When Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Teddy Riley finally fought their long-promised musical battle on Instagram Live last week, the half-million or so fans who’d tuned in knew they were lucky to be witnessing two giants of 1980s and ’90s R&B going against each other hit for hit.
Two nights before the blockbuster April 20 event — part of the pandemic-inspired Verzuz series organized by Swizz Beatz and Timbaland — an earlier attempt by the two flamed out amid technical difficulties that led to countless befuddled-uncle jokes on social media. And before that, Edmonds revealed that he and his wife, Nicole Patenburg, had just recovered from COVID-19 — the reason, many presumed, that he’d called off the duel originally scheduled for April 5.
“It was kind of like a heavyweight fight,” Edmonds, 61, said Wednesday on the phone from his studio in Los Angeles. “The first fight’s canceled, second one was a technical knockout, then the third one is the big rematch and everybody’s there.”
What viewers might not have known as they watched the pair spin classics like “Whip Appeal,” “No Diggity” and “When Can I See You” is that Edmonds never actually agreed to that first contest.
“When it came up initially, there were discussions, and somehow or another signals got mixed and somebody said I said yes,” recalled the producer and songwriter known for his solo work and for his many collaborations with the likes of Toni Braxton, Johnny Gill, Boyz II Men, Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. “I was like, ‘I never confirmed this — I said I’d consider it!’ And then next thing I know, April 5, the battle was on.” He laughed. “I wasn’t prepared, so I didn’t do it. And then the fallout came.”
After some intense persuasion by fans — and several famous friends, including Sean “Diddy” Combs (formerly known as “Puffy”) and record executive Andre Harrell — Edmonds came around to the idea, so much so that he’s set to return to Instagram on May 10 for a live Mother’s Day special in which he’ll offer an annotated run through his smash soundtrack for 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale.”
We called him to discuss his late-in-life embrace of social media and his bout with COVID-19, of which he said he began experiencing symptoms shortly after a gig last month at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
Did you suspect right away that you had the coronavirus?
Not initially. I was feeling sick, but I never had the flu before, so I didn’t know what that feeling was like.
Wait, you never had the flu?
Nope. I can’t even think of the last time I had a fever. So when it started happening, at first I was like, This is something. But as the days went by and it was still fever, still aching, still sweating, I was like, All right, so when’s this gonna stop? At this point I’m by myself here in the studio. I’m thinking, well, if nothing else, I can work. But I had no energy to get up and do anything.
Where was your wife?
She was at home. When I landed from Vegas, I decided to self-quarantine at the studio, since we were unsure what I had. Figured maybe she and [their 11-year-old daughter] Peyton ain’t got it.
Were you scared?
You start to get in your head. You start thinking, What if it gets hard to breathe? I felt like I was experiencing that. I got one of those oximeters and it was a little low — not in the dangerous area, but even a little low, you figure, OK, it’s gonna go down from there.
There were definitely moments where I was like, Maybe I should get my things in order just in case this goes south. I’d heard that when it goes south, it goes really fast and you don’t have time for anything.
What happened after you were tested?
It took 10 days to get my test back, and by that time I was feeling better. I’d probably recovered. But I waited another week [to return home], so in all I was in the studio for 17 days. My case ended up very mild, compared to what other people have gone through.
Your wife ended up testing positive too.
She had a cough and lost her sense of taste and smell. Peyton — nothing, fortunately.
So the battle with Teddy Riley. Did you have a sense how big a deal this would be?
No sense at all. I’ve been on Instagram, but rarely. My managers say, “You need to make sure you engage,” but that just hasn’t been my thing. Plus, the whole idea of doing a battle — it’s cute, but I don’t wanna battle.
You don’t think of music as a competition.
I didn’t like the sound of it. But when that first one didn’t happen, people were like, “What are you doing!?” They were all dressed up, waiting at home for this night. Then I got a call from L.A. Reid, because initially the battle was supposed to be Teddy against me and L.A. — our music that we produced together. But with Instagram Live you can’t have three people, and we couldn’t have me and L.A. together because of social distancing. Anyway, I heard from Andre and Puffy and L.A., and they suggested to me — I don’t wanna say “pleaded,” but maybe Andre was a plead — that I do it on behalf of music. They said, “We find ourselves in a unique space where people need music, and this is a gift that you can give. Don’t think of it as a battle — think of it as a celebration.”
You’re known as a pretty reserved guy. Did even a celebration feel out of character?
Puffy said, “Face, f— that shy s—.” Those were his words. That just made me laugh. It convinced me to take it seriously and say, “OK, I’m gonna do this.” And I got really into it. I worked with L.A., and it was kind of like old times — talking on the phone about the songs, going over everything. How successful it was, that blew us away. And what I learned from it is that people still want this music — they’re starving for it.
You had jokes too, like when you called out Teddy for playing a remix of a Janet Jackson song he didn’t produce — then added, “That ain’t a problem, ’cause I don’t remix anyway.”
The truth is, I never did remixes, so I couldn’t compete with that. And really I was doing that for Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis [who produced the Jackson song]. It wasn’t about the contest. I’m like, “Isn’t that a Jimmy and Terry song?” Other than that, I wasn’t trying to throw any rocks. That’s not who I am. But that’s what they came back with: “Oh, Babyface can throw some shade.” I’ll work with it.
How’d you come up with the idea for this Mother’s Day special?
While Teddy and I were online, people kept commenting, “Play ‘Waiting to Exhale’ stuff,” but I had to stick to my game plan — all the songs I’d laid out to respond to Teddy’s songs. So I decided I’d go live again and play the ‘Exhale’ album and tell stories about how it happened and talk about the artists and the whole journey of it, because it was an amazing thing. People feel so attached to it.
The attachment to your music came through in the battle with Teddy, which lots of folks framed as a real demonstration of black excellence. Was that gratifying?
No question. It was a moment in history we were part of and something that made us all proud. That this is happening in our culture, and everyone in our culture is supporting each other in the process — it’s a really beautiful thing.