My wife is pretty awesome, y’all.
In the weeks leading up to my birthday last month, the wifey was hard at work on a super-secret surprise. All I was told was to make sure I dressed nice after work – she was going to pick me up and we were going to some mysterious locale.
That locale wound up being the Magic City Music Festival, a massive concert of featuring ’80s and ’90s R&B and hip-hop titans headlined by MY BOY, Keith Sweat himself!
The wifey done good!
But one of the biggest highlights of the night – besides Keith gyrating on a giant speaker in a white linen suit – was a set from En Vogue. The Funky Divas ran through their catalog, hit record after hit record, launched into an old-school set and even debuted new material.
But that pic leaves the door open for a slew of questions: Why were there only three members instead of four? Where is Dawn Robinson? Didn’t she rejoin them? Who is that new lady? And where have these women been hiding all these years?
Go ‘head and take a seat. I’ve got a LOT to catch you up on.
The story of En Vogue begins with Club Nouveau. Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, producers and former members of the group, decided that they were in the market for a new-age girl group. They envisioned a trio in the mold of the classic groups of the 50s and 60s – smart, sexy, strong willed and charismatic.
Nah, bruh, not quite.
Auditions were held and making the cut were Maxine Jones, Dawn Robinson and former Miss Black California Cindy Herron. However, Terry Ellis was so impressive during the tryouts that she was added too, making the group a quartet.
Good thing, too. Terry was always my personal fave.
The group was soon christened
For You, um Vogue, nah EN VOGUE and history was about to be made.
En Vogue came roaring out of the gate in April 1990 with their debut album, Born to Sing. And for nearly the entirety of 1990, they basically LIVED at the top of the R&B charts. Just forward their mail up there.
“Don’t Go” SHOULD have been a No. 1 hit too but peaked at No. 3. Looking back at their video, these Twitter activists would have think-pieced their video to death, screaming APPROPRIATION until your timelines bleed.
But most of y’all don’t know the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation so I’m Ray Charles to the Wacktivists.
Back to the ladies: Born to Sing was a platinum hit, spawning a remix album (remember when those were a thing?) and making En Vogue the new big players in R&B.
The hits just kept on comin’. In 1992, the ladies dropped Funky Divas, packed up their Uhaul and once again set up residence at the top of the charts.
“My Lovin (You’re Never Gonna Get it)?” No. 1 hit. “Giving Him Something He Can Feel?” No. 1 hit. And that’s not even counting the success of tracks like “Free Your Mind,” which peaked at No. 8 on the R&B charts but still became of the group’s signature hits.
Soon after, arguably their most widely known contribution was born. When Salt-N-Pepa needed vocal powerhouses to back them on their latest single, they turned to EV, giving birth to “Whatta Man” in late 1993.
Now if you were just an embryo giving your momma gas in 93, you probably can’t appreciate the magnitude of that song. But trust me, if you had a working radio in 1993-1994 YOU HEARD THIS SONG EVERY DAY OF YOUR GOD-GIVEN LIFE. While researching this post I was shocked to see it only peaked at No. 3 – I could have sworn it was No. 1 until at least 1998. That’s how much airplay that song received.
Fueled the Salt-N-Pepa assist and their own hits, Funky Divas became a No. 1 hit, reaching triple platinum status. And because I haven’t emphasized enough how ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS “Whatta Man” was, En Vogue also dropped a six-song EP called Runaway Love, which featured the S-N-P collabo, the title track and a bunch of Funky Divas remixes.
Now, my brothers and my sisters, if you’re a fan of this column, you already know what’s about to happen:
We’ve talked about the group’s rise to fame. We’ve talked about their chart topping success.
And now, here come the drama.
I’ll never forget this – the year was 1996 and I was sitting on my bedroom floor reading something. My TV was tuned in to BET, naturally. I wasn’t paying attention until I heard some piano keys drop.
My ears perked up.
Then a OOOOOOOHHHH OOOOOHHHH OOOOOOOHHHHHH OOOOOOOHHHHHHH rang out
Then I raised my head.
THEN electric guitar notes ran through my room like Barry Allen.
I’m like “WORD?”
THENNN the beat dropped and I heard these four infamous words:
WHAT’S IT GONNA BE?!
THAT RIGHT THERE IS MY SONG!
Despite their massive success, I was probably just a passing fan of En Vogue at best. I recognized their talent and I liked a lot of their songs but there was no song of theirs I truly loved.
UNTIL THAT DAY.
“Don’t Let Go” INSTANTLY hooked me. And others felt the same way – it was yet another No. 1 hit, in fact their biggest song to date. I rushed out to cop the Set It Off soundtrack on which it was featured (great soundtrack, BTW) and eagerly awaited their upcoming album.
I was just getting on the En Vogue bandwagon. But Dawn Robinson was getting off.
There has LONG been speculation about why Dawn dipped, with rumors ranging from ego issues to dreams of solo success to straight-up unreliability. The somewhat-official reason is a contract dispute, which is as good a reason as any, I guess.
