How Uptown Records was once again instrumental in the changing sonic aesthetic of R&B by releasing one of the most influential LP’s of the early 90's
Back in 1990, R&B was already in flux as it was still evolving following the New Jack Swing aesthetic change that occurred back in Summer 1988. One of the key proponents of said change was the music output from Uptown/MCA Records with release of Guy, New Edition & Bobby Brown in June 1988. Even as Full Force, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley, Foster & McElroy and L.A. Reid & Babyface all contributed to R&B’s default sound switching to New Jack Swing, Uptown Records was widely recognized as the label that heavily influenced that transition to the general listening public.
Jodeci consisted of two sets of brothers who were both in Gospel groups. While K-Ci & JoJo Hailey were well renowned for their powerful vocals and live performances Devante and Dalvin DeGrate had honed their production and songwriting skills to the razor’s edge but needed the right voices to help bring them to life. It only made sense that the four brothers would team up and begin recording together after being introduced through mutual friends in the Gospel music community.
After locking themselves in a studio writing and recording close to 30 songs collected on three different demo cassettes they pooled all of their money together, loaded into a car and drove for Charlotte, North Carolina to New York City in search of a record deal. The label they all chose to visit in hopes of landing one? Uptown Records. Seemed like the sensible choice given their back catalog and roster.
Jodeci arrived in New York with $300 to their names and they didn’t even know the address of the Uptown Records offices. They found it in the yellow pages and arrived there in hopes of landing an audition. By the grace of God they managed to get the ear of A&R Jeff Redd who summoned Andre Harrell to hear them audition. Their material and vocal ability blew everyone in the Uptown offices away, including Heavy D and a young Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs who once worked in the office as an intern but would be given an opportunity to A&R for Jodeci after they were offered a record deal that very same day.
Jodeci needed a look. They needed mystique. They needed to stand out from their contemporaries in the space of R&B circa 1990 and Puffy was the perfect person for that job. He looked at how Bell Biv Devoe made themselves stand out from the crowd by crafting their “Mental” look and by making raunchy R&B infused with Rap production then decided to follow that lane. Andre Harrell gave him the direction to dress them like how he dressed around the office, echoing the order Russell Simmons gave to Run and DMC to dress like Jam Master Jay for their stage personas. Before Jodeci could record their own material, they needed some seasoning first.
As Devante and Dalvin worked with Uptown songwriters and producers like Al B. Sure in the studio, both KCi and JoJo contributed background vocals and featured vocals on choruses for Uptown/MCA artists like Jeff Redd and Father MC. Their vocals were featured on Father MC’s hit album “Father’s Day” on the singles “Treat Them Like They Want To Be Treated” and “Lisa Baby”. They also contributed vocals to the track “Why U Wanna Hurt Me”. In addition, KCi and JoJo sung on “I Found Lovin’”, “In My House” & “Giving My Love To You” on Jeff Redd’s 1990 LP “A Quiet Storm”. Devante (now credited as Devante Swing) produced the tracks “In My House” and “Giving My Love To You” while Jodeci began work on their debut album.
Devante, Dalvin, KCi & JoJo began working on their album with an impressive team of creatives provided by Uptown Records. Overlooking the entire project was Andre Harrell, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Al B. Sure would handle the image, aesthetic and overall tone/pace of the project while providing help with quality control and rounding out the album’s rough edges. Al B. Sure was an accomplished songwriter/producer/mentor by that time having been a part of the 1988 R&B sea change plus he’d worked with his cousin Kyle West to produce Uptown projects by The Gyrlz and Heavy D in addition to working with Al Green & Quincy Jones’ protégé Tevin Campbell. He was going to be the guy that helped them craft the project everyone who heard them perform in the Uptown offices knew they were capable of.
Once the album was done the only thing left to do was to pick a lead single, come up with video concepts, envision a look and begin pushing Jodeci to the masses. Puff Daddy was very involved in styling Jodeci. He came up with the concept for their look and was consciously building their aura through visuals whether it be promo pictures or their videos. Jodeci’s debut single “Gotta Love” was co-written by Devante & K-Ci and produced by Devante. There was a remix credited to Puff Daddy and while Sean Combs had received executive producer credits on several previous Uptown jawns this was his first ever remix located on the B side.
Unfortunately, the lead single failed to make a significant amount of noise when it was released in late February 1991 as the “New Jack City OST” which dropped a couple weeks later completely overshadowed the effort. When the album was released that May it slowly began to spread by word of mouth as they didn’t have a video was in the rotation on BET or MTV at the time.
Once the dominance of the singles from the “New Jack City OST” finally began to wear down in the Summer it was time to push Jodeci. They appeared on “Soul Train” for the first time in June and made a visit to BET’s “Video Soul” show. They capitalized on their new visibility by releasing a follow up single, the ballad “Forever My Lady” which was co-written by Devante and Al B. Sure. Given that Jodeci were supposed to be the R&B group that appealed to both the R&B fans and the Rap crowd it was ironic that the song that broke them wasn’t an uptempo dance number but a traditional R&B slow jam.
“Forever My Lady” was released as a single in August 1991 and quickly spread via the radio. The video caught fire on BET and even entered the rotation on MTV. They single shot up the charts and occupied the #1 spot on the Billboard R&B Singles chart for two straight weeks (November 9th & 16th, 1991). The single proved to be so huge it even fueled sales of the album as the LP itself reached the top spot on the Billboard R&B Album charts on November 16th, 1991 by unseating Shabba Ranks’ major label debut “As Raw As Ever”.
