Inside New Edition's Overdue Renaissance

R&B veterans on cementing legacy with BET biopic and why their story is still unfolding

As their BET biopic airs, the members of New Edition look back on their legacy and ahead to future projects. Credit: Bennett Raglin/BET

Hard as it is to imagine today, when hip-hop and R&B are so closely intertwined, the arrival of the rapper as a commercial force initially posed a threat to R&B singers. After the hip-hop comet struck more than three decades ago, many crooners suddenly looked liked dinosaurs, and even some of the greatest vocalists on the planet never really recovered, at least on recording. It's no coincidence that Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, singers of near peerless grace, and Prince and Michael Jackson, masters of pre-rap pop, released their best albums before hip-hop's first golden age in the late 1980s.

But shrewd young singers like the five who ended up in the group New Edition took the impact of rap in stride, embracing hip-hop on their very first single in 1983. Because of their aesthetic fluidity, this quintet from Roxbury, Massachusetts – initially made up of Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Bobby Brown, Ronnie DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant; Johnny Gill joined up later in place of Brown – has persisted for more than three decades, quietly carrying on a remarkable dynasty. And nearly every notable R&B singer to emerge after New Edition has followed their cross-pollinating example.

"When New Edition came out, we were the first generation of hip-hop; we mixed it with R&B singing," Brown tells Rolling Stone in advance of The New Edition Story, a three-part biopic that airs on BET starting Tuesday. "Fortunately it worked." This is a ferocious understatement: as a group and across the members' various solo and spin-off projects – Brown, Gill, Tresvant, and Bell, Bivins and DeVoe's famed Bell Biv DeVoe outfit have all released platinum-certified albums – the extended New Edition family has sold more than 25 million units in the U.S. and pumped more than 50 singles into the Top 25 on the Billboard R&B chart.

Despite these weighty achievements, the group has largely been passed over by the canonizers, who still favor pre-hop-hop R&B. Even within the pantheon of R&B vocal groups, New Edition is overlooked for the same reason; the list includes ensembles from the heyday of Motown, maybe the Impressions and few others. Noted critic Nelson George summarized his initial reaction to the group as nonchalant dismissal, calling them "nothing but a novelty act."

But George soon changed his evaluation — in 1991, he wrote that "New Edition begins this still young decade as one of black music's most important institutions" — and now, finally, the rest of the gatekeepers are getting the message. In addition to the BET film, New Edition will get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today. "It's important to tell this story," says Luke James, the twice-Grammy-nominated singer who portrays Gill in the film. "It's important for black culture, for pop culture, to know that these guys deserve these accolades. [New Edition] truly paved the way for the way you hear music, the way R&B artists to hip-hop artists look now. They just changed the whole idea."

To gauge New Edition's impact, just turn on the radio. Their sound is all over Bruno Mars' 24k Magic album. (The backing vocals during the second hook of the title track are pure, glorious Gill.) On the Weeknd's latest Number One hit, "Starboy," the singer brags that has to reach back into the past to find any music worthy of his attention: "No competition, I don't really listen," he sings. "I’m in the blue Mulsanne bumping New Edition." Erykah Badu paid hazy tribute to one of the group's ace early singles, "Mr. Telephone Man," on her last mixtape.

New Edition’s revolution was rooted in their fluency with hip-hop: The group rapped on their debut single, "Candy Girl," which came out the same year that Run-D.M.C. made a splash with "It's Like That." They continued to include rapped snippets and, later, skits in their music, and while some R&B acts tapped out as hip-hop flourished, this group thrived along with it. "It came naturally to us, so every first single had a little MC-ing on it," DeVoe explains.

New Edition’s defining year was 1988, when they released Heart Break, which would go on to sell more than 4 million copies. Gill joined the group in place of Brown, and the muted thunder of his voice added a crucial depth to their sound. Over the next four years, members of New Edition tore up the charts from every direction. Brown's tracks were as sinewy, caustic and unvarnished as early hip-hop hits, helping to create a template that would allow R&B singers to go toe to toe with rappers in the years to come. Tresvant was on the opposite end of the spectrum: His biggest hit was the plush and sensuous "Sensitivity." Gill was the most classically minded of the bunch – see his immaculate nu-Motown turn on "A Cute, Sweet Love Addiction" – ripping through lines with meaty enthusiasm and spinning long-form seduction epics. And the trio of Bell Biv DeVoe were goofier, often rapping bawdy tales from the front lines of singledom.

