The intro on 112’s eponymous debut album is a clear-cut example of what to expect on the 19-track effort: heartfelt ballads, liquifying harmonies, and noteworthy vocal performances. These elements would serve as the groundwork for one of the most essential listening experiences of the last 25 years.
The ‘90s ran the gamut of male groups that covered all the bases within R&B. As direct influences of Boyz II Men, 112 wasn’t necessarily a carbon copy of the straight-laced group. They also didn’t possess an around-the-way aesthetic akin to Jodeci. As the first male R&B act on Bad Boy Records, the Atlanta natives balanced the reserved charm of boys next door with all the facets of maturing into adulthood.
Serving as one of the pioneers to disperse the nostalgic sound produced from the blend of hip-hop and R&B, 112 knew they needed to stand apart from their peers.
“We wanted to shake up the whole footprint of what you hear in R&B,” Slim tells Rated R&B. “If you remember, at that time, people were putting out full ballads. As soon as 112 came out, we changed the whole format of radio, as far as hip-hop/R&B is concerned.”
While most of their debut was filled with ballads, their approach to R&B assisted in a notable shift, particularly with their first single, “Only You.” More soulful than its successor, the group’s premier song cemented their plan regarding how they wanted to show up in the music world.
The bass guitar is the foundation of “Only You,” layered with a bright guitar riff plucked from “I Get Lifted” by KC and the Sunshine Band. Coupled with string synths to add a slight dramatic flair, it was evident that 112 was onto something uniquely appealing. The original version doesn’t receive the proper recognition, as most fans lean to the remix.
Conversely, the group didn’t quite align with setting that track as their official introduction.
“We actually did not like ‘Only You’ as our first single,” Mike from 112 reveals to Rated R&B. “We fought on that. In our mind, we considered ourselves [true] R&B singers. Puff and his innovation understood that we had to stand out because there was a slew of R&B artists out. He was like, ‘Yo. I’m gonna do a remix to it. I’m gonna get B.I.G. [and] Mase on it, and it’s going to be hot.’ In the back of our minds, we were like, ‘Man, this ain’t it.’”
Mike continues, “Slim, being the vocal beast that he is, was able to sing in the pocket where the melody needed to be. Most R&B artists, when they get on an uptempo record, their first thing is, ‘Let me ad-lib all the way through it.’ Well, no, that’s not the mind frame when you’re doing an uptempo record. On an uptempo record, you in a club, you’re drunk. You’re trying to talk to a girl. You ain’t trying to ad-lib all day. You want a conversation with her. Once he explained that to us, we got what he was saying. This is the one time we can say that we followed his lead, and it worked perfectly. To this day I’ll tell him, everybody, ‘Hey man, I was wrong on that.’”
The remix, loaded with a memorably visceral bassline, superseded the original tremendously. In the summer of 1996, the song was inescapable on urban and pop radio stations across the country. It spent 26 weeks on the Billboard Mainstream Hot Hip-Hop/R&B Airplay chart, arriving at the number-one slot. It also moved steadily along the Hot 100 and peaked at No. 13.
It would’ve been an absolute rookie move not to include both variations on the album, making their album one of the firsts at the time to do so.
The group wanted the painstakingly sensual “Now That We’re Done” as their first single. It’s one of Mike’s favorite songs from the album. Co-written and co-produced by Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men, it precisely displayed the group’s abilities to convey their craft within their known strong suits.
“A lot of people didn’t know that actually came from Boyz II Men, that ‘Uhh Ahh (Remix),” says Mike. “There’s a line that Boyz II Men use in the remix (Now that we’re done / What are you thinking?) and then it went somewhere else lyrically, and Boyz II Men used that to create ‘Now That We’re Done.’
The funny thing was they gave it to us because their label Motown was saying that it was too sexually explicit for Boyz II Men. It definitely set the precedent for how we were going to be known with our harmonies, those being just as prevalent as the leads, when we do songs.”
Turning down “Now That We’re Done” as a single gave ample space for another one of their slow jams to reign supreme. “Cupid,” an indisputable hallmark in the pre-millennium era of the quiet storm format, shot the group’s success to another plateau. During the process of working on the album, the incomparable Babyface was on 112’s list of co-creators. With the budget drying up, they approached him to negotiate pricing but with no solid plan of attack.
“We were just hoping that singing [for him] was going to have this man so convinced that we needed a record from him that he would come down off of that price, was the plan,” Mike recollects. “We went to his house in Beverly Hills. Babyface had this big-ass white rug, about as big as the entire room. You could tell that this thing was more expensive than all of us put together. Slim comes in with some mud on his shoes.”
“It was raining bad,” Slim adds.
Mike resumes, “I really feel like that was the reason why we couldn’t get that record from Babyface, but that inspiration led us to do ‘Cupid.’ If you listen, it’s basically ‘When Can I See You Again.’ Babyface inadvertently helped us to create one of our most famous and biggest records.”