They’d eventually retake the #1 position after replacing Public Enemy’s “Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black” on November 30th, 1991 but they would ultimately be unseated by Prince & The New Power Generation’s “Diamonds & Pearls”. This was fitting as a young Devante was such a Prince fan he actually drove to Minneapolis, MN to Paisley Park lobbying employees to audition for Prince. What helped Jodeci move units was the fact older R&B fans loved the song as much the younger crowd who was their intended audience. They’d caught lightning in a bottle…
Jodeci managed to go Gold off the strength of fans buying the album due to the titular track but once their next single “Stay” was released it was clear this album had some more jams on it. Another group that had helped to open the lane for Jodeci and provided much needed contrast to them was Biv 10’s Boyz II Men whose “CooleyHighHarmony” album was on its way to triple Platinum sales by the time “Stay” hit radio airwaves in December 1991. The single would ultimately reach #1 on the Billboard R&B charts (February 8 th & 15 th, 1992) & just miss the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 (it peaked at #41). At the time, the R&B charts had become loaded with some stiff competition so this was quite the achievement.
Between 1991 and 1992 Jodeci had to compete in a space that included other male R&B groups such as Boyz II Men, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Hi Five, The Rude Boys, Color Me Badd, Mint Condition, R.Kelly & The Public Announcement, Troop, Levert, Guy & Bell Biv Devoe. Let’s not forget they also had to compete on the R&B charts against male soloists such as Johnny Gill, Ralph Tresvant, Alexander O’Neal, Christopher Williams, Tevin Campbell, Keith Washington, Al B. Sure, Chuckii Booker, Aaron Hall & Michael Jackson. This was also the time Prince emerged with The New Power Generation so if you were able to make music that resonated with audiences and hit #1, it was well earned. Jodeci’s soul infused vocals over infectious grooves could pack the dance floor or when placed over a sensous slow jam from Devante & Mr. Dalvin it instantly became baby making music. Get you an R&B group that can do both…
Just when you thought Jodeci might have run its course of the success of this album they pulled out yet another smash hit with their next single “Come & Talk To Me”. It was a perfect melding together of the hard edged music that began to emerge at the earliest stages of Rap’s 2nd Golden Era in March 1992 with the smooth, melodic R&B that initially won over audiences. Jodeci were the R&B group Hip Hop heads, backpackers, hard rocks, roughnecks, B-Boys & thugs alike could rock with. Boyz II Men rocked sweatervests but Jodeci looked like the cats who were doing the East Coast Stomp when Leaders Of The New School, Das EFX or A Tribe Called Quest jawns were playing. Devante & Dalvin’s production/arrangements coupled with K-Ci & JoJo’s vocals paired with crucial direction from Puff made Jodeci a bonafide success story. When I heard Kurious sing part of it on his song “Spell It With A J” it was clear that was the case.
“Come & Talk To Me” was yet another #1 R&B hit for Jodeci, the video became so popular it entered the regular rotation on MTV leading to it becoming a crossover sensation just falling shy of the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 charts (it peaked at #11). At the time Jodeci’s 4th single and 3rd #1 R&B hit in a row reached the top of charts between May 30th and June 6th, 1992 their album had already been out for a year and was steadily climbing towards double Platinum sales. Their intense live performances whipped audiences into a frenzy. It was clear that the early experience the Haileys & DeGrates had gained performing in Gospel groups from young ages gave them undeniable stage presence. Jodeci was proof positive that Uptown Records was to R&B and New Jack Swing what Def Jam was to Rap.
Jodeci released a 5th single from “Forever My Lady”, “I’m Still Waiting” dropped in August 1992 (a full year after their breakout single “Forever My Lady”) and became a Top 10 Billboard R&B hit. It stalled at #85 on the Billboard Hot 100 but it didn’t matter. Jodeci were already established superstars and they were ready to fly. Al B. Sure! went on to work with other artists and focus on his solo material while Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs continued to excel as an A&R, stylist & visionary to the point Andre Harrell eventually had to let him go so he could pursue his own ventures. Little did we know that Harrell was still compensating Combs and taking care of all of his artists until he found a situation with Arista Records in 1993.
By the time Jodeci had begun work on their sophomore album, Mary J. Blige (who also sang background for Father MC with David Hollister) had dropped her groundbreaking debut LP “What’s The 411?” on Uptown Records under the direction of Sean “Puffy” Combs. Groups like TLC and SWV had further changed the face of the R&B charts. Thanks to new acts like Jodeci, 1991 was the last year R&B veterans such as Freddie Jackson, Peabo Bryson, Phyllis Hyman and Teddy Pendergrass would be able to land #1 R&B hits. Once the R&B sea change was complete by Summer 1992, they had to switch to the Adult Contemporary charts.
Jodeci’s “Forever My Lady” stands the test of time as one of the best debut albums of the past quarter century. So many groups and performers that followed used this album as a guide and an inspiration to create their own music. At one point, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to Dru Hill anymore because all I heard was the heavy Jodeci influence in their music. When H-Town, Silk, Shai, Intro, etc. all dropped it was hard to not weigh them against Jodeci. Who am I kidding? Jodeci is the Gold & Platinum standard I STILL use today.