In January, some of the biggest stars in music descended upon the Atlanta History Center to pay homage to the 30-year legacy of LaFace Records and its co-founders, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid. This black-tie affair, dubbed YouTube Music’s 2020 Leaders & Legends Ball, featured familiar names such as The-Dream, Ludacris, Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri; each of whom acknowledge LaFace as either a springboard or inspiration for their own immeasurable success.
“I didn’t have it in my head that we were going to make this the greatest label of all time, but in that journey, we were able to meet amazing people,” Babyface told the audience. “I feel blessed to have written the songs I wrote, but I’m just as blessed to have known and worked with the people at LaFace and to be a part of this city. There is no place like Atlanta and I don’t think there ever will be.”
The sound of Atlanta now reigns as the nucleus of hip-hop and R&B—you’ll be hard-pressed to find any contemporary song devoid of its influence—but that wasn’t always the case. Especially around 1988, when Reid and Edmonds defected from their band, The Deele, to launch LaFace Records the following year. After thrusting a promising Bobby Brown into superstardom with the seismic Don’t Be Cruel, and injecting platinum success into the catalogs of The Boys, Pebbles and The Whispers, a lucrative joint venture with Clive Davis’ Arista Records provided the perfect opportunity to tap into Atlanta’s wealth of undiscovered talent.
First up to bat was duo Damian Dame, whose bouncy “Exclusivity” gave the burgeoning label its first No. 1 hit in 1991. Comprised of Debra “Deah Dame” Hurd, who provided background vocals for The Deele after releasing her own self-titled solo album in 1983, and Bruce “Damian” Broadus, their eponymous debut album was hailed for its tender songwriting and compelling production which, of course, came from Edmonds, who handled keyboard and guitar duties, while Reid was responsible for drum programming.
“I kind of just stumbled into producing,” Edmonds told Interview. “It was more that I was a writer, and the only way you were going to get your songs done was to do them yourself.”
Jermaine Jackson would release his 13th studio album, You Said, soon after, which featured the label’s latest signees, a Bell Biv Devoe-esque trio named TLC, on the scathing “Word to the Badd!!”—a blistering rebuke of Jermaine’s superstar little brother, Michael.
“The only reason I wrote this song—and it came from the bottom of my heart—was to help my little brother get a grip on reality,” Jermaine told the L.A. Times in 1991. “I never meant to discredit him. The song was never supposed to come out in public. But now that it has, I’m here to say that, yes, I wrote it and I stand by it.”
The following year, TLC exploded onto the scene with Ooooooohhh...On the TLC Tip, a declaration of musical independence that would usher in a reign not seen since The Supremes in the 1970s. Armed with infectious hits like “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” “Baby-Baby-Baby” and “What About Your Friends,” the southern fried trio flaunted sex appeal and androgynous street savvy on their way to a multi-platinum inauguration.
But they wouldn’t be LaFace’s only preeminent act to skyrocket into the stratosphere that year, as a 24-year-old Toni Braxton showed up to show out on “Love Shoulda Brought You Home”—a song originally intended for Anita Baker—and “Give U My Heart,” her seductive duet with Babyface for the Boomerang soundtrack, which was also written and produced almost entirely by Edmonds and Reid and released on LaFace.
Toni’s official debut would arrive in 1993, courtesy of “Another Sad Love Song,” which would propel her self-titled album to over eight million in sales. Another transcendent talent would make his premiere that same year on the Poetic Justice soundtrack: 13-year-old Usher Raymond with the spunky Tim Thomas and Teddy Bishop-produced “Just Call Me a Mack.” However, Usher’s transition into a household name wasn’t nearly as smooth.
“I certainly thought he was an amazing kid,” Edmonds said on the podcast Questlove Supreme in 2017. “He came at a time when me and L.A. kind of like, had our issues.”
Those issues, in part, revolved around Reid’s insistence that Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” belonged to Usher. Slight problem: Edmonds had already promised Quincy Jones that Tevin could have it.
“I said, ‘Well, but I kind of already did this deal with Quincy. And I ain’t gonna tell Quincy no at this particular point,’” Edmonds continued. “The song was never really for Usher, but from the way that probably L.A. talked about it I’m sure L.A. said it differently at the time.”
Another hurdle that Usher faced was puberty. After his voice changed, Reid, who by this point was focused almost exclusively on the administrative side of the label, nearly dropped him from LaFace.
“It was like: ‘Damn, where’s the voice? What happened to his tone? Where’s the power and the range?’ It was all gone. I wanted to drop him. I wanted to be out of business with him,” Reid admitted to the Hollywood Reporter. “I broke his heart. I broke his mother’s heart. It was a very tough period in both our lives.”
He continued, “Then someone said to me: ‘Don’t be a fool. Don’t sell your stock in Usher. He’s still going to be a star. He’s everything you thought he was the day you signed him.’ And that person was Puffy.”
Puffy, of course, being Puff Daddy, a.k.a. Diddy, who would take Usher under his wing, put him through “Flavor Camp” and executive produce what would eventually become Usher’s self-titled debut album—which was courageous, if not wildly age-inappropriate, with its mature themes and sexual innuendo.
Usher’s prolonged gestation allowed LaFace to shift priorities and introduce Outkast, who made their world premiere on an Organized Noize-produced remix of TLC’s “What About Your Friends.” But with Toni Braxton and other artists already in tow, Reid wasn’t entirely sold on the star potential of neophytes like Big Boi and Andre 3000. So after Mercury Records forced Reid’s hand by offering the East Point, Atlanta duo a deal, the group became the first rappers signed to LaFace. And to prove their mettle, he gave them one shot on the 1993 compilation album, A LaFace Family Christmas.
That one shot ended up being arguably the funkiest Christmas songs ever, “Player’s Ball.”
(Side note: If you’re an Outkast/Dungeon Family head, I strongly suggest you read my article, “The South Got Something to Say: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Atlanta’s Dungeon Family.” You’re welcome in advance.)
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik would arrive in the spring of 1994 and with another platinum project under its belt, LaFace would extend its victory lap with releases from Tony Rich, Edmonds’ pet project Az Yet, A Few Good Men, Sam Salter, Goodie Mob, Donell Jones and others, while Usher, TLC, Toni Braxton and Outkast would continue to dominate the charts, award shows and airwaves for years to come—financial woes be damned.
By 2000, Edmond’s solo career had taken precedence, leading to Arista’s parent company, BMG, to buy out Reid and Edmond’s remaining 50 percent stake in LaFace for $100 million. Soon after, Reid was installed as President and CEO of Arista, where he would extend LaFace’s legacy with Pink’s double-platinum Can’t Take Me Home, YoungBloodZ Drankin’ Patnaz and Ciara’s sultry Goodies.
By the end of its dynasty, LaFace had cemented its status as one of the most successful record labels ever, selling over 100 million units over the course of its 17-year reign. But outside of sales, its impact on both the musical landscape and Atlanta’s economy was equally as profound.
“[Babyface and L.A. Reid] shaped the city [of Atlanta], as far as music,” The-Dream said at the 2020 Leaders & Legends Ball. “[They’re] two of my biggest inspirations growing up. I don’t know what the identity of Atlanta would be without LaFace Records.”
CeeLo Green, who would go on to have tremendous success as a solo artist after beginning his career as a member of LaFace’s Goodie Mob, echoed those sentiments.
“[Babyface and L.A. Reid] are responsible for each and everything that I’ve become and everything that I’ve aspired to be,” he said.
And while the label is no more, its legacy and influence will endure for all time.