Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds were perhaps the most consistent hit-making pop/R&B duo of all time during the New Jack Era; they were responsible for five of the six consecutive top-ten Bobby Brown hits of 1988 and 1989. The duo also successfully “urbanized” Whitney Houston’s previously mainstream sound and image with her I’m Your Baby Tonight album, and worked wonders with artists like Pebbles (“Giving You The Benefit”), Karyn White (“Superwoman”), After 7 (“Ready Or Not”), and the Boys (“Dial My Heart”).
Life began for L.A. Reid in the city of Cincinnati, circa 1960. At the age of 9, he would play with drumsticks banging on the floor at home to the sounds of James Brown 45s. A few years later, he began playing in bands, and earned his “L.A.” nickname when on one occasion, he showed up to practice wearing a particularly striking L.A. Dodgers T-shirt. Eventually, Reid and his band relocated to Indianapolis, Indiana.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Edmonds (born on April 10, 1959 in Indianapolis) had already been striving towards a career in the music industry. In the ninth grade, he was able to recommend himself (posing as his music teacher) to interview several established acts — including the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. By the time 1981 had rolled around, L.A. Reid had spotted Edmonds performing with Manchild (one of Edmonds’ earlier groups) in Indianapolis and asked him to join his band, the Deele. It was also around this time that Bootsy Collins gave Kenneth Edmonds the nickname “Babyface.”
Signed to Dick Griffey’s Sounds Of Los Angeles Records (SOLAR), the Deele also included future L.A & Babyface collaborators Daryl Simmons, and Kayo. After three albums throughout the 80s (and a hit single with 1988’s “Two Occasions”), L.A. & Babyface focused on producing other artists after their success with “Rock Steady,” a huge hit they had crafted for the Whispers, the veteran R&B act. It was in 1988 that L.A & Babyface formed LaFace Entertainment, and by 1989 their brand of soft and sophisticated New Jack Swing had lured even big name acts like Whitney Houston and the Jacksons to their fold.
In 1989, LaFace Entertainment moved its Los Angeles, California operation to Atlanta, Georgia, (severing ties with SOLAR Records) and became a record company in its own right with financial backing and distribution from Arista Records. It was a no-brainer for Clive Davis (founder and head of Arista) to have decided to work with LaFace. The company had already demonstrated its hitmaking ability with artists like Bobby Brown and Babyface himself (the Tender Lover album); and had worked with newcomer Paula Abdul, the Jacksons, and even Arista’s very own superstar, Whitney Houston. By the time 1990 rolled around, the New Jack Era was in full swing. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were scoring big with Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, while Teddy Riley was blazing trails with numerous urban acts like Heavy D and his own group, Guy. However, the most consistent hit machine out of these three top producers was LA & Babyface; even more to that point, L.A. & Babyface were named songwriters of the year in 1990 by Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI).
In 1991, (as the New Jack Era was coming to an end), LaFace was largely quiet until it unleashed the first fruits of its artist development in Atlanta in the form of TLC, a female Hip-Hop/R&B trio bursting at the seams with funky energy and charisma. Behind the boards, the LaFace family had acquired a young producer named Dallas Austin, who had already worked wonders for New Jack acts including Another Bad Creation, Boyz II Men, and Troop. It was Dallas that crafted the TLC sound – funky, chaotic, and utterly irresistible.
In the summer of 1992, the LaFace team emerged with the Boomerang soundtrack at nearly the exact same time that Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis released their Mo’ Money soundtrack. At the box office, Boomerang was the clear victor, and the same can be said commercially for its soundtrack as well. LaFace scored with one of the biggest singles of all time in the form of “End Of The Road,” performed by Boyz II Men. Other hits included Babyface’s duet with his protégé Toni Braxton (“Give You My Heart”), P.M. Dawn’s “I’d Die Without You,” Shanice’s “Don’t Wanna Love You,” and Toni Braxton’s own “Love Shoulda Brought You Home (Last Night).”
By the end of 1992, it was clear that the New Jack Swing era was over, but LaFace was now even stronger in the ’90s than it had been in the late 80s. In the years to come, additional LaFace super-hits by Boyz II Men (“I’ll Make Love To You,” “Water Runs Dry”), Toni Braxton (“Breathe Again,” “You’re Making Me High”); Babyface (“When Can I See You (Again)”), TLC (“Baby, Baby, Baby,” “Red Light Special”), and Tevin Campbell (“Can We Talk”) would put LaFace on top for years to come. As the 1990s wore on, LaFace/Arista would also add the OutKast, Usher, and Pink to its roster, and L.A. Reid would be promoted to become the head of Arista Records when founder Clive Davis left to form J Records.
Notable LaFace singles during the New Jack Era (1988 – 1992)
“Girlfriend,” “Giving You The Benefit,” “Always,” and “Love Makes Things Happen (feat. Babyface)” performed by Pebbles
“Ready Or Not” and “Can’t Stop” performed by After 7
“It’s No Crime,” “Whip Appeal,” “Tender Lover” (remix feat. Bobby Brown) and “Soon As I Get Home” performed by Babyface
“Don’t Be Cruel,” “Roni,” “Every Little Step,” “Rock Witcha,” and “On Our Own” performed by Bobby Brown
“Dial My Heart”, “Lucky Charm”, and “Crazy” performed by the Boys
“My, My, My,” and “Fairweather Friend” performed by Johnny Gill
“Knocked Out” performed by Paula Abdul
“The Way You Love Me,” “Superwoman,” and “Secret Rendezvous” performed by Karyn White
“I’m Your Baby Tonight” and “My Name Is Not Susan,” performed by Whitney Houston
For more on the whole LaFace story, we highly recommend L.A. Reid’s 2016 memoir, Sing To Me: My Story of Making Music, Finding Magic, and Searching for Who’s Next.