Rewind: Remembering Brownstone's 'From The Bottom Up'

Brownstone on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno circa 1995
Attached to this rewind is some sad news...

I learned earlier this week that Brownstone member, Charmayne Maxwell died this past Friday. As always with death comes reflect, thus I pulled out Brownstone's debut album, From The Bottom Up, and gave it a spin, and unsurprisingly, all sorts of memories flooded in.

If you don't know who Brownstone is, then I'm not faulting you, they were one of about a zillion and one gal groups that were birthed during the R&B Renaissance of the 1990s. They weren't as fashion flashy as En Vogue or were lyrically witty as TLC, but Brownstone had some of the best (if not the best) voices in the game, often towering over their fellow R&B femmes with every vocal run and extended note. When you see the word "sangin'" in the dictionary (trust me, if 'twerk' can get in there, so can 'sangin''...), Brownstone is one of the first names listed because these ladies SANG, not "sing" --- S-A-N-G.

Formed in Los Angeles, the original membership of Brownstone consisted of Monica "Mimi" Doby, Charmayne "Maxee" Maxwell, and a pre-conniving R&B Divas: AtlantaNichole "Nicci" Gilbert. The group got a boost from none other than the King of Pop himself, as once Michael Jackson heard how well the three ladies harmonized together, he had to ink them with the quickness. From The Bottom Up was released in 1995 on MJJ Records, it peaking at #29 on the charts.

Brownstone made a rowdy n' rough first impression, as they put some sexual stank on their first single,"Pass The Lovin'", and they got down to the gritty on a steely West Coast Hip-Hop swing, giving shoutouts to those brothas with the twisted dreads and shaved heads, who passed down the street in a 'ghetto swang'.

It was a surprising first single choice, but Brownstone, while coasting on a more sophisticated rim due to those megawatt voices, were quite naughty when they wanted to be, as not only did they pen "Pass The Lovin'" they also threw down the smutty sister to SWV's "Downtown" on From The Bottom Up --- the blatant, but progressive ode to kitty pleasure, "Wipe It Up". Who needs sex education when all you have to do is put some '90s R&B on?

While featuring such poetic lines like: "you lookin' rather tasty, I never take a small bite, got to last me all night" and the muddled innuendo filled chorus line of: "slap it, flip it, rub it dooown..." (or so my nasty little mind believes what was said...), "Pass The Lovin'" just didn't pass as it barely squeaked into the top 50 R&B/Hip-Hop charts. It was the femme anthem, "If You Love Me" that would give the group the highest charting single of their careers as it reached #8 on the Hot 100, later earning them a Grammy-nomination and a Billboard Music Award.

Produced by Dave "Jam" Hall, who was already noted for being a hit machine with Mariah Carey ("Dreamlover"), Madonna ("Human Nature"), and Mary J. Blige ("Love No Limit"), "If You Love Me" struck a chord with the '90s-minded woman, the woman who wanted you to 'say it, do it, show it, and prove it', and who wanted a man to not mess around with those three little words, and act like they were their one and only "in the light and in the dark". No creepin', no games, just straight up truth, and when you hear the acapella version of "If You Love Me", you can distinctly hear how these ladies don't play when it comes to vocalizing that truth.


The follow-up single to "If You Love Me" was "Grapevyne" which is, to me, one of the GREATEST R&B classics to ever be recorded. Also produced by Hall, "Grapevyne" tip-toes in with some plush 'oohing', and then BAM! harmonies! stacked! to! the! max! as the thunderous chorus steamrolls in and interpolates on the Marvin Gaye classic. The greatness keeps on a-chuggin' as the song progresses, riffing on Gospel call and response all while retaining a sultry R&B flow that is undeniable. My favorite part is when the song is in its last stages, and the ladies are just going off on the vocal runs. So much slayage.

It's why it literally baffles me that "Grapevyne" only reached #49 on the Hot 100, and that it wasn't EVEN ON THEIR GREATEST HITS PACKAGE ALL THE LOVE! WHAT IN FRESH DOROTHY PARKER HELL?!

Sorry for all the caps, but that is just hateful...I mean...just...

Yeah...whoever put that collection together was sipping stupid juice.

While "If You Love Me" demanded an answer, "Grapevyne" already knew the answer and knew that ol' boy hadn't been the best since the break-up. No need to go on Ricki Lake, the Brownstone gals have already diagnosed and shaded the problem, tossing out "I told you so's" and noting how karma truly is a three-headed b to the itch. Still it's such as classy diss, cause it's basically saying, "You hurt me, yes, but I'm okay now and now it's YOU who is struggling and looking messy, not me". As far as diss songs go, it's just on another level, and that's why I clutch "Grapevyne" dearly to my heart.

After "Grapevyne", a smoothie cool R&B refix of The Eagles 1973 hit, "I Can't Tell You Why" was released as From The Bottom Up's final single, it reaching an unfair #54 chart position. For some reason a lot of R&B groups were covering classic rock tracks back then, and Brownstone's slip into the FM stream is one of the highlights from that coverage period. As telling during their performance at the Apollo Theater, these ladies furthered the evidence that they were harmonizing bad asses.

While it wasn't my all-time favorite R&B album from the 1990s, revisiting From The Bottom Up some 20 years later has me reconsidering its placement. Now older, wiser and a wee bit more cultured in music, I'm mystified why standout songs like "Party Wit Me" and the Soulshock & Karlin produced rock steady vibe of "Sometimes Dancin'" didn't get single treatment. Also I've come to appreciate slower testimonies like "Don't Cry For Me", and give head nod towards "Fruit Of Life" as it nibbled on the last pulp of the New Jill Swing era.

While overshadowed by bigger names with deeper discographies, Brownstone and their debut From The Bottom Up (which you can now stream on Spotify) deserve a second listen, not just to hear some femme forward declarations, but to hear a trio of ladies who sang their ever lovin' rumps off and showed us how the game of love and R&B is to be played.

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