June 20th, 1988 was a landmark day for Black music as a whole. On this date, MCA Records released both Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” & New Edition’s “Heart Break” the week after they dropped Guy’s debut album. These two albums forever changed not only R&B/Soul but the entire landscape of the music industry simultaneously.
In order to understand why this is significant we must start at the beginning, with the day Bobby Brown was voted out of New Edition in December 1985 amidst mounting pressure from New Edition’s management & production team and the fallout surrounding it all.
At the top of 1986 Bobby Brown was glad to shed himself of New Edition’s squeaky clean image and choose other producers and songwriters other than Vincent Brantley, Rick Timas and Michael Sembello of Jump & Shoot Productions whom their management had recently installed as their musical team.
The group had discovered they were signed to Jump & Shoot Productions through a production deal by their management (AMI) instead of having a record deal directly with MCA while recording their self titled LP back in 1984 shortly after they won the case that secured their freedom from their old deal with Arthur Baker's Streetwise Records.
New Edition released album after album, in hopes of amassing enough money to buy their way out of their management & production contracts with Steven Machat and his partners Rick Smith and Bill Dern of AMI/Jump & Shoot. They hoped to become free agents, then negotiate a new deal directly with MCA Records. However, before that could happen, they had to endure another album with Jump & Shoot while Bobby Brown signed a solo deal with MCA and began to seek out a new creative team for his upcoming solo project.
In early 1986 New Edition recorded a cover of the 50’s Doo Wop hit “Earth Angel” for the soundtrack to the sequel to “Karate Kid”. It was initially seen as a one off song before they began working on what would hopefully be their final record making music they weren’t proud of. “Karate Kid II” opened in theaters in North America on June 20, 1986 and became an instant hit.
Peter Cetera made the film’s main theme “For The Glory Of Love” which was a massive hit but New Edition’s cover of “Earth Angel” became a crossover hit, slightly missing Billboard’s Top 20 on the Pop charts (stalled at #21). Unfortunately, the success of that song gave New Edition’s producers the idea to make their next LP a concept album full of covers of Doo Wop songs.
To put this rather horrible idea into proper context, Janet Jackson was crushing the R&B/Soul and Pop charts with her new album “Control” as was Cameo with their album “Word Up!”. The Minneapolis sound and a new brand of R&B that would soon be branded New Jack Swing was gaining favor thanks to Prince, Ready For The World plus the production of Cameo’s Larry Blackmon and Flyte Tyme’s Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. This was not the time to go retro in the face of all this recent musical progression. The fellas might not ever recover if they put out a bad album right now.
Nevertheless, New Edition released “Under The Blue Moon” in October 1986 and the album barely managed to go Gold when their previous albums all exceeded Platinum and each had multiple hit singles. Outside of “Earth Angel” none of their singles fared well on the charts while the aesthetic of R&B was in flux. Ralph Tresvant became increasingly disillusioned with the group and began to consider going solo as 1986 soon gave way to 1987.
Meanwhile, Bobby Brown began recording his debut solo album for MCA Records. “King Of Stage” was released in December 1986 behind the lead single, “Girlfriend”. This ballad became Bobby Brown’s first solo hit, eventually peaking at #57 on the Billboard Pop charts but reaching #1 on the Billboard Soul/R&B charts.
His second single, the uptempo dance number “Girl Next Door”, was a minor hit (#31 R&B/Soul) but his album failed to even go Gold. While Bobby Brown was a winner at the 1987 Boston Music Awards, he knew he had a long way to go before he was satisfied.
Mike Bivins had the foresight to ensure the future of New Edition following them finally getting out of their old deal with Jump & Shoot Productions after their management team AMI’s firm disbanded, senior partner Steve Machat stepped down and the group opted to not continue to be managed by junior partners Rick Smith or Bill Dern.
They celebrated their newfound freedom by installing Brooke Payne as interim manager and signing directly to MCA Records in Spring 1987. Ralph was considering a solo project like Bobby so Mike brought in Johnny Gill both to fill Bobby’s vacant spot and to potentially become the group’s new lead singer in the event Ralph bolted.
