The New South croon

With hometown rivalries and alliances, Atlanta vocal groups Jagged Edge, 112 and Silk represent the latest generation in the Southern R&B tradition

Look at pictures of Silk, Jagged Edge and 112. If you didn't know them as Atlanta's top R&B vocal groups, you might mistake one of their members for your cousin Melvin or your brother's best friend. They don't have the dashing, chiseled features of Maxwell, or the androgynous star quality of Michael Jackson. They look like real people that we really know. And if they look pretty much the same as each other, that's because, in a lot of ways, they are.

All three groups, born in Atlanta within the last 10 years, were cut from the ribs of already-established mentors: Silk from Keith Sweat, Jagged Edge from Jermaine Dupri and 112 from Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. All three have released new albums in recent months: 112's Part III arrived in the spring, while Silk's Love Session and JE's Jagged Little Thrill followed this summer.

And to varying degrees, they've all stayed true to a classic R&B sound — the kind descended from other Southern soul singers such as Gladys Knight and the Pips. The kind that has, in recent years, lost some of its luster as R&B has veered closer to hip-hop's production style and attitude — witnessed most recently by JE's current hit, "Where the Party At," which features rapper Nelly prominently.

But despite the success of acts such as 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, teen pop groups that model themselves around a classic vocal group formula, none of Atlanta's top R&B groups have chosen to pander completely to the newly emerging brand of pop-inspired R&B. As such, they've helped keep Atlanta on the music map as home to what some like to call real R&B.

So why can't they all just get along?

In recent weeks, Jagged Edge and 112 have been embroiled in a nasty back-and-forth feud, the kind most artists learn to steer clear of early in their careers.

"They started it," says Jagged Edge's Brian "Brasco" Casey.

His groupmate, Kyle "Quick" Norman, adds, "We don't have any reason to dis anybody. The Lord's blessing us right now. Why would we dis anybody?"

But the disses have been flying so fast they've soured what should be a time of celebration for the groups, who are both enjoying success with their recent releases.

While publicists for 112 did not follow through on several requests for an interview with the group, Jagged Edge had lots to say on the subject. "From day one, we've always said 112 was friends of ours, our homeboys," says Brandon "Case Dinero" Casey. "But one day we came home from being out on the road and the first thing we hear that morning was these cats on the radio talking junk about us."

Case Dinero said he spoke with 112 member Q, whom, he says, apologized for the comments. But, "two days later they go to Florida and start talking the same crap about us," he says, "like, 'How can Jagged Edge be better than us when they got two lead singers, a rah-rah man and a cheerleader?'" JE say they want to clear up the whole thing and put it to rest but, so far, no truce has developed.

While JE and 112 take swipes at one another, Silk — the veterans of the bunch — has stayed out of the fracas. But with their new album, Love Session, Silk hopes to at least partake in some of the platinum success their Atlanta brethren are enjoying.

But Silk is sort of a different animal. Less polished image-wise, and perhaps appealing to a bit older audience, Silk is a no-frills, flat-out R&B singing group: no gimmicks or hype; no slashes or hyphens (hip hop/R&B, pop/R&B). Since its 1992 debut, Lose Control, fans have recognized the five-man collective — Garry "Big G" Glenn, Gary "Lil G" Jenkins, Jonathan "John John" Rasboro, Timothy "Timzo" Cameron and Jimmy Gates Jr. — primarily through the rugged vocals of Lil G. Nowadays, the group focuses more on the contrasts between Lil G and the softer, sweeter stylings of John John. Older fans who are better-versed in R&B history could compare Silk to groups such as the Ebonies, the Dramatics or the Dells.

Timzo credits Sweat with helping create Silk's sound. "The style that we sing pretty much comes from a mixture of our church background and the flavor that Keith brought to the table," he says.

Today, Silk is no longer joined at the hip with Sweat creatively. The group doesn't want to go down in R&B history as a Keith Sweat footnote, but remain on friendly terms with the singer and plan to work with him again soon. "He was like our dad in the industry," says Lil G. "He put us down and we appreciate what he did. But on the business end, I think we had to make some moves."

Musically, however, Silk hasn't moved far from where Sweat put the group initially. Despite the changing sound of R&B, Silk plans to keep on singing the same ol' song. Says Timzo, "I don't think our fans would really accept us [doing pop music]. This is the style that's been keeping us here from the beginning and I think that's part of the reason why we're still here."

Once the Jagged Edge/112 debacle blows over, Silk's members would like to see the three groups work together. "It would be nice for the three R&B groups from Atlanta to go out on a tour together," says Timzo. "I think that would be a good tour because each of the groups is representing Atlanta very well right now."

But that's not likely to happen any time soon. Even if icy relations between JE and 112 thaw, these groups stand to gain more by emphasizing their individuality than by standing side by side for comparison. And, of course, there are major differences between Atlanta's big three R&B acts. If Silk reside at the old-school end of the R&B spectrum, and pop-friendly 112 lean toward the more contemporary tip, Jagged Edge has, at least on previous recordings, landed somewhere in the middle. Nowadays, however, the group seems to be finding favor with mainstream audiences (they've even been featured on a daytime soap), putting JE in closer association with 112. And as their difference become less notable, the competitiveness inevitably gets thicker.

The JE quartet — Case Dinero, Brasco, Quick and Richard "Wingo Dollar" Wingo — got off to a slow start with 1998's A Jagged Era inching onto the charts on the heels of hit singles "Gotta Be" and "He Can't Love You." Things changed with the release of JE Heartbreak, which spawned the hit, "Let's Get Married," and catapulted the group to stardom.

Like Silk, Jagged Edge say they don't feel the need to go wading in unfamiliar waters even though they say they respect the many hues of today's R&B. Case Dinero says the hip-hop flavor of "Where the Party At" — following big-hit ballads like "Let's Get Married" and "He Don't Love You" — has more to do with artistry than with crossover potential. "We almost felt like we were taking a big chance in terms of that song being the first single," he says, "because a lot of times if the first one doesn't jump off, the label will pull back. So we were definitely scared of that, but just being true to the fact that we're not just an act, we're real artists, just being true to the artistry of it, we felt like we couldn't be scared of that."

As for Silk's idea of an Atlanta group tour, Quick says JE's down for whatever will bring the city's urban acts together. "We'd like to see us, Silk, 112, OutKast and Goodie Mob, Monica, India.Arie. The females, the males, the rappers. Neo-soul, R&B, rap [all on tour together]."

Case Dinero said groups should celebrate their connection to a region that has contributed so much to soul music as an art and an industry. "The culture, the down-home Southern hospitality, the real soul that you hear in the music comes from the South," he says. "And it's such an opportunistic place, it brings all these people from other places who are like the cream of the crop in other cities."

With groups like Evander Holyfield's 4 Shades and MCA's Nine Twenty in the wings, the field of Atlanta's male R&B vocal groups threatens to get more and more crowded. But fear not. Silk and JE, at least, agree that this town is big enough for all of them. Despite some evidence to the contrary, they just might be right.