In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Billboard charts aim for some kind of objectivity. The team at the magazine hones formulas and crunches numbers, and they’ve got a whole evolving methodology to figure out the most popular song in America during any given week. But sometimes, those numbers don’t line up with lived experience. Consider the case of Color Me Badd, the multi-racial Oklahoma City R&B vocal group with the extremely funny name. If you remember Color Me Badd, then you probably remember them as the guys with the carefully-sculpted facial hair who sang “I Wanna Sex You Up.” That’s their legacy, but that’s not what the charts tell us.
“I Wanna Sex You Up” landed at the exact right moment. It’s a breezy little R&B jam that nods in the direction of rap music without including any actual rapping. The title is silly and horny and extremely memorable, and there’s a funny disconnect between the couch-humping lyrics and the feathery, angelic delivery of the Color Me Badd boys. (It’s also got a very funny line about “we can do it till we both wake up,” so maybe Color Me Badd didn’t understand how sex works.) That combination of elements, we’d soon learn, would become one of the dominant radio sounds of the ’90s.
Color Me Badd referred to their sound as hip-hop doo-wop, and that style, minus the goofy name, would power seduction jams for the next decade. “I Wanna Sex You Up” wasn’t the first song of its kind, but with its sighing backup vocals and its softly insistent Slick Rick and Betty Wright samples, it set the table for much of what would follow in the years ahead. I remember “I Wanna Sex You Up” being everywhere in 1991, and it was definitely a huge hit. In the official record, though, “I Wanna Sex You Up” was not Color Me Badd’s biggest single. Instead, “I Wanna Sex You Up” peaked at #2, and it held that spot for four weeks straight. (It’s a 7.) Later on, two other Color Me Badd songs — songs that I only barely remember existing — would blow past that spot to #1.
Maybe radio programmers were still a little too afraid of the word “sex” to let Color Me Badd’s signature song go all the way, and maybe “I Wanna Sex You Up” did the work of kicking the door open and the next couple of Color Me Badd singles were just able to cruise. Or maybe “I Wanna Sex You Up” just stuck in my head, and those other two songs didn’t. The Billboard charts aren’t necessarily about what I remember. It’s just one of those things. In any case, “I Adore Mi Amor” goes down in history as Color Me Badd’s first #1 hit, so that’s what we’re talking about here.
The four members of Color Me Badd got together at Northwest High School in Oklahoma City, where they all sang in the choir. (Hi-Five, who were in this column a couple of weeks ago, had members from Waco and from Oklahoma City, and it’s truly bizarre to think about Oklahoma City as a hotbed of early-’90s male R&B vocal groups.) Color Me Badd started in 1985, and they first played live at a local talent show, where they sang a Levis jingle. Hamza Lee, that talent show’s musical director, would later become Color Me Badd’s producer; he co-wrote “I Adore Mi Amor” with the group.
At first, these four singers called themselves Take One. Later on, they changed it up, naming themselves after a racehorse called Color Me Bad. Color Me Bad is already a beautifully terrible name; changing the spelling to “Badd” makes it even worse and, thus, better. It makes me think of a racehorse in sunglasses and a backwards baseball cap.
Knowing nothing about Color Me Badd’s background before researching this column, I probably would’ve assumed that they’d been assembled by some budding svengali, the way New Kids On The Block had been. I always thought there was something very central-casting about Color Me Badd — the guy who looked like Kenny G, the guy who looked like latter-day Brian Austin Green attempting to look like George Michael, the guy who looked like George Michael attempting to look like Fabio. (Kevin Thornton, the one Black member of the group, didn’t look like anyone in particular.) Color Me Badd started around the same time as the New Kids. Like the New Kids, they were clearly inspired by New Edition. But no, Color Me Badd were an organic thing, a group of high-school friends getting together to sing — more like New Edition, ultimately, than the New Kids.
For a few years, Color Me Badd tried to get discovered without leaving Oklahoma City. Anytime a popular act would come through town on tour, whether it was Huey Lewis or Tony! Toni! Toné!, the members of Color Me Badd would ambush them and sing for them a cappella. Two members of the group worked at a local movie theater, and one day, they recognized former Number Ones artist Jon Bon Jovi coming in to see a movie. When the movie was over, all four Color Me Badd members had assembled in the lobby, and they sang for Jon on the spot. That night, they got to sing at the local arena before Bon Jovi and opening act Skid Row took the stage. I would love to know what the Oklahoma City Bon Jovi/Skid Row crowd made of Color Me Badd.
