Bobby Brown's Uneasy Passage

Will the Jack of Swing be the next King of Soul?

Bobby Brown in 1989. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Eight miles high, midway between New York City and Chicago, Bobby Brown walks to the rear of the airplane, finds a lavatory door that says, VACANT, and enters. It is supper time on Tuesday, May 23rd, but to Brown, who has slept most of the afternoon, it feels like a groggy morning. He was at a studio on Fourteenth Street in New York's meatpacking district until four in the morning, filming the video for ''On Our Own,'' his contribution to the Ghostbusters II soundtrack, and slipping interviews with Entertainment Tonight and MTV in between the endless takes and costume changes.

Brown slept through American Airlines' noon flight, which he was supposed to take, then missed the two o'clock shuttle, too. He was ticketed on Midway's 4:10 flight, which left without him. Finally, he and his posse — including two security guards and his tour manager, brother Tommy, 27 — got into a limo and hurried out to LaGuardia Airport. If they missed the five o'clock shuttle, Bobby Brown would miss his show that night in Rockford, Illinois. When they got to the gate, it was 4:58.

As tired as he is, Bobby Baresford Brown was raised a gentleman. So before he leaves the lavatory, he washes his hands. But Brown is also a careful investor, so before he washes his hands, he removes the eight bulky rings from his fingers to protect the gold from soap and water. Somehow one of the eight jewels ends up down the toilet.

Brown explains his problem to a stewardess, who demonstrates the kind of calm thinking that only flight school produces: Finding a plastic bag, she suggests Brown use it to cover his arm while he retrieves his ring. When he returns to the stall, however, Brown discovers that the door now reads, OCCUPIED.

In an instant, Brown makes a complicated series of calculations. He is twenty years old, and he has sold, at this point, 5.5 million copies of Don't Be Cruel, his second solo album. He has achieved fame despite a series of setbacks that threatened not just his career but his life: poverty and an after-school hobby of petty theft in Boston; success in New Edition, beginning with ''Candy Girl'' in 1983, blighted by lawsuits filed against his producer, Maurice Starr; more conflict when he left for a solo career; a largely ignored debut; deputes with his managers, who, after he fired them, fanned rumors that he had a drug problem. In sum, retrieving the ring would not be the first time Brown has gone through a lot of shit to earn a lucrative reward.

Brown is proud, determined, serious beyond his years. He does not like losing, least of all losing a ring that symbolizes the riches he has earned. But without the ring, Brown is still heavy with gold, including a thick cable around his neck and a Rolex watch. When the plane lands, Brown leaves without the ring and strides off toward the waiting limo, stopping only to get a box of popcorn.

What is the most accurate gauge of a musician's success in the Eighties? His acting career, of course.

Singers' thespian debuts nearly always reflect their rank in the musical pantheon, from Madonna's feature film roles to Stacey Q's spot on The Facts of Life. Brown is a chart-topping artist, and his acting career was probably inevitable. When Peter Afterman, executive producer of the Ghostbusters II soundtrack, was choosing from among the many record companies that wanted to release the album, he knew he would have to find a way to match Ray Parker Jr.'s ''Ghostbusters,'' the titanic single from the 1984 film. Bobby Brown had already had three Top Five pop hits — ''Don't Be Cruel,'' ''My Prerogative'' and ''Roni,'' with a fourth, ''Every Little Step'' on the way. Afterman went to MCA Records, Brown's label, with an offer: MCA could have the lucrative rights to the Ghostbusters II soundtrack if Brown agreed to participate.

Brown, realizing his participation was the crux of the deal, agreed to contribute to the soundtrack on the condition that he be given a role in the film. Although shooting had almost been completed, director Ivan Reitman wrote a one-scene cameo for Brown as a gabby butler to the mayor of New York, an eager shark who pesters the 'busters as they are entering Gracie Mansion, home to the city's chief executive. With just a few lines, Brown made a surprisingly effective debut. For Brown, acting is part of a scheme to establish himself as a multimedia entertainer. ''I'm not just a singer, or a dancer, or a performer,'' he says. ''I want to be a lot of different things. People don't know what Bobby Brown is. I want to be mysterious. I don't want people to be able to label me. I just wanna be Bobby, the Man Who Does Everything.''

