinda tripped out! But the rough part of all that was the BUSINESS side. Motown in the Nineties really wasn`t what it was in the Sixties and Seventies. It was nowhere near as prominent a label as it had been two/three decades earlier. So, because of that, we kinda felt an obligation - up to a certain point - to hold up that tradition. To try to keep Motown where in needed to BE and become the flagship group for the label. Because of how much we`d known of the label as we were growing up, we wanted to do everything in our power to not just be a successful group in our own right, but also uphold the name of MOTOWN. But then, as it got towards `99 and the record label started to become more and more corporate, we felt we were losing what we really needed. A lotta people were getting fired; A&R people were disappearing⦠The family vibe and warmth was lost, and it became purely a question of how much money we could make them per quarter. And with everything that we`d done for the label - we`d single-handedly made them over $485 million - it was almost like a slap in the face some of the ways we were getting treated. So basically those were the reasons why we exited.â

The state of R&B today;

âR&B is definitely not as prominent as it used to be. And, in addition to needing more artists to come with just true R&B, we also need the industry itself to SUPPORT R&B. Because, while years ago we supported what was GOOD - no matter WHAT it was - nowadays we support what SELLS! And what sells may not be what always is GOOD - which is usually where the problem lies. I mean, people bought into hip hop because every kid in America wanted to be a hip hop artist. So now they`re selling clothes, glasses, all kinda stuff⦠And that money is what KILLED it al! Because it`s no longer about the integrity of the artist and the music. And to me we`re in a day and age now where there`ll probably never BE any legendary artists ever again. Because our attention span is too short! We no longer stay with artists for more than three or four albums. Which means we won`t see another Stevie Wonder, or another Marvin Gaye, or another Luther Vandross. People just don`t believe in artists for that long any more.â

The next Boyz II Men album;

âRight now we`re still feeling our way through it. So obviously we`re not really sure, except that we do know we wanna try something different. We understand that we got to stay current, while also staying true to what Boyz II Men sound like. And, song-wise, new material definitely looks like the direction we`ll be going in. As far as producer/writer collaborations we`re hoping to bring some new people on board, as well as going back to revisit Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Babyface and maybe Prince. I mean, basically we`re just happy to have been doing this for 16 years, man. It`s tough to stay around that long and still be prominent, to where people wanna hear your music and SUPPORT you. So we definitely don`t want let them down. Our main goal is to try and create more of the kinda good music that they`re accustomed to hearing from us.â

What we can expect from the group`s UK live dates this month

âMan, a lotta singing, a lotta fun, a lotta interaction... I mean, we really like to make our crowds feel part of the show and not just feel like they`re watching something. I mean, THEY get up, THEY sing, THEY dance⦠WE dance, WE sing⦠It`s a beautiful atmosphere, man and people never leave disappointed. It`s just a really fun night. So, if you wanna just come out, have a good time, kick back, relax and feel comfortable - then the Boyz II Men show is definitely where you need to BE!â

The album `Motown: Hitsville USA` is out now through Universal Music TV
Words PETE LEWIS

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