But that Bon Jovi show wasn’t Color Me Badd’s big break. Instead, that break came when the group went to a reception where high school kids with perfect attendance could meet former Number Ones artists Kool & The Gang. (Color Me Badd didn’t have perfect attendance. They snuck in.) Color Me Badd sang for Kool & The Gang, and Kool & The Gang road managers Myles Sanders and Adil Bayyan were impressed enough that they became Color Me Badd’s managers. Sanders and Bayyan moved all four members of Color Me Badd into a one-bedroom apartment in New York, where they spent a while recording demos and trying to get noticed.
One of the surprise box-office hits of 1991 was New Jack City, an over-the-top crime flick that was loosely adapted from a Village Voice cover story about the drug war in Detroit. New Jack City had Wesley Snipes, in his real breakout role, as Nino Brown, a larger-than-life kingpin who controlled the cocaine trade in New York. Rappers have been referencing that movie heavily for the past 30 years; it’s one of those lurid visions that never fully disappears from culture. New Jack City had rappers and R&B singers in its cast — it was Ice-T’s first time playing a cop — and it also had rappers and R&B singers on its soundtrack. That soundtrack was where Color Me Badd made their first appearance.
“I Wanna Sex You Up” came from Dr. Freeze, the new jack swing producer who’d written and produced “Poison” for Bell Biv DeVoe. (“Poison” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) Freeze wrote “I Wanna Sex You Up” for the New Jack City scene where She’s Gotta Have It star Tracy Camilla Johns strips for Wesley Snipes. Freeze offered the song to Bell Biv DeVoe and to Keith Sweat, and he got turned down, so the unknown Color Me Badd got to record it. (On the final version of “I Wanna Sex You Up,” Color Me Badd are credited as co-writers.) The song took off faster than anyone expected. It hit #1 on the R&B charts and the UK singles charts, and Giant Records, doing their best to harness that momentum, wanted a Color Me Badd album as quickly as possible. CMB had to drop it like it was hot, but they only had a few songs, so they went to LA to knock out their debut LP in a couple of weeks.
It’s not hard to tell that CMB, Color Me Badd’s debut, was a rushed attempt to cash in on a surprise hit. The songs are relatively slapdash, the production is thin, and the sound is extremely of its moment. “I Adore Mi Amor,” the group’s second single, was one of the few tracks that Color Me Badd already had demoed before they recorded the LP. The members of the group had asked Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for advice, and Jam and Lewis, taking in the varying ethnicities of the CMB members, suggested a song that was partly in Spanish. CMB got together with their old friend Hamza Lee, and they spent a day banging out a track with a spoken-word Spanish interlude from Mark Calderon, the one Mexican-American member.
“I Adore Mi Amor” is a pretty little trifle of a love song. It’s got a sweet, airy hook, and it slightly switches up its tone throughout so that the four singers, in true boy-band fashion, can all get solo spotlights. I like the harmonies on the “dream on, dream away” bit and the soft electronic rumble of Hamza Lee’s production. On the track, there’s a nice contrast at work — those voices and the plinky keyboards on the high end, the squelchy synth-bass and bap-bap drum-machine heartbeats on the low. But the song doesn’t leave much of an impression. It twinkles prettily for a few minutes and then dissipates.
The “I Adore Me Amor” video is pretty funny. It’s got the Color Me Badd guys on a beach, where they may or may not be shipwrecked. (There’s a rowboat with “Color Me Badd” written on the life preserver. I don’t know if I would trust that life preserver.) All four Color Me Badd guys get chances to stare into the camera and to attempt to look dreamy. All four of them also romance one beautiful woman with a pixie cut. I think the implication is that they’ve seen her picture in a magazine and that they’re all daydreaming about her, but I think it’s more fun if all four CMB members are in a progressive and non-traditional relationship with the same lady. Maybe someone was sneaking some subversive stuff into a video that would get heavy MTV rotation, or maybe people in the early ’90s were just not fully thinking this stuff through.
“I Adore Mi Amor” didn’t leave the same kind of pop-culture impression as “I Wanna Sex You Up,” but it kept the Color Me Badd train rolling. The same week that “I Adore Mi Amor” reached #1, the CMB album went platinum. It would go on to sell another two million copies. Color Me Badd will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Color Me Badd got a whole lot of airtime on a 1992 episode of Beverly Hills 90210. Here’s the scene where they sing “I Adore Mi Amor” a cappella to the gang at the Peach Pit: