After selling over one million copies of their debut album, Born to Sing, En Vogue decided to experiment with their sound for their sophomore effort. Released on March 24, 1992 by Eastwest Records, with Funky Divas they delivered an album for the ages.
Upon releasing their follow up, expectations were elevated due to the instant commercial impact they made with their debut. En Vogue returned to the studio determined to broaden their listening audience and produce another high quality album not only for them, but for popular culture.
As a result, their careers landed them in esteemed company. This album would see En Vogue asserting their dominance over their contemporaries in the Pop and R&B genres respectively.
It was mutually agreed upon to take their sound in a more pop-friendly direction over the heavy R&B/Soul influence from their previous album. Alongside the transcendent production duo, Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, En Vogue was able to carve their names in the Mount Rushmore of great female groups of all-time. Funky Divas introduced the concept of an all Black female quartet touching on four different genres of music ranging from R&B/Soul to Rock.
En Vogue’s formula for success was based around the breathtaking beauty of the four group members and their incomparable vocal talents. Cindy Herron, a soprano, Dawn Robinson, Terry Ellis, and Maxine Jones all had five octave ranges that allowed the group to interchange lead and background singers instantaneously. Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy were influential in the formation of this groundbreaking quartet. And together they ascended to the heights of superstardom.
As the story goes in 1989, En Vogue became a trio before the inclusion of Terry Ellis later on in the assembling process. Initially, the group name was For You then it was changed to Vogue, but after learning another group had claimed that moniker, Foster and McElroy settled on En Vogue as the final name. Under their tutelage and Sylvia Rhone’s influence, En Vogue arrived on the musical scene in 1990. Their debut album only foreshadowed what was to come and two years later they found themselves in a league of their own.
Between the months of May 1991-January 1992, Funky Divas was recorded at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California.
SoulCulture recently sat down with Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, the executive producers for the album to share their blueprint for creating a definitive record.
Foster and McElroy describe their thought process in formulating the group.
“When Tommy and I were in Club Nouveau, we were talking about what we wanted to do once we started producing,” says Foster. “One thing we kept talking about was there wasn’t a super girl group in the mainstream. There were the Supremes-like groups that had one lead singer and the rest were background singers. I can’t remember an all girl group where they all had powerhouse vocals and could sing lead. So when we left Club Nouveau and finished working with Toni, Tony, Tone! we were able to get another production deal and we were looking for acts to sign. This is when we decided to put the group together.”
“In the era that we’re talking about, girl groups were going out of style like The Labelles, The Pointer Sisters and dance groups like Vanity 6,” says McElroy. “There weren’t any girl groups that were truly singing at that point in time. We wanted to bring back that big girl group. Denny was big on having soulful harmonies and bringing in more lead singers that you could switch around on different songs. It was like a vision of having an all-star group of women that came together. We said, ‘What if you had Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Chaka Khan all in one group?’
“Right at that time when we were putting the group together, we had to make a decision to do a cattle call or do it under the radar,” says Foster. “We ended up choosing the latter and we had 19-20 different submissions of tapes and pictures. From there, we interviewed them because the other part of the group would be their intellectual side. They had to be classy and have the demeanor for the group. It wasn’t just about the singing; it was about how they carried themselves as well.
Of the six girls we had, there was always a combination of two or three that sounded great in the studio together. The auditions were pretty brutal. Not only did they not know it each other, but they had to sit in a room and learn the songs we gave to them in two hours. And they had to listen to me sing the lead and I’m not a singer at all,” he laughs.
“They didn’t get two takes, they only had one take and we kept the tape rolling. If they forgot the lyrics, they had to improvise and make it work. Two hours later, some people started complaining. We had a microphone in one of the rooms where they were at so we could hear what they were talking about. The griping started big time. They were all great singers, but they couldn’t handle the pressure.
He continues. “We were sold on three of the girls after all of this took place. Another one showed up which was Terry and she was late. After she showed up late, she had a demeanor as if she wasn’t going to make the group because of what happened to her at the airport. She had less time than the others, but she tore up all of the songs we gave to her to sing including the background vocals. At that point, we sent them all home.