Next, the guys and their longtime choreographer/personal manager Brooke Payne agreed to bring in Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis to craft the sound of what was going to become their breakout album and shed their old boyhood image once and for all. Ralph Tresvant ultimately opted against pursuing a solo project due to encouragement from Mike Bivins and New Edition once again became a quintet.
In June 1987, just one year removed from the abomination that was “Earth Angel” and the havoc it wreaked on their young careers, New Edition began work on their “Heart Break” LP.
New Edition had been all but written off after their horrific last album in 1986. In 1987 people were jamming to Club Nouveau, Full Force, Jody Watley, Levert, The System, Atlantic Starr, Alexander O’Neal, Terrence Trent D’arby, Cameo, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and Keith Sweat throughout this time and they were slowly forgetting about New Edition. This was more than enough motivation for the Roxbury renegades of R&B to reclaim their thrones and once again change the game.
Bobby Brown regrouped from his disappointing debut album. He stayed in contact with members of New Edition even though he was voted out and he took stock in their progress on the comeback trail. In turn, Bobby decided to do the same. He soon enlisted the services of the songwriting/production team of L.A. Reid & Babyface.
They didn’t have any huge successes on the level that Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis previously enjoyed with Janet Jackson, Cherrelle or Alexander O’Neal but Bobby was going to help change all of that. In October 1987, Bobby Brown, L.A. Reid, Babyface, Darryl Simmons, Gene Griffin, Larry White and Gordon Jones all began crafting the album that would change popular music forever.
Teddy Riley was just beginning his run on the charts when he did keyboard session work on “Don’t Be Cruel”. His breakout album with Keith Sweat “Make It Last Forever” dropped at the end of 1987 and marked a sea change in R&B/Soul music. Songs like “I Want Her”, “Something Just Ain’t Right” and “Don’t Stop Your Love” were soulful R&B but they also contained the high energy aesthetic of Rap music.
It was the natural youthful progression after Cameo's Larry Blackmon laid the blueprint with his hits “Word Up”, “Candy” & “Back And Forth” earlier that year. Next, Teddy Riley teamed up with Gene Griffin to form the group Guy who were also signed to MCA Records and were also recording around the same time Bobby Brown and New Edition were. It was a perfect storm.
By January 1988, New Edition completed their comeback album “Heart Break”. In the time they’d been gone from the scene the entire game had changed. They knew they had to come out hard and knock everyone else out the box. Instead of trying to convince everyone they were grown up and hope to gain acceptance in a changing industry, they instead operated from a position of power.
They were going to put together a comprehensive tour and bring the album to life in front of audiences all across the country so they could experience the new New Edition for themselves. Preparation for what was to become the 1988 Heartbreak Tour began immediately.
Bobby Brown completed “Don’t Be Cruel” in April 1988. His boys and labelmates New Edition were putting together their comeback tour and they reached out to Bobby to be part of it, as he was coming back to smash the game as well. Bobby headed back to Boston in May to film the video for his album’s lead single “Don’t Be Cruel”. New Edition wouldn’t be releasing a single before they dropped the album, instead opting to begin the tour immediately and drop the lead single while they were on the road to actively help push it. It was risky but if it worked? It would pay off handsomely for everyone.
Al B. Sure! (who was an Uptown/MCA affiliate) was added to the bill of New Edition’s 1988 Heartbreak Tour. His debut LP “In Effect Mode” was powered by the hit single “Nite And Day” and it would drop on Warner Bros. two weeks before Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” hit the airwaves for the first time. In addition, Al B. Sure’s album would only drop seven weeks before both Bobby Brown and New Edition’s albums were released in June 1988.
This entire plan was a huge gamble but it all paid off the second “Don’t Be Cruel” hit radio and the video entered the rotation on BET, entered the Billboard Pop charts and cracked regular rotation on MTV. It was a breakout hit out of the gate.
Shortly after Bobby Brown released “Don’t Be Cruel,” Al B. Sure’s second single “Off On Your Own (Girl)” dropped. Both songs steadily climbed the charts until “Don’t Be Cruel” hit #1 on the R&B/Soul charts. However, it was replaced at the top by his tourmate Al B. Sure’s second single in August 1988. During the time both songs were ascending the charts, New Edition was getting started filming videos and doing shows to build anticipation for their upcoming album.
