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Music Review
Boy Bands: Boyz to Men by Todd Inoue

A guide to prepube soul stars. Or, does success stop when the nuts drop?


The life of a prepubescent soul singer resembles that of a butterfly's. The prepube star begins as a beautiful creature, flitting around, being constantly fawned over and ogled at. It collects some nectar; when it reaches old age, it gets picked apart by young fans or burned under the magnifying glass of the press. Then another butterfly comes along to take its place. The career of a preteen soul artist is blessedly short unless you're a genius (Stevie Wonder), an expert repackager (Bow Wow and IMX, who appeared at the Compaq Center on Sept. 1), or a certified eccentric (Michael Jackson). There are many battles to be won: puberty, a fickle public, vices, and bad business decisions. Here's a roundup of prepube soul singers yesterday and today -- some who made it, and others who are parking your car.

Bow Wow
Peak Activity: 2002
Big Hit: "Take You Home"

Scoop: They grow up so fast. Jermaine Dupri sidekick and Snoop Dogg protégé Bow Wow has already dropped the Li'l from his name. The 15-year-old isn't going the Aaron Carter route; Bow Wow is entering his teens and bringing his fans with him. He's making movies (Like Mike) and music that re-flect his growth and personality.

In what may be a case of mistaken identity, Bow Wow's movie, Like Mike, shows the pint-sized rapper as still the lovable, huggable guy. The promotional video for the song "Basketball" shows Bow Wow in the firm clutch of puberty, bulging Adam's Apple and all. Digesting the two Bow Wows in one video is a difficult task -- like cutting between the fat and skinny Elvises. A multi-media threat, Bow Wow has the best chance of continued success. Watch out for this guy.

Where Is He Now?: He head-lined the Scream 2 Tour with B2K and IMX in Oakland on Aug. 31.

Li'l Romeo
Peak Activity: 2002
Big Hit: "My Baby," "2-Way"

Scoop: When the market was flooded with too many thug-life CDs, No Limit's Percy "Master P" Miller realized the situation. He turned his attention to what was hot -- teen pop -- and scored huge by positioning his 11-year old son, Li'l Romeo, in that direc-tion. It's been a turn of fortune for P and No Limit, who was pre-viously releasing music from Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, and Mia X, among others. Now we see P on the Nickelodeon stage hyping the crowd for his son.

As for the music, it's surpris-ingly slick. Romeo has a certified hit with "2-Way," and his seg-ment on MTV Cribs had to be one of the oddest, funniest installments ever. His lifestyle is the stuff of kid's dreams, and he's living life as Richie Rich, enjoying every minute.

Where Is He Now?: All over Nickelodeon and Radio Disney -- and probably checking out his new clothing line, re-shooting parts of his movie, Shorty. New album Game Time comes out in the fall.

Peak Activity: 1994; 2002
Big Hit: "Never Lie"

Scoop: Immature is one of those industry rarities who arrived as boys, repackaged themselves at the onset of puberty and carved out a decent career since then, penning steamy R&B hits. The group treated its past like a plague (one album was titled Playtime Is Over), distancing itself from the treacle of its early releases. Immature found it wise to update its act and -- taking a cue from Kentucky Fried Chicken -- reduced its name to a three-letter abbreviation IMX.

Where Are They Now?: Opening up for Bow Wow and enjoying a second wind of popularity.

Peak Activity: 2000
Big Hit: "I Like It"

Scoop: Sammie was 12 years old when he left his Miami home to consort with producer Dallas Austin in Atlanta. The resulting album, From the Bottom to the Top, was a bottom-to-the-top flop on radio. Though the album went gold, he missed the Bow Wow/Li'l Romeo platinum gravy train by a year.

Where Is He Now?: MIA. Unless he challenges Emmanuel Lewis to a bout on Celebrity Boxing, Sammie is destined for obscurity.

Tevin Campbell
Peak Activity: 1991-1993
Big Hit: "Can We Talk?"

Scoop: The silky-throated Tevin Campbell began his career at 13 with T.E.V.I.N. He had fans in Quincy Jones, Prince, Narada Michael Walden, Babyface, and Pebbles. His voice changed, his looks hard-ened and rough times got rougher in July 1999 when Campbell was busted outside a Van Nuys elementary school for proposi-tioning an under-cover officer for oral sex. He pleaded no contest, was convicted of a misdemeanor, fined $1,080, and ordered to attend Narcotics Anonymous and AIDS-awareness classes.

Today, Tevin still banks on his name and connections and has a fairly successful career overseas. Campbell, who was often compared to Michael Jackson, could have been as big as Usher is today. His story is a cautionary tale of talent and ambition left sadly unfulfilled.

Where Is He Now?: Big in Japan, with a best-of album.

Kris Kross Krossed Out: Kris Kross made it big in '92 with "Jump" only to disappear into preteen popstar obscurity.

Kris Kross
Peak Activity: 1992
Big Hit: "Jump"

Scoop: In a way, Kris Kross was a pioneer for the dirty South, proudly representing Atlanta, now a hotbed of hip-hop. The group included then-19-year-old Jermaine Dupri on the boards. Yes, Chris "Daddy Mack" Smith and Chris "Mack Daddy" Kelly taught us all to "jump," but one thing they couldn't leap over was the lasting effects of puberty. The follow-up -- fortuitously called Da Bomb -- suffered the dreaded sophomore slump. By 1996, their voices had fully crossed over into man mode. They came out with a couple of G'd-up singles, but by then their core fans were onto other things.

