A member of a musical family that notched major successes in the R&B field in the 1980s and 1990s, Chico DeBarge went his own way stylistically. While the other DeBarges offered romantic harmony singing that recalled the 1960s heyday of their label Motown, Chico DeBarge was a full-throated soul singer whose lyrics tended toward raw sensuality and toward serious reflections on the temptations of the criminal life. DeBarge, composing much of his own material, drew on his experiences during a nearly six-year prison term he served after being convicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Born on June 23, 1966, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Jonathan DeBarge received the nickname Chico from a relative. He was the tenth of thirteen children, several of whom formed the vocal group DeBarge in the late 1970s. Several others were members of another R&B ensemble called Switch. Chico DeBarge was too young to join these groups, but his appearances with a local church choir made it clear that he had inherited his family’s musical talent. After attending high school in Detroit, he broke into the music business himself and was signed to Motown.
His debut album, Chico DeBarge, was released in 1986. Even at this stage of his career, DeBarge’s music differed from the sweet harmonies of DeBarge and their falsetto-specialist lead singer El; Chico’s music had a funkier edge. The album’s leadoff single “Talk to Me” ascended the charts rapidly, and the family seemed to have produced yet another musical sensation. Then, a month after the album’s release, DeBarge’s world came crashing down when he was arrested on drug conspiracy charges. Specifically, police alleged that he had introduced two cocaine dealers to each other. His prison term ended up being longer than those of either of the dealers themselves.
DeBarge would overcome this setback to his career, but in an interview with London’s Independent newspaper, he expressed bitterness over his conviction. “I felt in court that I was a victim of racism,” he said. “I definitely feel that had I not been the creed I am I would not have received the sentence I got.” He came out of prison in 1994 with a knife scar above his left eye, but also with skills he had developed on several new musical instruments. He also had composed a notebook full of songs, which would find their way onto the albums he released after putting his career back together. When DeBarge was released, he told the New York Daily News that a prison guard sent him off with a taunt, “See you in a few months.” That experience would find its way onto DeBarge’s Long Time No See album, which opens with the sound of a cell door and a voice predicting the singer’s return to prison.
Troubled by his family’s disappointment in him, and by a relationship that had ended due to his prison term, DeBarge kept out of harm’s way by pitching some of his new songs to other performers and rebuilding his network of friends in the music industry. He was signed to a contract with the new label LaFace at one point, but the project planned by that label fell through. In 1996 DeBarge finally caught the ear of executive Kedar Massenburg, one of the most astute talent-spotters of the late 1990s and a major force behind the musical movement that became known as neo-soul.
Neo-soul was partly a reaction against the studio-driven, heavily electronic sound of hip-hop music; it featured traditional instruments and virtuoso, highly ornamented vocals, often on romantic themes, yet had a tough attitude that marked it as part of the 1990s. The timing was perfect for DeBarge, who had honed his instrumental skills and was ready with a large collection of songs that fit what Massenburg was looking for. The executive, who was in the process of turning around the flagging fortunes of the durable Motown label, signed DeBarge to a contract, and DeBarge found himself making music for the label that had issued his brothers’ greatest hits.
Even though he was something of a black sheep within his family, DeBarge once again enjoyed their support. “I have a lot of respect for them, and never once did they make me feel bad because my music was different from theirs,” he told Billboard. DeBarge’s second Motown album, Long Time No See, was released in the fall of 1997. Massenburg produced the recording, which mostly featured music composed by DeBarge himself. With a mixture of romantic songs and music about prison life and the pressures of the streets, DeBarge drew comparisons, not with the romantic Motown vocal groups that had inspired his brothers, but with the hardest-edged member of the Motown artist stable, Marvin Gaye, whose “Trouble Man” DeBarge often performed in concert.
Long Time No See didn’t take off immediately, but a remix of the song “No Guarantees”, featuring Motown artist Joe, brought both the single and the album to the upper levels of Billboard’s R&B charts. DeBarge went on the road to support the album in 1998 and made new fans with a series of successful appearances in England. Critics were impressed with DeBarge’s all-around musicianship. “Best of all, he’s a real musician, directing the band from the front and moving from hand-mike to Hammond organ, clarinet to concert grand and even congas as the show progresses,” noted the London Independent in its review of a DeBarge show in March of 1998. DeBarge combined these musical feats with a steamy romantic approach (complete with bouquets of red roses on top of his grand piano) aimed squarely at female fans.
DeBarge was uncomfortable at Motown, however, and felt that the label put little effort into planning the future direction of his career. That lack of planning showed in sales figures for DeBarge’s next album, 1999’s The Game, which were disappointing despite another strong set of compositions from DeBarge and production work by Motown star Brian McKnight. After that album, DeBarge and Motown parted ways.
Well into his thirties, DeBarge looked to the future instead of trying to cash out with another quick hit or two. To raise money for an enterprise of his own he appeared in several plays on the gospel theatrical circuit, including Real Men Pray in 2000. In the play DeBarge portrayed a character who, like him, had made bad choices and ended up in prison. “I can’t say that I am walking with God like I know I should, but I’m a strong believer. I’m constantly striving and praying because I’m a praying man,” he told the Michigan Chronicle. With the proceeds from his acting appearances, DeBarge formed his own company, Alove Entertainment. He pronounced the name “olive,” pointing to that fruit’s healing properties and Christian associations.
Turning down offers from other labels, DeBarge began laying down tracks for a new album that would be totally under his own control. “Everybody kept trying to sign me as an artist,” he told the Chronicle. “I told them the only thing I wanted was distribution.” After DeBarge signed a distribution deal with the Koch International recording firm, he released Free, which was mostly recorded in a studio in his Grand Rapids home and again featured the singer’s own compositions. People reacted positively to DeBarge’s “blending the lush romanticism of Maxwell with the hot-butter sexuality of D’Angelo,” pointing to the album’s “warm, personal vibe tailor-made for lovers.” The singer looked forward to future Alove releases. “You can only be the hot singer for so long, and really, what have you achieved?” he asked Jet.
Sultry R&B crooner Chico Debarge returns with his long anticipated 2009 studio album Addiction. The album is proof that Chico is still a charismatic, talented songwriter and producer. The album is filled with passion and intensity that encompasses Chico’s sensual delivery and style that fans have always loved and embraced. Addiction is infused with rich melodic and soulful production that is sure to connect with fans and critics alike.