ROCK / Boyz 'n' the hoods: Sold up the river: Giles Smith joins Boyz II Men on the campaign trail

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The Independent Culture
'END OF the Road' by Boyz II Men is this week's Number One. It's a love song, sung in close harmony, in slow waltz time, with lots of exaggerated pleas and throaty lamentations in the verses. 'I can't let go,' says the chorus. 'It's unnatural. You belong to me. I belong to yooooooo.' It is one of those pop ballads that come along every two years or so, neatly tailored to appeal to hot and desperate teenagers while at the same time hooking their parents. Much like Boyz II Men themselves.

There are four of them, aged between 16 and 20, completely without - as far as one can ascertain - criminal records and alcohol or drug dependencies and altogether so clean they squeak. Whenever they appear in public, 'the Boyz' dress in identical clothing. Cute. Still, before you join the line of people waiting to interview them in a decorous suite at the Langan Hilton, one of the group's large army of assistants informs you, calmly but firmly, that the Boyz will not talk about the shooting.

The shooting happened on 10 May this year. While Boyz II Men were on tour as an opening act for MC Hammer, Khalil Roundtree, a member of the band's road crew, was shot dead in a Chicago hotel. Quadree El-Amin, also employed by Boyz II Men, was hit in the kneecap. (El-Amin still works for the band, as a tour and publicity co-ordinator.) The band has stated that the gunman was involved in an attempted theft. Others have suggested the incident was gang-related, connected to a feud between management companies. Either way, if you're four smiling balladeers who dress like black preppies, this is not the kind of thing you want hovering anywhere remotely in your vicinity.

Which explains the presence of Stefan and Paul. Stefan and Paul are the Boyz II Men minders. If Stefan is built like a fully padded American footballer, then Paul resembles the team photo. Somewhere several feet north of his chest sit a pair of shades and some razored hair. At Manchester airport last week, after the filming of a television appearance, Paul joined the band for the flight back to London in an 11- seater light aircraft. When he stepped off the tarmac and on to the stairway, the plane was seen to tilt.

Most pop acts appoint minders in the same way they hire stretch limos and expensive jewelry - for show. But since the shooting, Stefan and Paul are more than just accessories. In the hotel suite, El-Amin and a Motown representative are looking at floor-plans of a hotel in Japan (the band's next stop, after Spain on Friday) to ensure that the essential requirements can be met: rooms in a row, securely book- ended by Stefan's room at one end and Paul's at the other.

If you get past Paul and Stefan, you can meet Boyz II Men. Nathan Morris and Shawn Stockman do most of the talking. Michael McCary sings bass and does the Barry White- style voice-over on 'End of the Road'. Wayne 'Squirt' Morris, the youngest, seems at times bored to the point of physical numbness and is, in some respects, the one along for the ride. Imagine Ringo, without the sense of humour.

They are wearing brown shoes, white jeans, lumberjack shirts worn over green polo-necks, gold chains, plum coloured baseball caps - mall clothes, in other words: nothing too fancy. When they are all together, they take what you might call the playgroup approach to interviews - pushing each other off chairs, mimicking each other's voices, pulling a lot of faces. It is mildly engaging for about four minutes, pretty wearing thereafter. Still, it's a wonder they can muster any energy at all. They claim they have had just one day off since April.

They acknowledge a debt to the astonishing six-part gospel harmony group, Take 6, and debate with considerable humility the fact that they effectively outsell their mentors by a factor somewhere in the thousands. 'It's the fact that Take 6 are out-and-out gospel. It's hard to get that programmed on the radio.' They claim that their image and their vocal style - which have more in common with the Sixties than the present - were not conceived in reaction to the predominance of tuneless rap artists. 'We listen to a lot of rap. Maybe 60 percent of the tapes we have with us are rap.' They say they are especially proud that when the production team LA and Babyface recorded 'End of the Road' in the band's hometown, Philadelphia, it was the first time the producers had ever thought it worth dragging themselves away from their own studios in LA. 'They came to us, man.' They say they are in control of their music and their clothes. And after that, they get an assistant to send a taxi to the Hard Rock Cafe to bring back some Linda McCartney-recipe vegetarian burgers, grilled onions, no tomatoes, hold the mayo.

After lunch, the band assemble downstairs, before a boat trip on the Thames, which will be filmed by the children's television programme O-Zone. They are joined in the lobby by a man with slightly kinked greying hair and an expensive raincoat. This is Harry Anger from Los Angeles, Chief Operating Officer at Motown Records, and second only in the company hierarchy to Jheryl Busby, the Motown president. He greets all four of the band with one of those handshakes which folds over into a finger clasp and then develops into a beefy hug, topped off with some hearty back-patting.

Boyz II Men are big box-office where Anger comes from. Last week, 'End of the Road' was Number One in the Billboard chart for the 12th consecutive week, beating the record held by Elvis Presley's 'Don't Be Cruel' / 'Hound Dog'. Business has been slower over here. Their album Cooleyhighharmony was originally released in Britain 18 months ago. It flopped. The presence of Anger on the band's promotional tour suggests Motown are serious about preventing this happening again.

When the band leave the hotel, Paul goes first, eyeing the roof-tops in the manner perfected by presidential escorts. In fact, with the rain bucketing down, the single threat to the group's safety is presented by three girls on their lunch-hour. The girls get, from each member of the band, a 'hi'yadoin'?' and a charm-school smile. The bus has purple-tinted windows which make the weather look apocalyptic, and it pauses part way down Regent Street to pick up Stefan, sent out by the band to check the prices of computer games.

All the way to the river, a publicity man is on a portable phone to Top of the Pops, trying to bargain for more than three and a half minutes on this week's show. ('End of the Road' lasts 4'13', and if you cut it down, you trim off the a cappella ending, which is the band's favourite part.) He doesn't succeed and offers El-Amin, as consolation, the thought that Vanessa Paradis is only getting three minutes. Meanwhile, the band members stare absently at the traffic, occasionally fidgeting with their voices, singing snatches of tunes, trying out lines.

Inside the boat, the chirpy O-Zone presenter sits the band at the back and fires questions at them while the sights of London pass by behind misted-up windows. One image from the filming sticks. As the cameras roll and the interview proceeds, a woman from Motown records is perched on her toes with hands raised, like a puppeteer, motioning at the Boyz to push up the brims of their caps so the cameras can catch their eyes.

(Photograph omitted)