Brown has had no acting lessons, doesn't plan to take any and believes he won't embarrass himself the way other musicians have. Already he has been signed for an HBO special, and a meeting with Eddie Murphy has been arranged. ''Acting is just a frame of mind,'' says Brown. ''If you know how to block the camera off from taing there, its easy to act like another person. It's very easy.'' For tips on acting, he says, he watches a lot of television.

In addition to acting. Brown has plans to produce other acts, and he wants to study music technology, so he can work in a studio without an engineer and a keyboard player. ''I need to get back into production,'' he says, ''and get my music out of my head and onto tracks. 'Cause it'll get clogged up after a while. I don't need that'' He laughs quietly. ''I got too many problems on my own.'' Then he looks away, embarrassed.

As he is lowered onto the stage at the rockford MetroCentre Inter that night, sitting on a huge throne, Bobby Brown seems fueled by an odd energy, something more than enthusiasm and adrenalin. His performance is wild but erratic. On record his music has a thick but nimble backbeat that tonight eludes his clumsy ten-piece band, which has more keyboard players than Depeche Mode. The show isn't close to sold out, perhaps because Brown has played nearby Chicago five times in the previous eight month. And the short sets by the opening acts — K-9 Posse, LeVert and Karyn White — have been greeted mildly. But Brown has Rockford's teens in a lather. When he swivels, the girls cheer. When he grinds, they gasp.

In an hour and a hall. Brown does about nine songs, an average of ten minutes a song. There's lots of time to talk, and twice he brings members of the audience onstage to flirt, dance and watch him grind. His shirt comes off quickly, then his slacks, revealing a thin but almost entirely muscled frame in flattering bicycle shorts. The evening's antics are, he says later, ''even less'' than on the January night when the police in Columbus, Georgia, arrested him for violating the city's ''lewd law.'' They charged him with ''simulating sexual intercourse,'' and he was fined $652, though he says he wasn't within three feet of his onstage dancing partner.

And while Brown exhorts his audience, the two words he uses most are ladies and motherfucker. ''That's not usually in my vocabulary,'' he says later. ''I was just tired and mentally disturbed. I lost it. I don't usually say motherfucker.''

Fluke or not, those two words constitute a microcosm of Brown's musical appeal, ranging from the traditional techniques of soul to the coarser language of rap. As he spins around the stage in Rockford, it's obvious, that Brown has displaced his elders on the pop charts not just because his songs adapt hip-hop beats but also because he has revived the aggressive sexuality that rap drew from James Brown.

Bobby Brown is the most successful of the young musicians who are incorporating rap into soul. A short time ago veteran soul stars seemed to be losing fans to the more extreme joys of rap. Brown was not the first to mix the two musics — the Force M.D.'s, Oran ''Juice'' Jones and Whodini, among others, had done it — but his success has helped turn it into a standard practice. Top rappers have made a second career of livening up pop songs: Eric B. and Rakim with Jody Watley, Slick Rick with Al B. Sure! and Doug E. Fresh with Fenderella. New Edition, Brown's old group, used L.L. Cool I and even the O'Jays got into the game, with Jaz. Since the hybrid music has begun to dominate the pop charts, it wouldn't be that big of a surprise if, say, Run-D.M.C. turned up on Donovan's comeback album.

The new funk arose on opposite coasts at about the same time. In New York, Teddy Riley, 21, began producing rappers Doug E. Fresh and Kool Moe Dee before moving on to pop singers. With his partner, Gene Griffin, 39, Riley invented the frisky slam of what has come to be known as new jack swing, making stars of Keith Sweat and Johnny Kemp and helping Brown to craft his breakthrough single, ''My Prerogative.'' Riley and Griffin have since been courted by Whitney Houston, and Motown gave the duo their own label. Sound of New York, which was expected to debut in early August with Wrecks n Effect.

On the West Coast, Antonio ''L.A.'' Reid and Kenny ''Babyface'' Edmonds have been the dominant producers of 1989, with a series of similar-sounding hits: Sheena Easton's ''Lover in Me,'' Karyn White's ''Superwoman'' and ''Way You Love Me,'' the Boys' ''Dial My Heart,'' Pebbles's ''Girlfriend'' and Paula Abdul's ''Knocked Out,'' as well as ''Don't Be Cruel,'' ''Roni'' and ''On Our Own,'' all by Bobby Brown.

