Sultan of swing

Motown was once the commercial sound of black America. Now Babyface is. Giles Smith joined the great man in Beverly Hills
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The Independent Online
Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, known as Kenny or Face to his friends, is simply Babyface on the labels of his records. At 37, he is a smooth- voiced pop singer with a handful of solo albums to his name. Tender Lover was released in 1989 and sold more than two and a half million copies in America; so did For the Cool in You, released in 1993, which included a Grammy Award-winning single and Top Five hit "When Will I See You". Not bad considering that being a pop star is something Kenneth Edmonds does in his spare time.

Edmonds's day-job, the thing he's really successful at, is record producing and songwriting. On the labels of other people's records, he appears as Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds or (at his most business-like) Kenneth B Edmonds. His credits are imposing. You can probably hum "End of the Road", the single by the close-harmony Motown group Boyz II Men, which spent 13weeks at number one in America in 1992, breaking a longevity record held until that point by Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel". Edmonds wrote the song and produced the single.

He produced and wrote most of the multi-platinum-selling debut album by Toni Braxton. He wrote and produced "Take a Bow" for Madonna. He has written for Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. Also Bobby Brown, Vanessa Williams and Mariah Carey. There is barely a melody-friendly, black R&B act that does not have at least some connection with Babyface, be it Tevin Campbell, El DeBarge, Karyn White or Johnny Gill. To date, he has been involved with no less than 98 Top 10 hits. Ridiculously, 20 million singles and 64 million albums have his name on them somewhere.

His most recent work is on the soundtrack album for the movie Waiting to Exhale: 15 new songs distributed among the cream of America's contemporary female vocalists (Franklin, Houston, Braxton, SWV, Brandy, For Real, among others). There are slow, achy laments (Shanna singing "How Can You Call Her Baby"), a couple of songs for sex (SWV's "All Night Long", TLC's "This is How it Works") and one tune so blithely catchy it's almost facetious (Brandy's "Sittin' up in my Room"). In all, it's the most thoroughly satisfying, tuneful and downright snappy black pop album since TLC's CrazySexyCool - which Edmonds also produced.

For five or six years now, his songs and his sound have been gradually thickening on the airwaves, to the extent thatEdmonds now rules American R&B to something like the degree that Motown did in the Sixties. If you had to link the texture of American pop in the mid-Nineties to just one dominant figure, here is your man.

Not surprisingly, then, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, who grew up in Indiana, now resides behind electric gates and an "Armed Response" security sign in Beverly Hills, California, in a nouveau Gothic pile. His wife, Tracey (who owns a record label called Yab Yum Records), is behind the ornate furnishings, Edmonds states early on. In the cavernous sitting room, there are gilded tables, huge oil paintings, elephantine polished sideboards and chaises-longues, with the emphasis on the longues.

Edmonds knows more about the house's small but lavishly equipped 48-track studio where a good deal of his writing goes on and where much of the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack was recorded. He's thinking of stripping it out, relocating the gear and turning the room over to writing. "You know how it is," Babyface says (though, actually, I do not). "I have an engineer and a technician and they drop by a lot. Sometimes you don't want to see these people sitting in your kitchen."

He is of medium height and slight. The music writer Nelson George described Edmonds's appearance on the cover photograph of Tender Lover as "pure West Coast gigolo". You could say the same about the shot on the front of For the Cool in You, which finds our hero with a collarless silky jacket over his naked torso, his hair cropped and waxed, giving a sensitive-boy downward look. Out of make-up and lights, though, he seems altogether regular, a weekending professional in jeans, green Polo shirt and black loafers.

Perched on an antique sofa, he sits very still and talks extremely quietly, his phrases lightly studded with slang: "keeping juiced up" for staying in touch; "stay-good records" for the ones he still approves of; "blowing up" to denote an artist doing unexpectedly well.

The calm he exudes must serve him well in recording studios, amid fractious talents. "I can get pretty silly, too, though," he maintains. "Pretty loud." But there's a pause and he changes his mind. "Actually, not loud; it's not in my personality."

There is, though, some flint in his reserve. "I don't have a problem getting my point across. In any case, it's got to a stage where I have respect." Apparently, people who are wild calm down in his presence.

Being withdrawn as a teenager pushed Edmonds towards songs. "I was very shy. I'd fall in love and I'd want to write something. It seemed to me in some ways easier to sing than to talk." He played guitar first, piano much later. High school music classes he hated. "I'd appreciate them far more now. I was ready to play. When you can play, you don't feel like you need to learn theory. In school, it was hard to be attached to that world. I wasn't listening." Unlike now, when Edmonds says he will happily pass an evening twiddling with the CD-Roms, he has on Beethoven and Bach, "to study their techniques. It's the coolest thing."

The music that inspired Edmonds as he grew up was mixed - Stevie Wonder, obviously, but also The Beatles, against the prevailing trend among his friends. "A lot of people I knew thought singing 'She loves you, yeah yeah yeah' was crap. But it seemed ingenious to me." The Rolling Stones figured, too. "They were about the funkiest band; they had rhythm and blues right through them." He liked George Clinton, but he also liked Kenny Loggins and Bread (one thing to go through this; another thing altogether to admit it to a journalist). Then he had the obligatory jazz fusion phase; the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jeff Beck. And then a period when he was listening to almost nothing but Cameo, all lipstick and synthesisers.

He played guitar in an early Eighties band called The Deele which waited seven years for a solitary hit. Edmonds and the drummer, Antonio M Reid - known as LA Reid because of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap permanently attached to his head - left The Deele and set up as a production and writing partnership. There was a period of struggle. "We just couldn't get the hits. We couldn't figure out how to write the song and make a feeling happen." But Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative", Whitney Houston's "I'm Your Baby Tonight" and Sheena Easton's "The Lover in Me" set LA and Babyface up alongside Jam and Lewis in the late Eighties as the big production players in American pop.

Reid and Edmonds opened a publishing company and a label, LaFace Records, but quit working together two years ago for reasons neither have made public. "We still don't say what happened," Edmonds says. "But it's been the best thing for our relationship. We were on different roads and it's worked out better for both of us."

Edmonds says he's been known to start writing at 7am, but chiefly he's on the kind of flexitime that has always made pop musicianship seem one of the more enviable careers. "It's from whatever time I start until I get bored," he says.

Like all the best genre songwriters, he works from a kind of template. "It's about getting the hook and the verse and making the verse go to the hook, and then another verse and then it goes to the bridge, a big bridge, and then hook out." Simple.

There are characteristic noises too, in particular a rich electric piano sound "with a kind of ting to it". This is Edmonds's favourite. "Sometimes I look for another sound. But I end up thinking, hell, I'll go with the old one." It opens him to the charge of sameyness.

When Stevie Wonder set down a harmonica solo on El DeBarge's blissful version of Babyface's "Where You Are", he cheekily played the melody from another Babyface song, "Give U My Heart". The joke risked exploding the song altogether by reminding us how much it sounded like another. Still, this is a possibility any genre composer faces. The remarkable thing about Edmonds is the frequency with which he tweaks an existing form to produce something bafflingly new.

"I know that it's not necessarily going to be forever," he says. "The important thing is not to get caught up in any time period and get stranded there.Try to stay in your world and take pieces of things which might help you update it. But it always has to come from a piece of your world. Fortunately, my world deals with melody and real songs and history has always been full of real songs and melody. So if I can just keep in touch, it'll keep me around a little while. If I could just follow in the footsteps of Quincy Jones..."