Babyface: Charting a Path to the Top

Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, preparing to tackle a 20 date co-headline tour with Boyz II Men, is standing in the middle of a Burbank, Calif. Soundstage listening intently to something not even he hears very often: a full rhythm section plowing through a set of some of his most popular songs.Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, preparing to tackle a 20 date co-headline tour with Boyz II Men, is standing in the middle of a Burbank, Calif. Soundstage listening intently to something not even he hears very often: a full rhythm section plowing through a set of some of his most popular songs.

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Aside from the odd sideman in the recording studio, Edmonds proficient on guitar and keyboards, usually lays down most of the instrumental tracks on his productions. Nevertheless, the section, led by keyboardists Bo Watson, a buddy from the days when Edmonds augmented Cincinnati, Ohio based R&B/Funk band The Deele and when Watson was a member of Midnight Star, another popular unite from the region, sounds damn good-testament to the durability of Edmonds compositions.

And the Grammy Award winning, multiple BMI Pop Songwriter of the Year recipient ‘Face, as he’s often called, is nothing if not durable. Anyone requiring proof need only check out the Billboard R&B and Pop Charts of the past few months, where, as a songwriter/producer, Edmonds has dominated the scene. Tony Braxton’s debut Laface/Arista LP, driven by ‘Face penned hit singles such as “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” and “You Mean The World To Me,” has sold almost five million copies.

Qwest/Warner Brothers act Tevin Campbell has also benefited from the ‘Face touch. His current LP, I’m Ready, featuring the ‘Face hits “Can We Talk,” and the title track, has clocked more than two million units. The past year has seen singles composed and produced by ‘Face for Mariah Carey, Johnny Gill, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Karyn White, and Boyz II Men. There best selling Motown album,II, has gone through the roof, thanks to the Number 1 Billboard Pop ‘Face ballad, “I’ll Make Love To You.”

And Edmonds hasn’t been too ego-ed out by his good fortune to collaborate on several songs with singer/songwriter El DeBarge, whose talent he says he’s long admired.

Shall we continue? In addition, Babyface contributed songs to Vanessa William’s anticipated new Mercury/Polygram LP, The Sweetest Days, and is in demand as an artist. His Sony album, For the Cool In You, featuring the quite acoustic “When Will I See You Again,” is the double platinum follow up to his 1989 double platinum Solar/Sony LP,Tender Lover. Perhaps Face got a breather while dueting with Lisa Stansfield on her new Fox/Arista single from the soundtrack for the 20th Century Fox film Dream Away.

All of the above almost makes ‘Face’s contribution to Bedtime Stories, Madonna’s current Sire/Warner Brothers LP, and work with Michael Jackson on two ballads for Jackson’s upcoming Sony project, seem like mere professional footnotes.

“It’s just happening that way right now,” says the soft spoken affable Edmonds, who, while taking a break from rehearsals, humbly attempts to downplay his current flurry of chart action. “I produced these things over a period of time, and now everyone is releasing Babyface material, so it all looks bigger than it is. But have to say, I have been busy.

Indeed. Edmonds recent activity is a hell of an addendum to the equally brilliant run he and former production partner Antonio “L.A.” Reid enjoyed when, via snappy hook-laden uptempo pop/funk and sultry ballads, the duo practically defined urban pop in the mid-80’s and early ‘90’s with hit productions on a variety of R&B and pop acts, including the Whispers, Pebbles, Karyn White, After 7, The Boys, Paula Abdul, Sheena Easton and The Jacksons. Breakthrough projects included Bobby Brown’s multi-platinum 1988 MCA LP, Don’t Be Cruel, and Whitney Houston’s 1990 Arista LP, I’m Your Baby Tonight. At the height of their success, the duo formed the Arista-distributed LaFace label. After a shaky start, the Atlanta-based label founds it’s stride. First with the double-platinum success of hip-hop girl group TLC’s 1991 debut album, and later with Braxton.

