Bell Biv DeVoe embrace legacy and longevity with their return to the spotlight

Images and Interview by DeWayne Rogers; Grooming by Alexis Fagan

The boys are back. That’s been the buzz for well over a year following the long overdue announcement that the original bad boys of R&B, New Edition, were finally having their story told in the form of a three-part miniseries set to air on BET. As anticipation continued to grow, members of the group began to step forward to tell their personal stories and recollections of the group’s at times tumultuous history ahead of the Jan. 24 premiere.

 Enter Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ron DeVoe.

As bedrocks of New Edition, as well as legends in their own right following the formation of Bell Biv DeVoe, the trio has been circling the globe at a breakneck pace to promote the film as well as the release of their first album in over 15 years, Three Stripes. Their dedication to the group, and to the continuity of the brotherhood forged long ago in the Boston projects has never been questioned. And now, with the spotlight firmly fixed on them, they will finally get their due.

January is a big month for you guys. Before we get into the movie, tell us about your new album, Three Stripes.  When will it drop?
Ron DeVoe: Jan. 27, as a matter of fact. The first Bell Biv DeVoe album in a while. We’ve been performing and doing those classics since 2001, and we’ve always kind of focused there. We were bred to be entertainers first, so that’s our mentality. Fast-forward to now, and people have always been asking us, “When will y’all drop a new joint?” And it drops the day after the movie, at midnight on the 27th of January.

So, Mike, why Three Stripes? What does that name mean?

Michael Bivins: Back home in Boston, Adidas is like a heavy street product for footwear and sweatsuits. We just hold on to that product so strongly that we thought coming back out there’s three of us, and a lot of the groups that we look up to are three-men, three-women groups: SWV, Naughty by Nature, Next, Boyz II Men now (hopefully, we get them back to 4, God willing). But there’s something about that “three.” We didn’t want to overthink the title. We’re not overthinking the music.

RD: And just the history of Bell Biv DeVoe. When you look at it from a military perspective, they gotta earn their stripes. When you go from a private to a general, you have to earn your stripes, and we feel like each one of us, as far as BBD history and even before then with New Edition, that’s 30-plus years. We earned our stripes.

Like you said, you guys are wired to be entertainers. So how were you able to switch gears to focus and put forth that energy to release an album?
Rickey Bell: Well it’s been 15 years since we put out anything, but we kinda stay in the studio. As we come across songs that we like, we’ll go in and cut it just to see how it feels. We might even throw something out just to test the waters. So we haven’t been too far away from the recording process for 15 years. We’re always in performance or entertainment roles, constantly on the road doing shows. So whenever we come across something, and we can get creative and get in the lab, we’ll go out and try it. It just so happens that “Run,” which was produced by Erik Sermon, was recorded about a year ago. Just now, we were able to get the credits and some other things cleared and we put it out a couple of months ago. After that took off, we just decided to stay in the lab and finish the whole project.

MB: There is never a moment when we’re not thinking about how to make Bell Biv DeVoe a better group. So even if we’re home from the road, and we’re tired, we’re still thinking about ideas, and kicking things around to each other. So it finally felt right. … We knew that this was the right time to make this happen. Everything just fell in place; we didn’t have to force anything. Even with the new fans who are just coming around to us, who may have known the song “Poison” but didn’t know the faces … they just connected with us since we’ve been on TV a lot lately just rocking it. So, it’s a good feeling, and we’re going to keep riding with it. It’s a blessing for us.

It’s interesting to look at the progression of BBD, and how the formation of this group was almost an afterthought due to the other members of New Edition going solo. Did it place a chip on your shoulder in the beginning, just knowing that no one really expected you to blow up in the way that you did?
RB: When we first got started in the creative process with Bell Biv DeVoe, on the one hand, it was really exciting for us to do something that we had full control over and could do exactly what we wanted to do. We weren’t worried about having to wear suits or trying to live up to the New Edition image. With Bell Biv DeVoe, it was just really loose. We could make the type of music that we listened to when were driving around, or that we would bump with our friends. And even though we were the underdogs, we were OK with that. I remember when we set out, we had a goal, and that was to just go gold. And we did that in about a week, so it blew our minds. When it comes to this group, we believe it when they say that God will bless you beyond what you can even imagine, because it keeps happening for us. There is no way that we could have planned, and said, “OK guys, when we record ‘Poison,’ in 25 years when people hear it, they are still going to be jumping up and down getting excited about it.” There’s no way that we could have planned any of this. We’ve experienced it all, both the highs and the lows, so we have enough humility to just accept it all, and just be grateful that we are still here, and still able to create something that people are interested in.

I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of groups, and what I’ve noticed about the three of you that feels different is that you really seem to genuinely like each other and have a sincere brotherhood. Describe the bond between the three of you.
RD: Well, it’s definitely not a forced thing. The bond between us probably goes back even before me, to Rick and Mike back in Orchard Park projects. And I guess you can add Bob [Bobby Brown] in that, too. That dude could very well be sitting right here and it would feel just as organic. So it goes back a long way. But when I was introduced to it in 1980, it just felt like — probably because we were more of the background in New Edition — we just gravitated to each other. Like Rick said, sometimes you can’t explain why things play out the way they do. It’s almost like it’s a divine situation, and you’re just walking the walk, not knowing back in 1983 that the reason we were clicking would play itself out in us forming this group. But I do think that a big part in us banding together was that we were always the guys that were the farthest from the light. It would be Ralph [Tresvant] and Bob up front, and Rick would jump in every now and then, but it was mostly us playing the background. And that bond was just steadily growing.

MB: I just think that we all know our roles. I think that sometimes when you’re on a team, there are people who want to do things that they aren’t really great at because they think that is where the light is at. Like, we know when we walk through the door that Rick is going to carry us. And when he gets finished carrying us, then me and Ron are going to come through and do what we do. We allow it to be an equal partnership between us, because it keeps your spirits up, and makes you feel needed. And like Ron said, we formed this, and didn’t even know that we were creating a group. This is probably one of the most cohesive units out there, and a lot of other groups ask us the same thing.

It’s been a long time coming, but you are getting your respect due for three nights with “The New Edition Story.” How does that feel? 
RD: Man, three nights is big. I think it’s just a testament to the history, and to the fans — the NE-for-lifers who have just continued to stick with us since 1983, and who have propped us up and weathered the storms. We have a joint called “Can You Stand the Rain” that is significant because it really tells our whole stories. We’ve been able to survive all of the ups and downs, and now, after over 34 years in the game, we are getting the chance to tell our story. All of the turmoil that we have gone through over the last 10 years to make this project come to life has finally paid off, because, man, getting those six signatures [Johnny Gill was also a New Edition member] to sign on the dotted line wasn’t easy. But now it just feels good to sit back and watch the footage and see how people react to it. We had a premiere in New York and hearing the laughter and feeling the pain was just surreal. And for it to be three nights just makes it that much more special.

RB: I still haven’t found the right words to describe the excitement, the anxiety, and the anticipation of it, because you want to brag about having a movie done about you, but to be honest, we’re just really humbled by all of this. God blessed us at the right time to have this happen when we were at a place in our lives where we felt OK with opening up and sharing with you in a healing way.

 

Despite all of the drama and turmoil that consistently embroiled super group New Edition, the fellas always seemed to find their way back to one another. Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ron DeVoe explain exactly why that was.

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