We recently caught up with Dawn Robinson of the legendary group En Vogue for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we discussed her leaving En Vogue in 1997, branching out into her solo career, joining Lucy Pearl, her solo debut album, reuniting with En Vogue over the years, plans for her new label and new music, her upcoming autobiography book and more.
Dawn Robinson: Thank you. “Legend” feels old, but it’s ok, I’d rather be a legend than a nobody! Without the fans no one knows who the heck En Vogue is. We are grateful that people know our music and vibe with us and support us all of these years. This is our 30 year anniversary. It just blows me away that we’ve been around this long. The 30 years went by so quickly, it feels like yesterday!
YouKnowIGotSoul: I can see all of the plaques behind you on the wall! That’s validation right there.
Dawn Robinson: I didn’t get any with Lucy Pearl, we didn’t get any awards, it was more a project that is noteworthy that people recognize and love us for and give us credit for. To me, I love En Vogue, I’m not saying anything bad about what we did, to me we were the best, as far as the girl group phenomenon. But there is something about Lucy Pearl that still feels so close to my heart. We created the look and sound of Lucy Pearl, and I was much more Rock N Roll. My look was more down to earth. En Vogue was really kind of buttoned up and gowns and stuff like that. It was a little more classic fashion wise.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We will definitely get into Lucy Pearl more during this interview, but first, how are you holding up during this pandemic? It’s a tough time for artists.
Dawn Robinson: I just feel like it was time for the world to take a break. We were over consuming, over polluting, we buy stuff we don’t need. So now they say that the air is much cleaner, especially in L.A. and India. The oceans are much cleaner, and animals are coming closer to the cities. I think it was a long needed break. As far as work is concerned, people are being creative online. I don’t like doing the whole live shows with no audience, it feels weird to me. I just need that energy, I can’t get used to that. I see Maxine is doing shows, and she’s doing her thing! This too shall pass.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You had just begun doing shows with Maxine as part of The Funky Divas before the pandemic started. Was it disappointing having to put a pause on that?
Dawn Robinson: That kind of fell apart for a different reason. It was a personal situation that happened between her and I. I know it happened a long time ago but it was something I couldn’t let go. I just couldn’t trust her after that, so it was just personal with me. I always say this. If you sweep something under the rug and the elephant is still in the room, it doesn’t go anywhere. We didn’t deal with it back then. I brought it back on a phone call with our manager and it blew up. Also Cindy and Terry were trying to get the name Funky Divas. They don’t go by Funky Divas, they go by En Vogue. I left in 1997, I came back to the group in 2009 for our 20 year anniversary and we toured the states and overseas. I don’t understand why they’re fighting to get the name. I don’t want to have to pay for a trademark attorney, because we bought the trademark. I thought they were being nasty and vicious. I just said the hell with it. Every time I try to go back and do something with them it just blows up. Some things are just better left undone and finished.
YouKnowIGotSoul: En Vogue really set the groundwork for other female 90’s R&B groups by being the first one out. What do you remember about those times?
Dawn Robinson: It was magical. I’m writing my autobiographical book right now and having to relive everything and go back 30 years. It’s hard to do that and remember play by play. I wish I would have kept a diary! As I’m writing it, I’m remembering and walking into the audition for the very first time, stuff like that. I just remember we recorded “Who’s Loving You”, the acapella part to “Hold On”, separate from the beat, and when we got back to the studio 5 months later to sequence the album, they put those two parts together. I thought it was a tragedy. We had been used to hearing those songs all together for months. But it was the best thing ever, they knew what they were doing. I’m going back in my mind and everything that has happened, it’s surreal for me. Being the first on the scene is a little bit scary, but it’s also setting the tone for what’s to come. Our sound was magical, nobody sounded like En Vogue. Each group has their own sound. What I love is that they’ve all given us the props we deserve. We had to give The Supremes, that whole era in the 60’s, they had their own sound. They were before us. They kind of set the tone for what we were supposed to be. It was kind of a mixture of The Supremes and ourselves. We had the classic gowns and we were ladies. Then TLC came along and they were the hip hop version of a girl group. Everybody had their own thing and we had our own lane and weren’t trying to take anybody else’s. You want to be the first on the scene and let everyone else try to be like you.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s take it to your solo career. What was it like stepping away from the group and making a name for yourself?
