Very few reach the pinnacle of achievement like Bryan Abrams did in 1991. After years of tenacious networking and paying their dues in the 80s, Color Me Badd’s unique style finally hit in the early 90’s, paving the way for soulful boy band pop. A multicultural group combining old school soulful harmonies with upbeat dance and funk, the moment met its time with the rise of new jack swing. With 3 #1 hits on pop and R&B, the bilingual “I Adore Mi Amor”, “All 4 Love” and their breakthrough “I Wanna Sex You Up”, the Oklahoma natives became worldwide sensations.
The industry was also at its peak then. From the excesses of Guns N’ Roses “November Rain” music video to the tragic ending that took Whitney Houston’s life, the early 90’s were a yin and yang of the biggest peaks and the most precipitous falls. Many come out of fame maladapted. This did not escape Bryan.
His was a rough journey involving alcoholism but his subsequent sobriety eventually unlocked the deepest of wisdom captured in this interview. I was honored to sit down with Bryan for a candid 1:1 for him to share an important story that can save lives, especially from a Hollywood that can easily swoop in and take over. The key is groundedness.
Here are some highlights from my interview with Bryan, who made a quick trip to California to help out his friend Paula Abdul as one of the judges of the Uplive worldwide competition. Think American Idol, but online and worldwide.
About His Quick Trip To Hollywood:
“It was great. I had a wonderful experience, it was great seeing Paula again and meeting you. And I guess the little doggie (Pugsley) you brought, who's cute. It was a great experience. Now that I'm in my third year of sobriety, I'm looking forward to spending a little more time being selfless instead of selfish. I got back home [to Oklahoma] about 1 am in the morning and in time to get some rest and take my daughter to school the next morning.”
On Being An Uplive Judge & Mentor:
“I'm guessing that I was chosen maybe because of my history with Paula. It was one of the first tours we were on back in the 90s. Once people started hearing that I was sober, and starting to reach out, maybe the word got around. I'm honestly not sure how my name came up. But I was just really grateful. I have teenage daughters so I'm loving the idea of reaching out and working with some young musicians, people that are just getting started and haven't been groomed. It gives me a chance to talk with them and work with them on things in front of the camera, but also things you think about behind the camera.”
“I want to be able to focus on the most important things: it isn't necessarily the business. You practice hard and you work on your craft but you've got to stay grounded, focused, and take care of yourself. If you don't in this business, it's really easy to lose yourself and get caught up in all the wrong things. If you started when you were young, like I did, you don't realize that you've gotten caught up in some of those wrong things until it's almost too late. So that's what I want my focus to be: helping [my mentees] learn how to stay grounded and stay focused on their health, mentally, spiritually, physically, and, and push themselves but be able to stay grounded and stay healthy. Without your health, you'll fall apart.”
On Saying No:
“You’ve got to find that balance, when to say yes to projects and when to say no, if you already bit off more than you can chew. You need to take the time to take care of yourself. One of the things that sounds kind of silly, but one of the things that I was taught, when I started getting healthy again, was never get too “HALT”: Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. With those things, you start to let bad influences in, start to of unwind and unravel. So when you're pushing yourself to the limit, never let any of those things happen. You can then keep your focus and keep your health intact.”
On Loneliness & True Friendships:
Be honest about how you feel. That's another reason why it's important to keep family first, as well, because they're the ones that have been there before any of the fame, before any of this stuff takes off. They're the ones that will be around when there's nothing left. Treasure the friends and family you have before you get started. It is possible to make new friends and it's a wonderful thing to make new friends. I felt like I made a new friend when I met you. But you have to be careful of a lot of people out there that want to take advantage of people, especially when they're youngsters..Take it slow and get to know people. This whole COVID thing was a great way to learn who your real friends were, who wanted to be by your side and help, their true colors.”
“You've got to really be genuine. Anybody can sing a song, the melody, and do a great job. Even if you practice over and over but if your heart and your soul isn't in it, if you aren't really trying to make people believe what you are singing is coming from you, as opposed to just singing some lyrics to paper, then it's it's really not going to give you that ‘it’ or ‘wow’ factor. We really loved what we did. And every song we sang, we made sure that not only every note but every word that came out, was something people felt. It’s like acting basically, you've got to put some feeling and emotion into those words or else they really don't mean anything. It has to be believable. We just loved what we did.”