“Tommy and I went back and forth on our decision. We were sold on Cindy and Max, but we kept going back and forth between Dawn and Terry because both Dawn and Terry were so versatile and had such range with their vocals. One day, Tommy said, ‘Who said it had to be three?’ he laughs. “Then the lights went off and I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ This is how it ended up being the four girls instead of three.
Foster and McElroy discuss their mindset and focus going into the second album.
“The approach for their first album was much more of a raw, street approach,” says McElroy. “The grooves were a little bit more serious to me. To me, when we first did ‘Lies’ and ‘Hold On,’ I was thinking about making those tracks more Hip Hop sounding and a little bit grittier. If you listen to some of the ballads we did on the first album, they were a little gritty as well.
“On that album, we were still trying to get familiar with the girls too. Terry and Cindy got a little more play on there because their voices had a little more appeal. It was very concentrated effort to make them a little more pop sounding on the second album. I know for Denny, he wanted to show that not only Cindy and Terry could do leads, but Max and Dawn as well. He definitely wanted to showcase all four of them on the second album.”
“On the second album we had to graduate from our sound on their first album,” says Foster. “We were able to be more diverse because they had an audience and we wanted to expand their audience on the second album. Not only to show that the other girls were powerhouse singers, but they could sing traditional R&B and pop records as well.”
Foster and McElroy recall the techniques they used in the production phases for the album.
“We did a lot of the pre-production work in our heads,” says Foster. “We would go through things and before we decided to do a song; we made sure we were going to complete it. Our process was we didn’t record 50 songs and choose ten. If the songs didn’t make the cut musically for Tommy and me, the girls wouldn’t even hear those at all. Once the music made the cut, we knew that it could be a good song.
After that point, we would go through the process of making sure the lyrics and vocals were tight. On ‘My Lovin’ it was three different songs before it became what you heard. ‘Free Your Mind’ was the same way. There were 11 songs on the album and we had two different versions of each. Sometimes I would have to write new lyrics or a new melody to fit the various versions. We got this process from our days at Club Nouveau. We didn’t have the money to do 30 or 40 tracks for the album. We made it work.”
“We weren’t the type of producers to stay in the studio for a year working on an album,” says McElroy. “It wasn’t ever that serious. Some of the stuff we would work on at home and then take it to the studio. Three or four months in the studio for us is a long time. For that album, we were in the studio for three months. It was one of the longest times we spent in the studio for a group or artist.”
Foster remembers how the lead single “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” evolved in stages.
“‘My Lovin” was one of the most difficult songs to make,” says Foster. “It was three songs before it became one because we kept rewriting it over and over again. The track was always dope to us, but we would say something just wasn’t right. As producers, we would go in to listen and we had no problems about criticizing ourselves. We would be listening to this one song and the both of us would get this look on our face and say something still isn’t right. We would strip down the song and say it wasn’t the drum beat and the bass line was pretty hot.
“We would get to a point where we would add something and say, ‘Yea, now we’re getting somewhere.’ We did this for many of the songs on the second album. But when it came to ‘My Lovin’ it was really a nightmare because we really loved the track, but we felt like everything we would put down on the track sounded whack. It meant that the girls had to get back in and sing it and I had to get back to rewriting the lyrics or change it altogether. Then we went all the way to the mix of the song and we were done with the song, but there was this thing with the breakdown towards the end.
He adds. “It was just the breakdown of the musical chants and what not. The acapella sounds weren’t there yet. At that point, the girls were exhausted and said it was fine,” he laughs. “Tommy and I were talking and we were like yea it sounds good, but there was something about it that kept bugging me. It was the weakest part of the song to me because we took it to this high level and then the track goes into this insignificant breakdown. I felt like we needed to get something else going.
Tommy and I kept going back and forth with ideas. Finally, I said we didn’t have a signature acapella thing going on like we did at the beginning of “Hold On.” Tommy started playing a set of chords and I said, ‘Yea, like that!’ We ran them in the studio and we were still going through the mix. We were in the part of the studio where the piano was and we were going through this part. It sounded so cool and I came up with the lyrics ‘Never Gonna Get It…’ At that moment, I thought yea this is going to set it off really nice. We actually had an alternative version to this song just in case the record company didn’t like the original version.”
“My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” went on to peak at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles Chart and #4 on the UK Singles Chart. It charted in nine different countries and propelled sales for Funky Divas after it was released to music audiences in the early spring of 1992.
