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Babyface and the 'Q' Factor

Q & A: Kenneth Edmonds, his stamp now on more than 100 hit singles, is being compared to Quincy Jones.

November 06, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds nods when asked how he has found time to help shape more than 100 Top 10 R&B and pop singles over the last decade. He listens politely while reminded of all the hats he wears: songwriter, singer, record producer, record company executive and, now, film producer.

"Don't forget the baby," he says with a broad smile, referring to his 9-week-old son, Brandon. "The secret is knowing how to set priorities and then knowing when to shut the door and say, 'I don't want any calls, I don't care who it is.'

"But now I'm going to have to close that door more often because my wife, Tracey, and I want to be around when Brandon starts becoming aware of what's going on in the world. . . . That's as important to us as anything else we could do."

Edmonds--who has produced hits for such varied artists as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton and Madonna--is sitting in a trailer in downtown Los Angeles during a break in the shooting of a video for "Every Time I Close My Eyes." That's a song from his new album, "The Day," which is expected to debut in the national Top 10 this week.

Edmonds, 38, and Tracey are then off to Chicago to begin filming "Soul Food," a movie that their company, Edmonds Entertainment, is producing. Starring Vanessa Williams, it is the story of a family struggling to maintain its ties.

First, however, the four-time Grammy winner and Beverly Hills resident speaks about his music, his influences and what it's like to be called the Quincy Jones of the '90s.

*

Question: Of all your many professional hats, which single thing is the most important to you? The producing? The writing?

*

Answer: The writing. At the end of the day, my goal isn't to be remembered as a record producer who had tons and tons of

hits, but as a songwriter. That is what pushes me to keep going. . . . Trying to write songs that not only work today, but that people will always listen to . . . the way they do songs by Stevie Wonder or the Beatles.

Q: Were they inspirations to you?

A: Absolutely. I must have been 6 years old when the Beatles were on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and I still remember the excitement of that music. I was writing songs by the time I was in the sixth grade. I was a pretty shy kid, and music gave me a way to express my feelings. I began by writing my thoughts in a diary.

Q: Why do you think music made such a big impact on you?

A: I remember reacting very strongly to a lot of things when I was young. I was very impressionable. I remember when [John] Kennedy got shot . . . the sadness around my house. . . . And then when Martin [Luther King Jr.] and Robert Kennedy were shot as well. I remember how sad everything was . . . how the day seemed gray. All those emotions are the tools that a writer draws upon.

Q: Did you study writers when you began to see how they put songs together?

A: Sure, I guess you could say I studied Stevie Wonder. I'd sit down with a guitar and play Stevie Wonder songs and make up my own words. I wanted to be him so bad at one point I think I would even have been willing to be blind if that would make me as wise and as talented as him. He was the whole package. . . . A musician, writer, singer, humanitarian. When you hear one of his songs, you know it's him even before he starts singing. There's so much character and mood in the melodies.

Q: Do you think melodies are more important than the lyrics?

A: Yes. The emotion of a song is found more in the melody than the words. You can only write "I love you" one way, but the music and the voice can add a million inflections. That's why we can write love songs forever and still find new ways to express it.

Q: Given your extraordinary success, it's hard for most people to imagine a time when things weren't going your way professionally. Have things been as smooth as they look from the outside?

A: On no, I went through the same struggle as everyone else. . . . The years of trying to get a record deal, trying to get a song placed. I'm 38 and I've been in music ever since I got out of high school.

Q: How long did the frustrations continue?

A: To tell you the truth, I would say it's only been the past couple of years that I've gotten rid of all the bad contracts that you enter into when you are getting started . . . just because you don't have the knowledge that you need.

Q: Were you surprised at all the outcry in the record industry last year when you didn't get an Oscar nomination for any of your songs from "Waiting to Exhale"? It was one of the most acclaimed albums of the year and a lot of critics and your peers pointed to the omission as another sign of how far out of touch awards competitions often are.

A: It didn't really bother me. It's hard to expect to be nominated the first time out. Plus, awards just aren't the most important thing to me.

Q: How do you feel then about being called the Quincy Jones of the '90s?

A: Well, it's flattering, but when someone seems to be serious about it, I'll stop and explain why I'm not Quincy Jones and why there'll probably never be another Quincy Jones. None of us today will be fortunate enough to live the life that Quincy lived. We won't ever get the chance to play with and be around the greatest musicians in the world the way he did, from Miles Davis on. . . . That's a richness and experience that you can't replace.

I'm just honored that Quincy is a friend of mine and that he respects what I do. He's wonderfully generous with advice . . . about music and about life. He's like an uncle. It's amazing when you think about it. I can call Quincy Jones and he'll take my call. I can call Stevie Wonder and he'll take my call. That's more important to me than any awards.

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