On The Authenticity of Color Me Badd
“We weren't a manufactured group, we were friends. I knew Kevin, from the sixth grade up. Mark and Sam met each other in elementary school. So we all met as friends first. And we just all happen to love music. And from there, it just grew into something that was really cool. And we shared it with people. It was perfect timing for what we were doing. We love listening to 50s and 60s music like old doowop songs. And there was like a new sound evolving, that we called Hip Hop doowop. So it was nice drum loops and hip hop beats, but with those 50s and 60s, doowop harmonies. We just loved it so much that I think that love came through. And people heard music that was genuine.”
On Luther Vandross As An Influence On Music & Weight Loss
“You take care of yourself. You eat right. You get your sleep. You work hard. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Luther Vandross. If you're familiar with him, he was a heavier guy that had lost a lot of weight. A lot of people don't know that before my group came out, I was about 400 pounds, the beginning of high school. I paid a lot of attention to Luther losing that weight. That’s what inspired me to want to lose the weight myself. I never really felt like the inside matched the outside voice. His words, the first thing I heard him say was, ‘it's about 90% business 10% art’.
On The Music Business
“Young people think it's just about enjoying yourself, the fun and the glitz and the glam. There's a lot of business and politics involved. And you have to be ready for that. If you're not ready for that, and you're not educated when it comes to the business, find someone that does know, that you can trust and pay attention to your business. There are a lot of vultures out there that can take advantage of you. And then just work hard. There's a million other artists out there doing what each and every one of us love and want to do. You want to fill a particular slot. The only thing that's gonna make that difference is you taking care of yourself and pushing yourself harder and practicing more than that next person. Just don't lose yourself, keep your feet on the ground. Stay humble. I've met a lot of artists growing up. There's nothing worse than meeting someone that you loved and you grew up listening to, and they're rude or full of themselves or act like they just don't have time to stop and talk. Stay humble. Always thank your fans and appreciate your fans because without those people, where are you?”
On Breaking Into The Black Market
“Stay true to your craft, and just keep moving. What makes this such a fantastic business to be in is it's an art. Especially these days, it really doesn't matter anymore. Back then, that was just the last thing on my mind, was the color of my skin. And that's what was so awesome about living in Oklahoma of all places. When we went to elementary school, junior high, high school, there was no segregation. There were no all-black, or all-white schools, there were some that were predominantly one side or the other, but there was always a mixture. And I was lucky enough to grow up, like right down the middle. So when I met Kevin, I looked up to him, I didn't think about the color of his skin. When I met Mark, he's Mexican, I didn't think about the color of his skin or his background. What brought us together was our love for music. And that's what cut through all of those walls and those things that keep people apart, or keep people uncomfortable and not want to open up and share or get to know someone else because of the color of their skin.”
On Naming Color Me Badd
“That's why we called our group Color Me Badd. iI you were going to color anything at all, color us ‘bad’. When I was young, one of my favorite groups ever was the Commodores. Lionel Richie was my hero. So he had a song called ‘Stuck On You’ and it went to number one on pop, R&B and country. How many people have done that? That's breaking through all the barriers. And that was always a goal of mine from a very young age was to sing the type of music that could cut through all of those barriers. And so when we actually did get a Soul Train award and had a number one hit on R&B radio, I had achieved my goals. I didn't care what else happened after that.
George Michael, Hall & Oates, Lionel Richie did it. A lot of big rap stars these days too. That's what pop radio is: they're playing everything on every other station and it really doesn't matter anymore. We’ve found a nice spot to be in. I just want to see a lot of the live instruments and a lot of the old school sounds come back. And I think they're coming.”
On The Comeback of 90’s Music & New Jack Swing
“I think it's on the comeback now already. I really do. When you mentioned Bell Biv DeVoe, it's funny because New Edition was the group that we wanted to pattern ourselves after as well. Before them, it was the Jackson Five, then New Edition and then branched out was Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown. I wore Bobby Brown's record out when I had the cassette tapes and I played it over and over. James Ingram, Freddie Jackson.
Boyz II Men, another great group. We even got a chance to hang out with him and recorded a song with those guys called ‘For All Eternity’ on one of our albums. Great guys, awesome vocals and harmonies. Music is always evolving. But the funny thing is, it always ends up going back and taking root in something retro.
You just could just play from those old sounds which were vocally and instrumentally real. They weren't synthesizers. Not taking away from synthesizers and samples. You can play a keyboard plugged in, and it sounds almost as good, if not better, than a grand piano, because of how high tech the industry is now. But I think it's all going back to those live instruments and when people wrote and told stories in their music, so I think it's coming back already.”
On Picking “I Wanna Sex You Up”, Turned Down By Keith Sweat, Bell Biv Devoe
“It had that doowop factor in it. It had those old 50s and 60s type places in it that you could harmonize to. Plus there was a scene in the movie, we got to see a little bit of the scene that it was supposed to be for. And we just thought it was perfect. What caught us right off the bat were those three chords and the places for the doowop harmonies in there that sold us.”
