Somewhere in this hip-hop-soul community, was born three -- and that's the magic number.

-- "Magic Number" by De La Soul

THREE really does seem to be the magic number these days. Among the hottest names in the hip-hop-soul-funk-rap-etc. community are a pair of young trios, currently chasing each other up the charts.

There's the brand-new Bell Biv DeVoe -- named for the three remaining members of New Edition who hadn't yet struck out on solo careers -- who scored big first time out of the box, with the sneaky, snaky, very street sound of "Poison" (currently holding the number three spot on Billboard's pop chart).

And the competition, Oakland's Tony! Toni! Tone!, whose second album "The Revival" has already dropped a hit called "The Blues," with the follow-up, "Feels Good," gaining fast. (Oddly, no one in Tony! Toni! Tone! is named Tony. Or Toni. Or even Tone for that matter. But somehow Timothy! Raphael! Dwayne! doesn't have quite the same snap to it, does it?)

Both groups are in town this Saturday for the Budweiser Superfest at RFK Stadium, starring soul's number one Love Man, Luther Vandross.

Always overshadowed in New Edition, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe watched as bandmate and fellow Boston homeboy Bobby Brown went on to become a superstar. Soon afterward, New Edition lead singers Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill signed for their own solo projects.

Then megaproducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who oversaw New Edition's "Heart Break" album, pulled the three stranded singers aside after a New Edition show. "They said 'We have a little surprise for you guys,' " says Bell, 22, who's assumed the lead singer slot in BBD. "They had already taken the group idea to the label, and a week later {MCA vice president} Louil Silas Jr. wrote our names on a piece of paper and said 'You guys are gonna be Bell Biv DeVoe.' "

Before getting busy on their genre-jumping debut album "Poison," BBD quickly drew up a wish-list of collaborators with unimpeachable street credibility, including hip-hop hotshots Dr. Freeze and Spiderman, and Public Enemy's secret weapon, producers Eric Sadler and Hank and Keith Shocklee. With such guiding influences, the trio grew up startlingly fast, lyrically speaking, breaking sharply from the relatively wholesome adolescent yearning of New Edition. Hot on the heels of "Poison" is a hard-edged, one-track-minded new single "Do Me," which dips a toe into 2 Live Crew's slimy pool (Johnny Gill is on the same suggestive wavelength with his current hit "Rub You the Right Way").

"We're having a few problems getting radio play in some places," Bell says. "There's this part where Mike says 'Move to the Jacuzzi, ooh do me baby, smack it up, flip it, rub it down, oh no!' And radio stations are like, 'Wait a minute.' But it's done in a smooth way, we're not faking it. We want to give people what they want. And if people don't like it, no one's making them buy it."

Bell describes the BBD sound as "mentally hip-hop smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop-feel appeal to it." He interprets: "It comes from us -- we bring our attitudes from hanging around on the streets. It has a hip-hop beat, but we smooth it out and add singing and certain R&B chords. And as for pop feel -- it's obviously crossing over."

With so much success coming so fast, there's not much time for hanging out these days for the boys of BBD. But Bell says checking in with the street is key to keeping things fresh.

"Once you get into the corporate world, you lose touch with what's happening. So we try and posse up and go out to the clubs. We want to stay down and be in touch with what's happening with new sounds, new dances, what people are wearing," Bell says.

With all these successful spinoffs, New Edition -- tagged at the outset in 1983 as an R&B bubblegum Jackson 5 clone -- surely qualifies as some sort of supergroup (in hindsight, at least). And Bell says the success of BBD and the rest of the boys doesn't mean that the "Heart Break" album is necessarily the final Edition.

"We've still got a million ideas to do as New Edition," Bell says. "Sure, we could each sell four or five million copies with our own projects. But when we put it all back together, Johnny will bring his fans to the table, Ralph will bring his, Bobby will bring his . . . . We could be the next Beatles."


Bell Biv DeVoe, Toni! Tony! Tone!, Luther Vandross, Stephanie Mills, Frankie Beverly and Maze appear Saturday at RFK Stadium. Call 432-0200.