Diddy, The Fat Boys, and Karaoke Demos: A Look Back at Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love”
17-year-old Mary J. Blige was in desperate need of a break when she stepped into the Galleria Mall karaoke booth in Westchester, New York to record “Caught Up In Rapture” by Anita Baker. A recent high school dropout working as a 411 operator, Blige’s teenage years growing up in Yonkers’ Schlobohm Housing Projects had not been kind to her. “Every day I would be getting into fights over whatever,” she told Essence magazine. “You always had to prove yourself to keep from getting robbed or jumped.”
Despite having the deck stacked against her, Blige channeled the difficult experiences of her teenage years into developing her singing voice. Anyone who was lucky enough to hear her realized they were witnessing something special. “Anytime she was around, we’d all look at each other and say, ‘Let’s get Mary to sing.’ When she finished singing, we’d all be teary-eyed," childhood friend Karen Smith told the New York Times in 1995.
According to a 2006 article from ABC News, it was this kind of raw emotion and power that caught the ear of Uptown Records A & R Jeff Redd, who obtained Blige’s “Caught Up In Rapture” demo through her mother’s then-boyfriend. Impressed with her potential, he passed the recording along to Uptown CEO Andre Harrell. Harrell then signed Blige in 1989, making her the label’s youngest artist and first female act.
“Every day I would be getting into fights over whatever. You always had to prove yourself to keep from getting robbed or jumped.”- Mary J. Blige
Not long after signing to Uptown Blige started working on songs for her debut with the songwriting/production duo Mark Morales and Cory Rooney. According to Rooney’s 2012 interview with Turning Point with Frank MacKay, he was introduced to Morales — also know as Prince Markie Dee of The Fat Boys — after their mothers met at a party. After realizing they had a mutual love of music, Morales was won over by a demo tape of Rooney’s early work and the two soon moved in together to focus on their craft. From there they landed their first major production break on Father MC’s Father’s Day and later co-produced four records for Blige’s What’s The 411? debut.
In the same Turning Point interview, Rooney says he knew the “Real Love” instrumental had potential to make waves when he first created it two years before the release of What’s The 411?. Utilizing a potent mix of Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” and some simple but beautiful piano keys, the song was hard-hitting enough for hip-hop heads and soulful enough for R & B fans.
There was one slight problem — according to his appearance on Turning Point Rooney wanted to take out the “Top Billin’” percussion and replay it after realizing the sample could cost him dearly. But a 19-year-old Sean “Diddy” Combs — then an A & R at Uptown who was already demonstrating an impeccable ear — wanted to keep the record as-is. Adding strength to Puff’s argument was the fact that Audio Two only wanted a modest 27% cut of the publishing money for the use of of their song. “That’s how much they were generous enough to take,” Rooney explained in his interview with Turning Point. “They had the right to take 100%.”
“Anytime she was around, we’d all look at each other and say, ‘Let’s get Mary to sing.’ When she finished singing, we’d all be teary-eyed.”- Karen Smith
Both men were dead set on having the track fit their vision, but it was Diddy who eventually won the argument. His insistence on using Audio Two’s drums ended up being the right call, as “Real Love” quickly made its way to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the US Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.
Looking back on the experience of making “Real Love” in his interview with Turning Point, Rooney felt that his disagreement with Puffy taught him a life-changing lesson: sometimes you have to be humble and listen to your audience to make the right record. “He, at that point, had the ears of the consumer,” Rooney told Frank MacKay. “I realized that the very person that I’m making a record for and the person I’m trying to please was him. OK? I’m arguing with the consumer. Once I lost that argument to him it taught me a big lesson.”