Few artists and producers dominated the 1990s R&B scene as Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds. His brand of smooth, glossy soul music topped the pop and urban charts, and he penned and produced hits for Boyz II Men, Whitney Houston, Madonna, and Toni Braxton. A versatile talent, he even wrote and produced a classic track for rocker Eric Clapton. This week's DeepSoul kicks off a four-week salute to Babyface, highlighting his lesser-known work for other artists. The first entry, however, focuses on Babyface's successful solo career, focusing on one of his earliest singles: 1987's "It's No Crime."
Born in 1959 in Indianapolis, Babyface grew up playing guitar and singing in various bands before achieving his first break: joining Bootsy Collins' backing band. During this stint Collins dubbed the new member "Babyface" due to Edmonds' young, boyish appearance. By the time he was in his 20s, Babyface left the group to join the funk act Manchild; after they broke up, he teamed with Antonio "L.A." Reid to form a new band called the Deele. From 1983 to 1987, the Deele scored R&B hits such as "Body Talk," "Just My Luck," "Surrender," and their best-known song "Two Occasions." During this time, Babyface and Reid moonlighted as producers and songwriters for other artists. After reaching massive success with Pebbles' "Girlfriend" and the Whispers' "Rock Steady," the two departed the Deele to form their own label LaFace in 1989. The hits kept on coming with Bobby Brown's "Every Little Step" and Sheena Easton's "The Lover in Me," but Babyface's best years were yet to come.
The producer had released a solo album in 1986, but the LP Lovers failed to make a dent on the charts. Now that he was building a track record, his next effort was much more successful: 1989's Tender Lover. The album proved he had a knack for writing catchy hooks, but his voice lent an old-school soul sheen to the tracks. The slow jam "Whip Appeal" scored on the charts, but the new jack swing-kissed "It's No Crime" topped the R&B charts and peaked at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100.
Fans generally think of Babyface as the smooth balladeer, crooning tender lyrics on such cuts as "When Can I See You Again" or "Every Time I Close My Eyes." However, "It's No Crime" demonstrates Babyface's multifaceted talents. An industrial beat slams throughout the track, with Deele member Kevin "Kayo" Roberson contributing synth and bass guitar parts. Despite the harder-sounding backing, Babyface's voice is never relegated to the background. His smooth voice cries out "If I'm guilty of love / Let me do my time" over the pounding beat, even dropping his vocals into a much lower range on the lines "Everybody needs love / And baby (so do I)." "It's No Crime" virtually orders people onto the dance floor, yet it seamlessly combines club beats with Babyface's throwback soul balladeer voice (he even works in his trademark "whoo!" at various points).
Today, the track does not receive as much airplay as his other hits, perhaps because it departs from his usual soft-sheen sound. Yet it foreshadows the classic soul/modern R&B hybrid Babyface would perfect in the 1990s. The next DeepSoul columns will explore his production catalog, and show how his deft touch reinvented pop and R&B in that decade.