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Boyz II Men: Motown's Hottest Act in Years

The hip-hop-meets-doo-wop quartet brings the new sound of Philadelphia to the Motown label

March 5, 1992
Boyz II Men
Boyz II Men
Michel Linssen/Redferns

The right rear window of Nate Morris's Pathfinder has been smashed. A taped-in replacement protects us from the bitter Philadelphia cold. Morris, at twenty the oldest member of multiplatinum R&B sensations Boyz II Men, says that one of the front windows was just repaired and that Shawn Stockman – who is sitting in the back seat singing along to the truck's CD player – also had a car broken into recently.

Morris shakes his head and says that these kinds of problems are the reason the Boyz will soon have to move out of their old Philly neighborhood. The members of the hip-hop-meets-doo-wop quartet are all currently looking at houses in the nearby suburbs. A year ago, no one would have predicted that they would have been able to enter the real-estate market, much less feel obligated to do so. But success has come fast for Motown Records' hottest new stars in years – their debut album, Cooleyhighharmony, has sold 3 million copies, spent six months lodged in the pop Top Twenty and earned the group an American Music Award for Favorite New Soul Artist and a pair of nominations from the Grammys, including a nod for Best New Artist.

Whenever they move, though, there's Boyz II Men no reason to think they'll spend much time at home in the foreseeable future. Morris, Stockman, 19, Michael McCary, 20, and Wanya Morris, 18, recently completed a grueling nine-month promotional tour and will soon start rehearsing their four-part harmonies and dance steps for a national tour with Hammer set to begin in April.

But the charming, ultrapolite four amigos still flash good-natured smiles and joke quietly among themselves through their nonstop publicity schedule. Two local TV crews show up to cover the photo shoot for this story. When a reporter asks them to croon their smash "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" for the camera, they immediately oblige and even seem to pour some genuine emotion into what could have been an easy sound bite. Serious and driven, Boyz II Men are giving all they've got to make their moment in the spotlight last.

The foursome had been singing sweet soul ballads together at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts for only a few months when they sneaked backstage at a talent show hosted by Michael Bivins (of New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe) in March of 1989. "We weren't looking for a manager or anything," says Wanya Morris, the shyest of the foursome in conversation (though an unrepentant ham in front of a camera). "We just wanted to sing to anybody, period."

Bivins was impressed with the snippet of singing he heard and gave Nate Morris his phone number. "I was curious where they stood as far as stage presence," Bivins recalls. "I wasn't seeing the complete package. But I could see that they had the most important piece, which a lot of groups were missing at the time – the vocals." When Bivins admitted that he had been thinking about moving into management, Nate says, "I called him every day for two months and begged him." Finally, Bivins brought them to a meeting in New York and agreed to manage the group.

Boyz II Men have become the crown jewel in the budding Biv Entertainment empire. Bivins's preteen Atlanta discovery Another Bad Creation has sold nearly 2 million copies of Coolin' at the Playground Ya' Know!, and rapper M.C. Brains has a single climbing the charts. Quietly, Bivins has gotten Motown back into the upper echelons of the R&B world after a long drought; the label recently placed two songs in the pop Top Ten for the first time in fifteen years.

When it came time to record Boyz II Men's album, Nate Morris says that "if it was up to us, we probably would have put all slow songs on it." Bivins and producer Dallas Austin, however, constructed a light hip-hop swing for Cooleyhighharmony's second, more uptempo half. The resultant New Jack harmony sound proved hard enough to get their breakthrough single "Motownphilly" over to rap fans, smooth enough for R&B radio and MTV.

The second single, an a cappella remake of "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" (from the 1975 blaxploitation comedy Cooley High), climbed as high as Number Two and is a sure-fire last dance at the prom for years to come. The newest single, the slinkier "Uhh Ahh," marks an effort to cultivate their teenybop-heartthrob status. "It's good that we were able to express these changes the first time around," says Stockman. "Groups have a habit of having a certain style when they first come out, and then in a couple of years it's hard to get out of that."

The group members have received as much attention for their style as they have for their music, a look that the lingo-crazed Bivins says presages "theyuppieyupAlex-Vanderpoolera" (Alex Vanderpool, which was assigned as a nickname to Nate Morris, is based on the name of a preppie character on Bivins's favorite soap opera, All My Children). Bow ties, sweaters, baggy jeans – it's a teen buppie dream world straight outta the Gap: distinctive, nonthreatening and video friendly.

The title of "Motownphilly" proudly announces the musical heritage Boyz II Men claim as their own. "We grew up on the Motown sound and the Philadelphia sound, like the Blue Notes and the O'Jays," says Wanya Morris. "We're trying to connect those two and bring them back." But Nate points out that as writers or co-writers of seven of the ten songs on Cooleyhighharmony, these young singers are different from their predecessors. "The majority of the Philadelphia artists just had God-given talent, and somebody noticed it, and they cut a record," he says. "But we're a little more educated about it – we sing, but we also know what we sing when we sing it."

Boyz II Men can easily be consigned to disposable teen-pop-land, but there's something undeniably refreshing about hearing four unadorned voices cut through the samples and sequencers on pop radio. "I think that people have gotten all wrapped up in technology and drum machines and forgotten what the music is really about," says Nate.

"People are used to knobs being urned up and lip-syncing and stuff like that," Wanya chimes in, "but I think there's an era coming back."

This story is from the March 5, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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