Dawn Robinson: It was really scary! I’m used to looking to my left and seeing two girls and one to my right! It’s like I always say, you come into this world alone, and you gotta figure out life for yourself. It’s like leaving home for the first time and going to college. You figure out life for yourself. I still had a fan base, thank God I have fans that love En Vogue and Lucy Pearl and love me by myself. We all as human beings have something to bring in this world. It’s hard because people hold you to the group. It’s like the Temptations, you have to die to leave that group. People were very upset with me but at the same time I had to do what was right for me. Making two pennies per record was not the move. It didn’t make sense to me but the other girls weren’t just as upset as me. Our producers and managers were making so much more. We were the ones doing all of the work. Had I had the right team around me, like Beyonce did, her father was a marketing genius. Him and Beyonce’s mom Tina were both really smart about the group even and putting that out. They put their money into it and it went to the right places and everything just lined up. So Beyonce was definitely going to be successful on her own and I respect that they took care of the group as well. Everybody won and had their share. Being on your own is hard when you’ve been in a group so long, but I just went back to what I knew. I was happy I had those great opportunities thrown at me like being one of the babies in The Rugrats movie, I did a song for the Dr. Doolittle movie, I was in the movie “Life”. I was so grateful to be a part of that, great experience. It’s just going back to what you know, you have to figure it out for yourself. I had some really great opportunities and situations.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We actually always felt like you were set for superstardom as a solo artist, Beyonce before there was a Beyonce. Did it feel like that was going to happen at the time?
Dawn Robinson: It was set to a certain point. You’ve got powers that be, or think they be, within the industry that would shut things down for me. I was offered a solo deal within the contract of En Vogue just like Terry was. Terry did her solo album first and then I did mine. I think now looking back, I think what happened was it was divide and conquer in the first place. Our label heard we were going to renegotiate our contract. In order to keep us in our place, they offered Terry and I a solo album and we took the bait. At that time I had a house and I was about to lose my home. At that time I had to take the deal. I regret it to a certain point but everything is a lesson in life. I figured it out later, but I also followed what Terry was doing as well. She was getting ready to release the album by the time the label came to me. She had recorded for 6 months and was out starting her promo tour. It was awhile before I decided to do the solo album. It was a pretty penny, like $250K, hell yea I’m taking that money! I could pay my house off! The other girls were pissed off, to put it lightly. Terry and the other two came to me with the label and said there is no hidden agenda here, everybody has got to be in the En Vogue situation, we’re going to go back and do another album. I said “To hell you will!” They offered me a solo album. We got behind Terry’s album, Cindy, Maxine and I. We supported her and were there for her, and now they were not going to take my album seriously. I told them I would do the En Vogue album, but I wanted my solo rights to be relinquished and I’d take those someplace else. I was going to sign with Dr. Dre, RCA had offered me a solo deal first, I turned that down to do Lucy Pearl. But after the Lucy Pearl situation ended, I was offered a deal with Dr. Dre and he was going to sign me directly to Aftermath. I thought it would be a problem. If creatively he was my producer and label, if I had a problem with either one of those, who do I go to? I had no outlet. I decided to sign with Interscope and that was fine. Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre were very close, so it worked out fine. It was amicable that we walked away from each other, we just weren’t ready. He was working on Eminem and all of these other artists, so he didn’t have time to get into the studio with me. I had recorded five songs without him, and not got in with him at all. That would have been a bomb project, but he was too busy. I think that he really didn’t understand R&B and he was a little afraid of it, he was used to Hip Hop, it was his world. It wasn’t so much with R&B.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The Lucy Pearl project was such a special moment for R&B with the supergroup coming together. What do you remember about being in that moment?
Dawn Robinson: Oh my gosh! First of all when Raphael Saadiq came to me, he had already spoken to my manager, and she told him no before I knew the opportunity even existed. I went ahead and I fired her! *Laughs* I’m not a child, you can’t make a decision for me, let me mull it over. I thought it was brilliant. Now you’re telling me I can do another group and not just have to go solo straight away? I was used to being sheltered by a group. Now another opportunity came along for a one album deal for a group and I could parlay from this to my solo career. That just made sense. There were other reasons I fired my manager too, she was a little overbearing, she acted like I was a new artist in the game! I needed the respect. I’ve known Raphael for a long time and felt comfortable working with him. When he said it would be Ali from A Tribe Called Quest, I was excited we had hip hop in there too. It was so brilliant and something that hadn’t been done. I had a deal on the table with RCA, and I called them and told them I had a great situation on the table. RCA said they didn’t agree with that project. So I walked away from that opportunity as well. Raphael is so talented. I had two other producers I was working with on my solo project, Jake and the Phatman. Most of the project was from them. So Raphael would come in and play 12 different basslines, ideas he had. He’d pick the break beats and start playing. The next day we’d come in and it would be the beginning of “Everyday” or “La La La” or “Can’t Stand Your Mother” or “Dance Tonight”. It was an organic project. It was fun, we had no idea where we were going. We went in and started working. I had a girl named Monet, she wrote a lot of the parts with me. Raphael actually wrote my parts on “Dance Tonight”. It was so fun because nothing was planned. I had come from such a structured group with En Vogue. The ideas for the songs were from the producers. It wasn’t like we had our own things to say. With “Free Your Mind” they had asked what our idea of prejudice was. But we didn’t get credit for that either. Lucy Pearl was such an amazing project. I’m sick the whole thing fell apart. I wish Raphael would have seen it differently. The jealously and lack of communication came in. When that happens in any realm, whether it’s family or a relationship or on the job, if the communication breaks down, that’s when things fall apart.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about your solo debut album “Dawn”. Take us back to that.
