From jamming with funk forefathers to helping break new jack swing and cofounding legendary '90s R&B label LaFace Records with partner Antonio "L.A." Reid, the man known by the name Babyface has spent three decades creating and shaping pop music.
Now 53, Kenneth Edmonds is working on a new album by Aretha Franklin. And this weekend, he'll headline Jazz in the Gardens alongside Ne-Yo, New Edition, Charlie Wilson, Monica, and Earth Wind & Fire.
We spoke with Mr. Babyface about the current state of R&B, as well as Trey Songz, Chris Brown, Frank Ocean, and being nicknamed by Bootsy Collins.
New Times: Was Bootsy Collins really the first one to call you Babyface? That's like being nicknamed by the God of Funk.
Kenneth Edmonds: This is true [laughs]. It was an honor.
How did you finally get the handle?
Sometime between 1984 and '85, our band, the Deele, was between albums. And in the meantime, we were going around helping out with doing demos. So we got into the studio with Bootsy in Cincinnati. He would always grab new talent, mess around with them, and see if he could come up with something. And that's kind of what was going down.
I wasn't really that involved. I was just one of the guys in the band. But one day when I walked into the studio, Bootsy, out of nowhere, yelled, "Yo! What's up, Babyface?" And everybody started cracking up. It was a joke. So I didn't like it.
Back on the road with the Deele, Dee [Darnell Bristol] would introduce me and say, "That was Kenny Edmonds! Give it up for Kenny Edmonds!" And everybody would be like, "OK." But then one night, he decided to pull a joke on me. So after I finished the song, he goes, "Scream for... Babyface!" And after that show, I had a whole collection of girls coming back to find Babyface. And so it stuck.
After 30 years, working with legends such as Bootsy and Whitney and Aretha, what do you think of the current scene? From Trey Songz and Chris Brown to Frank Ocean, how would you rate the latest generation?
I think it's getting better. But there was a point in the history of R&B when you could name more than three people. And there just aren't a lot of current artists you can use to make comparisons. So the scene has got to grow.
In general, though, music is changing and improving. It happens in different genres too. You've got the Lumineers, which I love. And Fun., which I love. And then Alabama Shakes, which is incredible. These are artists who are coming for real. They're dead serious — nothing trendy about it, just straight music. It might be a little old school, but it doesn't matter where it comes from, because it feels good.
So what's holding R&B back?
For a long time, we've had a tendency to go for the trend. And for radio's sake, you do have to fall within certain guidelines. Because if you don't, it's very hard to break through. Labels are guilty of it and artists are guilty of it too, where we kind of just keep giving you the same thing. So any act that really goes toward left field has a hard time, especially in R&B. And recently, it's gotten even harder. It used to be there were a number of different kinds of R&B artists who weren't anything like one another. But that's not as likely today because a lot of the record companies just aren't willing to take the chance. They don't want to put the money behind it. They don't want to stand behind the artists in the same way anymore.
These days, you've got to break the music yourself. And if you don't break it yourself, then it's just, "Sorry."
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How can young musicians make that break for themselves?
The key is live performance. In R&B, there are very few artists interested in picking up a guitar or getting on the drums or even having a band.
Take Alabama Shakes. They're a band. So they can go out and do a show and create their audience. Or take Frank Ocean. He did it on the Internet. And that's another way and a new way.
But traditionally, if you were in a band, you could go out and you could work. That's also how you mastered the trade. So by the time your 15 minutes arrived, you were actually ready for your 15 minutes. And that's how 15 minutes of fame can turn into a lifetime.