25 Years Ago Today, Bell Biv DeVoe Made A Poisonous, Everlasting Hit (Video)
Twenty five years ago today (February 24, 1990), New Jack Swing’s wrecking ball made one of its biggest smashes with the release of Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison.” The song served as an introduction to the New Edition spin-off group, and the first look from the would-be quadruple platinum self-titled MCA Records release.
After five New Edition albums in as many years between 1983 and 1988, the Boston, Massachusetts superstar sensations were at a crossroads in the late 1980s. Bobby Brown had been booted from the group, finding tremendous solo success. Johnny Gill was added as his replacement. However, the conflicts continued, with Johnny Gill’s addition, and Ralph Tresvant’s own solo interests. Super-producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis urged the three other group founders (Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, Ronnie DeVoe) to create an off-shoot. B.B.D. was born, a “Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang” of its day (to much greater success and magnitude), and the trio needed the ultimate breakthrough.
Still a perennially platinum act, New Edition may have seemed stagnant by 1990. B.B.D. did not, and the three lesser profiled members of their veteran group got their names front and center. With the brushed up format, the trio donned fresh, Hip-Hop-inspired threads, and seemed less like an R&B group, and more like a Rap crew. With that, the MCA act recruited Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad trio of Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler to inject their sound with the grit, excitement, and edge needed to take their re-brand to listeners, especially male record-buyers.
However, the Long Island, New York production team would not deliver the single. Instead, a relative unknown named Dr. Freeze took Kool G Rap’s lisped, punctuated delivery of “Poison” from two years prior, along with two vocal slices from Boogie Down Productions’ own two year-old “Jimmy,” and put it all in a New Jack Swing light. With grabbing production, magnetic pauses, and a complex arrangement, “Poison” was concocted.
B.B.D. took the canvas, and shined. The group’s harmonic beginnings coalesced in a way that stood apart from New Edition. Like a ’90s Miracles, the group bridged from chorus to verse in a way that was instantly infectious. Moreover, as Bobby Brown’s bad boy image and penchant for raunch had paid off, the group did the same—in a PG-13 manner. Although the song is a precaution against falling for the “big butt and a smile,” “the crew used to do her.” Sexed up, catchy, the song refreshed the three singers in amazing ways for the brand new decade. Quite amicably, the crew shouts out Bobby, Johnny, and Ralph at the song’s close too—making it clear to the world, this was merely a creative venture.
In 2015, few songs from the New-Jack Swing era, let alone early ’90s R&B-Pop get the kind of play of “Poison.” From weddings, to sports bars, Pootie Tang, dance clubs, restaurants, strip clubs, lunch mixes, video games, “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” episodes, and iPod radio stations, B.B.D. is alive—if only because of one hit song from their three LPs. “Poison” is timeless in a way that starts to climb the steps to some hits from Prince and Michael Jackson.
The easy answer to the timeless effect of “Poison” is the theme. Like temptresses (which apply to men as well), the imagery of the song has never gone out of style. People are still making poor decisions due to lust with their heartbreak on a platter to follow. However, sonically, this song has it all. The Doo-Wop harmony, the Hip-Hop backbeat, vocal punch-ins and the Pop melody all pull in participants, spanning race, age, gender, and most of all, musical taste.
Like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” or Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” this is a song that younger generations—who were not alive or active in music in 1990, can still related to because of its transcendent subject matter and sound.
“Poison” arguably eclipses any of New Edition’s litany of hits, and certainly any solo work from its three makers. The song, topped on Billboard‘s 1990 year-end by Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On,” Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love,” and Sinhead O’Connor’s Prince cover, “Nothing Compares 2U,” stands taller 25 years later. Three kids from Boston took some sage advice, and ran with the opportunity. Like New Edition, the group remains active today—and it was “Poison” that was performed at a 2013 BostonStrong fundraiser event.
Although the R&B group is something of an anomaly in 2015, singers (and musicians of all varieties) could learn a lot from the dynamic qualities of “Poison,” and it’s amazing gift to be both a time capsule, but undeniably timeless at the same time.