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The King of Sing

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With so much of the media’s attention keyed on the rap explosion of the past few years, it’s easy to overlook the fact that R&B; has lately experienced a singing renaissance.

Artists who learned their lessons from the great R&B; vocalists of the ‘70s, then absorbed the best hip-hop of the late ‘80s, have achieved a virtual chart monopoly in the late ‘90s with their lavishly produced dance-soul hybrids. And among the current crop of accomplished R&B; vocal acts--a group that includes Gerald Levert, Dru Hill, Bryan McKnight, R. Kelly and Maxwell--K-Ci & JoJo, whose career took off with the 1997 hit single “All My Life,” are the current Kings of Sing.

“It makes us feel good that there are so many great singing cats out there,” says K-Ci Hailey. “It’s good to see that real music is back, and it looks like it’s gonna stay here for a while. Everyone’s working so hard, it feels good to be a part of this era.”

“Two or three years ago, R&B; was the bastard child of the business,” says Jeff Redd, MCA Records’ vice president of A&R.; “But no matter what they do as far as hip-hop, a good song at the end of the day is a good song. ‘All My Life’ came through when hip-hop was at its peak, and it cut right through, because it touched people. Soul is a feeling that people long for, and that’s why I think these guys are successful.”

Certainly, K-Ci & JoJo are doing their part to stoke the R&B; vocal counterrevolution. In 1997, the brothers split off from the hit vocal group Jodeci and emerged with a PG-rated take on their former band’s heavy-breathing R&B--the; musical equivalent, if you will, of safe sex. It worked spectacularly well. The duo’s 1997 debut album, “Love Always,” sold more than 4 million copies, and K-Ci & JoJo also became suave sex symbols in the process.

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“I like to make the girls scream!” K-Ci says during a lunch interview at a Beverly Hills hotel. He and his brother are on the tail-end of a marketing blitz to promote their new album, “It’s Real,” and they’re both feeling playfully punchy. “Thats what K-Ci loves to do,” adds JoJo, 28. “I’m not as comfortable behind the mike.”

Singing chops aside, this is a boom time for the siblings. “It’s Real” debuted in the Top 10 of the national sales chart last month, and has sold more than 300,000 copies. It may take some work to build enough momentum to match the success of its predecessor, but K-Ci & JoJo will do whatever it takes to make that happen.

“Fans are fickle, man,” says JoJo, puffing a large cigar. “You’ve gotta stay on top of it. Fortunately, our management and label are putting together a great marketing plan, and we really need to make our tour successful.”

The offspring of a nurturing and devotional Pentecostal family in tiny Monroe, N.C., the two brothers (whose real first names are Cedric and Joel) were discouraged from trying to make a career as secular performers.

“Our family, man, is like 90% singers,” says K-Ci, 29. “We would have been raised in the church 24 hours a day, seven days a week if necessary. My mother made us go to church, and that plays an important role in what we’re doing today. If you listen to our material, you hear the gospel influence.”

Like so many Southern-bred singers, K-Ci and JoJo learned their vocal skills in church, but felt the seductive tug of secular music at an early age. They then had to reconcile their religious upbringing with the urge to emulate their pop-culture role models.

“Growing up, we listened to all the great singers--Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Al Green, Stevie Wonder,” says K-Ci. “But we had to sneak their records into our house, ‘cause our mama didn’t want us to get caught up in it. She wouldn’t let us go and buy the records.”

Adds JoJo, “Mama didn’t want us to do this at all, but I don’t know any mother that would want her children to go to New York at the age of 17 with $700 in their pocket to try to pursue a career that’s not particularly promising.”

That’s just what the brothers did, but the outcome was far more positive than their mother had envisioned. With no contacts or leads, the duo, along with childhood chums Devante and Dalvin DeGrate, sweet-talked their way into a meeting with Andre Harrell, then president of Uptown Records. An impromptu a cappella audition in Harrell’s office led to a contract for the quartet, which combined syllables of the members’ names to call itself Jodeci.

Jodeci notched six Top 20 singles before K-Ci and JoJo, restless and eager to step out from the shadow of Devante, who handled a fair share of the production duties, signed a separate contract with MCA in 1997. (The old lineup will reunite to record a new Jodeci album that’s expected sometime next year.)

The pair’s success changed their lives as well as the lives of their family members, but the sexually charged nature of their material raised some hackles among the congregation back home.

“I won’t lie to you; when we walked into church, we walked with our heads down,” says K-Ci. “They were understandably not happy with some of the things we were singing about, but they were happy we weren’t out there selling drugs, so they cut us a little slack.”


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