It's hard to think of another vocal group that has corralled as many distinctive artists as New Edition – not the Temptations, the Miracles, or the Impressions, all of whom are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – or a rock band that spawned four separate, dynamic musical entities without destroying itself. "We want to be mentioned with the likes of the Rolling Stones, with the likes of the Beatles, with the likes of the Jacksons, with the likes of the Temptations," Bell says. "Those are the things that we wanted to achieve in life. It feels like that's finally coming around."

Unsurprisingly, the abundance of talent and disparate personalities in New Edition led to fights, and these conflicts propel the drama of The New Edition Story: tense, testosterone-filled moments where youth, pride, fame and financial concerns collide, sometimes leading to fist fights, once even to gunshots. Most of the drama starts with Brown, who begins the movie by promising to be a team player while the camera reveals that his fingers are crossed behind his back. By the winter of 1984, he was disrupting the group's meticulously planned routines, especially when performing "Mr. Telephone Man," a rare moment where he got to take over the lead vocal from Tresvant. His friends voted him out of the group the next year.

Woody McClain plays Brown in the film as a stubborn live wire, convinced – correctly, as it turned out – of his own potential for stardom. "I've always been the good, the bad and the ugly of New Edition," he declares towards the end of the movie. Asked if it was difficult to revisit some of the uglier incidents with his former groupmates, Brown says, "We're past that now. We're a lot older, a lot more respectful to each other. We've grown so much in our lives."

Each member of New Edition spent time with the two actors playing him – viewers see the group as both children and as adults – to help hone their on-screen portrayals. "All these [actors] had done their due diligence, watched YouTube," director Chris Robinson explains. "But then you actually sit down and have a conversation with Bobby Brown, and he tells you about his tumultuous life, and he goes, 'My pelvic thrust was like this.'"

The actors were put through a grueling boot camp to get their dancing into stage-ready shape, and New Edition would drop by to show them up. "Imagine you being an actor and the guys that you are portraying come in, and they're dancing better than you at 40 years old and you're 25," Robinson says. This training proved to be crucial, as large swathes of the film are taken up by performance pieces where the actors recreate a number of New Edition's biggest hits.

Originally, The New Edition Story was slated to be a feature film, but Brown refused to sign on. "Sometimes you look at things, and you say, 'Dang, once again we can't get everybody on the same page,'" Bivins says. "But honestly, I'm kind of happy that that shit didn't happen, because that meant 30 years would've been in two hours. It's one time where [Brown] made a move where I can say, 'Damn, man, that worked in our favor. Now we get six hours instead of two!'"

"There's still some parts that are left out," Brown notes. "I have a whole total different career that occurred after I left New Edition, and that part is not in the movie." He's planning to put together his own feature film as well.

New Edition's longevity and perseverance is remarkable for a collective enterprise. Brown returned to record with the other members of New Edition for 1996's Home Again and still sometimes performs with them' New Edition still tours after more than three decades in the business, and the film was made with their cooperation. That cohesive tenacity, according to Robinson, is "ultimately what [The New Edition Story] is about.

"Through the differences, the pain, the betrayal that some feel, the brotherhood remains, the professionalism remains," he says. "I don't know too many stories like it."

The members of New Edition are adamant that the story isn't over. Catch a show like their performance at the Barclays Center last fall with another R&B institution, the incomparable songwriter/producer/singer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and you believe them. "The bottom line is, any act that survives to that extent does so because they are great live," Edmonds says. (He helped with the music in The New Edition Story and also wrote and produced hits for Brown, Gill and Bell Biv DeVoe.) "That's become actually more important than putting great records out – the question of, are you a great performer?" Babyface continues. "They've always had that, and because of that, they'll always be around."

But the group is hardly content with just existing as a legacy act: On January 27th, Bell Biv DeVoe will release Three Stripes, their first album since 2001, and they have ambitious plans with this record. "I really think we're going to bridge this gap between old school, new school, all that," Bivins predicts. Three Stripes includes appearances by Bivins protégés Boyz II Men and Nineties peers SWV; EPMD's Erick Sermon helped produce the lead single, "Run." "Let's just accept this for what it is, great music, delivered at a time when someone needed to pull it all together," Bivins adds. "I think Bell Biv DeVoe are gonna wear that on our sleeve. We've got that type of pulse between mainstream America and the streets."

Bivins has an enthusiastic vision of the future. "Who knows what the next 25 to 30 years are gonna look like for us?" he says. "The launching pad we have for that is so amazing, and we're so thankful." And despite their past squabbles, the other members of New Edition are all on the same page when it comes to optimism about tomorrow. "We're just beginning," Brown says. "I'm working on my album; Ralph is working on his. There's a lot more to come from New Edition."