En Vogue’s second single from the album was the classic remake of a 1976 hit by Aretha Franklin, “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” and Foster tells a fascinating story of how the song came together with assistance from the movie Sparkle.
“Giving Him Something He Can Feel” was all traditional except for the bass I used on the track,” says Foster. “The horns were played live on the track. The hi-hat was live on there as well. I always liked how it had a nice sound to it because it sounded like the movie version of the song. We heard Aretha Franklin’s version, but I felt like the movie version of the song was more intimate. I told the girls that’s the way we were going to approach the song. They were happy because they weren’t trying to compete with Aretha vocally.
In the movie, the version of the song was very sexy and seductive. The band wasn’t polished either. It was like a broken down band, but all of the sounds came together nicely in that scene. We saw the movie and took the audio from that scene and started plugging in. It was like organized noise at that point and it came out really beautiful.
“At that time, I think Dawn was struggling with her voice. She had polyps on her vocal chords. She actually ended up taking two months off from singing because of them. She could never hit the notes that she wanted to hit on that song so she was pretty depressed when the song came out even though it became a hit record. She sang the song better later on after it was recorded, but she served the purpose on the record. We were able to get that sexy sound and she was the youngest in the group. It all came together really well and we were proud of that song.”
“Giving Him Something He Can Feel” went on to peak at #28 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles Chart and #44 on the UK Singles Chart.
The next single to be released would be the rock-infused anthem, “Free Your Mind.” Foster and McElroy recall how the song was pieced together.
“With “Free Your Mind” we wanted to do something completely different,” says Foster. “I was in the studio playing an organ. I told Tommy and the girls that I wanted to do a hard rock song for the album. I told them that they could kill a rock song. I also said to them that we should make it grungier, have a heavy metal guitar on it, and for the girls to sing really hard on the track while doing some En Vogue harmonies to it. Believe it or not, the girls were actually game and wanted to give it a try.
We didn’t know what we were going to talk about on the track. The free your mind part came out of us just writing lyrics down. Then we said to ourselves, ‘Free your mind about what?’ Prejudice. When they started to doing the song, we knew no one was going to accept it. We knew that we were going to get some backlash from the record company. We said to ourselves why are people so prejudice about music because they are. We think certain people should sing certain songs in different genres of music. Prejudice was about more than color so we decided to attack the song that way.”
“When Denny started “Free Your Mind,” he was playing that riff in the song, but neither one of us played the guitar,” says McElroy. “Our engineer at the time, Steve Pounder was a guitar player. He knew a guy named Jinx Jones and he played and overdubbed a bunch of guitar sounds. He was an older rock guy and he knew all of the classic tones. He knew guitars like we knew synthesizers and pianos. He came in and Denny produced all of those guitar tracks with him on there. They layered and stereo them and got all of the tones right. It was a big part of our sound. We got a good mix of the rock sound that he had and the R&B sound that we had. I kind of spruced up the drums a little bit.”
“Free Your Mind” went on to peak at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #23 on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles Chart and #6 on the UK Singles Chart. This song also charted in seven different countries.
The next single to be released would be “Give It Up, Turn It Loose.” Foster and McElroy remember the influences and how easy it was making the record.
“Give It Up, Turn It Loose” was our own version of a Soul II Soul type of beat,” Foster laughs. “We were saying to ourselves that we went a little too far with some of the other records on the album and that it was time to come back home to R&B tones. Soul II Soul was such an influence on the hip-hop part when it came to R&B that all the beats were going in that rhythm. We obviously needed to do that type of song for the album and the girls could sing. So it was a good time to showcase Maxine again and let her basically have her own song. It was fun and easy to do. It didn’t take us long to write the song either.”
“On ‘Give It Up, Turn It Loose’ I remember that one because we wrote the song at my house. I had just bought this new piano. Denny was also influenced by the chord progressions in Guy’s ‘Piece of My Love’ and Debarge’s ‘I Like It’ songs. I came back and reworked the drum sounds. I remember Denny wrote half of the song to ‘Impeach the President’ and we wrote the rest of it later. The music was written on the piano and a turntable. Once we recorded it, we added the Juno 106 on the bass and we had strings and a horn hit on the record too. We had live percussion on the record from Sheila E.’s brothers, Juan and Peter and they laid it down really nice. It took the song to a whole new level.”