Without that redirected mark of rejection, the classic we know now may have never existed. The album gained success prior to “Cupid” being selected as the last single, but once it dominated the airwaves, the R&B staple pushed their album into multi-platinum status.
Delving into the deep cuts, the tactic in creating “Call My Name” was a brilliant psychological play that may go over some people’s heads. Sharing the sample of “Walk On By” by Isaac Hayes with the hip-hop masterpiece “Warning” by labelmate the Notorious B.I.G. was the key to attracting listeners.
“The mind frame was to just have people remember and be familiar with B.I.G.’s record. It was genius when you think about it. ‘Call My Name’ was an example of you already liked the song before you even knew it type of deal. Keep it real simple. Make people love the record without even knowing that they already did,” shares Mike.
Slim explains, “Here we go with the examples of hip-hop conversion, hip-hop and R&B. We did it in the flyest way. We slowed it down and put it into a ballad. Look how we just took a hip-hop record, ‘Warning,’ look how hip-hop that was with the Notorious B.I.G. We took that record, slowed it down, and brought you into 112’s world.”
As one of the most tender songs on the album, “I Will Be There” came together amidst some pushback. None of the members could agree on which melody to go with. It got to the point where the disagreement became heated. Mike felt convicted in his decision to go one route, ultimately working in his favor.
He admits, “I was hell, but I was dogged when it came to our sound because this is our representation. This is us. This is what people are going to hear for the rest of our lives and then some. I always wanted to make sure that whatever we put out, it was something that we can be proud of.”
The most emotive song goes to “Pleasure & Pain,” a melodically tormented number that not only covers the anguish that love can bring but life in general. Melancholy piano and strings twist and contort as the group’s harmonies intertwine with the production to soften the misery. Sprinkling yearning ad-libs after the second verse, the vocal pinnacle of grief mounts and erupts into the aching atmosphere from the 2:15 mark until the song fades out.
“A big shout out to our homie Stro because him and Daron were the ones that influenced that record,” Mike says. “We were talking about philosophy and music theory. Why does a song sound the way it does, where’s the origin of it? Where did that come from? The psychological [aspect] of it. On ‘Pleasure and Pain,’ we wanted to talk about things that were prevalent in our lives at the time. We were glad that we were in a position where we were, but also, we broke.”
He adds, “Before there was Making the Band, there was 112. We were trying to find the position between the blessing that we had, which was being on Bad Boy, and the curse that was being on Bad Boy. That song originated from us having a conversation about the good and bad of just life. In all things, there must be balance.”
For Slim, he was experiencing a number of things in his teenage years that he only shared with his group members. Adjusting being a high school musician to a young father and now a recording artist was tough for him to navigate. All of the weight he had to carry was superbly exemplified vocally on the record.
“You’re taking all of this stuff and people don’t understand that we relate to y’all, to everybody, more than y’all knew,” he says. “We just picked a certain type of philosophical way of writing. We didn’t choose hard, ghetto R&B beats and wrote over them. We didn’t choose to take that style. We wanted to have the same feel as probably the next hood R&B classic, but wanted to present it in a form where anybody globally could relate to it.”
He continues, “We were young, but who’s to say that love don’t hurt or feel good [at that age]? It feels the same way, and I’m dealing with the issues as a teenager. We were trying to balance this blessing of our careers and how we’re living — clearly out the hood — and we’re [still] experiencing stuff. You’re going through the issues that you’re going through.”
After signing their contract with Bad Boy, they began working on the album six months later. Creating some of the songs while in high school, their unsuspecting maturity was the base of their debut album’s energy. Blessed with the chance to give input on who they wanted to work with, former member Daron Jones had a significant influence on their signature sound as he co-produced a quarter of the album. Other collaborators, including Tim & Bob, Al B. Sure and Stevie J., are integral players in their essential debut.
Twenty-five years later, 112, now a duo, acknowledges their contribution to R&B. When it comes to the discussion of the marriage of hip-hop and R&B, they are undoubtedly to be inserted in the conversation.
“We feel like this album was pretty much the genesis of what is considered now R&B music,” Mike declares. “We took a chance on ourselves. We listened to Puff and he basically told us that this was going to be what R&B music is going to be 25 years later. We feel like without that. I don’t think R&B would be as prevalent. I don’t think it would be as worldwide as it is now. I’m not saying 112 was the only reason why R&B is where it is right now, but we definitely contributed to the sound that is R&B music right now.”
“There are so many gems in that first album,” Slim concludes. “If you’re interested in backgrounds. If you want to hear chords and how you can push things to extraordinary levels and stuff like that, that’s what 112 stood for. If you’re a vocal enthusiast, do runs and you’re in certain fields, [know that] you can intertwine all different fields. A vocalist like myself and a very soulful artist like Mike can exist in the same situation. Don’t let nobody tell you you can’t. All of us had different fields. We all came from different vortexes, different dimensions to come together to make this one big solar system. If you’re interested in those things and just a true art form of music? Press play.”
Listen to 112 below.