Brown is the only singer who has worked with both the East and West Coast bureaus of the music, which helps explain why he is the biggest of the new jacks. Unlike rap, which is primarily a coastal phenomenon, the new funk has found its way to the heartland. The Rockford Area Fun Guide, published by the Convention and Visitors Bureau, lists such attractions as the Zitelman Scout Museum and the Burpee Museum of Natural History. This is not the kind of area where Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions is large, but Brown's pop sensibility makes hip-hop safe for Midwest teens.

How dominant are the new jacks? James Ingram, a breezy LA. crooner, brought in Teddy Riley to produce his latest album, an obvious attempt at reclaiming the audience Ingram's soul generation has lost The Jacksons did the same with L.A. and Babyface. Diana Ross's Workin' Overtune, produced by Nile Rodgers, the hottest black producer of the early Eighties, imitates an L.A. and Babyface record. And Riley has even predicted that new jack swing ''may well threaten rap'' and force rappers to try to cross over.

But others dismiss the new jacks as puppets whose mild singing talents are masked by two sets of dominant producers. When Brown collaborated with L.A. and Babyface for the Ghostbusters II soundtrack; the result was the cracking, indomitable funk of ''On Our Own.'' Another Brown contribution, ''We're Back,'' which he wrote and produced himself, proved inconsequential.

L.A. and Babyface liken their productions to those of Motown's, where a team of writers, producers and staff musicians assembled the hits. But at Motown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder grew as artists when they assumed control of their own music. It remains to be seen whether Brown can make the same artistic leap.

There are no women who love too much today on Oprah Winfrey's TV show. In her Chicago studio this Thursday morning. Oprah is featuring pop stars under the age of twenty for a Memorial Day broadcast.

Bobby Brown is today's ''surprise guest,'' returning to the Chicago area two days after his Rockford show. But, unsurprisingly, he's late. Brown, who runs through more airports than O.J. Simpson, has missed his morning flight out of Kentucky. When he finally arrives at the studio, Brown is told that the taping has been pushed back several hours. He resumes a magazine interview that was cut short earlier, but the second interview also ends suddenly because Brown has to thet back into his luno and talk to another magazine across town.

Oprah's musical stars are New Kids on the Block and the Boys, the white Menudo and the black Menudo respectively. The New Kids are five spit-shined white teens from Dorchester, Massachusetts, whose album jacket proclaims that NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK SAY ''NO TO DRUGS.'' Their album was written, arranged, produced and played by Maurice Starr, who did the same for New Edition. Hangin' Tough made them the first teen group ever to score three Top Ten singles from one album. They sing ''You Got It (The Right Stuff)'' for Oprah, then get down to some serious daytime interviewing. ''I'm sure there's a lot of really sincere and caring girls out there, and I see a few potential ones out here, but it's hard,'' says Donny Wahlberg, 19. ''We can keep being successful if we stick together,'' adds Danny Wood, 19.

The Boys are four brothers from Northridge. California; when Oprah introduces them, she says they're as ''cute as bugs.'' If you're not a fan of cute, they may make you want to call an exterminator. After the Boys sing ''Dial My Heart,'' an L.A. and Babyface production, Khiry Abdul-Samad, 15, says, ''Every time I hear it on the radio, I think it's like a blessing. I pray every time. I make sure [my brothers] pray, too.'' The Boys' résumé includes the dance number in Nancy Reagan's antidrug video ''Stop the Madness.''

When Brown comes on, he tells Oprah that his inspiration are Stevie Wonder, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, for ''knowing just what they want and just what to do with it.'' Now, Elvis was a lot of things, but he was never an example of intelligently applied talent. What Brown admires about his idols, more likely, is their ubiquity, their ability to transcend the role of pop star.

If Brown's background resembles that of any other pop singer's, though, it's Diana Ross's. Each grew up in an urban ghetto, formed a successful group with their closest friends, then left to chase a solo career. Each is motivated by a determination that outsiders sometimes see as callous or imperious. In contrast to his music, there is hardly any boyishness to Bobby Brown. Tell Brown that he doesn't act twenty, and he responds, ''Thanks,'' as though disguising his youth was a goal he is proud to have accomplished. He told one writer that setting up a 900 telephone line was' a business decision.' He continually refers to himself in the third person, as though Boby Brown were a corporation he held stock in. At least twice he has told writers he aspires to be wealthier than Donald Trump.

''When I was in New Edition, I was forced to grow up,'' says Brown. ''It was rough for us, being kids. I think I still have the youngness in me, but when it's time for business. it's time for business, I just don't want to be taken advantage of.''

