Without Bell Biv DeVoe, there’s a chance that the early ‘90s musical phenomenon known as new jack swing might have never came to be. It started when the ‘80s R&B act New Edition broke up in 1990 due to pursuing side projects and Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe formed a trio. Their 1990 debut album Poison went platinum with the title track becoming one of the biggest dance singles of the decade. Over the past few decades, they’ve toured steadily along with releasing three more albums. People will get the opportunity to see what they can do live when Bell Biv DeVoe takes the stage at the event center within the Twin River Casino Hotel in Lincoln on January 17.
Bell and I had a chat ahead of the show about him coming from a big family, forming the group’s signature sound, changes in the music business and what 2020 has in store.
Rob Duguay: You were born into a family of 11 kids, so what was your childhood like having so many siblings?
Ricky Bell: I was spoiled by my mom. My older brothers and sisters pretty much protected me and took care of me. It was a very crowded household, I grew up in Boston in the projects. My life was pretty simple though, we lived in a place called Orchard Park that fell right in the middle between the projects and the parks. We played basketball, we played in the playground and in the wintertime we played in the snow.
I went to school in South Boston, I went to Madison High School when New Edition was starting. It was pretty simple, I went to school, hung out with friends, did some singin’ and dancin’ and I played a lot of basketball with my brothers. We did our regular thing. We played together, we fought together, we cried together and we prayed together.
RD: What would you say was your main inspiration for you wanting to be a singer growing up?
RB: My mom had this very huge record player in the living room at my house and she had all these records from a lot of Motown artists like The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. Just from listening to these singers through this music, I would walk around the house singing along to myself and to my mom. Then I started thinking to myself that I sounded pretty good and it happened my friends Michael Bivins and Bobby Brown and I started hanging out a lot through our older brothers. That’s how we met. We also played in the same 13 and under basketball league.
We shared a lot of the same interests musically and what really did it for us was this talent show on a Sunday afternoon at a bar that had a stage and a dance floor. Groups would get up in that area to perform and we watched one of these groups called The Transitions that had these five guys doing a Temptations routine. The entire room started screaming and we realized that was what we had to do. We chased down the manager of the group and he took us under his wing.
RD: That’s a great story about how you found your passion. Bell Biv Devoe are viewed as pioneers of the new jack swing style, which combines hip-hop, funk, soul and pop music. When you, Michael and Ronnie first started writing songs as a trio, what influenced this kind of music?
RB: When we were with New Edition, we were an R&B group so we loved that kind of music. That was our bread & butter, that was what we were brought up on. We were also listening to a lot of hip hop. When we were on tour and we’d go out to the clubs, that’s what they played. It was Big Daddy Kane, it was Run DMC, it was Public Enemy.
Those rap groups were what we bumped in our cars and it was the music that we actually danced to. The conversation when we got together was about how could we make music like that, which we even talked about when we were in New Edition. One some of the New Edition albums, we would always have a rap on the biggest songs but with some soul so it wasn’t strictly hip hop music. When the time came for Bell Biv DeVoe, nobody knew what we were going to do or what to expect from us anyway so this was our chance to work with producers like Hank Shocklee from the Bomb Squad.
Our message was that we wanted rap beats and we would put the melodies on top of them. We have to dance but we also want to sound good in the cars. We wanted that foundation and we found exactly what we were looking for. It was us loving hip hop music while singing R&B and figuring out how to mesh the two. We wanted to have that melody while still being able to dance.
RD: It’s quite the fusion and you described it to a t with how there’s hip hop beats and R&B melodies. As an artist who started out in the ‘80s, what would you say is the biggest difference for you either with performing live or with making music these days versus back when you began your career?
RB: Recording in the studio back then, the technology was not what it is today. We would go into the studio with these musicians playing live instruments and it was a longer process just from dealing with a twenty track studio. If you wanted to do more recordings, you would have to go to another studio or keep the tapes together and do a lot of manual editing. It was a really long process with that part of it and I also think creatively to come up with a song with the right subject matter and the right tempo was different.
Our thought process was all about how the song would translate live, not just on radio. The way music is marketed today doesn’t depend on performing on TV shows like Soul Train, it’s all social media now. The attitude with labels and artists now is to not spend a lot of time or energy in the studio and it’s a longer process to make that kind of music if you want do it like how we did it back then. These days, it’s an easier process to get on a machine and kick out a song.
RD: Can we expect anything new from Bell Biv DeVoe this year?
RB: The plan right now is that 2020 is the 30th anniversary of the release of Poison so we’re going to have it remastered and re-released with one new song. Eventually we’ll record a whole new studio album, then we’ll have a live album, a docuseries and a film in the works. We have a lot of things going on.