Dawn Robinson: “Envious” was great. The thing with the label was they were doing this for the first time. QVC and Home Shopping Club was getting into the music business and they wanted me to be their flagship R&B artist, their first one. It was difficult in that sense. They didn’t understand certain marketing things. They hired a crew of people but they didn’t work enough together to understand how each other works. You have to do it a little bit to understand how each other works. The radio rep didn’t understand how the A&R worked and so on. Everything didn’t come together the way it should have. They also had Joey McIntyre from New Kids on the Block. He was the solo artist on the Pop side and he called me a week or so after 9/11. He said “Dawn, Q Records are going to destroy my album!” He had a song called “NY Girl” to represent and have women in the audience on TRL in baby T’s that said NY Girl and represent for NY. That state just went through the worst tragedy on the planet. He thought it would be the biggest thing ever and the label said no, they didn’t understand. I told him if they didn’t understand his project, and he’s a white artist with a white label, I’m a black women and they won’t get it! I had done 106 & Park and I was supposed to do TRL the next month. They asked why I needed a new outfit for that! I came from En Vogue, we are about fashion, and I had a problem they didn’t understand that. Then the CEO of the label was caught embezzling money, it was a wrap, we were done, it all fell apart. That’s why that album didn’t see the light of day. If you notice that album, I didn’t do my Thank You’s on the record, I had no credits, it was just an album. They put some stuff on there but I was pissed off they weren’t understanding certain things while I was recording. We didn’t see eye to eye. They didn’t understand things about owning a label. This was our livelihood. Even with the first single “Envious”, the video was like a deal they did with some guy who said he did videos. It came out ok. But it wasn’t my idea of what I wanted to do for my first solo video. There are parts at the end, I love that scene, I have a different outfit on. He got the concept but the label didn’t understand certain things. It was such a small budget that I had to bring stuff from home. I bought a t-shirt *Laughs*. Me and the stylist, she was so brilliant. We had to be very creative with our budget. The label didn’t know why I needed a budget to do a video!
YouKnowIGotSoul: We’ve been waiting on a follow up solo album from you since then. Has there ever been a time you were close to putting one out?
Dawn Robinson: Yes, I have been. It’s funny because I try to explain to people. They tell me I’m Dawn from En Vogue and anybody will work for me for free. Yea, well free only goes so far. We start working on a project, and I’ve recorded a lot of songs. At one point I put like six snippets of material on MySpace when it first came out. People have heard “Healing”, “Jimmy Choo”, and other songs I put up. It’s about budget. Even now, radio still matters, you’ve got to pay to play. You’ve got to pay for videos, for photo shoots, all the photos I have out now everybody has seen, they are old and tired. You do a new photo shoot and have to pay promo people. Everybody thinks I’m rich. We made two pennies a record with En Vogue. What’s great now is that I’m putting out my book, and it will tell everybody what happened and why it happened and where I go from here. My book will be the catalyst for everything else. It will promote my record and everything else. I get tired of telling the story, you’d think after all of these years everybody would know what happened but they don’t. They really don’t know why I left En Vogue, I wasn’t trying to be a diva, I was scared to leave. When you have the impact of the success we had, it’s scary to go out on your own. Unless you have everything behind you like marketing dollars. It was difficult because I didn’t have the monetary success. We had the fame but not the money. Today’s streaming landscape is a world I know nothing about. But I’m learning, it’s a process.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You mentioned earlier that En Vogue is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the debut album this year. Will there ever be a reunion to do new music?