PS: That backward-clothes ("totally krossed out") look was one of the stupidest fads ever. But if you didn't like it, you can get the finger (the middle).

Where Are They Now?: MIA.

New Edition
Peak Activity: 1988
Big Hit: "Candy Girl," "Cool It Now," "Can You Stand the Rain"

Scoop: Maurice Starr helped propel this group to stardom, positioning them as the new-school answer to the Jackson 5. The members -- Ronnie DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, Ralph Tresvant, and later, Johnny Gill -- were all talented singers and dancers. The group has gone through various ups and downs -- mostly to do with Bobby Brown's various missteps -- but the members managed to keep the late '80s and early '90s interesting, as documented on the excellent compilation of solo and group hits All the Number Ones. New Edition is one of the rare cases of success lasting through puberty.

Where Are They Now?: They do the occasional reunion show -- minus Bobby -- and stay busy with solo projects. PS: The 2002 Bell Biv Devoe is seriously screwing with the legacy.

Stevie Wonder
Peak Activity: Stevie owned the '70s
Big Hit: Pick one, but the reigning opinion is "Superstition"

Scoop: The original Li'l. As a preteen, Stevie was a bespecta-cled boy hoofing into a harmon-ica, stomping out "Fingertips." His talent and inner vision shone through during his mid-'70s heyday. He combined '60s soul with '70s funk that culmi-nated with such classic albums as Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life, Fulfillingness First Finale, and Talking Book. But even Stevie was fallible. He stumbled through the '80s with some soft-rock crud that Lionel Richie wouldn't touch. "Part-Time Lover," "That's What Friends Are For," "Ebony and Ivory," and "I Just Called to Say I Love You" nearly torched everything Stevie worked for.

Thankfully, his classic albums have stood the test of time and Stevie is forever credited among the neo-soul and hip-hop set. DJs Bobbito and Spinna host a Wonder-Full party every month where orig-inals, B-sides, and Stevie songs done by others get spun. Stones Throw Records recently released a limited edition tribute record. And even George W. Bush tried to get the attention of the blind genius by waving at him. A genius is a genius, and Stevie Wonder will always be the Man. If a Santana-type tribute is in order, Stevie's name should be top of the list.

Where Is He Now?: Working with his many humanitarian causes. His music is saluted in a new Las Vegas revue at the Venetian called Signed Sealed Delivered.

Michael Jackson
Peak Activity: 1984
Big Hit: Thriller

Scoop: He sacrificed his childhood to achieve his dream (or his father's, according to the telepic) and has spent a life-time trying to regain it. How else would you explain Neverland ranch and his constant need to make pals like Macauley Culkin?

Jackson stopped creating interesting records after 1991, but those pre-Dangerous ones are doozies. As much as we laugh and point and think of Michael as a total freak, all is forgiven when songs like "Billie Jean" or "Rock With You" come on the radio. Who isn't singing and "hee-hee'ing"?

Where Is He Now?: Chilling with Bubbles and the Elephant Man's skeleton at Neverland Ranch.

Shyheim the Rugged Child
Peak Activity: 1994
Big Hit: "On and On"

Scoop: Wu-Tang Clan's resident shorty was only 13 when "On & On" hit college radio (and has recently been rereleased). His youthful voice got lost in the background as other Wu-Tang members (and second-stringers) made their marks. Shyheim got lost in the mix. After appearing in the TLC video for "Waterfalls," Shyheim copped roles in Original Gangstas and the Disney film The Preacher's Wife.

Where Is He Now?: Concen-trating on his acting career.

The Boys
Peak Activity: 1989
Big Hit: "Dial My Heart"

Scoop: The four-member group was discovered dancing on the Venice Beach promenade. The Boys were mentored by Pebbles, LA Reid, and Babyface, and soon found themselves singing sick-eningly sweet gumdrops on R&B radio. They maxed out the recom-mended daily allowance of cute-ness. The youngest Boy, Bilal, was 9. "Dial My Heart" got them on Soul Train, but the Boyz missed the transfer to the Promised Land.

Where Are They Now?: The Boys are back in town, now known as Suns of Light.

Another Bad Creation (ABC)
Peak Activity: 1991
Big Hit: "Iesha"

Scoop: Seen as a get-rich quick scheme by producer and mentor Michael Bivins, ABC struck while the hormones were hot and then bounced. After releasing Coolin' at the Playground Ya Know, the group fell out of favor quickly, just as New Jack Swing tapped out. Anotha Bad Creation was the least-performing crew in the "Boyz II Men/ABC/BBD" triumvi-rate, and even Kris Kross had the cajones to clown ABC as "another bad idea" on its debut album.

Where Are They Now?: Probably washing your car as you read this.

The Puppies
Peak Activity: 1994-1996
Big Hit: "Funky Y-2-C"

Scoop: Hyperactive with high-pitched voices, this is a rowdy day-care center put to rat-a-tat-tat beats. The Puppies should have been put to sleep.

Where Are They Now?: Full-grown dogs scattered to the four winds.

From the September 4-11, 2002 issue of Oakland\'s Urbanview.

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