Babyface: Timeless Classic

Few names are as synonymous with acoustic ballads as Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. The veteran singer/songwriter/producer has come a long way from his funky days with The Deele, the group he founded with Antonio “L.A.” Reid. Over two decades later, the two men still work together – although L.A. is now the music mogul in charge of business at Island/Def Jam, and Babyface has just a few dozen Top 10 hits under his belt.The new album from Babyface, Playlist, is a collection of rock ballads he hand-picked as a way to pay homage to the artists who continue to influence popular music. We took some quality time with the hit master to reflect on his career for better and worse, and Babyface made it very clear how important musicianship is to him. Who was his biggest discovery, what does he wish he could do over, what does he feel is lacking in today’s music scene… and how does he really feel about his ex-wife dating Eddie Murphy? Read on as Babyface gets personal with us! Alternatives: On your new album Playlist you went back and did rock songs. What was your motivation for going for rock as opposed to any other genre to do a remake of a song?Babyface: Mainly because that’s what I grew up listening to. That was the other side opposed to listening to R&B, that was what made me pick up the acoustic guitar in general. That’s where I picked up my chords listening to those kinds of things from The Beatles. That was the kind of thing that helped me as a songwriter in playing and putting song structures together. It’s not a big stretch for me because that was a big piece of my growing up, especially my junior high years and some of my high school. As I got out of high school I was probably picking up more of that funk and R&B that I started to do. When I got in my first funk band, it was a group called Manchild and my nickname was Waterfall, because they said all I wanted was to sit there, play the guitar and play waterfall music. Actually that was a negative, they were like, “You can’t be funky, all you do is waterfall music.” I was a musician so I had to learn. I picked it up, but that was my natural thing. These are not that foreign to me, it’s actually a good piece of who I was. AHHA: Characteristically you’ve been known across the board for your ballads and acoustic performances, but a lot of your biggest songs (you’ve written) have been funk and dance songs.Babyface: Clearly the whole Bobby Brown stuff, that’s me being a musician and learning how to play more than one thing. It’s like being able to do a soft song, going from a Madonna to a Bobby Brown to a Fallout Boy, it’s about being a musician. But the things you like to do and personally love to do, those are always personal. This was kind of a personal record of those things that inspired me, songs that I think were just beautiful songs. AHHA: With all of the music that you were producing, writing, and performing during that time, you still were able to really build on the business end, which at that time was unprecedented in Hip-Hop music. In retrospect, are there things that you wish you would have done differently or are there things that you’re more proud of business-wise?Babyface: I wish we were as hard as Puffy was. [laughs] Puffy was a really good businessman. If we were as hard as him we would have did a lot better. We were musicians, we were businessmen ultimately because we had something to sell. We were fortunate enough to find the right artists that were talented and stars, and we helped put their music together and helped them become major acts. That was our talent and blessing, and when you have that [then] business kind of comes with it. What you do with that and how good that business becomes makes the difference with what kind of businessman you are. We probably could have been better businessmen, we were fortunate with how we ultimately did it. But you could have taken what L.A. [Reid] and I had created [with LaFace Records] and put it in Puffy’s hands, Puffy would be Oprah right now. [laughs]AHHA: How does it make you feel to watch L.A. so completely together in spectrum with the business where as you stayed more with the songwriting?Babyface: That was where L.A. was at; L.A. was always a manager. Even when The Deele started, he ran that group. He put things together; L.A. pushed the whole start the record company thing. I was always his friend, he’s always managed artists. That’s really what he’s doing now, running a record company and managing artists. He just hit the top of what you do. He’s really where he’s supposed to be and I’m where I’m supposed to be. AHHA: We heard that you were working with Ashanti on her [upcoming] album…Babyface: I just did one song on that album.AHHA: What type of differences do you see between [new R&B stars] and artists that you were working with 15-20 years ago in the same genre?Babyface: It’s not a lot of differences, Ashanti basically worked with me because she wanted me to do some cool vocals with her. She delivered big time. I always thought Ashanti was a really good singer, and I think it was a question of just really getting with a vocal producer, somebody who loves vocals and wants to put their time into it. I did have a chance to work with Keyshia Cole, I did one song with her. I’m not sure whether it’s gonna hit [this upcoming album] or not because we’re still talking about finishing some other things, and she’s a great artist. She’s got a great voice, great pain in her voice. There are artists that are young right now that have room to grow into really important artists. The key today is them having a chance to be in the game that long so that they can grow. The appetite of the audience is really short right now, you could be here for a little bit and then you’re done. So that makes it difficult, so when you see an artist like Mary J who has lasted through the years - she’s queen.AHHA: Do you see a lack of musicianship? Obviously you have certain artists who are much better at the actual performance part or do actual songwriting like Ne-Yo, but there’s not a lot of artists who are like you and have that flexibility. Do you feel that that’s lacking?Babyface: Yes definitely, and not just with the artists, just with musicians period trying to pick up the guitar, bass or drums. There’s hardly any Black bands - no one’s going inside the garage and practicing putting a band together and because of that the musicianship definitely dwindles. I think that everything goes in cycles, and I think little by little it’ll work its way back and there will be that interest there. The interesting thing is at least for rock you always have a guitar, a drummer, gotta have a bass player. So you got the kids inside the garage practicing their trade, where in urban [music] the guitar and drum beats always came with drum machines. So there wasn’t as much need for the drummer or the keyboard and guitar player. They’re just session musicians, there’s few situations where you see black kids trying to learn instruments and