“Give It Up, Turn It Loose” went on to peak at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #16 on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles Chart and #22 on the UK Singles Chart.
The final single to be released from the album would be “Love Don’t Love You.” It peaked at #36 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts, #31 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #64 on the UK Singles Chart.
McElroy gives a glimpse into how the song was formulated.
“We were disco and dance music fans since way back in the day,” says McElroy. “We were fans of Sylvester and everybody else. It was only natural for En Vogue to record that type song. En Vogue’s songs were already remixed in that type of vein. Producers were doing house remixes of their song back in that era. We decided to put those types of songs on the second album.
“We were having fun at that point. We had tried the rock thing, the soul thing, we bridged the gap from ‘Hold On,’ and we decided to throw a little bit of dance on the record to sow it up. ‘Love Don’t Love You’ and ‘What is Love?’ were nice ways to wrap up the album with these two songs. We were up for the challenge and those songs ended up being really interesting.”
Foster and McElroy go on to provide insight on how the final tracks of the album came together.
“This Is Your Life” record was done on an MPC because that was an in-your-face type of record,” says Foster. “We had the drum beat going on that track. We put the Parliament sample in the loop of the drum beat. It was funky, but it was more of rap track at first. I started playing with the Juno 106 keyboard trying to emulate a Slash bass line. I was going straight for some funk and I remember putting this bass line on the track without even thinking about the girls at the time we did the track. When they heard the track, they really liked it.”
“We were trying to figure out how to get a melody around all of the funk happening on the track. Tommy was able to tie it together with some hi-hats and other stuff. We needed an intro to the intro song and the girls had this road manager that they were fond of. And he had this daddy type of tone to his voice, but for some reason he wasn’t available. We ended up getting Chuckii Booker to do it for us.”
“‘Hip Hop Lover’ is a record that I love is because of the groove, says Foster. “The groove was really funky. I really wasn’t paying attention to the rapper or the singing on the record if I’m being honest. It was really about the groove on the record.”
“On ‘Desire’ we wanted to do a song reminiscent of Diana Ross, but it kind of went to a Middle Eastern style once we started playing with the track,” says McElroy. “We wanted Jay Spencer to come in and play saxophone on the track. We had the snake charmer thing happening on there. Cindy was answering back and forth with the soprano saxophone in the song. We were just vibing on this song and it was truly in the moment. As we went along, we refined and polished it up. It was one of those songs that started off one way and morphed into something completely different.”
“We’re both big Beatles fans,” says Foster. “We had something from the first album where we did the ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy Company’ acapella rendition so we wanted to showcase the girls’ four part harmonies again. We could have gone in a thousand different directions with songs from the Beatles, but the girls and I liked the song ‘Yesterday.’ This song has passionate chords within in it. Something really grabs you about that song.
Once we started working with it vocally, the song allows you room to do whatever because it is so simple. We started working out the quartet parts on it. When they sung it without the drums, the song sounded great! It really didn’t need the music behind it, but then somebody would have said it was dead time on radio space if we didn’t put something behind it. I think Tommy just put some beat behind it and played keyboard.”
McElroy expresses his feelings on the record twenty years later: “If you really listen to the album, you could tell it was a fun album and we were having a lot of fun making it. There was a lot of humor in the way we did the tracks and in the skits we were doing. It was a good time in our lives… If you listen to the first album, we were more serious. On the second album, we had a certain ease about everything and it flowed naturally.”
Funky Divas peaked at #8 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart and #1 on the Billboard R&B Albums Chart in the spring of 1992 and has went on to sell more than five million albums worldwide. The album has achieved multi-platinum status in three different countries proving its impact and effect on popular culture.
To this day, it’s regarded as the one of the greatest albums from the 1990s and remains the highest selling album of the group’s career. This album earned a plethora of Grammy, American Music Award and Soul Train Music Award nominations and wins. Funky Divas set the standard for other Pop infused R&B records for the remainder of the decade. It will continue to be a bellwether of what quality music sounds like when forces of nature collide to create a piece of art that has never been heard or seen before.