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An oral history of “Fresh Young Balki B”, the rarely-seen music video that touched off the biggest defamation lawsuit of 1991
25 years later, the video’s eponymous star is still a mystery
Lita Howard February 20, 2006
Unlike the current pop music atmosphere, no one sought out viral infamy in 1991. Bad press was just that: bad press. There was no Total Request Live a quarter-century ago, and it didn’t take much for MTV to not play a video in its rotation. Critical opinion, not fitting their demographics, showing two women kissing (Madonna’s “Justify My Love”), girls on crosses (Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose”), or according to David Bowie, simply being made by black artists. With up-and-coming Web 2.0 sites like MySpace and YouTube, any video can be shared regardless of critical opinion; “banned” no longer has any meaning. Rap N Roll stands behind its repeated declaration that last year’s “My Humps” is the worst song of this millennium; and if it weren’t for the Internet, we think it would quickly have fallen out of the collective memory by now. Scandal doesn’t work the same as it did 25 years ago–Ashlee Simpson’s and R. Kelly’s album sales remain steady, and Michael Jackson remains the undisputed king of pop, with two albums out in the past year (we believe you, Michael, really we do).
Ask any Generation Xers or Gen-Yers what the biggest pop music scandal of the early 90s was, and they’re likely to give you one name: Milli Vanilli. Ask enough native Chicagoans, however, and you’ll start finding different names: Lionel DiVinyl. Untamed Jane. Fresh Young Balki B. If you weren’t living in Chicago in 1991, you may not have heard any of these “musicians”, at least by their stage names. If you were paying attention to the news then, you would only have heard Lionel Dickinson, Janet McKinney, Balki Bartokomous, Clive Enright, and Larry Appleton.
From its humble origins as a music video that almost no one saw when it aired once on a local Chicago network in February of 1991, “Fresh Young Balki B” has enjoyed a legacy that included the destruction of a minor record producing company, the biggest class action defamation suit in the music industry to date, and a new life, getting play on college stations, parodies, remixes, and even a stop-motion recreation in Lego.
Here, in the words of some of the people behind the music video, and its resurrection, is what really happened with “Fresh Young Balki B”. Before we begin, here’s the original video as it aired in February 1991.
Larry Appleton (cousin and “manager” of Balki Bartokomous, defendant in Dickinson v. Appleton, now editor-in-chief of the Chicago Chronicle newspaper): Balki was–is–was my cousin, yes. We were working in the bas–in the reporters’ suite of the Chronicle in 1991, yes. I don’t really know why you–you news sites really don’t get it, do you? Oral histories are one of the laziest things a reporter can do! It’s like I’m writing the article for you. Huh. I know what that’s like. But I want to set the record straight. My relationship with Clive Enright was comp–entirely professional. I, uh. Really I don’t even know why he had even come to the Chronicle. We didn’t even do music reporting back then.
Clive Enright (former president and CEO of Rock’N’Right Records, now owner of wholesaling website www.theenrightstuff.com): Sure, the guy–what, Larry or something? Yeah, sure, babe, he was cute. Had that kind of baked jheri curl look going on but–hey, look, I mean, yeah, there was something there. I know when someone is checking me out. But, look, I had a lead, right? I was following a lead.
Carter Sanders (former second-in-command at Rock’N’Right Records, director of “Fresh Young Balki B”): Oh Enright was a total whore, honey, listen. I don’t know where he had the energy for it! He scouted the talent, he hit the streets scaring up backing, he oversaw the sets, the production, the… oh, everything. Some days I was just there to play damage control, hold hankies for the talent. Enright was off chasing one of his crazy leads again. He knew that there was this, she was like a Dear Abby or something, at the main newspaper. I read her column, seen her picture. Dear “Shabby”, if you ask me.
Enright: Wanted me to wave pompoms during… look, it was weird, right? But she was a gun, baby, she was a diaper, I mean this redhead was loaded! It was pure luck, pure luck that she happened to mention these two clowns she worked with. They’d do musical numbers in the basement, she said. Yeah! Like Cop Rock or something! Kind of a guarantee, I mean, either I’d find some talent, or, you know, some ass, right?
Appleton: Balki was always dancing around, having, uh, fun, dressing up like a poor man’s–like in all those rap videos. I… I humored him. I didn’t think much of it until Balki started dancing and singing for the ma–Mr. Enright. I had learned not to be embarrassed by his bizarre mating rituals, and I apologized to the, uh, Mr. Enright for my cousin’s, ah. Well, you can’t call it that anymore. Cognitive disability is how it’s worded in our current style guide, I believe.
Sanders: Sometimes I think he wanted to be caught, you know? Carrying around photos of boys. No lock on his office door. I caught him rubbing one out to a picture of Phil Spector once.