then you have the problem where they’re not even introduced to it at this point in school because the music programs have been kicked out. What if a kid wants to pick up saxophone? You just can’t pick that up and start playing it, you need some training. You should be able to get that through school, with most schools that’s not available anymore. I would have hated school without having that as part of it, that would have been a really dead school to me. We had music programs, we had plays to perform, we had musicals. If we didn’t have that schooling, I know I wouldn’t be here today doing that. AHHA: A lot of the live bands that really hit in the early ‘90s were so young at the time that the ones that are still doing their thing now are dubbed "old school." I think that it shies people away from picking up really good music because of that stigma.Babyface: Give it time though, I don’t think it’s quite old school yet. It’s kind of dated, once it becomes old school they’ll find it again and it’ll be like, “Damn, did you hear this? Listen to this old joint, this is bad.” They’ll recognize the genius in it and it’ll turn into something else. It’s not quite old school enough yet, when it becomes old school enough then it’ll be popular. AHHA: Has there been any person in your career that you really wanted to work with, that you still have not gotten a chance to work with?Babyface: Well there’s artists I wanna work with, but there isn’t anyone at the top of my list from the get go. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with those people from Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson to even all those that didn’t come out. I did a tribute to a Beatles record where I had the chance to work with Paul McCartney. So that was amazing there. I think for me, as I get older and start listening to other things that influence me - Paul Simon would be great. Artists that are forever cool because of their history, just to be able to put it down, write it in the books. I’ll never be able to get to the level that Quincy Jones was with all of the artists that he worked with. He worked with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis. You can’t beat that, can’t even come close to it. Quincy will always go down as the greatest producer of all time. It’s a long space and it will always be a long space between Quincy being the top and anyone else in my opinion because he not only worked with them but he did great projects and music with them. You have to think Quincy wrote that song “It’s My Party” [sings] “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” - Quincy’s been doing different things forever and producing different things. He wrote the theme for Austin Powers years ago. I don’t think we can ever show enough respect in just being in awe of Quincy Jones as a producer. When we’re talking producers people have the tendency to forget because they think of Back on the Block. No it’s so much more than that, besides the movies and TV shows he’s had the most amazing career. AHHA: On the production tip you’ve done television and you’ve acted. You were the bad guy character on Soul Food, which you played pretty well. Were you nervous about playing the character?Babyface: I was nervous as hell throughout the whole thing, I wish I could go back and do it again. If I were to do it again today I think I’d be much better. I was just so nervous and the whole time I was doing it I was like, “God, this isn’t good” and I was just like fighting myself. I totally overthought it - me as a person people don’t know this, but I’m a very silly person and an animated person when I wanna be. But you put me on the spot and I close down, I closed down on that set. AHHA: If you could go back and score any film, what would it be?Babyface: I’d kind of wanna do it with acoustic guitar and have it go through the whole thing. I would love to do Stand By Me. I think still for today I do wanna score a film where it’s just acoustic guitar throughout the whole film, something intimate. I loved the music of Brokeback Mountain, that was guitar.AHHA: I’m sure there’s people who may just be all out rude and ask you about the situation with your ex-wife and Eddie Murphy and all of these things. Is that anything that affects you personally and professionally where people just walk up to you and go “Oh, so what’s going on with Tracey?” Babyface: People can be rude, and they kind of say it to me like I should be upset about my ex. I’m totally supportive of Tracy and Eddie, and I wish them happiness. I’m cool with both of them and it’s fine, I’m not in that space at all. I think initially when they first hooked up and the pictures started coming out it was probably weird at that point, because the process is so public and in your face, just knowing that people are gonna come at you. Other than that I had no issue with it at all, we’re friends and we have been [business] partners for a while so we’re still family. We have kids together, and truthfully I think that once you’ve been married and you spent years together it’s family whether you like it or not. You can hate that person if you want to, but I think it’s so much simpler to love them and love their choices in life and be supportive of wherever they go in life and I hope she would do the same for me. AHHA: Was there any particular artist that you worked with when they were brand new and you said, “This person is gonna be huge one day,” and you called it?Babyface: I think that Toni Braxton was that call. Toni came and auditioned for us with her sisters. She sat down and played the piano for us and sang and I said, “You know what? Take her out of the group, she’s a star. She’s got pain in her voice, she’s got something that people can relate to.” L.A. definitely agreed and so we did the uncomfortable thing by asking them, “We’re interested but we’re only interested in one girl." It caused a couple problems initially, but they saw through it, Toni got her shot and the rest ultimately became history. Toni was very naïve when she came in but she grew up fast. Once you can hit Vegas and people come there everyday then you have arrived, and she has arrived ultimately to the point that she was trying to get to. This is where you have a name and it was important enough where she could pull people into Vegas and live a comfortable life that way, I think it’s great.AHHA: From this album what can we expect from you in the next five years? Do you have any particular goals?Babyface: I don’t know, I don’t have a roadmap. I never really quite make the roadmap, except the only thing that I kind of wanna do is to get out and start performing more and doing more road dates. I do enjoy going out, so I’ll do a lot more of that than I have in the past. I’ll make a record whenever I make the next record, I don’t know when that is right now but I guess it ends up always being a two to two and a half year span when I do records. I have a feeling L.A. is gonna be pushing me sooner this time [laughs] but that won’t matter. It’ll happen when it happens.