Brown grew up in the Orchard Park projects, in Roxbury, at a time when juvenile delinquency hadn't been complicated by crack. His father was a construction worker, and his mother taught middle school. I grew up with the frame of mind that I wanted expensive things,'' says Brown. ''I always wanted the $100 sneakers. I always wanted the better things in life. If I seen anything, a sweat suit I wanted in the store, I'd have to get some money to get that suit. I had to get mine the way I knew how to get it — stealing and whatever I had to do. A lot of my friends, either they're passed away, in jail or on drugs.''

Did he do anything he would have gone to jail for? Brown pauses, then answers quietly. ''Yeah,'' he says, ''I don't really like to discuss the life I led. I'm just happy God showed me the way. God showed me the light.''

Brown's life changed at the age of eleven, when his best friend, James ''Jimbo'' Flint (to whom Don't Be Cruel is dedicated), was stabbed to death. ''Everybody thought I was crazy,'' says Brown. ''I went to a psychiatrist for a few weeks.'' He laughs. ''It was funny, because when I was in school, all the teachers thought I was crazy, too. I was in a small class: three, four people in the class. I'd travel around in one of them small buses. I was one of those kid that everybody looked at, and they was like, 'Is he crazy? What's wrong with him? Is he retarded?' No one really knew what was wrong with me.''

Brown formed a singing group with some friends, harmonizing to the instrumental flip sides of Larry Graham and Donny Hathaway records. Maurice Starr, who had worked with soul groups such as the Stylistics and the Dramatics and on groundbreaking hip-hop records with the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Jonzun Crew, first heard Brown and his friends at a local talent show Starr sponsored.

Because Starr and New Edition ended up in a lawsuit, it's uncertain whether their recollections are distorted by bitterness. ''Almost every black family in America has got talent like that,'' Starr says of the group. Ralph Tresvant, the lead singer, ''wasn't no great thing. He couldn't even sing that well.'' But, says Starr, Tresvat ''had a sound I knew I could sell to the public. The little-boy, cute, high-pitched voice. I knew his voice would sell.''

There had been other teen groups since the Jackson 5-Osmonds heyday, none of them successful. New Edition's first single was ''Candy Girl,'' shamelessly modeled, Starr admits, on the Jacksons' ''I Want You Back'' and ''ABC.'' Says Starr, ''I was gonna make New Edition the biggest group in the world. When we parted, I said, 'Let me show them how smart I am — I'm coming back with a white teen group.'''

Brown was the youngest member of New Edition and was, Starr says, ''different from the rest of them.'' He was a regular target of teasing, and his aspirations were mocked by his band mates, who, Brown says, ''always used to talk about me being so dark, because everyone else was light skinned.'' In voting on group matters, he says, he and Tresvant were constantly overruled by the other three. Disputes were often resolved physically. ''We had plenty of fights,'' says Brown, laughing. ''Plenty, plenty of fights.''

There were also persistent rumors about darker antics. ''People at MCA thought we was on drugs,'' says Brown. ''That wasn't us. We were a bunch of brats, but we wasn't into drugs, we wasn't into liquor. We was into girls.''

Brown says he decided to quit New Edition ''when I seen I was getting ripped off so much'' by former managers Bill Dem, Rick Smith and Steve Machat. Brown likens the situation to ''child slavery'' and says each member of the group made only $80,000 over three years. ''I don't see them doing anything right now,'' he says of the managers. ''They don't have any clients.'' Brown claims that Dem, Smith and Machat spread drug rumors about him after he left New Edition. (None of the three could be reached for comment.)

A brief relationship with manager George Smith ended recently because of what Brown calls ''miscommunication.'' (Smith did not return repeated phone calls.) ''That was it, that was the last time,'' says Brown. ''I don't wanna see myself ripped off anymore. I see what managers do. Why can't I be my own manager? I been in the business a little while. I know what I want.'' His business affairs are now managed by his mother and his brother Tommy.

Brown might have gained greater independence, but the strain of operating a family business may be showing. His tour is chaotic, and he has frequently played four or five times in the same city, a questionable tactic. In late July he suddenly canceled twenty concerts for reasons the general manager of a California venue where Brown was scheduled to play described as ''nebulous.'' The unreliability that has resulted from Brown's self-management has only fueled the rumors of drug addiction.

