MICHAEL BIVINS INTERVIEW
When I was growing up New Edition was one of my favourite groups in the whole wide world. And nearly three decades since they burst onto the scene in 1983, I am still a huge fan of the group and all the splinter projects it has spawned.
Founding member Michael Bivins has managed to keep himself relevant in front of, and behind the camera, as an artist, executive, cultivator of talent and trendsetter. And his bench marks have been frequently imitated but rarely credited in my humble opinion.
People give props to the likes of Diddy, which is much deserved. But before Diddy and Bad Boy, there was a Michael Bivins and a label called Biv 10 paving the way. And as well as being a member of New Edition since he was about 10 years-old, and a member of hit 90s act Bell Biv Devoe (Poison, Do Me, When Will I See You Smile Again), his now defunct label Biv 10 was responsible for launching platinum acts such as Boys II Men, ABC (Another Bad Creation) and 702 back in the early 90s.
Ironically, in recent years New Edition were briefly signed to Bad Boy, and Mike also featured as a creative consultant on Diddy’s 2nd instalment of Making the Band, which produced male r&b band Day 26. When I first saw that Mike was on that show, I thought, ‘perfect casting’. Who better to groom these guys? And I loved his saying: ‘We love you, but we’re not in love with you’, when someone was eliminated. Lol!
A man with hands in many pies, away from the music Mike hosted ‘Running The Point with Michael Bivins’, an online lifestyle segment on NBA.com/TNT Overtime, interviewing NBA players, celebrities and movie stars at various basketball events. His slot proved extremely popular, boosting TNT’s online viewership by 22 per cent, turning it into one of the channel’s top online features.
Mike also spends a lot of his time running his company Sporty Rich Enterprises, which embraces music, entertainment and fashion in the form of a clothing label, and a record company which houses acts such as up-and-coming rock band Major League, among other things.
The 41-year-old native of Orchard Park Projects, Boston, Massachusetts is also currently touring the US with Bel Biv Devoe, whose fan base remains strong nearly 20 years later. Their current single, Hello, has already received rave reviews from supporters.
Yes, he does it all, but that’s been Mike’s reality for a long time. So let’s talk about this trailblazer… Better yet, let’s talk TO him about starting out in the biz, his many guises, the challenges he has faced and what’s next… Unfortunately we didn’t get to ask everything, such as where things are with the reported New Edition movie, a future NE tour or album, and future plans for BBD, as Mike is a VERY busy man. But talks of a possible follow-up interview have already been put in place, so stay tuned.
Did you always have ambitions of being in the music business?
Growing up in Boston my god brothers, who were 13 and 15 at the time, started performing in talent shows in Boston. They invited me to be in the group with them but I genuinely didn’t think I was as good as they were. But I guess it was something to do. But as soon as I went home after performing with them I never really went home and thought about it past that. It really didn’t hold my attention like that.
But then there was New Edition. Most fans know the story by now, how at 11 and 12 years old, yourself, Ricky Bell, Ralph Tresvant and Bobby Brown entered a local talent contest, came second, but were spotted by producer Maurice Starr, who went on to produce Candy Girl, with Ronnie Devoe now part of the group. That single put you on the map. I remember it going to number one over here in the UK… Were you aware of how big that song was worldwide?
This might sound a little crazy, but at that time I really didn’t think that the record was further than Boston. I thought of it more as a big accomplishment where we lived. Unfortunately the block radio station around at that time went off the air when the sun went down. It was an AM station so you only heard it from six in the morning till 6pm that night.
But when we did find out that we crossed overseas and everything, it really did feel good, and that summer we took a two week promotional tour to the UK and the reason we were able to get out there and stay so long was coz the record was massive.
Being so young, how did that effect your schooling?Fortunately when the record really broke we were moving into summer time so we didn’t really have to battle with much schooling.
How did life change for you after that?
