New Edition holds a unique place in the canon of popular music. The group is a blueprint for virtually every boy band that has emerged since 1985, but N.E. is also the template from which more mature R&B groups of the 1990s built their image and sound. They are a group who aspired to be the Jackson 5 of the ’80s and wound up becoming Generation X’s Temptations; a collection of distinctive voices and personalities that was almost as known for drama and conflict as they were hit singles and precise dance steps. The story of Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Mike Bivins, Ronnie Devoe, Ricky Bell, and Bobby Brown is one rife with the standard showbiz highs and lows—and with BET’s highly-anticipated mini-series The New Edition Story, the general public will get to see how that bit of music history played out.
For fans of ’80s and ’90s R&B, New Edition’s history is well-known: Five childhood friends from Boston became stars on the backs of bubblegum hits like “Candy Girl” and “Cool It Now,” before Bobby Brown, the group’s most volatile member, is voted out of the group. Brown goes on to solo stardom, as N.E. recruits a new member, Johnny Gill. With Gill, New Edition shed their teenybopper image and become the premier group in R&B before splintering off with various individual incarnations finding solo success.
“I don’t think there’s a story like it, I really don’t,” Jimmy Jam tells The Daily Beast. Jam & Terry Lewis produced a number of hits for New Edition (and for Tresvant’s and Gill’s solo work). “I think there’s been a lot of groups over the years, and we’ve seen a lot of enjoyable movies from the Jacksons to the Temptations and all of those that are good. But it’s important for fans to get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes, and all the hard work and all the turmoil that actually goes into the success. I mean it’s easy to go to a concert, see them on stage for an hour, and think that everything is great. But there’s personal tragedies that happen and all kinds of different things that happen in people’s lives.”
The New Edition Story emphasizes the roles that others played in turning New Edition into a success. It also depicts just how the group was exploited by the music industry. La-La Anthony plays Ronnie Devoe’s mother, Flo, and she points out the hard lessons that these kids and their parents had to learn over the years.
“I actually got the chance to talk to Flo Devoe and we had a chat before I started the role,” Anthony explains. “[The mothers] were such an integral part at the beginning of [New Edition’s] career. You have these parents whose kids are so talented, but how are they supposed to know the ins and outs of the music business? The movie just goes to show how things happen when people realize how much they don’t know and [labels] try to get things by you. These moms were just trying to do the best for the kids without really knowing the business at all.”
Figuring it out often came at a price for New Edition—most obviously for Bobby Brown. Brown’s notoriety can sometimes overshadow New Edition’s legacy in terms of what the mainstream media chooses to dwell on. Brown’s been known as “The Bad Boy of R&B” for good reason; his dismissal from N.E. as a teenager, his penchant for raunchy performances as a solo superstar, an infamous marriage to the late Whitney Houston, and numerous run-ins with the law cemented that reputation long ago. But as a part of the New Edition family tree, Brown is only one facet of what makes the group’s story so fascinating.
As teen stars, New Edition weren’t ever embraced by mainstream audiences on the level that the Jackson 5 had been a generation earlier, or the way New Kids On the Block—their Maurice Starr-mentored white counterparts—would be within a few years of N.E.’s emergence. But for a generation of black kids growing up on music videos and Eddie Murphy movies, New Edition were the definitive teen idols of their era. A (usually) five-man group modeled in the song-and-dance mold of the Temptations, there wasn’t a lot like New Edition in popular music in the mid-’80s. It was an era of hair metal bands, the King of Pop, and on-the-rise hip-hop acts; R&B and pop were dominated by solo superstars. Collectives like The Jets and DeBarge enjoyed success, but they weren’t the kind of tight, uniformed unit that would become New Edition’s trademark.
“I remember just being like ‘Damn, these dudes are like me,’” recalls Wood Harris, who stars as N.E. choreographer/manager/mentor Brooke Payne in the mini-series. “You could tell that they were regular, in a sense. Not in the talent department—but these were the kids at the park. These were regular guys. And to see them in front of the whole world was such a big deal at that time.”
