Bobby Brown speaks: the secret behind every song on ‘Don’t Be Cruel’

As the album celebrates its 30th anniversary, and his life is celebrated in a BET biopic — Brown goes behind the music

Bobby Brown is a fighter. A real one. At the age of 14 he was trying to figure out if his new singing career was going to be a ticket out of Boston’s Orchard Park projects. Boxing was a strong backup, but Brown’s mother wanted him to give up the sport and go full throttle with a crew being called New Edition — or with anything else, really, than being in the ring.

Young Brown had been singing with neighborhood friends Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, Ralph Tresvant and Corey Rackley (who left the group), and founded what eventually became New Edition. “My mother didn’t want me to box, and my father didn’t want me to sing,” Brown says now. “I did both.”

As a teenage Golden Gloves boxer in Boston, he had a scheduled match in New York City, and his mother — begrudgingly — came with him. His career as a would-be professional boxer ended on that trip. “She saw the guy that I was supposed to fight, and she said, ‘No! You’re not fighting!’ The guy was a big white guy, and he looked rougher than me. … My mother said, ‘You’re not supposed to box. I want you to sing.’ ”

And so, he did.

In 1983, the year Brown quit the sport, New Edition recorded and released their first album, Candy Girl. Brown’s journey with New Edition wasn’t an easy one, though. After a tumultuous time with the group — as brought to life in last year’s excellent The New Edition Story miniseries — in 1985 Brown was voted out of the group he helped found. The next year, he released his first solo album, King of Stage, which spawned a lone hit, “Girlfriend.”

Singing over swinging. Had Brown chose wisely?

After King of Stage, what Brown needed was a first-round knockout. He got it in 1988. It’s been 30 years since his genre-defining second solo album Don’t Be Cruel dropped in the thick of the summer of 1988. Brown’s career was at stake. “I wanted to bring what New Edition was — but solo,” Brown said. “New Edition is a performing group, we love to perform … We practice hard and perform hard … I wanted to be able to bring that energy to people without me even speaking. I wanted to walk out on the stage and the crowd goes nuts. I wanted that.”

And the best way to do that, he thought, was to somehow mix the sounds of rhythm and blues and and the still burgeoning rap music genre. Brown had a new friendship with a young producer named Teddy Riley, who had the funky type of street sound that he craved.

“[Riley] was telling me he’s got songs. I was like, ‘We need to get together.’ I had this bassline in my head I’d been working with, but didn’t have the right beat … Teddy had the perfect beat.” Brown says all this, and then stops to hum the familiar bassline of what became “My Prerogative,” his signature song and biggest hit. “We went to his little apartment in the projects, me, him, and Aaron Hall, and we just hammered it out.”

An appetite was whetted that day. And a different kind of fight began. Whatever happened that day in New York, that was the vibe Brown wanted all over this next project — funky, fun and … different from everything that was happening in R&B music at the time. MCA Records brought him two producers to help shape his vision, but Brown wasn’t sure they could help. Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid didn’t look the part when Brown first met them.

“I was flabbergasted. I almost busted out in tears,” Brown said. “They didn’t know how to dress. I don’t know where they got their gear from, but it wasn’t [a] style I would choose for anyone. I had to tell them they have to stop wearing suits and dark shades. But they had their own flavor … so I just accepted it.”

And when he heard the first pieces of music the duo had for him? He still wasn’t sure it was the right fit. “They had really smooth, well-written songs,” Brown said. “And I just didn’t believe in them. But … miracles happen.”

So they did.

The new The Bobby Brown Story, starring Woody McClain as Brown and Gabrielle Dennis as Whitney Houston, airs on BET Sept. 4 and 5, and tells the story of Brown as solo artist. This is the behind-the-scenes story of Don’t Be Cruel, an album that changed R&B forever — and became the blueprint for the careers of Usher, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber and more. Let’s take it song by song with Bobby Brown.

1. Cruel Prelude Full Track

Before a lyric is crooned, Brown’s album begins. In this hauntingly melodic 37 seconds is a hint of the sophistication Brown is going for.

“I had no fears,” Brown said. “I knew it was great music. I knew I was working with great producers, and I knew we’d done something great in the studio. And I knew [record executive] Louil Silas Jr., and [publicist] Juanita Stephens, and [record executive] Jheryl Busby were behind me — I just appreciated that.”

2. Don’t Be Cruel Full Track

This actually was the second track that Brown laid down for this album — hearing the song excited the singer because it had all the trimmings he was looking for in this new musical direction. Reid and Edmonds were delivering.

“I remember just running the lyrics, and going in there and singing it, and then listening to it. Once I listened, it was just like, ‘OK. It got rap, it got R&B. That’s what I need.’” He also got a title track — making this song the name of the entire album was a direct message. “With my first album they was judging me because I was kicked out of New Edition … the fans were judging me. So with Don’t be Cruel it was basically telling them, ‘Don’t be cruel. Just listen to the music. Watch the videos. And trust me, I’m not going to flake out and be an artist that you won’t love. Because I’m all about love. Everything about me is all about love.’”

3. My Prerogative Full Track

The biggest track on the album wasn’t the title cut though, it was this — the song Brown, Riley and Hall worked on together in New York, and the song that ended up being nominated for a Grammy, and was No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It also nabbed the top 10 positions in places such as Ireland, New Zealand, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

“I had to let people know that, ‘What I’m going to do is what I’m going to do. Don’t be mad about it. It’s my prerogative,’” Brown said. “And that’s for everybody to feel. It’s your prerogative. Whatever you’re going to do, you’re going to do it anyway. So don’t be ashamed of who you are, or what you are, or what you’re going to do. Just be you. As long as you be you, nobody can take that away from you.” Brown said he was speaking to a lot of folks at that point in his life — he’d heard enough from distractors. “It’s my prerogative that I had a baby at 17. It’s my prerogative that I got married at 23. Or it’s my prerogative that I do what I do, that I get on stage every night and bust my a– just to entertain people. It’s my prerogative,” he said. “This is what I want to do. So I do it.”

