When “Candy Girl” hit the airwaves in 1983, it catapulted a young boy band from Beantown to overnight fame. Ralph, Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike, and later Johnny, went on to have multiplatinum albums and sold-out concerts (raise your hand if you still rock an N.E. Heart Break tour T-shirt). By 1990 N.E. had released five albums with innumerable hits such as "Mr. Telephone Man", "Cool It Now" and "Can You Stand The Rain?" Their success didn’t come without a fair share of drama—lost revenues and Bobby Brown leaving to go solo. But they’ve held strong for 25 years, continuing to tour and release albums, including 2004’s One Love. Michael Bivins talks exclusively to essence.com about N.E.’s staying power and influence.
Essence.com: You guys catapulted to overnight success. How did you deal with the fame as young Black men?
Michael Bivins: To be honest, we weren’t into it like you would think. One day when we were rehearsing "Candy Girl" at Ronnie’s house our manager ran into the room to let us know that our record hit number one. It topped Michael Jackson’s "Billie Jean" but we just stopped and shrugged our shoulders. We were too busy worrying about a dance step and we were ready to go home. We didn’t realize the significance of a Billboard Hot 100 chart. We didn’t know that was a moment to stop practicing, buy a pizza and celebrate. We were still kids. We were into our girlfriends, riding our mopeds and being in that world.
Essence.com: Why do you think New Edition has stayed together for all these years?
M.B.: We love what we do. I also think that pursuing our solo acts helped us to last so long. We were getting older and people were growing into their own personalities. There were moments when we needed space from each other. But the one thing we realized was that our fans loved to see us perform. When we didn’t want to make an album, we always made sure we stayed in front of our audience and connected with them no matter what. We didn’t just rely on our music; it was about staying in touch with our audience.
Essence.com: At what point did you guys decide to move away from NE to develop your own projects?
M.B.: We were not all on the same page. We started disagreeing about our direction and personalities started coming out. There was some selfishness but at that point we had already been through so much. The only thing we could do was to deal with it. Ronnie, Ricky and I never thought to form B.B.D. Someone else had to tell us to be a group. We were actually waiting for other members to come back around. Honestly, B.B.D. [Ronnie and Ricky] was the best thing that happened to me.
Essence.com: How would you describe your friendship with the other guys now?
M.B.: When you’re not real brothers you have a lot of respect for each other, especially since we’ve been together for 25 years. We grew to understand that everyone has a different personality and we learned to deal with each other. It was about accepting a Bobby Brown personality or a Ralph personality and vice versa; the guys learned how to deal with who I am. But we stuck with each other or else we wouldn’t have this 25th anniversary.
Essence.com: Now, you’ve been on both sides of the track as an artist and music executive. If you knew then what you know now, would you have done things differently with NE?
M.B.: I think NE’s problem is that we didn’t make music all the time. We performed the music but we didn’t live it as a group, which is why our albums are several years apart. If we had the Jay Z attitude then we would’ve had a music catalogue like R. Kelly, he’s got tons of records.The only thing I would’ve changed is not to let the gap between recording albums be so spaced out . You should never go more than a year because the music industry is always changing.
Essence.com: How do you feel about the current landscape of R&B music?
M.B.: There’s no more sounds like you knew when you heard Isley Brothers or Michael Jackson. Now, it’s a singles game, but artists that sell a lot of singles don’t necessarily sell a lot of albums. Back in the day, you could put out three or four singles and a record label would give you an opportunity or hang in there with you to make your album happen. Today, it’s hard to fall in love with an artist because if their first single doesn’t work, you may not hear from them again.
Essence.com: Are there any young artists that excites or inspires you?
M.B.: I’m still waiting for who, ten years from now, we can say is still around because they had a style that wasn’t just for the season. But I like to listen to that kid Trey Songz. I like what he’s doing in terms of his record, but I’m curious to see where he’s gonna go with it.
Essence.com: Let’s take it way back. What’s your favorite back-in-the-day NE moment?
M.B.: We were invited to Michael Jackson’s house, but we really couldn’t wait to see LaToya.
Essence.com: Wait a minute. LaToya or Janet?
M.B.: LaToya. She always had the cute Black girl butt (laughs). Of course, we were happy to visit Mike’s but we were really wishing to see LaToya (laughs). When we saw her come down the steps, we lost it. We really didn’t kick it with Mike, we hung out more with LaToya and their mom. It was heavy because everybody dreamed of meeting Michael back in the Thriller days, plus it was our first chance to see the guy behind the mystique. We learned so much from him that day in terms of how to perform and hold on to memorabilia because they kept pictures of everything from album covers to magazine covers. That one little moment felt like we were at the music industry museum.
Essence.com: So can you create your own NE museum?
M.B.: Yeah, yeah, I feel like I got one up on him (laughs). I personally have pics that nobody has of the group. They have to call me for certain stuff. For example, I’ve got our first and second tours on VHS. I tell the guys that I’m going to sell them when I get older (laughs).
Essence.com: You guys are always on tour. Any tour plans to celebrate 25 yrs?
M.B.: Right now, we took the year off because we’re putting together the 25th anniversary album.
Essence.com: Do tell. What can we expect?
M.B.: We’re working on the 25th Anniversary album, which could possibly be released fourth quarter of this year. We plan to release a TV special right before the album comes out. Then there’s the life story movie through BET films with Vantage/Paramount Pictures to be released in 2009. Lastly, we’ll have the 25th Anniversary tour around the time of the movie release.
Essence.com: Wow—you have a lot going on. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers?
M.B.: Yeah, I just want to say that coming out of the projects and doing routines to other people’s records and throwing talent shows, I never thought it would have lasted this long. I mean, to the point where everyone knows your name and we’re all still living, God willing. I feel like we’re a special group. We were able to surpass and make it through different generations and all the changes in the music business.
Essence.com: What do you look forward to with NE?
M.B.: I’m waiting to eat popcorn while the credits go up to start our [life story] movie. I think at that point, I’ll start my retirement party.