If you wondered when R&B singers became rappers and rappers became R&B singers, you just need to take a trip back to the ’90s, when Jodeci first took the hip-hop aesthetic and seamlessly blended it with baby-making jams. Before them, rhythm and blues balladeers were known for their impeccable suits and precise dance moves—from the Temptations of old to New Edition to Boyz II Men of then.
Jodeci proudly bucked all that and then some until it almost killed them. Literally.
“There was the Jodeci controversies, the women, the clothes, the drinking, the fighting, the rumors,” said Dalvin, aka Mr. Dalvin, of Jodeci to The Root. “And beyond all that, we were still going to make good music.”
Good music defined Jodeci, and they had it in abundance in the ’90s, from their first hit, “Forever My Lady,” to “Love U 4 Life,” from their third release, The Show, the After Party, the Hotel. And while a film from VH1, based on their life, is in the works, Dalvin, among others, took time out to talk to The Root about the significance of Jodeci, their landmark second album and the rock ’n’ roll madness that plagued R&B’s premier rebel band.
In late 1989 Jodeci was performing songs, some from their soon-to-be-released debut album, Forever My Lady, in New York City at a brand-new club in downtown Manhattan called the Building.
Future Bad Boy Sean Combs, then called “Puffy,” was working at Uptown Records at the time, but he was a promoter and sometime deejay, too. Jodeci was one of his first groups at the label, a quartet of sons of preachers who’d previously been singing gospel and who hailed from Charlotte, N.C.
Before their performance at the Building, Jodeci was rehearsing in the bathroom mirror while men peed in the nearby urinals.
“We always stayed the same,” Dalvin remembered. “We would get together onstage or in the corner to make sure our harmonies were tight. I think that’s what made the music special. We weren’t doing it for the money. That’s what we knew how to do.”
They had come to New York from Charlotte on a bus, broke, and stayed in the lobby of Uptown Records for two days hoping to get a record deal.
“They were like, we’re not going back until somebody signs us,” remembered then-creative and marketing director Brett Wright as she spoke to The Root.
Puffy’s boss, Andre Harrell, set up these country boys—DeVante Swing, Mr. Dalvin, JoJo and Ki-C—in his old apartment in the Soundview projects in the city’s Bronx borough. All four of them were living in a one-bedroom apartment, with their musical equipment in one room, and fighting to sleep on the one couch every night.
“That was too real,” remembered Dalvin, who said they lived in the projects for close to a year. “You sleeping and you have a rat run past your foot. I wasn’t used to that. I came from middle-class America in North Carolina. I had just turned 16 at the time. We had to sleep on some nasty-ass shag carpet from the ’70s. We struggled for a long time. We didn’t give up.”
With their mix of slow, Southern-style love lyrics and New York-style hip-hop b-boy swag, they would become the everyman group that appealed to men while still having women lose their minds. They brought a hip-hop sound to R&B with synthesizer-heavy rhythm tracks on their debut, which would become a triple-platinum success.
On the Forever My Lady album cover, Jodeci rocked a New York b-boy conservative look with skull caps, hoodies, combat boots and jackets.
Initially, Dalvin said, the label wanted the group to dress up in suits—sequined suits like Guy. Ki-C and JoJo were OK with the idea because they had worn suits as gospel singers.
“When Puff came around, he and I started going to clubs, and we said that’s going to be our image,” Dalvin said, referring to a more b-boy style. “Andre and them hated the idea. Puff had his ear to the streets, he knew what was hot, so we trusted him.”
“Puffy made Jodeci in his image,” Wrigiht remembered. “Uptown in general, we were image-makers, and the whole hybrid concept/idea, from new jack swing to hip-hop soul, was really something we took serious from a musical-genre standpoint. How do we build the image and lifestyle? We were deliberate about what these groups represented to the marketplace.”
Jodeci’s sophomore album, Diary of a Mad Band (with the help of singer-songwriter Al B. Sure as a producer), was a smash, debuting at No. 1 on the R&B Albums chart in its first week, and would eventually be certified multiplatinum.
At the time, Jodeci was in full rock-star mode. The title of the album was indicative of the drama that had ensued since the first album, including arrests, chronic lateness and Ki-C and Mary J. Blige’s rocky and abusive relationship.