This was the last song he recorded for the album— Brown left the Los Angeles studio to go back to Riley and Hall in New York so that they could record the song they’d worked on in Riley’s apartment — this was the sound that Brown wanted. It was the jumping-off spot for the entire project: the aggressive, synth-y sound Brown wanted. “The person I was at that time, I was really in the mood for some funk, and something just … nasty. And Teddy gave it to me,” Brown said.

4. Roni Full Track

This slow track was the first song recorded on Brown’s album — and it was never even intended for him. Edmonds planned for this song to be on his second studio album, Tender Lover. Edmonds had already recorded the track. But Brown heard it and loved it, and asked if he could lay down some vocals.

“I put some power in it when I sung it. He was flabbergasted. He was just like, ‘Dude. Oh, yeah, this is your song. This ain’t my song.’ Because he was also doing his album at the same time, so it was like a battle of who could sing the song better,” Brown remembered with a laugh. “He wrote it, and he had it ready for his album. But he played it for me and I was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to put some heat on that.’ He’s like, ‘What you mean?’ I was like, ‘Put me in the studio. Let me show you.’ And he heard me sing it. Him and L.A. was like, ‘No, this got to go on your album.’”

R&B singer Bobby Brown performs onstage circa 1988.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

5. Rock Wit’cha Full Track

A song that defined radio’s quiet storm sound, Brown says he had someone specific in mind when he was recording this track.

According to Brown, he’d been in a relationship with Janet Jackson around this time. She’d had ridiculous success with her 1987 Control, which coincidentally was precursor to what Brown would do with Don’t Be Cruel. “I was in a relationship with Janet, I dedicated it to her,” he said. “I don’t know why. I do know why, but you know, that’s an old story.”

6. Every Little Step Full Track

Brown wasn’t pleased when he heard this track. It reminded him of everything he was trying to escape.

“Didn’t like that song at all. Didn’t want to even do it because it just sounded too candy-ish, like New Edition,” he said. “So, [I was like] … OK, I’ll do it. But I don’t know if it’s going to make the album. But it made the album and it was a hit.” It was a hit — and then some. The track earned Brown his first Grammy, for best male R&B vocal performance at the 1990 ceremony.

Left photo: R&B singer Bobby Brown poses for a portrait session holding an October 1986 issue of “Right On!” magazine in Los Angeles. Right photo: Brown with a girl on stage.

R&B singer Bobby Brown poses for a portrait session holding an October 1986 issue of “Right On!” magazine in Los Angeles.

Brown with a girl on stage.

7. I’ll Be Good to You Full Track

Brown co-wrote this track with Gene Griffin, who was instrumental in writing and producing music for acts such as Guy, Wreckx-n-Effect, Keith Sweat, Boy George and Heavy D.

“We were having fun … just having fun, and the track just was too funky to give up. I didn’t want to give that track to nobody,” Brown said. “After writing it we just decided it would go onto the album.”

8. Take It Slow Full Track

Brown went to trusted friend Larry White to help him with this track. White had delivered Brown’s lone hit from King of Stage, “Girlfriend,” which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B charts for two weeks.

“Larry, he’s just always been a good friend. He used to play guitar for me. And he wrote ‘Girlfriend.’ And I needed another hit,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to the source.’ You know? And Larry was there with a brand-new song that was just dynamite, and I was able to write something on it that was good.”

9. All Day All Night Full Track

This sexed-up track came after a night of fishing. Brown laughs at the memory. They took a break from recording the album to do something entirely different. He and White (who co-wrote the track) left the studio to go fishing — and they didn’t catch a thing. So they headed back to the studio to work on what became this sexy tune.

“We just went in the studio and started writing, and that’s what came out,” Brown said.

Bobby Brown performs at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis in May 1989.

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

10. I Really Love You Girl Full Track

Brown had a lot to work for. He was only 19 years old when Don’t Be Cruel dropped, but he was already a father. The mother of his children had gone through a lot — her children’s father was on the road, chasing fame and trying to redirect a career for which he’d sacrificed a lot. And Brown wanted to honor her. He’d scribbled down what ultimately became the lyrics to this track years ago in homage. He ended up co-writing this song with Gordon Jones.

“My daughter and my son’s mother — I had wrote that song so long ago — and I wrote it for her and sung it to her first. And then all of a sudden, here I am doing my second album, and I figured, ‘Why not put it on the album?’”

11. Cruel Reprise Full Track

The album closes out in the same way it began, with those haunting chamber musiclike sounds, signaling the end of the genre-defining, game-changing album. What Brown and his production team were able to do was almost single-handedly change everything — with one album. Don’t Be Cruel has inspired so much of what we hear today in pop music.

And 30 years later, it still resonates.

“It means everything,” Brown said. “We put in the work, and the people appreciated it. The people took to it. It’s everlasting. These days, these cats are putting out music that is going to be forgotten in 20 days. So I’m just grateful that we were able to do things that are memorable, that gives a message, and spreads love throughout the world. It’s just been a nice journey, to be able to make music to uplift people, and give people some type of hope, some type of spirit that life doesn’t give you. You need music in order to maintain your sanity. Music lets you remember different things. Music is everything.”

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.