Every weekend (from Friday after school, until Sunday evening) we would be travelling down to New York city, where we were doing 4-5 shows a night! We were performing at clubs for people who were over 21 years old – and we were only 14. I mean we were starting our first show at 1am in the morning, and our last show would be at 3am, but all at different locations. We were at Harlem at 1am, the Bronx at 2am and then make it to Brooklyn by 3am! So that’s how life changed. And we were making $1,500 a night so we had a little bit more money in our pockets. But there were things such as drugs etc around in the clubs, so all that was a real culture shock.
What would you say your role in the group was in the early days?
Honestly… I was just trying to make it to practice. I would always have an excuse not to go to practice. I was heavily into basketball at that time so I was more interested in doing that, so I guess my role at that time was being an arsehole. I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I maybe should of. But then it was never a dream of mine, so that passion wasn’t in my system. I never felt bad that I didn’t go to practice. In fact I felt good that I didn’t go to practice as I was able to go to the park and play basketball. I was surprised they didn’t kick me out, as many times as I missed practice.
Throughout history music bands have been notorious for behind the scene issues. Were there any in New Edition?
When you are in a male group and there are different levels of talent, from background, third lead, second lead and lead, if this is not monitored correctly then it can cause tension in the group and you can also lose members Everyone doesn’t really get success at the same level, at the same time, and in most bands this is always an issue.
Is that how you felt?
For me being in the background I had to accept that it was a Ricky Bell or a Ralph Tresvant who gained so much success at an early age. That’s the first step of acceptance, understanding your time hasn’t arrived yet. If you don’t have the right person in your head at that time, your first corruption might not have anything to do with leaving home or being homesick or anything, it might be the fact that “Bam, we all go to the store together but when we get on stage this kid here is a f**king star and I’m just another member”. So that’s the danger of being in that position, it’s being able to accept that and to have someone in your corner to keep you focused, or you could go crazy.
So which way did you go?
I went crazy (laughs). I ended up having a lot of fights, mostly with Bobby. I didn’t really fight with Ricky or Ralph, but there were things that I noticed that made me look at them differently. For example if someone was a little late to the car, or just acting a little different, that would make me feel like “Damn, this shit is really different now”. It was like: “he really is bigger than us, and sometimes he shows us that he is bigger than us”. But despite that I think the reason why me and Bob fought the most was because me and Bob were best friends before the group… so it was like… you know… We would fight over stupid shit, like where we would sit in the car, who wanted to sit near the window etc – stupid shit! But it was interesting because I guess I wasn’t really in my own element, I was like: “This ain’t basketball, this is singing here” which is why I was the one with the biggest chip on my shoulder. So that was an adjustment.
Did this affect your relationship as adults?
Yes it did. And at one point in time I got scorned so much by some people that I started to look at them as a business, like ‘F**k it, this shit is really about money, it isn’t really about childhood friendship’. Everybody in the group, at different times, had some shit with somebody else, especially if they were best friends. Everybody has experienced the separation. No one lasted the whole journey. Someone has always jumped over to the other side of the fence. They may have jumped back over again after a conversation but everybody’s had that moment of separation.
‘…we had to learn the hard way, and I guess those stumbling blocks are the only reason why a lot of us are still in the industry. We learned from the worst of the worse’.
There have been so many variations of what actually happened with your first deal and whether or not you got ripped off. What really went down?
Maurice Starr was like the neighbourhood Quincy Jones. He had an independent label called Boston International and he released Candy Girl in Boston locally. Then the record got picked up by Streetwise, who worked out a deal with Maurice, and rightfully so, as he made the record. And I guess at that time we didn’t really understand the royalties, and also we weren’t in any position to negotiate a great deal coz we were new artists. And you only get what you negotiate, so everybody did what they were supposed to do.
They monitored the money and we took our little $100 and we were rich. $100 was equivalent to $10,000 for us, as we could buy a pair of Calvin Kleins, go to school and feel fresh. That’s the hell of a lot of money in your pocket at 13 years old, when you were previously only getting a dollar a day to go to school. So we had to learn the hard way and I guess those stumbling blocks are the only reason why a lot of us are still in the industry. We learned from the worst of the worse.