New Edition wouldn’t have much downtime to film videos on tour as it would serve to promote their album plus drive up sales throughout it’s duration. If you remember correctly, most of the New Edition videos from “Heart Break” were centered around them either getting ready to go on tour (“If It Isn’t Love”), being on tour (“You’re Not My Kind Of Girl”), a live video from the tour (“Crucial”) then later the group coming home from touring (“N.E. Heart Break”) (the lone exception being “Can You Stand The Rain”). Execution had to be perfect and timing was crucial.
On June 20th, 1988 MCA Records released both Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” powered by the hit lead single of the same name and New Edition’s “Heart Break.” To further hammer home how epic the Summer of 1988 was for Black music, the previous week MCA Records released Guy’s debut album, the week before that Atlantic Records released Troop's debut album (which contained the hits “Mamacita”, Still In Love” & “My Heart”) and we were only a month and some change removed from Al B. Sure! dropping “In Effect Mode.”
The hit songs at the time both albums were released were from Pebbles (“Mercedes Boy”, co-produced by Charlie Wilson & Pebbles ), Johnny Kemp (“Just Got Paid”, produced by Teddy Riley), “Groove Me” by Guy (also produced by Teddy Riley), Troop's "Mamacita" (produced by Levert's Eddie & Gerald Levert with Marc Gordon) and the debut single “Little Walter” by a group called Tony! Toni! Toné! who were produced by Foster & McElroy.
Competition in R&B was at its fiercest but they were more than up to the task. “Heart Break” went Gold in two months and Platinum only a month later thanks to the singles “If It Isn’t Love” and “You’re Not My Kind Of Girl.” The videos for both songs played on both BET and MTV. New Edition had crossed over to the Billboard Pop charts but Bobby Brown completely obliterated them.
The era these particular New Jack Swing themed R&B albums were released in was analogous to the First Golden Era Of Hip-Hop (1986-1989). The style, sound and aesthetic of Black music had changed but soon that would spread to Pop music as a whole. The catalyst behind this change was Bobby Brown. “Don’t Be Cruel” became a #1 R&B/Soul hit and reached the top 10 on the Billboard Pop charts, but that was only the beginning.
Bobby Brown’s second single “My Prerogative” not only hit #1 on the R&B/Soul charts but it hit #1 on the Pop charts as well. The Teddy Riley produced single was drenched in Blackness. The New Jack Swing sound, utter funkiness and the attitude and swagger of Hip-Hop were impossible to overlook.
Before “My Prerogative,” a Black R&B artist had to play it safe or release a song in the vein of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie or Stevie Wonder’s later work to achieve crossover success. Bobby Brown did it essentially by telling everyone to kiss his ass and he’s going to do whatever the hell he feels like. The song ended up being the biggest song of 1988 and it knocked Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” out of the #1 spot on the Billboard Pop charts at the top of 1989.
“Don’t Be Cruel” became a genre defining album, selling in excess of 5 million units by the close of 1989. No longer did Black artists have to play it safe or make songs like Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” or Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” to reach the top of the charts. Bobby Brown did it with Teddy Riley at 120 BPM while giving everyone the middle finger.
Bobby then released the ballad “Roni” at the end of 1988 which rose all the way to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1989. Bobby Brown had been grinding on people’s daughters in the front row since 1983 but now no one’s daughters were safe because he was now the biggest star in all of popular music not named Michael Jackson or Prince.
New Edition’s “Heart Break” album went 3x Platinum worldwide by the close of the 1988-89 Heartbreak Tour and spawned five hit singles (“If It Isn’t Love”, “Not My Kinda Girl”, “Can You Stand The Rain”, Crucial” & “N.E. Heart Break”). Bobby Brown also had five hit singles off “Don’t Be Cruel” (“Don’t Be Cruel,” “My Prerogative,” “Roni,” “Every Little Step” & “Rock Wit’cha”) but it should be pointed out that Bobby had an additional hit from the “Ghostbusters II” soundtrack “On Our Own” that reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 to bring the total to 6 overall.
Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” was so huge worldwide that after the 1988-89 Heartbreak Tour ended in Summer 1989, he immediately had to launch another 120 date worldwide tour that ran from 1989 into 1990 called the Bobby Brown World Tour.