“They were starting to piss people in the industry off,” Wright said. “They weren’t showing up to photo shoots, being disrespectful, late.”
“They went through so much drama and mischief between the first album and Diary of a Mad Band,” remembered Virgil Sims, who was vice president of marketing. “I think the title was part of their mischief.”
By their second album, they had moved from their Southern nice-ty (nice, but nasty) charm to explicit but still-tender jams. DeVante had declared them a black rock ’n’ roll band.
By this time, DeVante was producing for pop stars like Madonna and was in big demand. The production of Diary of a Mad Band happened in a studio in Rochester, N.Y., away from the distractions of the city. Precelebrity artists like Missy Elliott, Timbaland and Magoo, and Ginuwine stayed in a house in Rochester with them and spent their days in the studio.
The fame and the money from the success of their debut, however, was making them come unhinged—both the group and the people working with them. Strong personalities at the label clashed.
DeVante owned 21 cars. Deadlines were being missed. Money was getting lost. The album didn’t get delivered on time.
“Ki-C would be beating up Mary, DeVante would be getting drunk with JoJo. It was anarchy. It wasn’t organized confusion. It was just confusion,” said then-executive producer Tim Dawg.
In the midst of making the album, DeVante was robbed in his house.
“That was on my birthday,” Dalvin recalled. “We were recording ‘Alone’ when we got the call that my brother got robbed. We were heading to the studio. Somebody had tied him up and tried to kill him and rob his house. But we still kept going.”
“They had just come off a first hot album and tour, first little bit of money in their pocket, and they thought it was time to go rock ’n’ roll,” said Wright. “The album was a rebellion record at a time when their souls were aligned with rebellion.”
“I thought, ‘They are comfortable unwinding in public. Why not put that out there?’” Wright said about marketing their madness. “Let’s embrace it conceptually. Let’s get the popcorn ready.”
Wright’s epiphany was the beginning and also the beginning of the end.
The group embraced their bad-boy image, and audiences ate it up. But it wasn’t just an image; they were living the bad-boy lifestyle: Physical fights, arrests and drugs were par for the course. But it was the music that made audiences pause. Critics said that their sophomore album “transcended the formulaic histrionics that marred their debut.” Three singles—“Cry for You,” “Feenin’” and “What About Us”—would come to define the Jodeci sound and their image.
They were no longer broke kids on Puffy’s tight leash. The cover of the 1993 album illustrated their new rock-star status.
“We wanted not just for women to buy our records; we wanted to be the mouthpiece for men,” Dalvin said. “Hard-core niggas would play Jodeci and wouldn’t feel bad riding down the street pumping it. Girls would be like, they look hard, but they talking to us. That’s what we aimed for.”
Stylist and designer Sybil Pennix, who came on board for their second album, would be the one to embrace their inner rock ’n’ roll psyches.
“I was doing things people wouldn’t expect, like boots and shorts in the summer, leather in the desert,” Pennix said. “I pushed the fashion envelope. I was a rebel. Puffy didn’t want that. He thought it was stupid. I said, ‘No, that’s rock ’n’ roll.’”
For the Diary of a Mad Band cover, she dressed them in fishermen waders. On the cover, Dalvin and DeVante wore them with no shirts on, with brown 40 Below Timberland boots.
But the shoot that would help solidify their image as the bad boys of R&B almost didn’t happen. The shoot was set to begin at 8 a.m. in New York City’s Queens borough on an abandoned Metropolitan Transit Authority lot. Photographer Danny Hastings paid a security guard to make sure no one bothered them. This was the ’90s. No appointments. No permits from the city. Just [like] gangbusters. The location was dangerous and abandoned. “It had almost, like, an apocalyptic feel to it,” said Hastings. “I just loved that.”
Wright sent a limo for the group early in the morning. They didn’t show up until 2 p.m. Everybody was pissed.
“I ended up having to do the entire package in, like, 30 minutes to an hour,” said Hastings.
Still, the album was a huge success, but more than anything, Jodeci got love from the streets.
“There are street stars and people who sell a lot of albums,” Pennix said. “Street stars are actually bigger than people who sell a lot of albums. If you ask people across the world who was the biggest R&B group of that time period, they will remember and say Jodeci.”