The spats and lawsuits have passed, but they are commemorated in Brown's pessimism, suspiciousness and resolve. ''No matter what happens in life, you gotta deal with the problems,'' he says. ''I was always taught this by my mom and dad. No matter what, you can't let them break you down. Once they see that you're broke down and you can't take it no more, boom, right over the edge you go. That's when you lose it all.''

Brown's steely attitude was not the only thing to emerge from this period of discord. The songs L.A. and Babyface wrote for Don't Be Cruel could have been sung by any of the other singers they produce. The only track that reflects Brown's character is ''My Prerogative,'' the mammoth, thumping track he wrote with Gene Griffin. ''Everybody's talking all this stuff about me/Why don't they just let me live?'' he sings. The lyrics, he says, are a response to the break with his managers and with New Edition, as well as a retort to drug rumors.

''My Prerogative'' may be a personal lyric, but its broader appeal derives from its relativism, a cross between Frank Sinatra's ''My Way'' and John Lennon's ''Whatever Gets You Through the Night.'' You don't need to justify your lifestyle to anyone, the song says, a theme that must be appreciated by yuppies as well as crack dealers. Still, ''My Prerogative'' is a masterpiece, the pinnacle of new jack swing.

This kind of independence — as well as Brown's frequent last-minute schedule changes — have contributed to the persistent drug rumors. And if people readily believe the rumors, it may be because Brown is a young black man from an urban ghetto, just the kind they suspect of being on drugs.

Ask around on the West Coast, where Brown moved after going solo, and many people claim to know about his ''problems.'' A musician who has spent time with him says, ''Bobby needs help,'' not just with drugs but with management. ''His whole career is running amok,'' adds a business insider with contacts close to Brown. ''He's completely irresponsible. Everything's a mess, no organization. The word is, he's not going to last.''

The rumors eventually made their way to gossip queen Liz Smith. On Memorial Day, the day of the Oprah broadcast, Smith's syndicated column reads, ''One of the biggest young black superstars of music is heavy into cocaine — his mother and brother are said to be the suppliers.'' In view of the well-known rumors about Brown, and the participation of his mother and brother in his career, there is little doubt about the identity of the anonymous ''young black superstar.''

When Brown hears of Smith's column, his characteristic reserve shatters. ''Let me write her name down,'' he says, stunned, ''cause this is getting outrageous. People can talk all they want, but once they start writing something …'' He gets a pen and a pad. ''I see what drugs can do to a person, so why would I be into 'em?'' he asks. ''Having the top male slot now, drugs would just bring me down, and down is not a place I want to go.

''How can I perform 170 days straight,'' Brown continues, slapping his palm for emphasis, ''if I'm on drugs? It makes you feel bad. Knowing that you're not, it almost makes you want to cry. It's an insult to me. If you don't see me, don't talk about me. If…'' He snorts. ''Never mind. Let's just forget about it.'' During the next half-hour, however, he voluntarily refers to the gossip item three times. He seems most upset by the implication of his mother. ''That's something you don't ignore,'' he says, ''She [Liz Smith] damn sure will get a call.''

''I'll be the biggest thing since Michael Jackson, since Elvis,'' Brown has vowed. ''I want to be that large.'' But it seems there's already a bit of those two stars in him; fame has brought Brown no joy. ''A million dollars ain't nothin' now,'' he says. ''Once you get that million, you want more millions. Some of the happiest people are poor people. I been there. I love money, but I'm not happy right now. I can be happy, at times. I'm happy onstage. That's the only place I'm happy. I'm not happy unless I'm onstage.''

Despite that, Brown plans on taking a long respite from performing. He is about to move to Atlanta with his longtime girlfriend, who is expecting a child in September. He will produce demos for two of his sisters. Although he knows ''a lot of people are getting tired of the Don't Be Cruel album,'' he will drop two or three more singles from it and ''try to do a Thriller'' Meanwhile he will work on new material with L.A. and Babyface, who have also bought houses in Atlanta. And Brown will be fielding acting offers. ''One day maybe they'll give me a chance to play the boy next door,'' he says. ''Yeah, right  — the guy everybody says is on drugs.''

During the time off, Brown will also try to ''find myself again.'' It is, at minimum, unsettling to hear someone so young talk so old. At twenty, his nostalgic tone is more suited to a middle-aged show-business veteran.

If fame hasn't brought Bobby Brown what he wants, was he happier when he was poor? ''Yes, very much so.'' Then he reconsiders: ''I am poor. I'm poor in happiness.''