The 1988-89 Heartbeak Tour was also beneficial to Al B. Sure! who racked up five hit singles (“Nite And Day”, “Off On Your Own (Girl)”, “Killing Me Softly”, “Rescue Me” and “If I’m Not Your Lover”) and multiplatinum sales throughout the duration of its run. New Edition was finally able to rest on their laurels a little bit. Their tour plan worked to perfection and turned out to be a kingmaker.
Bobby Brown gambled on L.A. Reid & Babyface, who at the time didn’t have any big hits to their credit, but ended 1990 with a phenomenal run of success that would in time become legendary. New Edition also became the gold standard for every young, touring, business savvy R&B group as well as the most influential young R&B group in the game.
Without Bobby Brown there wouldn’t have been a lane for Usher or Chris Brown. Ne-Yo or The-Dream could’ve pursued their songwriting and production careers behind the scenes but without the artistic aesthetic Bobby Brown set forth 25 years ago they wouldn’t have had the option to become artists (bridged by R. Kelly who also benefited greatly from Bobby Brown’s solo success).
Michael Bivins (who initially got the whole ball rolling back in 1987) would become one of the most influential young music executives in the game. Shortly after the 1988-89 Heartbreak Tour ended, Mike Bivins, Ricky Bell and Ronnie DeVoe would begin work on yet another landmark R&B album to be released on MCA in 1990 called “Poison” under the name Bell Biv DeVoe. Let’s recap a little, shall we?
In June 1986, New Edition was in dire straits. By June 1987, they were back in the studio with a new member working on their comeback album. In June 1988, they were releasing the aforementioned comeback album. By June 1989, they were back on top of the world, multiplatinum and their 5th hit single in a row was on the radio as they closed out a huge tour. By June 1990, Bell Biv Devoe also became Platinum with two huge crossover Billboard hits in “Poison” and ‘Do Me” that would take what Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” did the year before to another level entirely. Leave it to some cats from Boston to bring bluntless & being bold in vogue.
In only two years time, Boston artists (Bobby Brown, New Edition & Bell Biv Devoe) had completely changed both R&B/Soul and Pop music forever at a time when competition in R&B was at its fiercest. Check the record for yourselves. Yet another oft overlooked aspect of New Edition’s influence is the run of success Boston’s New Kids On The Block had in the music industry.
They looked up to New Edition and regarded them as the benchmark to aspire to in regards to their musical output and live performance. Back in Spring 1988, their New Edition soundalike ballad “Please Don’t Go Girl” is said to have inspired New Edition to make the song “Where It All Started From” to address all the soundalikes, clones and knockoffs. Once they met them and realized they were fans they no longer felt that way.
New Kids On The Block began their run of hits right at the same time New Edition began their Heartbreak Tour and by the close of 1989 they boasted 5 straight Top 10 Billboard Pop hits. In addition, they had multiplatinum sales surpassing Bobby Brown’s (8x Platinum) and tour receipts that were only matched by fellow Bostonian acts New Edition (1988-89 Heartbreak Tour) and Bobby Brown (1989-90 Bobby Brown World Tour). It can be argued that no stretch of albums from acts from the same city (1988’s “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Heart Break”, “Hangin’ Tough” & 1990’s “Poison”) did more to change the overall landscape of the present day music industry since the Detroit groups from Motown back in the 60’s.
In conclusion, 25 years ago not one but two albums were released that forever changed the music industry through sound, aesthetic, performance, style and overall influence. Without New Edition, there is no Boyz II Men. Without New Edition, there is no New Kids On The Block (thus no boy band formula and no boy bands).
Without Bobby Brown, there is no Usher. Without Bell Biv Devoe what would Jodeci have sounded like? What would R.Kelly have sung about? Without Mike Bivins and his pioneering success in scouting, signing & developing talent both in production (Dallas Austin) and performance with Biv 10 does Puffy Combs still find the inspiration to launch Bad Boy (Biv was the ORIGINAL executive producer in the videos)? The individual Platinum sales of Bobby Brown, Bell Biv Devoe, Johnny Gill & Ralph Tresvant following “Heart Break” are a lasting testament to the greatness of the feats they accomplished. Five Boston cats from Roxbury ultimately changed the music industry forever. Let us never forget that. I’ll never let you do so.