“In partnerships,” says ‘Face, “we have a tendency to lean on others for things we could probably do ourselves. The difference between then and now is that instead of starting a song and then turning it over to L.A. and Daryl Simmons, (who shares credit on most of the old L.A./’Face Kear song catalog,” I now have to follow it through, from production to the mix, which is the part of the process I care for the least. But I give myself credit because I’ve made the transition.”

Though still mum on exactly what instigated the split between him and Reid, today Edmonds says the two have come to an understanding, ‘Our relationship is now one of business that focuses on the welfare of LaFace Records. In the music industry, it is ego that has a lot to do with success or failure. To destroy everything we’ve built at LaFace because L.A. and I didn’t get along would be stupid. We now have a common goal, we gotta get LaFace built up, because eventually there will be a payday in selling it. Our relationship works now because it’s business and not personal, and we both bring our individual skills to the table.”

There is a Babyface sound. The ballads, his mainstay, are smooth and melodic, and the mid-tempo grooves always find their pocket. Both feature lyrics that artfully deal with matter of the heart, their case usually driven home by an initially sparse but ultimately swelling production technique.

Edmonds insists he doesn’t write simply for the sake of the craft. “I write when there is a project on the table,” he says. “I don’t just come in with songs, I talk with the artist and find out what they will or won’t sing about. I don’t care who you are, whether you are a great artist or just someone trying to fake it, the hit process still begins with a great song. There is no getting around that.”

While many of his peers wonder how he has been so productive in such a short time, Edmond says it’s just matter of rolling up the sleeves. Manager Ramone Hervey oversees the affairs of Babyface the artist, but Edmonds himself handles business surrounding production assignments of his ECAF Productions, only calling in his lawyer to do the paperwork. “You just do it,” he states. “With Madonna, the meetings surrounding our working together took longer than the actually production. There’s no science to it. You decide on the song, I lay the track, we go in the studio and cut it. There’s no reason a vocal sessions should last longer than a week. With Michael(Jackson), it was about cutting the track and then tweaking it over a matter of days, sometimes maybe to a fault. He’s a perfectionist and I can respect that.”

The fact is, by Edmonds’ own admission, everything he touches doesn’t turn to gold. One of LaFace Records’ first releases, a Jermaine Jackson LP, fell on deaf ears. The El DeBarge project, though gaining gorund, has been slow to find it’s audience. Edmonds is realistic. “Everything doesn’t always hit right away,” he notes,” and some things don’t hit at all. That’s just the way it is. I don’t like to point fingers.”

However, as Edmonds views it, the urban music business is undergoing a changing of the guard. “When me and L.A. got hot in the ‘80’s, there was what I call a ‘Black Pack’ of young platinum successes—Karyn White, Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill-a bunch gonna go through the pearly gates this time around.”

As for his personal life, there’s music there, too. Edmonds says he is enthralled watching the development of his wife Tracy as a music executive. Her Yab Um Entertainment has a label deal with Sony/Epic. “She has learned the business very quickly. She’s got some great acts coming and a music publishing company. Because of all the crazy things she goes through, she can relate to what I go through. We’re both in the business, so there are moments on the weekend we both hope the phone doesn’t ring. But marriage should be a partnership, and ours is. When her company’s first record comes out, I’ll be just as excited as she is.”

In the meantime, Edmonds says in 1995 he’ll slow the production to “just a few key projects,” and continue to move toward his two primary goals at the moment—the building of LaFace Records, and establishing his Sony Music-administered ECAF Publishing unit (in case you haven’t figured it out, that’s FACE spelled backwards) as an important force in pop music.

“I looked at Jobete (Motown’s historic catalogue), the Beatles songs, Gamble and Huff and Thom Bell’s old Mighty Three collection with a lot of respect. That’s what I want to build,” he says.

Of course, there are industry sooth-sayers who whisper that Edmond’s hyper output will soon cause a glut of Babyface songs, and that really soon, on one will care. Edmonds is undaunted. “If everything I did sounded like the last song, or if I was the only one recording all this stuff, then maybe I could see people getting tired of what I do,” he says. “But when they do get tired, then maybe that’s when I’ll stop.”

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