That New Edition was doing this in the MTV era proved to be a double-edged sword. They became darlings of the music video set, but the marginalizing of black R&B artists in the 1980s meant that N.E. didn’t reach mainstream audiences in quite the same way that the Jackson 5 had in the early AM-driven 1970s. They may not have landed on the cover of Rolling Stone or play Saturday Night Live (at least not until their 1996 reunion), but they were a defining act of their era. And one could argue that their greatest musical impact happened after their squeaky-clean days of churning out kid-friendly pop tunes.
New jack swing would become dominant in urban music largely on the backs of New Edition and their individual projects. Teddy Riley may have fired the first shots with Keith Sweat and Guy, but it was Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s work on the Heart Break album, and L.A. & Babyface’s contemporaneous production on Brown’s blockbuster Don’t Be Cruel that cemented the hip-hop-drenched style of R&B as the sound in popular music. And in 1990, when Johnny Gill, Ralph Tresvant, and Bell Biv Devoe all released multiplatinum albums that spawned a number of radio-dominating singles, it was clear that new jack swing had taken over popular R&B. From Gill’s “Rub You the Right Way” to BBD’s infectious “Poison,” R&B suddenly had become musically informed by hip-hop beats, and both Jam & Lewis and L.A. & Babyface had brought that sound to the fore via N.E.-related projects.
As they made the transition from carefree kids to seasoned professionals, the one constant in their lives and careers remained Brooke Payne, the legendary choreographer who discovered these kids from the Orchard Park projects and groomed them as performers. Payne, (who is also Ronnie Devoe’s uncle), was a stabilizing figure throughout New Edition’s battles with labels, managers, and each other—something that Harris says makes him an indelible figure in their story.
“I was shocked at how much he had to do with New Edition becoming New Edition.
He was an integral part of their lives,” says Harris. “They really, really love that dude. He’s like a father figure—or a big brother that raised you. He had so much to do with it.”
Harris came away with a newfound respect for Payne—but as an N.E. fan, he was eager to take on the role from day one.
“I got a phone call from Robi Reed, who I’ve known for a long time,” he says. “And the director [Chris Robinson] and I was finishing up another film and I jumped right into New Edition. I started doing the necessary research to learn who Brooke Payne was. I got the chance to get with… all of them and was with Brooke the whole time. I used him for a reference to him.”
Beyond the personal relationships at the core of both the mini-series and the group’s real-life history, the scope of New Edition’s significance can’t be underestimated. Ralph Tresvant became a standard-bearer for the precocious teen frontman, Bobby Brown’s late ’80s/early ’90s run was tremendous—and you can see a lineage from Usher to Chris Brown. Johnny Gill is one of the foremost quiet storm balladeers of his generation, and Bell Biv Devoe helped merge hip-hop attitude and image into an R&B context—something that would come to define urban music in the 1990s and beyond. Mike Bivins styled himself as an impresario of sorts, guiding the careers of multiplatinum acts like Another Bad Creation, 702, and most notably, Boyz II Men early in their careers, building a brand for himself and his Biv 10 label that foreshadowed what a lot of hip-hop artists would attempt to do over the years.
“The thing that sets New Edition apart to me is just how they grew up together in Boston and had to overcome a lot of things early in their careers,” says Jam. “And then with all of them going solo pretty much and then coming back together—that’s just something you don’t see in R&B for some reason. So it’s just an encouraging story from that level, that they were able to stay the course and still come back together and still be friends. I just think that with all of the twists and turns, there isn’t another story like it.”
“It’s surreal in a sense that it doesn’t seem that long ago,” says Harris. “And time flies.”
Like the Jacksons and the Temptations, New Edition is now getting the TV mini-series treatment. For people of a certain age, it’s affirmation for a group that was the soundtrack to their youth—and a testament to the ongoing legacy of New Edition. You can see N.E. in everything from The Boys to Hi-Five to 112 to Jagged Edge to *NSync to B2K to One Direction. Their legacy is already cemented. But it’s great for the world to see their story. And for Jimmy Jam, this was the best way for that story to be told—in chapters.
“People have asked me, why wasn’t it just a movie?” he says. “And the thing is you can’t just fit it into two hours. The mini-series format is perfect for this. Because there’s three chapters, the early New Edition with Maurice Starr and those records, and then the mid point when they come to L.A. and sign the MCA deal, and then the third part where they all do solo records then come back together. So the mini-series is perfect to tell their story correctly with enough detail. I think it’s really well done and I’m glad to have been apart of it.”