On Insane Clown Posse Collaboration
“That blew my mind. I remember getting a voicemail from Joe Bruce, Violent J from the Insane Clown Posse. He's got kind of a scary voice. And so he was like, ‘Hey, man. I'm a big fan. And I love ‘I Adore Mi Amor’ and I thought it was a joke. I honestly thought he was just messing with me. I was like, This guy is trying to make fun of me or ‘clown’ me, for the lack of a better word. I didn't know he was serious.
And so I called him up. And he's a really nice dude. Really professional, nice guy. He told me he loved his craft but what a lot of people don't know is that he and his wife’s favorite song was ‘I Adore Mi Amor’. So we linked up and did some recording. And I happen to just love music: it doesn't matter what the sound is, what the subject matter is, I was just excited to team up and try something new.
Shortly after we recorded together, he asked me if I would sing at his and his wife's wedding, which was an honor, but who would have thought that somebody like Violent J from ICP, would be interested in hearing Bryan Abrams singing a hook on one of his tracks, but it worked. It was a super cool track. That just goes to show how music can break barriers.”
On VH1’s ‘Man Band’ Show
“It was a really cool experience. I got along great with all the guys. Jeff Timmons from 98 Degrees is a friend of mine. We got to know each other pretty well during that filming. Chris Kirkpatrick, another nice guy. And Rich Cronin, he passed, but he was one of the funniest, nicest people I ever met.
I think it's gonna sound funny, but I think the reason why that show didn't do as well, is because they were hoping that they were going to see a train wreck. They thought, get these guys together and they'd be so different that there would be fighting and people causing problems. I'll be honest with you, there were several occasions where we felt that they were trying to deliberately throw us under the bus like a setup. Back then, there were a lot of shows where they would set up scenarios, to see drama unfold.
That was kind of the bad thing about reality shows back then. And what happened was, Brian Michael Cox was the producer that came on the show. What happened was kind of a freak thing. Everybody hit it off, right from the beginning. And we wrote some really good songs, the songs came out incredible. Everybody just fell into their own little slot. Nobody was fighting. Nobody was arguing. I think they wanted fighting and drama for that show. And because we got along so well, what's interesting about watching a bunch of guys get along and actually record some good music?”
On Actual Drama With Color Me Badd Bandmates
“We have basically decided to go our separate ways. We started at a really young age, and when you grow up, you grow into different identities. I wanted to go a certain direction with the music and I was suffering from alcoholism, I was trying to hide it without a support system on the road at all. So without getting into it too much. I would just say, I decided if I'm going to stay sober and I'm going to change my life, turn my life around. I had to make some changes career wise as well.
Finally, my wife and I talked and we just decided that it was time for me to step out of the business for a while. Mark wasn't wanting to stop the shows and put things on hold. He wanted to continue to perform and make money, and I want to take some time to take care of myself. And so we just had to go our separate ways.
I have spoken with some of the other guys I've talked to Kevin, a while back. Sam's doing his own thing. We're just living our lives and doing what we do. I just felt like to be honest with you, I spent a lot of years living for other people and doing things for other people. And I knew if I was going to get sober and get myself right, that I needed to start living and doing things for myself, and thinking about my own health.”
On Life In The Fast Lane
“You’ve got to stop and step back, focus on yourself and your life, the people around you, your family. I think a lot of people get addicted to that life in the fast lane. And they're not happy unless they've got a number one hit, or a top 10 when they want to keep that level. And that's, that's an impossibility. You can't stay at that level without burning yourself out. And that's why you see a lot of these entertainers start falling apart behind the scenes, and they're afraid to open up and talk to someone about it.
And then they've got all these other people around them that are yessing them to death and not telling them what they need to hear, which is ‘slow down’. Let's take some time off. And let's focus on you as a person. And not just continue to be a machine and cranking out hit after hit after hit. People lose their lives over it. Slow down, stay humble and grounded.
On Becoming An Alcoholic
“The drinking started really affecting me because I was trying to keep it all in, as far as the disappointment, the depression. What a lot of people don't know is that I was a really big guy in school. So whenever you saw this thin person singing lead vocals for this band, what they didn't know is inside, I was still that big kid, I was still really insecure. So when I go out on stage, I'd be scared to death. But everybody wanted to see this powerful courageous person.