Okay fast-forward a few years. Let’s talk about Bel Biv Devoe, which was you, Ricky and Ronnie…
That was the first time I felt like we were being ourselves. As BBD, we dressed the way we would dressed going to the concert. In New Edition we would just go into the dressing room and put on our expensive suit. But once we took that off we were walking around with our sneakers un-tied and our baseball hats to the back. That’s what made it so easy as we felt like whatever we wore was the uniform. And we knew we had some dancers from L.A who were on a tempo and style that nobody else was on.
How did that add to things?
The dancers really ‘officialised’ Bel Biv Devoe. When people first saw the Poison video, what got them the most was they had never really seen with four or five other people outside of New Edition with members for the group like that. It was like total culture shock. It was like: “Damn, look at the three of them, but who are those four girls in the back getting busy?” That was a whole ‘nother excitement. We knew we had a big record, so that was 50 per cent, but if you can dance… which we included in the package, that just made it even bigger. We covered all bases.
You guys were pretty wild back then…
If we wanted to come on stage and take our clothes off, we did it. We did shit that we knew was gonna make people mad, coz we were like: “If we don’t do it somebody else is gonna do it. So let’s make them mad that they didn’t do it first”.
Were you worried being a lot more raw than people were used to seeing you from your time in New Edition, would have a negative effect?
To be honest we probably got more p***y talking about it than trying to hide it. People like that shit. There are two different types of people in the world; there are people that keep it straight up and then there are people who try and protect their identity. We were 19 and 20 at the time and if we were in college we would be hitting up the beer parties and going to the strip club, getting our first piece of butt. But we were on tour. So we were just being our age and just putting it on a record. The reason why we didn’t care what anyone thought is we had nothing to lose.
I guess no one really thought you guys as Bel Biv Devoe would go on to do as well as you did, and outshine certain other members of New Edition. Did you feel vindicated in any way when that happened?
Nah, not at all coz we never sold out Birmingham and we never sold out Wembley Arena [in the UK]. There ain’t no redemption unless you trumped Bobby’s ass. We could of fooled ourselves if we wanted to, but the shit he did on Don’t Be Cruel… We never made it that far. We made the right decisions, had the right management and stuck to our guns in terms of what we believed in, but we never sold out Wembley.
At the end of the day everybody was very successful in their own right, but we were outside the box a little bit more. When Bobby got arrested, humping around on stage. That played a part in people focusing in on him, and some of that controversy added to his audience. People like controversy and want to see it for themselves, so he raised the bar. If we did six million, then I would have said: “Yeah, we shitted on all of y’all”.
Next stop Biv 10 Records, a label you started in the early 90s… How did you find yourself head of your own label?
The guy who took over from Berry Gordy as president of Motown Records was a guy called Jheryl Busby. When he left [Bel Biv Devoe's label] MCA Records to head up Motown, he told me: ” If you ever find any acts and you wanna do business then my door is open to you”. At the time I didn’t really have any idea what he was talking about as I never had any aspirations of being an executive.
What changed that?
Meeting Boyz II Men backstage at one of our shows changed that. At that time Nate had pulled me to the side after they did an impromptu audition for me and said: “I’m gonna call you”. And then he did, almost every day! Then one day he said to me: “Man, would you be our manager”. And I said: “Manager?” And he said: “Yeah, I think you should be our manager”. And I was thinking: “Manager? I’m just here trying to make a Bel Biv Devoe album” as we were in the process of recording the new album, and doing what we were doing. But then I was like: “Okay, if you think I can do it then I’ll give it a try”. But to be honest with you if it wasn’t for Jheryl offering it to me and Nate pushing me, I might have never went into the whole label thing.
