TOTAL at 25: Definition of a Bad Girl

TOTAL at 25: Definition of a Bad Girl

COVER STORY | Beside every bad boy, there is a bad girl.  As Bad Boy Records expanded its musical roster, a girl group was the next void to fill.  The rising label already had its General in The Notorious B.I.G, and its First Lady in Faith Evans. With Rhythm & Blues saturated by female groups from En Vogue to SWV, TLC to Brownstone, Kut Klose to Jade, and Xscape to Changing Faces; Bad Boy’s latest addition had to boldly set themselves apart.

Following an audition for Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs in an elevator at the Hit Factory recording studio, Kima Dyson, Keisha Spivey and Pamela Long were signed in 1992. The New Jersey trio made their first appearance singing the hook on The Notorious B.I.G.’s debut single “Juicy” and his follow-up smash “One More Chance”. Establishing a familiar presence on Hip-Hop/R&B radio, the release of their first single “Can’t You See” jolted urban airwaves in 1995. With strong harmonies and signature style draped in black leather and shades, TOTAL was ready.

Released on January 30, 1996, Combs equipped the girls with the industry’s leading hitmakers for their eponymous debut. The 15-track set featured sleek production by Combs, Chucky Thompson, Rodney Jerkins, The Neptunes, and Raphael Saadiq with heavy hand by songwriter Terri Robinson, of R&B duo Terri & Monica, who penned 7 songs.

Zumble examines the solid debut, track by track. Twenty-five years since release, TOTAL is certified platinum and remains a musical time capsule of the Hip Hop Soul movement and the undeniable power of a bad girl.

Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs sets the stage for his alt-Supremes on a brief introduction produced by Chad “Dr. Seuss” Elliot. Encouraging Kima, Keisha and Pam to share the best of themselves, Combs instigates, “rock on, with your bad self”. You will remember their names.

Do You Know
Slow and steady proves the way to go for the album’s first dance. Unlike the groups that preceded them, the ladies were a different type of crazy, sexy, cool that we’d yet to experience. Prior to lending her vocals to the hook of Notorious BIG’s “Hypnotize” in 1997, Pam’s lead vocals shared her own account of spellbinding adoration. The early signs of attraction, the ladies drop enamored confessions over a funky Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s sample produced by Combs and Tumblin’ Dice.

No One Else
For the albums first official single, Hip-Hop and R&B alike fans were immediately commanded by a scratched and smoothed sample of KRS-1’s “South Bronx”. Written by Terri Robinson and produced by Poke & Tone, the gritty beat juxtaposed the plush vocal entries by each of the ladies who take turns on each verse of devotion. A hot beat requires a hot 16, and the trio enlisted Chicago’s crowning female MC, Da Brat, for a tongue twisting finale. “No One Else” swept urban radio and commandeered our mixtapes, reaching No.20 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts.

Who Is It? Interlude

Full disclosure: This interlude got me in major trouble. Not yet a teenager, I was able to slip the Parental Advisory label passed my guardians and into my CD collection. I would’ve gotten away with it, too, had this interlude not been sandwiched between two of Total’s biggest singles. Just as Pam and Kima sneak into Keisha’s bedroom, my tween-self followed for an audible voyeurism. As their bandmate enfored dominance over a submissive suitor played by Sean Combs, “Who Is It” is full of sex slurps and spanks that would make your favorite ASMR/Mukbang video blush. It remains a guilty pleasure and worth every punishment I received.

Kissing You
As an acoustic guitar fades into audience, one can tell that they are on the precipice of something extraordinary. Produced by Raphael Saadiq, the Hip Hop Soul vixens deliver a mid-tempo lover’s groove for their second single. Exhibiting their flexibility to not only sing over funky hip-hop samples, there lies a refreshing fearlessness in Keisha and Pam’s vocals on this 100% soulful sonnet. Received with even wider arms than their debut single, “Kissing You” peaked at No. 12 on the Hot 100. To date, is a favorite of Total fans and one of 90s R&B’s greatest classics.

