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L.A. and Babyface: Heatin’ Up the Charts

L.A. and Babyface are taking the music industry by storm--but don’t feel out of it if you’ve never heard of them.

No, they’re not the latest hip rappers. They’re part of an R&B; group called the Deele, but their real claim to fame is as behind-the-scenes songwriters/producers who have been dominating the black music charts.

Antonio (L.A.) Reid and Kenny (Babyface) Edmonds have had pop hits too, including the Whispers’ “Rock Steady,” Pebbles’ “Girlfriend” and Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel.” Karyn White, a ballyhooed newcomer, has done their songs. So has Paula Abdul, the choreographer-turned-singer. Their Deele productions, “Two Occasions” and “Shoot ‘Em Up Movies,” have had black chart success.

Until recently they worked only with black artists, but their first project with a white pop artist--a Sheena Easton album--is due late next month. The prolific pair wrote and produced five songs on her album, “The Lover in Me.”

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“If her record is a hit, that will take us to a new level,” said Edmonds, flashing a proud smile.

Edmonds and Reid are both dapper, cool and super-hip. There were only a few flashes of smugness and aloofness during a recent interview in an elegant conference room at Solar Records’ Hollywood headquarters.

“Our heads aren’t swelled,” Reid said. “It gets in the way of doing your best work.”

Though he has a reputation for being quiet and distant, Edmonds, whom everyone calls ‘Face, was the more talkative of the pair. Usually Reid does most of the talking, but not this time. Feet on the table and relaxed to the max, he relinquished the lead role to his partner, chiming in with cogent comments.

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“There’s no real leader among us,” Edmonds said. “We make joint decisions. The point is work together, to make use of our strengths. Once one of us tries to take over--it’s all over.”

Ask these guys about their ages and you’ll most likely get a comment about the weather, a joke or some other diversionary response. Anything but the truth.

“I’m 45 and L.A. is 60,” deadpanned Edmonds. “Don’t I look young for 45?”

A good guess is that they’re in their late 20s.

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They didn’t mind explaining how they got their nicknames, each revealing the origin of the other’s.

“ ‘Face got his when he was doing a recording session with Bootsy Collins,” Reid said. “He walked into the session and Bootsy took one look at that baby face and said, ‘Babyface!’ That was it.”

Edmonds added, “I fought it. It hit me wrong when he said it. I wanted to hit him. Maybe the reason I didn’t like him calling me that--or anything--is that I didn’t like him very much.”

Reid’s nickname isn’t what is seems, Edmonds pointed out. L.A. isn’t short for Los Angeles. “When he was a kid he used to play with ant hills and little ants. They started calling him little ant, or L.A. for short.”

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Though both have been local residents for the last few years, they’re originally from the Midwest--Reid from Cincinnati and Edmonds from Indianapolis. They met in the Deele, a Cincinnati group, when Edmonds joined in 1981.

“We just clicked,” Edmonds said. “We saw that we thought alike and we agreed on most stuff. We complemented each other. We just gradually started working together as writers and producers.”

Both write lyrics and music. They do ballads and dance music, with Edmonds, who favors slower, romantic music, doing the bulk of the work on ballads while Reid, who prefers up-tempo material, takes the lead on dance music. Around the industry, up-tempo music is considered their strength.

After the Deele started recording for Solar Records in 1983, the duo honed their producing and writing skills by working on Deele records and with other Solar artists such as the group Dynasty. But it wasn’t until they wrote and produced the Whispers’ 1986 Top 10 pop single “Rock Steady"--also for Solar--that they started to get industry recognition. Earlier this year, their work on Pebbles’ Top 10 pop hit, the danceable “Girlfriend,” cemented their reputation and triggered a flood of offers.

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One of them came from Sheena Easton.

In a separate interview, Easton explained: “Their names were at the top of the list of the producers I wanted to work with. I heard their stuff on the radio and I loved it. I like the fact that they have a real percussive sound, partly because L.A. is a drummer. I love their bass lines too. Also, they can also mix R&B;/funk with pop better than most producers around.

“Another thing that attracted me to their sound is that they have a good background vocal sound. I like the blend they get--they don’t overharmonize and they don’t make it too intricate. The blend has a warmth to it. Also, they write good melodies--melodies that are interesting for singers.” Easton, Edmonds noted, sought them out. One of their requirements was that she do black-oriented music. “We don’t mind working with other white pop artists--as long as they understand they’re not going to take us into their camp. We take them into ours .”

The duo announced a change in its policy. “We’re not doing any more new artists,” Edmonds said, explaining that record companies have been besieging them with offers to work with fledgling acts.

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“It’s a financial thing,” Reid added. “It’s important for us to do major, established acts now. You have to concern yourself with money. If you don’t make as much money as you can, you may not be able to continue. The point is to work with acts that will make you look good. Established artists have a better chance of getting their records played.”

This kind of pragmatic, business-like approach is likely to be interpreted by record company executives as buck-chasing egomania.

“Yes, we’ve been accused of being stuck up,” Edmonds said. “But we can’t worry about that.”

However, one of their upcoming projects is a new group, After Seven. But it’s an exception because the duo is both financially involved with the group and related to its members. Their current project is Edmonds’ second solo album, which should be out before the end of the year.

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They haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be the new kids on the block, trying to get established in the industry.

“When I was just starting out and groups like the Jacksons and Earth, Wind & Fire would come to town, I’d try to get a (demonstration) tape to them,” Edmonds recalled. “But they wouldn’t take the tapes. I thought they were stuck up and their egos were too big to help out a new guy. But now, with all these new artists after us, trying to get us to help them, I understand why those artists wouldn’t help me. Everybody wants a break and you can’t help everybody.”

Suddenly he started laughing.

“Do you know what my worst nightmare is?” he asked. “It’s going home for Thanksgiving dinner and having my mother hand me a tape.”

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