‘When I finally got my own groups part of my drive was: “What they are not letting me do over there, I’m going to do over here”. So Boyz II Men, ABC and Biv 10 was 50 per cent frustration with New Edition and 50 per cent just going with my instincts…’
I’m assuming that all the training and experiences you had in New Edition and Bel Biv Devoe helped when it came to managing Boyz II Men…
There were certain times in New Edition when I was trying to grow behind the scenes, trying to be heard. And sometimes I got heard and other times I didn’t, which was frustrating. So when I finally got my own groups, part of my drive was: “What they are not letting me do over there, I’m going to do over here”. So Boyz II Men, ABC and Biv 10 was 50 per cent frustration with New Edition and 50 per cent just going with my instincts.
Boyz II Men were not like most of the black groups that came out of the 90s… Could you see their potential early on?
Well, I know one thing, when I met them I told them that they sung a bunch of elevator music. I was like: “Man, you’re not gonna get any ass, unless you sing those other records man. Because if you don’t sing to the girls that are your age out there trying to get boyfriends then you are gonna be a young group singing for these older women, because they just love great singing”. So I told them: “We gotta put some dirt in here and figure out some professional training so you can connect with that audience”. Once we figured that out, and they were able to put their bow tie on and I knew then that they weren’t gonna be just a black group, coz the bow ties were totally different to the chains and the Timberlands, which was what was going on at the time.
I knew that those bow ties were gonna give them respect and fortunately they went on to make some of the best damn records of the 90s, of anybody. But even with great vocals and with the right writer and producer I didn’t realise it was gonna be that big. But I did know one thing. If there was any other act doing a show with them, and they used a backing track, their ass was gonna be exposed that night. Coz I knew what people couldn’t do back then. People weren’t turning their music off and singing live. So I knew: “If I don’t have anything else, that’s my ace in the hole”, turning their music off and letting them do what they do.
Were you responsible for Boyz II Men’s distinct clothing style with the bow-ties and V-neck woollen vests, in the same way Diddy styled Jodeci in the way that he did?
Well Jodeci were dressing one way in their first video. In their first video (Gotta Love) they had on raincoats and stuff, but you are overlooking ABC. ABC were the younger version of BDD, and Jodeci followed BBD and ABC. So the boots, the vests, and everything? ABC wore that. Then Jodeci went and made the same videos with the same video director, so [Diddy] didn’t really do anything different. I was in front of him, he saw what it was. He didn’t pattern them after Boyz II Men, but if you play ABC videos and take their picture and put that up with the Jodeci videos, it’s the same shit. The only difference is one was young kids and the other was grown men.
Okay, just done that and I can see it….
But where [Diddy] differentiated it was, he made the records that Boyz II Men couldn’t make because their personalities wouldn’t allow them to sing those street ballads. That right there was clever and it was the shit because it was the first time a real thuggish r&b group ever came up with that style. K-Ci’s vocals were so just gritty it created something that still ain’t been duplicated, but forever tried. We both figured out our lanes and never once did I try and go gritty and I knew they weren’t coming over my way coz they weren’t that type of act.
Who would you say have been your mentors in the industry?
When I was first coming through I was looking up to Teddy Riley, I thought he had his finger on the pulse. Then I started to realise that I didn’t want to be anybody in front of the camera. I started wanting to be the people who were in the office coz they were the ones who made the decisions and signed off the deals. People like Dick Clarke, Larry Klein, Irving Azoff, real heavyweight people in the music business, those are my mentors, those are the people I would call on the white side. Then on the black side there’s the Jheryl Busbys and Brooke Paynes. I wasn’t tripping off of anybody else coz I never wanted to be where they were at.
Most fans of 90s r&b remember Biv 10 and the acts it spawned, what happened to cause the label to close?
That’s what you call feeling yourself and taking your hand off the ball. Biv 10 should have been bigger, coz I shouldn’t have had all [those other acts]. I should have just kept Boyz II Men and ABC. Most of that was me feeling like: “I can do anything” but that showed me that I couldn’t do anything. That was obsessive, not staying focused. I didn’t need none of that.