Do You Think About Us
Soul virtuoso Raphael Saadiq takes complete reigns of lyrics and production for Total’s third single. Running through scenarios of monotonous daily routines, Pam takes delivers a conversational tone that creates a safe space for honest confession – do you think about us? It is a catchy, sincere and endearing inquiry and we hope that the answer is YES.

Definition of a Bad Girl (Interlude)
To set clear delineations, group member Pam takes a brief intermission to list the qualifications of a true Bad Girl. She is independent. She plays by her own rules. She knows what she wants and how to get it. She commands respect. Oh yeah, “a bad girl can and will kick your ass.” Got it? Good. Back to the music.

“Can’t You See” featuring Notorious B.I.G.
Ahead of their solo album, Total made waves on urban radio with the lead single from the soundtrack to 1995 film New Jersey Drive. Although the movie is not quite memorable, “Can’t You See” made an impression on all of us. Fueled by the sampling of James Brown funk classic “The Payback”, the nostalgic, laid-back vibe allowed each member to introduce themselves vocally. Returning the favor of Total’s contributions to his initial hits, The Notorious B.I.G. co-signed the trio’s presence with a classic 16-bars and we were hooked! “Can’t You See” cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts peaking at No. 13, giving recognizable name and face to Bad Boy’s secret weapon.

Someone Like You
Like the intro to a 70’s blaxploitation film, this track rides in like a stretch Cadillac with a diamond in the back. Under the production value of Combs and Chucky Thompson, the ladies are in their Hip Hop Soul bag, immersed in the sound that garnered Mary J. Blige her sovereign status. Their eyes and hearts are finally open to receive love and they keep it 100 on what could have been another single.

Tell Me
First Lady Faith Evans lends her writing prowess to the trio. Co-written by Keisha Spivey and husband/actor Omar Epps, the group practices patience for a to-be-determined lover. Ready and willing, Total’s seductive harmonies pour over the Vincent Herbert-produced groove like a mason jar of thick honey. Gaining impatience, they play their current status cool but it’s clear that they wouldn’t mind more.

Love Is All We Need
Kima, the trio’s most quiet force takes lead vocals on this contemporary entry by Bad Boy’s resident hitman Chucky Thompson. Making a convincing case for a reluctant suitor, Total takes on a softened sample of Ice Cube’s “Ghetto Bird”. Love is there for the claiming under one condition: It must be returned in full.

Don’t Ever Change
There are some moments in love you wish you could keep preserved in a bottle. Longing to hold on to priceless feeling of bliss and perfection vocalist Pam makes a simple request. With an interpolation of Zapp & Roger’s Computer Love, the ladies make their desires clear in hopes that they might always be in love this way.

Spend Some Time
Our strong female leads exchange their tough exterior for a moment of vulnerable disclosure. Wearing their hearts on their sleeve, the Tone & Poke-produced groove samples Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO”, hinting that quality time may require a Do Not Disturb doorhanger. If only for one night, Total is willing to let their guard down to let their king take the lead.

Boy Meets Girl
Many may not be aware that Total were early adopters of The Neptunes sound. Much like SWV who enlisted the duo of Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams for “Use Your Heart”, the Bad Girls were released into orbit for a spacey-sample of The Bee Gees’ “Love You Inside Out”. Experimenting with vocals over the Virginia Beach production team’s heavy drums, Total enlists help from labelmates 112 (who released their debut the same year) for a sugary-sweet chorus. Released as a B-side to “Do You Think About Us”, this is a personal favorite and perfect way to close the album’s set on a high note.

No One Else (Puff Daddy Remix)
In typical Bad Boy style, THIS IS THE REMIX! We are treated to an encore of the album’s leading hit. Although called the “Puff Daddy Remix”, this track was remixed by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins to complement our muses. For their final act of Black Girl Magic, Total joins forces with Da Brat and Brooklyn MCs Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown on the reinterpretation with lurks mysteriously onto our speakers. Mutual friends of Puff Daddy, this remains the only recording of the two sworn-rivals on a song together. Although they never appear in the video together at the same time, we hold Total responsible for making space for such a historic moment in Hip Hop feminism to transpire. We are left with a bang and can’t wait to hear more.

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