Appleton: I didn’t sell out my cousin Balki. Now, there was this little girl that lived in our building, Balki would babysit her sometimes. She sang–she must have been ten then–and she had a set of pipes! Her I would have sold out, the little… (clears throat) Even just that morning, she had thrown a bucket of chum into my face while I was eating breakfast. But, you know, I had forgotten about it by the time I got to work that day.
Enright: Look, I never lied to these people, right? I never lied. Most of them were fine with it, most of them were–they all knew, I mean. They were poor, I could get them money. Who cares, right? And these two bumpkins had stars in their eyes. Foreigners eat up that dream of being a big star. I should know, I was selling it back then!
Appleton: Mutually beneficial, always mutually beneficial. My cousin and I were in it together, for everything, back when I was still trying to avoid my fi–back then. I told Enright I was his agent. I stuck by Balki to protect him. You know how these corporate types can be. Not me, of course. Balki was happy, though, I could tell right away. He made that face. It was kind of this–like, I made the same face when I was knifed by crimeboss Vince Lucas. Balki was very happy.
Sanders: Sweetie, let me tell you, the moment they walked on set, I could tell it was–well, I’m not going to say it was abusive, because I think they both liked it–but you could tell which was top and which was bottom. He could get that twink to do anything he wanted.
Appleton: Balki wanted to be a star like Wayne Newton, he wanted to do the music video, I didn’t coax him. Why would I put forth that kind of effort? I was deep into researching a 10,000-word background piece on the Chicago Symphony. I’ve been accused of being, well, manipulative, and greedy, and it’s true I was paying off an expensive house at the time, but. But no. This was entirely Balki’s idea. If he were here he’d tell you the same.
Tina Dawson (backup dancer/singer on “Fresh Young Balki B”): Oh God, I knew this would come back to haunt me, I told my girl friends at the time–we were all dancers, there were five of us sharing an apartment–I told them when we watched it, I said “I’m never going to work again! Never!” I did, but–I knew this would haunt me someday. I was the one who got to open the door, and–oh my god, that video. Quickest I’ve ever been cast.
Sanders: Oh, the place smelled like–it smelled like death! They had been using this building for a game show–Risk Your Ass or some such–and it was just like you could tell someone had spilled rotten milk everywhere. Hoo! I’m glad we were shooting in February, let me tell you!
Enright: I got the building cheap, you know, after some local TV show folded. The host went batshit, right? Killed his hostess after some contestants got into a fistfight onstage or something. Drowned her in chocolate pudding. What I heard, anyway.
Dawson: The whole thing went so quickly. Oh God, I guess (laughing) I guess I was lucky! There were like twenty of us in line and–and I had seen some of these girls before–and I was like eighth in line and if you were the right measurements, you know, you were in.
Sanders: Honey I never understood that man. He’d spend a ton on sets, and he’d want backup dancers, he’d want fancy camerawork, he’d want to use the same musicians the big names would use. And then he’d–I think we only bought maybe a dozen outfits for the girls. We were down to maybe 7 or 8 by then, by this video. But the rooftop set, oh my god, the work he had us put into that thing!
Enright: You had to follow the trends back then, right? I mean baby rooftops were hot! That whole urban decay thing, rooftops, alleyways. Yeah!
Sanders: Trends? Oh please. Oh please. No, Enright caught wind of some impromptu dance party put on by some black children, down, uh, Avalon Park. Avalon Park. He wanted to recreate it for a music video. He even tracked this boy down! Kept his picture in his briefcase all that month. Mm-hmm. Built an exact replica of the rooftop where these kids were dancing and singing because he was so sure this kid would sign. One day… this was the year before. He was coked up and he ran to me saying he wanted a set with giant legs, ladies’ legs, in high heels. Honey he was bent! Once I… (laughing) when I got him calmed down, I found out he had been watching that Bell Biv DeVoe video, what was it, “Poison”.
Enright: It was all in the contract papers, you know, plain as day, man. And this guy, this Appleton. Look, he was cute, alright, and under other circumstances, but he had no sense of how to approach a man, right? He came to me with some–I don’t know if he was making a joke or what, man–but he came to me with this shit about not having any green M&Ms in the dressing room. That thing was garter belts, it was sock hops, baby, I mean it was old then. Everybody knew that was so Van Halen could tell if a stage crew had read the important stuff, right, I mean you knew that, right? To me it meant, you know, that this guy hadn’t read through the contract at all. Who does, right? I didn’t think twice about it, baby, I could tell that I wasn’t going to get either one of these two hayseeds alone, so I just wanted to get it done and move on.
Appleton: He told me to fuck off.
Dawson: We did, I think, two takes of each shot? Oh my god, we were in, we were out. In and out. We all got paid well, at least I did, but. I don’t know. Doesn’t it take more than 30 minutes to shoot a music video?
