What do Kool & the Gang and Bon Jovi have in common? Both bands figured in the ascension of multiplatinum recording artists Color Me Badd (CMB), who perform a middle set on the I Love the ’90s bill at the S.B. Bowl on Sunday, July 3. The band, known for its amalgamated style that blends hip-hop samples, pop, and R&B, is on tour with Vanilla Ice, Salt-N-Pepa, and Tone Loc. “We kind of give the audience a break from the rap,” said CMB’s Mark Calderon, laughing.
As new jack swing leaders in the early 1990s, the quartet of Romeos — Bryan Abrams, Sam Watters, Kevin Thornton, and Calderon — dubbed Color Me Badd conquered the earth with a succession of crooning hits, led by “I Wanna Sex You Up” and “I Adore Mi Amor.” Their rise to fame began in the middle of the country and is as colorful as the band’s moniker. “Bryan [Abrams] and I, we started the group in 1984 in Oklahoma City in the hallways of our school,” Calderon said, remembering how they originally met throwing down in a sing-off. “I was like, man, I’m just gonna sing with this guy, forget about singing against him.”
Calderon brought in Watters and Thornton and, despite teen awkwardness, the four nutted up the moxie to perform guerilla-style for some major acts, including Bon Jovi, Kool & the Gang, and Huey Lewis and the News. “We knew that we were good. Being in Oklahoma City, you had to take any breaks you could,” Calderon said of their rogue auditioning techniques.
In 1987, they spotted Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, of the hair metal kings Bon Jovi, exiting a Penn Square Mall movie theater and took advantage of the chance encounter. They duo were tired and heading back to their hotel, Calderon remembered, but the ambitious teens asked the New Jersey singer to let them perform an a cappella number (“Daddy’s Home”). Initially wary, Bon Jovi was so blown away he invited CMB to open their concert the next night before 20,000 people.
While that experience gave them exposure, it didn’t seal CMB’s pro deal. Their actual big break came one year after their Bon Jovi run-in when they met Kool & the Gang. The famed funk band came through Oklahoma City as part of the educational initiative “It’s Kool to Stay in School,” a reward for the most attentive students (which definitely did not include Calderon, Abrams, and Watters). “We didn’t have perfect attendance; we skipped school to attend the ‘It’s Kool to Stay in School’ party,” said Calderon, laughing. But their impromptu performance impressed Robert “Kool” Bell, who helped them land management. “It hit so fast, we didn’t know what was going on,” said Calderon of their catapult to fame.
Although “I Adore Mi Amor” was a #1 hit for the group in 1991, it is the ubiquitous “I Wanna Sex You Up” that is perhaps Color Me Badd’s best remembered song (it peaked at #2 on the U.S. charts), thanks to the film New Jack City. “We got our record deal off of ‘I Adore Mi Amore,’” Calderon said, but when Giant Records hosted a call for the New Jack City soundtrack, Elliot Straite (Dr. Freeze), who had just produced the monster Bell Biv DeVoe hit “Poison,” worked his magic on “Sex You Up,” which made the soundtrack. “The song just took off like a rocket,” Calderon recalled.
With changing consumer tastes, CMB’s popularity declined across the 1990s, and the band went through lineup changes. Watters left the group in 1998 to produce — scoring hits with Jessica Simpson, Céline Dion, Kelly Clarkson, and 98 Degrees — and hasn’t returned since. Thornton, in CMB as recently as 2015, is out again. Still Calderon and Abrams, who have remained the group’s core, have continued to put out records and attract strange bedfellows — CMB collaborated with Insane Clown Posse on the 2012 song “Ghetto Rainbows.” Said Calderon of the horror-core group, “They’ve always been fans of ours. They’re just really good guys.” Recently, Calderon and Abrams inducted Adam Emil of Chicago to complete CMB as a trio and recorded an upcoming single, “In Case You Didn’t Know.” Calderon promises a new album circa 2017.
As for the tour, the I Love the ’90s Bowl stop could not be tastier: Vanilla Ice — he of “Ice Ice Baby” and reality shows such as The Surreal Life — headlines a bill that includes Salt-N-Pepa (“Push It,” “Shoop”), Tone Loc (“Wild Thing,” “Funky Cold Medina”), and Young MC (“Bust a Move”), and, of course, Color Me Badd. (Coolio, All-4-One, Kool Moe Dee, Kid ’n Play, and Rob Base are also part of the tour lineup, depending on the market.)
Surprisingly, it took this yearlong tour, which began in January, for Calderon to meet many of his early-’90s chart-topping, urban pop peers. Back in the day, CMB only met Salt-N-Pepa a few times, he said. “Rob [Van Winkle, a k a Vanilla Ice]: [I’m] just getting to know him. Tone Loc, Coolio, Rob Base: They’ve been great. We’re all grown up; we all have families,” Calderon added. “Backstage, everyone gets along. No one’s big-headed.”
The concerts have been high-energy, and during their stage time, CMB re-creates the choreography from their videos. “Everybody stays on their feet,” Calderon said. “We definitely burn a lot of calories up there.”
Still, everything smooths out when CMB performs the slow-burning “The Earth, the Sun, the Rain,” the calliope-kissed bounce of “All 4 Love,” the Valentino-meets-Banderas, bilingual-ballad charms of “I Adore Mi Amor,” and the libidinous “I Wanna Sex You Up.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” Calderon said. “You know every song nonstop.”
I Love the ’90s, featuring Color Me Badd, Vanilla Ice, Salt-N-Pepa, Tone Loc, and Young MC, takes over the S.B. Bowl stage (1122 N. Milpas St.) Sunday, July 3. For tickets and information, call 962-7411 or see sbbowl.com.