So one night, I lost my voice. And I was really upset because I didn't know how I was gonna make it through this show because I was singing the lead vocals. And my bus driver said,’Let me fix you a hot toddy’. So he fixed me some hot tea with lemon and honey and a shot of whiskey in it. And I took that shot. Within 15 minutes, my voice is back. I've got a little buzz so I'm feeling happy. And I went out there and performed. And after that show, my own band came to me and said, ‘What got into you, that was the best vocals ever;.
And I honestly thought I had found the magic ticket: this is what I have to do in order to be that good. And so I started having a drink before every show. And it kind of calmed my nerves, made me a little more aggressive and brave on stage. And I started leaning on that crutch, instead of, speaking to someone that cared about me, or that I trusted about my insecurities and how I felt.
I never had time to deal with losing all that weight and becoming this new person. We struggled for about two years in New York, before we got our deal, but I was just so focused on getting that weight off and keeping it off, to work towards this record deal, that I forgot how to take care of myself in the process. Number one over the money, it's health before wealth.”
On “Because Of You”, His New Single
“I'm going to be releasing a solo album very soon. ‘Because of You’ is the first single. What I wanted to do with this album was tell my life story in it. It's fun to write and sing songs about having a good time. But when you get older, and you have a family, you want your art and your craft to grow with you. I wanted there to be some stories and some inspiration in there for other people that might need it.
I was one of those people who listened to music for inspiration. Music was my therapy even as a child going through some of the things that I did as a child. Music was my escape. ‘Because of You’ is about my wife, and her loving me when I didn't even love myself and believing in me when I didn't even believe in myself. And because of that, I was able to learn how to start loving myself again, and believing in myself again.
Those things are what helped get me sober because I actually believed in myself enough to know that I could stop and make some changes regardless of what everyone else was saying about me or to me. She helped me learn how to believe in myself again. So the song is just about loving someone and wanting to make changes in your life.
And sometimes when a person doesn't love themselves enough to make these things happen, you know, a lot of people will say, you've got to do it for yourself, you've got to love yourself. How do you make that happen if you don't love yourself enough to try? So that's when family and friends and loved ones come in. And instead of pushing someone away, because they're bad, or made some mistakes in their lives, you don't just throw a person away, You lend them a hand, that's what we were put here to do is to help each other and to love one another and show the way when somebody else doesn't really see the path.
I want to show people that I've still got a little something left in the tank. I'm not too old just yet. It's been a long time coming up. And I'm excited about it.”
On His Wife’s Reaction To “Because Of You”
She may be sick of it from hearing it so much. Right before we released it, she was asking me for the lyrics. And she knew the lyrics, but she had never actually sat down to read the lyrics as opposed to just listen to the song. And she said, ‘I had no idea those lyrics were so beautiful’. And I'm like, ‘the song has been around for quite a while and you're just now really hearing it’. I guess maybe it hit her like a letter. I felt how special she thought the song was, even after all the years we've been together and so you got to treasure the people in your life that love you. And, you gotta love them too. Give the people in your life that love you the life that they deserve. Give them the best side of you.”
On His New Film
“I've just shot a short film that we're going to be releasing soon about my life story. I wanted to talk about some of the personal things. What I want to do with my career in the future is to use the music as a springboard to be able to speak and give testimony or tell my story, about where I was in my life and what I did to turn it around. I want to help other people that are struggling out there with mental health issues and addiction, alcoholism and substance use disorders, Maybe help some people. The whole key to staying sober for me is to stop being selfish and start being selfless. And so the more I try to reach out and help someone else, the easier it is for me to stay focused. I'm actually working on a documentary deal right now, I'm working on a book.”
On Being Vulnerable
“Reaching out doesn't show weakness. Telling someone you need help doesn't show weakness. That shows strength. Don't keep it to yourself anymore. Share how you feel with somebody and get it out. As opposed to keeping it in. Don't let your insecurities and negativity in your head destroy you.”
On Spending Time with Family
“Spending time with my wife and my daughters. I'm a big idiot. I'm a big kid. So we just like to clown and have fun. We play games, we swim. We just like spending time with each other, just sitting around and laughing and having a good time.I missed out on a lot over the years that I was caught up in the alcoholism. So I'm just I'm savoring every moment right now. It doesn't even really matter what we do. I just enjoy being with my family.”
You can find Bryan Abrams’ music at bryanabramsmusic.com where you can stream or purchase “Because of You” and his upcoming album.
Marc Ang (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a community organizer in Southern California and the founder of Asian Industry B2B. He is also an avid music lover of all genres, dog lover with a puggle (pug-beagle mix) Pugsley (@pugsley.love on Instagram). Marc’s book “Minority Retort” will be released in early 2022