Sanders: I took the boy off to the side before we shot and I told him, I said “Honey you’re going to be fine.” I couldn’t understand half the things he was saying, talking about “hitting his Mark Trail” and the director getting his “good side of beef” and all, but let me tell you, it was this complete change when he got in front of those cameras. Unreal. Suddenly perfect diction, no shyness. If you wrote somebody like that for TV people would stop watching.
Enright: He was decent, but look, I have a very melting pot approach to showbiz, right? Very melting pot. We had one of the most diverse groups of backup singers for that video, but do you hear anyone talk about that?
Appleton: Of course I knew he would be dubbed! We–come on–we spent a few minutes in the studio and Balki laid down a vocal track! And he lip-synched to it during the shoot! Come on!
Sanders: It really should have been Balki’s voice on that video, not Jay Jay Jay.
Enright: Look, nobody was asking us for art, right? People didn’t want art, they wanted personality, I–they wanted a pretty boy to look at in a magazine, on a poster. Little girls want this idea of a Prince Charming or something, some safe, you know, ingress into sexuality. Fresh Young Balki B was a pretty boy, and just like with Lionel DiVinyl we would tell them, you know, in the magazines and all that he was single, right? Wives are gross. To the teeny boppers.
Sanders: I’ve seen better hackjobs in Friday the 13th! Ooh, honey, we didn’t do more than two takes of each shot. Enright, he was–he wanted to be on to the next thing. We had so little actual footage, we had to slow it down, run it in black and white. Like I said, it was feast and famine with Enright. All these re-used shots and he still pays a few thousand to have effects put on it, animation and all. I was debating whether to tell you this, but I better just get this out of me once and for all: I wrote those lyrics. (laughing) I can say it was a hackjob because I know! Leonard Cohen I’m not!
While most fans of “Fresh Young Balki B” have only seen the low-grade VHS copy that surfaced on eBaum’s World in 2002, Carter Sanders has provided Rap N Roll with a copy of the original music video, with Balki Bartokomous’s vocals.
Sanders: Hoo! Look at that! When he’s walking on that ledge, you can see that fabric rippling. Ha! That was my job. I forgot to weight the backdrop. Oopsy! (laughing)
Appleton: I do remember when it aired. We had sat down to watch it–the four of us always had fun when we got together. It was me, my then-fiancée, Balki, and… wow, you know it’s been so long, I can only… I can think of her zodiac sign but not her name.
Sanders: The whole video was ready to go, we had the vocal track, we had the effects. But you couldn’t tell Enright to use a spoon for soup. Can you believe it? A whole year or something after Milli Vanilli, and this man’s whole business model was still to put these immigrants in front of the camera and hire the real singers separately.
Enright: Like I said, a very melting pot approach, very American. Henry Ford got it right a century ago, baby! It could have been the next big thing, right? Democratizing the music industry! You don’t need some guy to write and sing and look good. I was turning one job into two or three, you know? I was a jobmaker! And you journalists didn’t want to look at that.
Dawson: Oh god I can’t even tell you. I am so glad that video only aired once or twice. My girl friends and I watched it, and this was 1991, remember, so you could know exactly when a specific music video was going to come on. When it came on, and when I saw they kept showing this shot just of me blinking, I nearly died! I was so embarrassed, I turned so red. Aaahhh!!
Sanders: You have to understand, there was no creativity there. Did I mention I wrote all the lyrics for all of them? (laughing) I remember thinking to myself “Oh, this kid is made for Enright” because he was spouting off stuff like “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” like that was some clever turn of phrase. No clever twist on anything, no innovation. Just parroting the same junk until the next new thing came along. So why should he have cared if we were putting other people’s words in his mouth?
Dawson: Oh god, I remember this, oh he smelled. Turn it off. Please. Oh god.
Appleton: I truly did worry about Balki’s, ah, his cognitive disability in those days. He thought–he seriously believed that if he became a music star that it would bring his grandmother back, but she was still, ah. Well, you see he had lost touch with his island, and I think over time he. Well. He–it–it’s all gone now. But I remember I said
because, you see, I knew this would push him further over the edge.
Enright: Why use some other little white punk’s voice on a rap record? Fuck you, baby, that’s why. Vanilla Ice was big, I don’t know. Fuck you.
Sanders: Ooh that voice! Look, it’s not even a good synch! (laughing) We got Jay Jay Jay, one of our other talent then, to do the dub. Oh god! This guy who’s supposed to be a shepherd from Europe or whatever and he sounds like Pete Nice? Oh no. This should have been on America’s Funniest Videos, not MTV.