You have been fortunate enough to have been attached to a lot of great moments and successes in the entertainment industry. How do you stay grounded?
You put yourself in 2010 and you do what I’m doing now. I’m regrouping. I’ve got a new company called Sporty Rich and I’m going back around again. You don’t look at it like something that you over-stepped, coz it happens. What feels good is when you regroup and go at it again. I’m older and more mature, I know what it is. My goals are higher and I do things differently.
What is your proudest moment of your career/life thus?
I don’t even know if you can put 27 years of consistency into one moment. Fortunately I’ve been able to have many moments. As well as my career there are my children, being married, maturing as a man, BBD performing at the MTV Awards, New Edition meeting Michael Jackson… There are so many different things, y’know? My proudest moment is to still be here and be relevant. It is also possible that my moment hasn’t even come yet, coz to be honest with you I want this more now than I did back then. I’ve never applied myself this much to the game, never. I wake up and eat, breathe and shit this shit now. It’s in me differently now, so when I score now it’s gonna be more mentally fulfilling, coz now I understand what I’m really dealing with.
Where are you trying to get to now?
I’m just trying to let people ‘officialise ‘what I’ve already done. You notice people don’t ‘officialise’ you until you do it again. If you do it one time you are a winner and if you do it two or three times you are a champion and I’m trying to be a champion. People have short memories and that’s rightfully so, as the saying goes: “what have you done for me lately?”
I wanna get me some hit acts and get my executive on. I want people to look at me like a hit-maker, like: “He finds talent, he makes, he grooms and he delivers”. I also wanna be able to slide on over to the fashion world and be able to pass my style onto people and show them that there is a way to be fly, even if you are not rich – that is what Sporty Rich is. It’s for people who ain’t got the money, but still know how to make themselves feel fresh mentally. Then I want to get into the movie world. I call myself ‘Mike Biv/Martin Scorcese’. There’s something in me that needs to come out and I need two hours of the people’s time in the form of a movie to showcase that. That’s like an ultimate goal of mine.
And more importantly I want to have a bunch of other people that I bring up with me this time and branch off building other companies. I’m into letting some people in through the back door. I’m ready to find some fresh young people that I can show some things and then when they score they can give me a ride with them, coz I did the right thing by them in the first instance
Do you have any regrets in life?
I wish that when I was on and doing it really big in the 90s, I wish that I made bigger investments into my future, by putting my money in places that even if I’m not there my money is making money. When I had the type of paper where I could invest, I never did. But you know what’s so crazy? You know why I never spent my money? Coz I finally got some mutha-f***ing money, and I knew this time nobody wasn’t gonna take it from me. So I was fronting too hard. I wasn’t looking at it like: “tomorrow might not happen, so I’ll put some over here” etc. So that’s the only thing I regret, that I didn’t make that move in the 90s, coz the 2000′s was always gonna come.
We touched on your childhood relationship with Bobby Brown and Ralph Tresvant. What is your current relationship with them?
To be honest with you I don’t really want to go back to that coz it’s not really about them. But we all know where we stand, and when the time is right we’re gonna go through with New Edition and rock that like we did back in the 80s. But where I’m at with them in 2010, we’re business partners, so we’re gonna do business and we’re make it do what it do.
New Edition signing to Bad Boy seemed like a great partnership, what really happened to make it not work?
That was the best thing that happened to us. I still think Puff Daddy’s cool. We ain’t never had our pictures look that hot. We had on nice clothes, he was hooking us up with planes, we had money in our pockets.. It was the first time I saw New Edition’s name scroll across CNN for positivity… I mean come on, what can I say man? The dude is incredible. Unfortunately things didn’t go as well as we thought it would have, but it ain’t his fault and it ain’t our fault. Sometimes shit just happens.
FOR MORE INFO ON MICHAEL AND WHAT HE’S UP TO: www.sportyrich.com