IT'S BEEN 10 YEARS SINCE BOBBY Brown and New Edition worked together, but some things never change. On a Friday evening, the other five members of the most popular R&B group of the '80s -- Ronnie DeVoe, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill -- are gathered at a Hollywood recording studio, waiting for Bobby. Everyone else managed to be there on time at 3 p.m. for a rehearsal for some dance steps from their video ""Hit Me Off,'' the debut single from their reunion album ""Home Again.'' But it's after 6 p.m. when Brown finally arrives. He makes a point of hugging everyone to show he's sorry for the delay. And the others let him off the hook. Later, during the rehearsal, it's easy to see why. Bobby may be the group's biggest pain in the neck, but he's also got the most style and charisma. When it's time to get down on the dance floor, the others go part of the way down; Bobby goes way, way down.
Brown needs to stay in the others' good graces. ""Home Again'' is not only the most hyped R&B reunion of the year, it's one of the most highly anticipated pop releases of the fall. A kind of '80s version of the Jackson 5, or a grittier, sweatier precedent to '90s harmonizers Boyz II Men (whom Bivins discovered), New Edition now wants to grow up. ""Home Again'' is designed to please both old-school fans and young kids: it's got sweet romance mixed with street attitude, velvety soul crossed with swaggering rap. MCA Records is banking on the high-powered lineup of six lead singers, all of whom have had multiplatinum success on their own (Brown, Tresvant and Gill as solo artists; Bell, Bivins and DeVoe as the hard-funk act BBD). Still, in the past few years those individual fortunes have slipped. ""No one should believe we got back together right now for the hell of it,'' says Bivins bluntly. ""Each of our last projects did pretty poorly, so coming back to New Edition was something all of us really needed to do.''
Brown may have the most at stake. In the past few years he's become known less for his singing than his chaotic personal life. In 1992 he stunned the pop world by marrying sweetheart-diva Whitney Houston. Since then he's been a tabloid regular for his drinking (which landed him in the Betty Ford Clinic) and reported womanizing. Despite the odds, Bobby and Whitney just celebrated their fourth anniversary at home in New Jersey with 3-year-old daughter Bobbi Kristina. ""Nobody thought we'd get this far, but we did because our love is real,'' Brown professes. ""The first two years were hell because everybody was f-ing with us. The white media went on a "Bobby Bashing Campaign' that almost f-ing drove me crazy. They would much rather see Whitney married to a white man and me married to a white woman. They don't want to see two young, talented and rich black people live together as one.''
In person Brown is indeed charming, with an infectious sense of humor and world-be-damned attitude. But behind the bravado is a nervous edge. Ten years ago he had to find an identity apart from New Edition; now he has to do the same with his wife. Brown grew up in the projects in the rough Roxbury section of Boston, with his pals DeVoe, Bivins, Bell and Tresvant. ""Growing up was cool, no matter that we were poor,'' says Brown. ""I was the one always saying we can sing our way out of Boston and onto "Soul Train.' The others would laugh at me because I had these really big dreams, but I knew we had what it took.''
Discovered by producer Maurice Starr (who later founded New Kids on the Block), New Edition's combination of slick urban beats, skillful dance moves and bubble-gum romance eventually sold 20 million records. With his deeply dimpled face, funky dancing style and vivid sex appeal, Brown always stood out. In 1986 he went solo, and his 1988 No. 1 album ""Don't Be Cruel,'' with its smash single ""My Prerogative,'' helped define New Jack Swing, the swank, macho hybrid of hip-hop and R&B. At 19, with his Gumby haircut, Brown was the hottest thing in R&B. But he was busy living up to his raunchy stage image, indulging in wild all-night parties and running around with different women (he had fathered three children by the time he was 25). ""I had my fun,'' he says with a sly smile. ""I did what any young person does on their own with money. I was never out to hurt anybody. I was just having a good time.''
Still, heads turned when he married Houston: his bad-boy rep hardly meshed with her squeaky-clean pop image. But those who know them say they have ""Something in Common,'' just like their duet on Brown's album ""Bobby.'' ""Because Whitney's beautiful and glamorous, people think she's not a true black woman from Jersey who can get down and dirty,'' says a friend. ""Bobby and Whitney are exactly the same. They'd have to be to deal with one another. No matter how much trouble they have, they truly understand each other.''
Houston backs this up. During the ""Hit Me Off'' video shoot, she hovered near the set and pledged her support. ""Bobby's always got my back,'' she said. ""No one knows the Bobby I know. He's my husband, and no amount of bad press is going to change us or our marriage.'' Brown frets over their hectic work schedules (Whitney's next film, ""The Preacher's Wife,'' with Denzel Washington, is due in December). ""I wish she'd slow down and not work as much,'' says Brown. ""It's hard on us as family.''
Brown admits he's had his own rough moments. Last year he and Houston separated briefly after he faced assault charges for kicking a security guard in a Los Angeles hotel. He also faced charges of aggravated assault and disorderly conduct in Orlando, Fla., for allegedly beating up a man (almost tearing his ear off) over a woman he was trying to pick up, and for urinating in the police car. Both cases are still pending; Brown claims people pick on him without reason. ""That's in Florida -- the other guys started that,'' he says. ""They know who I am, and they know my wife and I get headlines.'' The release of his next solo album has been delayed partly because of his alcoholism and rehab. ""I feel fine now, and ready to tackle my career again,'' Brown says. ""I needed help, which I got, but it's not to say I may not be f-ed up again next week. It's a day-by-day thing for me. Right now I'm happy with my life.''
He's also anxious to get New Edition back to its old level of success. In November the group mounts a large-scale tour, and for Brown the reunion means a new beginning. ""I've been painted as an -hole, a jerk and a terrible person,'' he says. ""I just hope the public is open-minded enough to give me another chance. I can see things clearing up for me. This is my year.''