Dawn Robinson: I won’t say never. My problem is Rhona being there. I think she’s great, she has never done anything to me, she’s not a bad person at all. I do know that she needs to step back if we are going to do a reunion at all. It just needs to be the four of us. Cindy and Terry have gone out and spent time with the fans this whole time representing the group. They use the name Maxine and I helped build to share with the fans. But Maxine and I have not had the chance to be with the fans. Had they not kicked me out of the group, I would have stayed in the group and still had that time with the fans, but I haven’t. They kicked me out, Maxine included at that time. I’m talking about 1997. I just think we deserve the time with our fans for what we helped build before Rhona came along. I’ve been trying to explain that in a way I don’t seem messy. She hasn’t done anything to me, she’s really sweet and funny. I just think she needs to step back. Let us have the time. She was on a show called Mickey Mouse Club, and if the Mickey Mouse Club had a reunion, none of En Vogue would be a part of that besides her. She would do that on her own. She was also on the Jamie Foxx show. We wouldn’t be a part of a reunion for that either. I just feel like she needs to step back and let us have the time. In 2010, the 20 year anniversary, she did exactly that, she stepped out. We got to celebrate with the fans. Except Cindy, Terry and Maxine took a deal which I felt was the lesser of the three deals on the table. That kind of left me out of the loop. They were pissed at me that I didn’t sign to Rufftown. I told them if they looked at the contract they’d see why. About a month later Maxine sent me an e-mail saying I was exactly right. I told them. You had the four original En Vogue members together for the very first time, we could have called our own shots instead of taking the first deal that came along just for the money. And everybody thinks I’m the one that’s the bitch! No, I’m the one who’s smart about shit! Just think about it. When you’re more deserving, we are En Vogue! Our legacy alone, I thought we deserved more, but they didn’t want to listen. First I was looking like the one assed out, and it looked like Dawn was being difficult again. But I was being smart.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Many people didn’t realize you were kicked out of En Vogue. We thought you left on your own?
Dawn Robinson: This is the thing. When someone gives you an ultimatum, that is not a choice. That’s what it was. I had been there for 8 years, and we hadn’t made money yet, two pennies a record. We did two albums. Our first album “Born to Sing”, the terms were great, we never had an album, we took what we could get. Once you go platinum and you sell a million copies, you’re supposed to renegotiate for better terms. Here we are on the second album with the same terms as the first album. Are you kidding me? So we got the same advance as the first album, which was about $40K, or $10K a piece. The first time around it was great, I had never had that. Then here we are at the second album and we had the same terms, that was a problem. By the time I left in ’97, we had sold 28 million records, and we only made two pennies a record. That’s insane, like highway robbery. When you take care of an artist and you are successful as a label, you take care of that artist! The artist will leave and go to another label if they are not happy. We still continued even though we weren’t getting the same amount everybody else was getting, and kept working. That came out in 1992 and I didn’t leave until 1997. That’s a long time to be in that situation. I have an example I’m putting in my book. The Beatles were four guys in a group together for 8 years. En Vogue was four girls in a group and we were together 8 years as well. In the time The Beatles were together, they did 21 albums! In the same time, we did 3. They had a record label called Apple Records, we did nothing. I kept trying to tell the girls about starting our own production company our putting out our own group. They thought it was too much work. I didn’t push it because I didn’t know what it took and thought maybe they were right. Other people started production companies. You gotta do more than one thing and have more than one stream of income. Even creating En Vogue dolls! People were writing us fan mail and would ask us about different styles we had when we were on TV. My hands have been tied for so long. On the positive side, I was part of a group that I loved for so long. I loved both groups I was a part of. En Vogue & Lucy Pearl. That puts your name out there and fans can see who you are. I think I also had to get over the anger that I had from being kicked out of one of the most iconic groups that I helped build, and they kicked me out for doing the exact same thing Terry did. I still to this day can’t even believe it. We had the meeting and I was looking at them. I asked what was different and they told me it just is. Now I’m passed the anger, I’ve healed that part of myself and I can talk about En Vogue without anger, only with passion. Every other word was the F Bomb once I got kicked out. Now I take the knowledge and name and the love the fans have and build on that. I just started my label Stiletto Entertainment and I’m working on my autobiographical book as well. I’m about to do some crowdfunding. I was really scared of it for awhile. But as I research more and more, I see not only celebrities, but politicians are doing it as well.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The amazing thing is despite all of the adversity you’ve faced, you’ve still been able to give us a legendary legacy. What does it mean to have been able to do that?
Dawn Robinson: Thank you so much! You get a lot of blame. Now that I’m able to explain it, there was no social media back then. It’s a lot easier for people to understand. People have seen through the years Cindy and Terry sue Maxine and there was a mess with that. I wasn’t being messy or catty, I was just trying to get paid. Everybody else around our camp, they got paid! They were living in mansions and they were making the money that we were helping them make. So why is it we were not a part of that. I was just trying to make sure we got our just due. So I appreciate you saying that because it’s just a lot of blame over the years. I got death threats when I first left the group, hand written letters because I broke up a group! Is this a John Lennon situation??? So thank you for that.