L.A. Reid’s new tell-all book, Sing to Me, contains so many name-dropping details about the various stars he’s worked with — including Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Outkast, Jay Z — it can be head-spinning. But his music-industry saga started small, when he and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds decided to start LaFace Records in Atlanta in the early Nineties. “It felt like a city full of dreamers, a place where things could happen and a place that hadn’t been born yet musically,” he writes. After loads of success and a few missteps (like losing his shot with Lady Gaga), it’s his Nineties heyday that remains vital to him. Toni Braxton’s album, Secrets, remains one of the producer’s favorites. (“It stays with me, one of the few of my records that I still play.”) To get a taste of the man and the myth, here are 10 of the juiciest moments from the golden era of his epic career.
He let Pebbles poach Vanessa Williams’ song.
“I met with Vanessa alone in my apartment, where I was working, and I played her a song I had written and was preparing for her to record. That night at Galaxy Studios, Kenny played me another track he had recorded, and we wrote the lyrics and cut the demo of this new song we called ‘Girlfriend.’ … Vanessa was more than six months pregnant, so the timing could have been better, but they were going to pay $12,500 for the song. A couple of days later, Kenny and I went to Silverlake Studios to listen to Pebbles sing. … Kenny started talking about ‘Girlfriend.’ … When Pebbles heard the track, she wanted the song. She asked how much Vanessa Williams was paying us and offered us $18,000. ‘Plus I’ll throw in two cars.’ … Vanessa never spoke to me again.”
He protected Paula Abdul as Pebbles trashed his apartment.
“We asked if [Paula] would choreograph a music video for Kenny — we were putting the finishing touches on his second Babyface solo album—and she said would trade us for a song. We wrote ‘Knocked Out’ for her and we took [her] into Studio Masters, where it took a long time to cut her vocal. … We didn’t work on the album — Pebbles saw to that. Paula and I started to be friendly. We didn’t have a relationship, but one night Paula came to my house and it was after midnight. We stood on the balcony listening to ‘Man in the Mirror.’ … The phone rang. It was Pebbles wanting to know what I was doing. … Suddenly someone was knocking on my door, hard. I opened the door and there was Pebbles. Never taking her eyes off me, she walked past me into the kitchen, grabbed a broom, and shattered all my glass furniture. It was like slow motion, tearing shit up. I smiled and loved it. She never looked at Paula, who was trembling in fear.”
He had to convince Pebbles to stop being jealous of Whitney Houston.
“Whitney was the undoubtedly the most popular female vocalist of the day and the biggest-selling act on the label. She had a string of number one hits, but Clive felt she needed to strengthen her grounding in contemporary black music and ease up on the pop songs. So he called L.A. Reid and Babyface. … We had written ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ for her, and Clive found this song, ‘My Name Is Not Susan,’ that he wanted us to produce with her. … Whitney called from her hotel to tell me her room had been broken into and she felt uncomfortable. Could she use the guesthouse? It was late. [Pebbles called and] quickly became upset when she learned Whitney was there. ‘Whitney’s in my house?’ she said. ‘We’re not having that. My husband is not going to sit in my house late at night watching a movie with another girl.’ The next day, Pebbles came home and had attitude with me. She tried having attitude with Whitney, too, but Whitney put out that fire … [and invited us all] to her place in New Jersey.”
He provided the spot for Whitney and Bobby to fall in love.
“She was no longer just a shining superstar. Bobby made her a person. … She had fallen in love with Bobby Brown under my roof. As I watched them ride off into the sunset, the realization sunk in. I became fascinated by this. It seemed so unlikely, but, at the same time, so right. Bobby was a street smart bad boy and Whitney was an R&B angel. You never would have thought it, but when you saw them together, they fit like puzzle parts. They were R&B royalty.”
He wrote a song for Michael Jackson that didn’t get released for 25 years.
“Michael wanted to arrange a meeting to talk about working together. This was Michael Jackson in his moment. His latest album was Bad. … We managed to put together a song called ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ that Michael liked enough to lay down a finished vocal, and he never sang a song he didn’t believe in — he didn’t even bother to try if he didn’t. I sat across the other side of the glass and watched in what was an almost out-of-body experience as Michael sang our song. … God was in the room and He looked like Michael Jackson. … We finished only the one song, ‘Slave to the Rhythm,’ during those sessions where Michael laid down lead vocals, and it wasn’t released for another 25 years. We had another track nearly done, but he never finished it.”
He helped Jermaine Jackson record an MJ diss track.
“During another one of these sessions with Michael, I was called to the phone. I went down the hall and took the call in an office. It was Jermaine. He went crazy on me. … We went back to Atlanta and needed to patch up things with Jermaine [and] … went back to work and what was the first thing Jermaine tells us? ‘I want to make a song about my brother,’ he said. ‘I want to talk about how he’s treated me through the years, like how every time I find producers like you guys, he takes my producers. He doesn’t care about his family or anybody but himself.’ … We ended up with a clever song, ‘Word to the Badd!!,’ but he we kind of lost our nerve and redid the song to make it more about Jermaine and some girl, not his brother. Clive heard the original version and wanted to put it out. … The song was getting requested on radio … [but then] two days later, the record disappeared off the air… I don’t know what Michael did, I don’t know if Michael did anything, but it went away in a flash.”
He loved T-Boz and Left Eye, but he never had an affair with Chilli.
“[TLC] focused their resentment on Pebbles. … In the end, they were unhappy about the amount of money they’d made, and they fired her not long after returning from the MC Hammer tour. I always stayed close with Left Eye and T-Boz, and I loaned my Miami apartment to her during all this disruption. [Her sickle cell anemia] secret came out when she collapsed during the first tour and had to be hospitalized … but she soon bounced back. She was my favorite, my eyes and ears on the street, my little muse. Living next to the ocean at my place in Miami was beneficial for her condition. Chilli and I were never close, although we were accused of having an affair many times. It was up to me to broker a deal, which put me in a difficult position with my wife.”
He’d flirt with Toni Braxton — but that’s it.
“Toni and I connected musically. I love her voice. Of all the singers I have recorded, Toni remains my favorite. Though Toni and I had a special connection, it was always purely platonic. We would play-flirt, but she was seeing my brother, so she was hands-off. I pushed her and was able to pull out something special. We found her superpower.”
He sent Usher to “Puffy Flavor Camp” to toughen up.
“‘Will you take this kid and teach him your swagger?’ I said. ‘Can you just give him some of your flavor?’ And so I sent Usher to New York for what I called the ‘Puffy Flavor Camp.’ I wanted Usher to be edgier than LaFace was. We had made a few records with him after ‘Call Me a Mack,’ but nothing I found compelling enough to release. Our music could be soft and pretty. I didn’t want Usher to be pretty. … Usher was 15 years old, but nothing about him ever seemed juvenile. I was turning him over to the wildest party guy in the country at an age when I still needed to get his mother’s permission, but he went to New York for almost a year. I didn’t know whether I was being irresponsible or having an epiphany.
He Gave Outkast Their Sex Appeal
“These two 17-year-old kids — one named Antwan, one André — who called themselves Outkast, stood to the side of my desk and started rapping. They were so nervous, they wouldn’t look at me. I didn’t really know anything about rap. I went by my gut instinct. ‘I think you guys are really good, but you’re not ready yet. … You’ve got to work on things like sex appeal. It’s not the singing business or the rapping business, it’s the entertainment business, and you have to entertain. … With the success of Outkast, a real identity began to form around the new kind of Southern music that we were making. … At the same time, hip-hop was becoming the most important new development in the music scene since the Beatles and the British Invasion.”