Regardless, with an album half-recorded and a hit single in their lap, the group decided to push on as a trio instead of dropping the project entirely. EV3 dropped in the summer of 1997, right after my high school graduation!
Yeah, I’m elderly.
The album fared well, thanks to that huge bump from “Don’t Let Go” and, as usual, became a platinum seller. But personally speaking, this was the first album that felt like a bit of a misstep. I wasn’t a big fan of “Whatever” and it’s American Horror Story music video. And then they started yelling at mannequin people frozen in time on “Too Gone Too Long” I took a hard pass.
Oh well, I’m gettin’ mad, they gettin’ rich.
In 2000, the trio returned for another shot of glory with Masterpiece Theatre. But, as most R&B pundits know, the early 2000s were a tough time for seasoned 90s R&B acts. Times were a’changin’ and it was hard for some groups to adapt. The girls dropped “Riddle” as their first (and only) single from the project but everyone was too busy listening to Thong Song or something. The track was actually kinda fun in all its goofy glory – it’s basically a nursery rhyme about a cheater – but it just didn’t make an impact.
And now it’s once again time to play R&B Singer Shuffleboard.
In 2001, Amanda Cole was added to the group, with En Vogue once again becoming a quartet.
We’re at four.
BUT WAIT! Maxine grew tired of life on the road and retired to take care of her kid.
We’re down to three.
BUT WAIT! Amanda disappeared before most people even knew she joined the group.
Now we’re at two.
BUT WAIT! Amanda was soon replaced with actress Rhona Bennett.
Back at three.
Y’all got me out here counting like a garbage 21 Savage song.
Rhona’s name might not ring a bell but I bet her characters do – she played Nicole on the Jamie Foxx Show and BELIEVE IT OR NOT she played the voice of Loquatia the talking computer on the very worst sitcom off all time, “Homeboys in Outer Space.”
That show nearly sent us back to the plantation, good lord.
Anyway, this new EV3 dropped Soul Flower in 2003, an album I honestly can say I never heard. I do remember their funky single “Ooh Boy,” which I always thought was pretty fun. That single, nor the album, made any impact on mainstream ears.
OK, y’all stay with me, cuz things are bout to get confusing. Again.
Cindy would take a hiatus from the group to give birth and be temporarily replaced by a returning Maxine during a European tour. Cindy would come back for her spot soon after and would be joined by Dawn, fresh from her own solo project. At some point Rhona would take a step back. (I just can’t determine exactly WHEN due to conflicting reports. And y’all wonder why I only do these columns like once every six months, they’re HARD, y’all.)
Anyway, the original EV would sign with The Firm Management Group and the industry was abuzz about an En Vogue comeback. But y’all know Dawn is gonna Dawn, so she drops out AGAIN, allowing Rhona to return. Unfortunately, that lineup shakeup caused the group to be dropped from their contract.
Then, circa 2008, ONCE AGAIN, Dawn rejoins the group – and ONCE AGAIN by 2011 or so, she’s gone, with Rhona picking up the slack.
Rhona really is the MVP. Working on Homeboys in Outer Space toughens your resolve.
And then things get REALLY messy, playa – Maxine would leave the group with Dawn and get into a nasty legal fight over the other members over use of the En Vogue name.
Remember when WCW had NWO Hollywood vs NWO Wolfpac? This is the R&B version of that. They just need different-colored T-shirts so I can tell who is on which side.
Cindy and Terry were ruled to have rights over the En Vogue name since they held the group’s LLC, so Maxine and Dawn decided to create their own group, Heirs to the Throne.
But too bad playa, cuz Dawn is gonna Dawn and she bounced once again, eventually landing on TV One’s R&B Divas. And what a trainwreck THAT turned out to be. Meanwhile, Maxine got two more girls and started touring under the name En Vogue to the Max, which I find hilariously awesome. Of course the courts weren’t having THAT and that experiment didn’t last long. Maxine decided to try her hand at a solo career instead.
And now, we FINALLY get to current times. Whew.
Y’all tired? Cuz I’m TIRED.
Terry, Cindy and Rhona are prepping for their next album, Electric Café, which includes the single “I’m Good,” which they sang just for me on my birthday.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Should They Come Back?: Did you not READ the 1700 words that preceded that question? They’re coming back whether you like it or not. And I don’t know about you but I DO like it.
Judging from their live performance last month, they’ve still got the vocal chops and, thanks to the wave of nostalgia currently riding through R&B, I’m sure there are tons of fans waiting to hear new music. Selfishly, I wish we got another solo album from Terry somewhere along the way. Her 1995 solo release Southern Gal was pretty great.
It’s odd that despite their legendary pedigree, En Vogue’s contributions seem to be becoming lost to time. I think a strong comeback album could remind these young’ns who really sketched the blueprint.
And hey, they gave me one of the best birthday parties ever so I’m down for whatever.