(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")
EN VOGUE: (Singing) Oooh, my first mistake was I wanted too much time. I had to have him morning, noon, and night.
COX: That was the monster hit "Hold On" from En Vogue. It was the first of a string of chart-topping songs from the girl group that made its debut with the 1990 album "Born to Sing." En Vogue went on to sell millions of records, earned seven Grammy nominations and developed devoted fans around the world. They were standouts in a crowd of groups that defined soul music in the 1990s - from the women of Brownstone, Escape and TLC to the guys of Jodeci, Dru Hill and Boyz II Men.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, MOTOWNPHILLY)
BOYZ II MEN R&B GROUP: Go. Go. Go. Go. (Singing) Motownphilly back again. Go. Go. Go. Go. Doing a little East Coast swang. Boyz II Men, on the way now. Go. Go. Go. Go. Not too hard, not too soft.
COX: But as the decade ended, so did the popularity of many of these musical acts, and today such groups have largely faded from the R&B charts. So what happened to those sweet harmonies? And can R&B groups climb back to the top of the charts ever again? Joining us to talk about that is Akoto Ofori-Atta. She is an assistant editor for TheRoot.com. And she wrote about the disappearance of R&B groups for the site. She joins us now from NPR's New York bureau. Nice to have you.
AKOTO OFORI-ATTA: Nice being here.
COX: A moment ago we were listening to En Vogue. And I understand that a recent concert from that group inspired you to write this story. So tell us, what happened?
OFORI-ATTA: Well, yeah. You know, I went to a concert they had in D.C. at DAR Constitution Hall and when I was sitting in the audience I was looking out there and I realized wow, this doesn't exist anymore. There are no R&B groups that are currently on the pop charts. And there was something very nostalgic about the moment. There was something even a little dated about what I was watching, so I wanted to explore it further.
COX: So what happened? You know, what happened to these groups?
OFORI-ATTA: Well, I think there are a lot of things that happened. There are a lot of factors that come in. First off, the record industry is completely changed and it really boils down to simple math. It's so much less expensive to market or bring to market a solo artist than it is to bring a group to market. I mean if you're talking hair and makeup for Beyonce, it's one thing. But if you're talking hair and makeup for Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle, that triples the cost of that. You're tripling the cost of airfare, travel, hotel. And the MP3 just made it impossible for record industries to make the kind of profits they were making in the '90s, so groups just became less and less desirable for them.
COX: Yeah, but the audience, you know, that was Destiny's Child you were talking about with regard to Beyonce.
COX: Doesn't - the audience doesn't want this anymore?
OFORI-ATTA: Well, I think it was a convergence of the record industry and a change in our attitudes. I mean in the late '90s we saw a lot of boy bands flourishing to the extent that some might even consider it was nauseating. So that might have led to some fatigue around the idea of an actual group. And then additionally, with the advent of social networking and social media, there's been a lot of audiences like individuality. They like the individual. They were more me focused and me centered. And it's difficult to see how a group can fit into that framework.
You know, like a solo artist they've never been able, there's never been another point in history where they've been able to interact with their audiences but they can now on Twitter and on Facebook.
OFORI-ATTA: And it's tough to envision Boyz II Men interacting, you know, on Twitter as an entity in the same way a Rihanna can.
COX: That's a good point that you make. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. We're talking about the future - if there is one - for R&B music groups. Our guest is Akoto Ofori-Atta. She wrote about that for the online journal TheRoot. Let's hear another song. This is the 1995 hit "Waterfalls" from the group TLC.
TLC: (Singing) But all the praying just ain't helping at all 'cause he can't seem to keep his self out of trouble. So he goes out and he makes his money the best way he knows how another body laying cold in the gutter. Listen to me. Don't go chasing waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to. I know that you're gonna have it your way or nothing at all. But I think you're moving too fast.
COX: That was "Waterfalls" and it was a number one hit for TLC. Now their breakout album was "Crazy, Sexy, Cool." And that title symbolized the roles that the three members played in crafting the band's image. A moment ago we were talking about Destiny's Child and Beyonce, and Beyonce obviously arguably the most successful star to build a solo career after leaving an R&B group.
Is it inevitable you think that one member of a successful group will always be planning a getaway? And does that give these groups and expiration date before they even get going?
OFORI-ATTA: Well, you know, it's an interesting Catch-22 there because first off, I was speaking with Shanti Das who is a 20-year music veteran and worked with Motown for several years. She mentioned to me that quite often record labels look for a leader before they signed a group. So in order for a label to feel comfortable in signing a group they felt like there should be a leader, someone who can kind of keep all the ducks in a row. And at the same time that same person would often become the person who broke out in pursuit of a solo career.
