The year was 1997. Gas cost $1.22 a gallon. The Lion King was preparing to pounce upon Broadway. Steve Jobs returned to run Apple Computers. The Mars Pathfinder spacecraft landed on the red planet. Notorious B.I.G. was murdered. And after Elton John performed “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral, the song later topped Billboard’s year-end Billboard Hot 100 chart.
It was amidst this backdrop that a beloved Black cultural touchstone emerged. That September saw the release of the movie Soul Food. Focusing on a tight-knit, extended Black family from Chicago whose love and long-held traditions — including Sunday dinner every week — help them persevere through life’s ups and down, the comedy-drama starred Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach and Mekhi Phifer. Released through Fox 2000 Pictures, Soul Food also spun off a same-titled Showtime series in 2000.
In addition to co-producing the film with ex-wife Tracey Edmonds and others through Edmonds Entertainment Group (EEG), Grammy-winning songwriter/producer/LaFace Records co-founder Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds primarily helmed the accompanying soundtrack. Released a month prior to the movie, the 13-track R&B/hip-hop album also featured production by Jermaine Dupri, Teddy Riley and Sean “Puffy” Combs, among others, and appearances by Usher, Monica, Jay-Z, BLACKstreet and OutKast.
RIAA-certified at 2X platinum, the album — peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums — yielded four Hot 100 singles: “A Song for Mama” by Boyz II Men (No. 7), “We’re Not Making Love No More” by Dru Hill (No. 13), “What about Us” by Total featuring Missy Elliott & Timbaland and “I Care ‘Bout You” by Milestone (No. 23). The latter is significant in that the song marked Milestone’s sole recording. Created as part of the Soul Food storyline, the quintet was comprised of several of R&B’s popular artists at that time: Babyface, K-Ci & JoJo and After 7 members/Babyface siblings Kevon Edmonds and Melvin Edmonds (the latter died in 2019).
For the final installment in our Black Music Month series, Billboard celebrates the 25-year anniversary of the Soul Food soundtrack with Babyface. In addition to chatting about the enduring legacy of both the soundtrack and the film, the newly minted Capitol Records artist reflects on his forthcoming album, Girls’ Night Out.
When the film was released, was the audience reaction what you expected?
Well, you just never know beforehand. But in watching the film as it was being finished, it seemed like it was working. Still all you can do is cross your fingers when you’re working on something and you’re so close to it. I never trust private screenings; you’ve always got to watch it with nobody who has any skin in the game to really know. After doing that a couple of times, I saw how it was resonating and began to feel pretty good about it.
Why do you think the soundtrack clicked so well initially?
Because the movie itself was so powerful. Between watching the story and listening to the score that [Prince proteges] Wendy [Melvoin] and Lisa [Coleman] wrote, it all just spoke to you. And that helped when it came to writing songs like “A Song for Mama.” Then there were the songs done by other songwriters and producers that I loved and songs that had been written earlier [Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”].
Creating the music for this project was a little bit different for me because I was also involved from the script forward. For example, there was the situation where the group Milestone was created as part of the story involving one of the film’s major characters, songwriter/musician Miles. So a song had to be written for the “group,” which became me, my brothers and K-Ci & JoJo. After the film, we talked about coming together again a number of times. But it just never happened. The biggest thing about Soul Food back then, however, is that it hit Black culture in a way that went straight to everyone’s heart. Everybody could relate to it, connecting it with their own mothers, grandmothers, big sisters. [Screenwriter/director] George Tillman Jr. did a great job of telling what was his story and putting it on the big screen. The music was just really there to support his narrative.
Is there one special memory or anecdote that springs to mind about the film and soundtrack?
The main memory is that this was the first major film we did with our company, Edmonds Entertainment. We basically moved to Chicago to take it on. So it was like the world stopped to do this film and music. It was definitely an all-out effort to make this film matter. And we were able to do that.
Why do the two projects still resonate 25 years later?
Because the mother, grandmother, sibling connection doesn’t necessarily change. Things are different today; maybe some people didn’t or don’t have exactly the same kind of relationships now. But the film and soundtrack does bring back good memories [about family]. And that’s why they will always resonate. [The effect] of strong films has a tendency to not really change over time. As a matter of fact, the crazier things seem to get, the better such films and music feel.
And now you’re starting a new chapter, with an upcoming Capitol Records album and its recently released first single, “Keeps on Fallin’” with Ella Mai.
The album is called Girls’ Night Out and it features a lot of today’s younger R&B female artists, including Queen Naija, Ari Lennox, Kehlani and Doechii. We wrote together along with other producers, talking about whatever it is they wanted to talk about. And while doing that, I found that there’s a clear difference in terms of how women write and what they sing about today. There’s far more independence and confidence that wasn’t necessarily there years ago. That aspect has been great to see and fun to work with as well.
This story originally Appeared on billboard.com