Appleton: Of course I was supportive of his decision. I was always supportive of Balki. He wanted to do the video, we did the video. He wanted out, I helped him get out. No questions, no shaming. Listen, when you realize that your family member can’t handle knowing that Mr. Ed’s voice was dubbed, you do whatever you can to make reality work for them again. I remember when I was 4, or 5, my older brother would pester me by making drawings of me eating, ah, well unsavory things. It was real to me then, and I knew that anger. And that pure child’s anger in a man’s… a man’s body. (clears throat) Thank god he couldn’t read the newspaper back when Jim Henson died.
Enright: I could tell this Appleton guy was on the same wavelength with this mix-and-match approach, right? If it hadn’t been for this–well, let’s just say I knew right away, you know, he was a bottom. These yoyos, man, they tried to grow a backbone when it was time to start talking promo tour. I was doing all the work, man! I had to come to their office and set up Balki B’s appearances.
Appleton: You would think that someone from a monarchical, agrarian nation would kowtow to anyone wearing a suit, but Balki. Well, he had gotten this very stubborn streak when it came to people in power, ever since the raisin… well. Balki tried to back out, but Enright pulled out the contract, and. I really should have read that thing. What can I say? I was young.
Enright: I told him he’d be in court until his dying day, yes I did, baby. If I couldn’t own that ass, I’d own those lips, by god. And, hey, you know? Which one of us is still around? You tell me.
Ray Cameron (reporter for Rap N Roll, 1990-2001): Yes, the video was garbage. I was on the garbage beat back then, I was still wet behind the ears. But I was trying to do my best. They had all of us reporters on the same stage where they shot the video, and as I understand it, this was only two days after the video had aired. Mr. Enright showed us the video, and then brought out Balki Bartokomous. Fresh Young Balki B. And he introduces this other guy who comes out, MC Cousin. I swear, this guy was pushing 40. The best way I can describe–do you still have access to my old photos? I don’t know what they were trying for with their outfits. Ice T by way of Teddy Grahams?
Sanders: Oh, I can’t believe you found any photos of that! The doughy one, Appleton, the newspaper man. Oh honey look at that! No, that jacket was from Jazzy Jake’s first video in 1988! I had thrown that rag away.
Cameron: I honestly thought it was a stunt when Balki B and MC Cousin started rapping. Enright comes up to them with a sheet of prepared answers and I thought to myself “no one’s operation is that slapdash, this must be a bit” because MC Cousin kept saying “yo” to all of us.
Sanders: No, don’t you worry about that. Can’t nothing happen to me now. Enright can’t do nothing. No, look: I wrote their little “fuck-you” song about Enright. When they came to me–and I knew the one was a reporter–I figured it was all over then, so why not? So, if you’re reading this, Mr. Appleton, thank you for not including me in your countersuit! Thank you doll! (laughing)
Cameron: I thought to myself that it was a pretty bold move at the time, to do a diss track as your second song. They were dropping names left and right–Jazzy Jake & the Jukes, Lionel DiVinyl, Untamed Jane, uh, Neon Leon, Jumpback Jimmy Mack–and then I thought “these guys have balls! They’re dissing every other act on their label! And their producer too!”
Enright: Even their fucking song about me, all the vocals were on the tape. Damn hypocrites. I don’t know why I didn’t stop their damn tape during the thing, you know. I was… we all have our Achilles’ heels, right?
Cameron: And then it hits me that it’s real. And once I heard these two in court, yeah, I realized how wrong I was to think that it was any sort of post-modern bit. These were just two guys, one of them in my own line of work. I don’t think they deserved–fully deserved, I’ll say–what happened to them. And I’m not saying that just because Larry Appleton got me copies of all the contracts for my own piece in Rap N Roll. The only guy that came out of it unscathed was Jay Jay Jay.
In Part 2, we look at the two-year-long class action suit the other Rock’N’Right musicians brought against Larry Appleton and the Chicago Chronicle; how a small college radio station introduced Fresh Young Balki B to a new generation; and what might have happened to Balki B himself.
Continue to Part 2 View on single page
5 thoughts on “Season 6, Episode 18: Out of Sync”
“We live together! It’s not like product, you know (?). Many people think because we look nice we ere picked up and put together, but we fight for our success. And now we are rich! And we have the beautiful house and we had for two and a half years been real poor and now even when we have money stick together because we are like brothers who stay together and we get the most girls! Hahaha (??)
–Rob Pilatus (1965-1998), “Star Hits” magazine, August 1989
Whoa, that sucks that he died so young!
Yeah…his was not a long and happy life. I hope he enjoyed his moment of fame.
Is this the same rooftop that Urkel fell off when they got him accidentally drunk at that party?
Yes! And no. It’s the exact same set; though because Perfect Strangers and Family Matters exist in the same fictional world, it becomes strange that a music executive has a perfect studio replica of an existing Chicago rooftop.