So I think that record labels intentionally or unintentionally groom the breakout star for inevitable solo success.
COX: Here's another group. This is Bell Biv DeVoe. The song "Poison."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POISON")
BELL BIV DEVOE: (Singing) It's driving me out of my mind. That's why it's hard for me to find. Can't get it outta my head. Miss her, kiss her, love her, wrong move you're dead. That girl is poison. Never trust a big butt and smile. That girl is poison poison. If I were you I'd take precaution.
COX: You know, a lot of the acts that were part of the last wave of big R&B groups shared something with the soul groups of Motown - the old days. They were packaged. I mean they had dance moves, their clothes, their onstage personas, everything carefully crafted. That's gone too isn't it?
OFORI-ATTA: Yeah. It's absolutely gone. And, you know, without R&B groups I think the one thing that R&B is really missing is the harmony, is the sort of the grand spectacle that comes along with of hearing four people or five people, you know, sing together and sing harmony. It's long been a staple of R&B back to doo-wop groups into the '70s, into the '80s, into the '90s. So, you know, nowadays what we have is, you know, people harmonizing with themselves.
If you listen to Beyonce's new album she has her voice singing two or three different octaves on the same verse.
COX: Oh yeah, overdubbing her own material.
OFORI-ATTA: Yeah. Over exactly.
COX: Yeah. For sure.
OFORI-ATTA: So that's definitely missing.
COX: You know, Boyz II Men, they're coming out with a new album in several weeks. And it makes me wonder is there a group out there that you think can bring the style of music back?
OFORI-ATTA: Well, I think first the audience needs to be prepared. The audience needs to be ready for or they need to want groups back in the market. Secondly, when I was doing my research, I came across a group called Ahmir. You know, they have phenomenal success on YouTube. They what they do is they cover very current pop songs. It's an all-male quartet.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST THING I EVER HAD")
AHMIR: (Singing) So when I think of the time that I almost loved you. You showed your soul and I saw the real you. Thank God you blew it. Thank God I dodged the bullet. Get over her. So just looking out. I wanted her bad. I'm so through with that. Cuz honestly she turned out to be the best thing you'd ever had. She turned out to be the best thing you ever had.
OFORI-ATTA: And I mean this is a group of very talented guys. In speaking with their manager, they've also had some difficulties, you know, getting signed to major labels. But the talent is there and that's not the question. And in speaking with them, one of them mentioned to me that they're just waiting their turn. They know that, you know, things cycle in and out of pop music, and that once groups become popular again that they're going to slide right on in there.
So I mean I do think there's hope. If we look at history even with the AutoTune. I mean AutoTune, Teddy Riley had popularized that in the early '90s and it disappeared and then it became huge in the last four or five years. So there's a very cyclical nature to pop music. Things always go away and reemerge so there's definitely an option for...
COX: It may come back. I want to put you on the spot, OK?
COX: All right. The greatest R&B group of all time is?
OFORI-ATTA: All time. I mean I think - I think there's some people who are in close running for that. I think that if we're going to talk '90s Boyz II Men and TLC probably are neck and neck. If were talking all time I think you got to go a little further back and think about Temptations, Jackson 5, O'Jays. But yeah, I don't think there is a - there's one person looking get that title.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COX: You said I'm not going there. I'm not going to put myself out there like that.
OFORI-ATTA: I'm not. I'm not. They were all good. They were all good.
COX: You picked some good ones.
COX: Hopefully the music will come back because it was great music then.
OFORI-ATTA: It was great music.
COX: It can be great music again. Akoto Ofori-Atta is an assistant editor for TheRoot.com, joining us from NPR's New York bureau. Akoto, thank you very much.
OFORI-ATTA: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I NEED")
THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Oh, this heart of mine, carries a heavy load when I think about how I hurt you so. After you've been, been so good to me. I've been unfaithful darling, I've caused you misery. The feeling of guilt...
COX: And that's our program for today. To tell us more, please go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Tony Cox and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I NEED")
TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Tears of guilt, tears of guilt running down my face. Tears that only you baby, only you can erase. And darling, all, all I need is just to hear you say, you'll forgive me, forgive me baby. All, all I need, to have you touch my hand, say you'll understand. Forgive this fool, my darling. I know, I made a big mistake. When all your love, darling, yes I did forsake.