Q&A: Jon B Recalls Working With Tupac, 1990s R&B & Today’s Music Game
Y'all remember Jon B? You better! He is a veteran in the world of R&B, getting his start with the legendary Babyface in the early 1990s, after shopping his demo to, by chance, to his wife at Yab-Yum Records. Throughout his career, Jon has worked with the likes of the late, great Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z, Nas and the list goes on... and garnered multiple gold and platinum plaques along the way.
Today, the singer is still going strong, but doing it his way, independently. With his B-Sides Collection in stores now, and a new album in the works, not to mention playing host of our Digital Dynasty R&B mixtape series, Jon sits with us to reminisce about his long career, from his come up to memorable moments, all the way to his take on today's music game, being indie, and continuing to evolve.
How's the music coming along?
The last album I put out in 2012, Comfortable Swagg, was under my own independent label. So, that was pretty cool to do that after a 20-year span of dealing with major labels and watching from a different vantage point and getting some insight, as far as the business goes. And, to learn the tools of the trade, as they say, and just really getting to have a say so. It really wasn't a choice for me, it was like a survival package, because the labels, in my opinion, just aren't fast enough. Now in 2013, we just dropped The B-Sides Collection. It was nice to put that together too, because it was 10 years or more of my creative process in one, you know?
You mentioned your label situation. It seems like now-a-days, a lot of artists are doing that. If you came out as a brand new artist in 2013 (in this climate of music), do you think you would still have the same luck as you did (in 1995) on a major label?
I think right now, what the name of the game is, my audience likes to have such a wide variety of taste. Specifically since I've seen the young kids in their teens coming to my shows and know the words to my music, because their mom or their dad raised them in a household where they were playing my music. Those people, who were 25 or 30 years old, that were playing my music to their kids, grown into adults. Think about 20 years, my roots are really dug in deep and that's a beautiful thing to have an establishment, and to know regardless or not if my music is out on TV or not, you may still see me on a big stage show, with the big band or in the club just rocking behind the keyboard.
I'd love to have the support of a label now, because a lot of things comes automatically and it's dope to have that leadership behind you. The corporations and the way the business is set up, it's all woven to where doors just open when they press the button on you. It's not really anything to do with true artistry. I think, right now, it's kind of gimmicky. It's about having like 13 people on one record. See me, I already know that process because I been through it before. Major labels are a different situation. It's not that I don't like that scrutiny and being signed to a label, it's just that I wanted to try it my way.
It's safe to say that you are happier on an independent label, as of right now?
As of right now, I can't complain. I want to have more money behind my projects and to put out more videos and to have a radio budget. People say, "Hey, how come I don't hear your music on the radio?" It's like, "Man, you got to pay to get your music on the radio and they say that's supposed to be illegal (laughs)," but that's bullsh**. The reality is, I'm an artist on my ninth album and I've had platinum albums, and I can't get my radio records played if I just go up to the radio stations and say "Can you play this record bro? You know I've known you for years" (laughs). It's not even about that, it's the game of music. With that financial support, it would definitely be dope, ya know? The power of music goes to show you that with the last two projects I put out. Regarding B Sides, it debuted #5 on the iTunes R&B charts and it got 5 stars as far as the ratings. So, you know I'm good with that. I'm doing my thing as a producer, as a writer and as an artist.
Ne-Yo has been saying he wants real R&B to come back to the mainstream. Do you agree with that comment?
Yea, I want it to as well. That's a great thing to want because there are some great cats out here grinding. We're cultivating the field, for all the fans, to expand for years and for them to support us. Nevertheless, we are going to those places because, as R&B artists, the R&B never died. It's alive and well.
You can ask anyone, I stay on the road. With corporations now, it's one thing to be "Jon B the artist", signed to a label where the money is coming in automatically because you're getting paid by the label to do what you do. That doesn't happen anymore. Now, it's strictly about the fans and the performance for the fans and allowing that to pay back. It allows me to have a career that goes on and on. It's a give and take situation, and I love that because, even with the Internet and the changes that have come over the years, I love the freedom that it gives right now. Creatively, I've never been so thorough and focused. I have so many places to pull from right now. I have so much inspiration in my life right now. I'm not only just excited about the project that I put out, but also the support of all this music I put out for over 20 years.
One thing that always is interesting is that come up process. We know you came in the game under Babyface's wing. How exactly did you first link with Babyface in the early stages of your career? What was the process of you getting into the room with him for the first time when he heard your music?
I remember, I'm 18, my senior year in high school. I went to L.A. County High School for Performing Arts. I went there for gospel choir. I would check myself right out of class right after I got finished with gospel choir. I'd say about 1:20 or 1:30, right after lunch. I would check myself out and go down to Hollywood. In my senior year of high school, I took my career very serious. I had my 40-song cassette and CD ready of songs that I recorded and produced myself, and I took them to some hole in the wall record label on Beverly Drive in Hollywood. They didn't even have their furniture in there or anything. You can tell they just got their situation rocking. I just walked through the door and just gave them my CD, and it was actually the brother-in-law of Tracey Edmonds.
I had no idea who he was related too or anything like that. I just heard to give my stuff to this label, because that's what everyone was telling me where it needed to be. I didn't know. But of course, the name of the label was Yab-Yum Records. It wasn't LaFace or anything, so I had no idea, ya know? And, after dropping my CD off, this guy calls me back, and at that point, I was already at Motown Records in an A&R's office, and I'm playing my music and he was ready to sign me right there. Daryl brings the phone into his office with Babyface on the line, on speaker, and Face says "Are you Jon? I want to meet you. Come to my office right away." And Daryl goes, "Man, how you gonna steal him out of my office like that man?" (laughs). I told him, "Man, this is the guy I been trying to get to my whole life man, you understand?" I was very very happy and I walked through the door and met Babyface. I was very shocked that he was very happy to meet me. I said, "I love what you did with Toni Braxton and I'd love to be the male version of that, plus I write and produce too". He was like "Alright, let's do it".
In two more years, it will be two decades since you dropped Someone To Love. If you can, can you take us back to what the actual recording process was like with Babyface? Was it intimidating?
It just seemed so already natural for me because I was such a Babyface fan before the deal, just emulating his production style and his vocal style. I had my own style and that showed through too. I told him, "You're my favorite artist and I've always wanted to work with you". I remember him being very humbled by the fact that the person he was meeting was so inspired by him. I was right where I needed to be.
One reason, we wanted to reach out to you was because I came across your video for "Only One," and it was refreshing to say the least. It was nostalgic, in a sense, hearing a real soulful R&B record. No Auto Tune, no hip-hop beats, just pure R&B. How important is it to you to stay true to that sound that initially birthed your career in the first place?
Thanks man. I think that no matter what musical style that I venture into, it's a true adventure for me to experiment and play around with sounds. I don't feel stuck in a box, because I've been successful with one style of song or another. I think the need to replecate everything one does seems a bit contrived. This song is fresh in it's darker sound, but it also has classic elements like the Linn 9000 drums I used. Also, that Big Jimmy Jamm and Terry Lewis sounding piano. Simple melody and sexy word play over a killer ballad beat. That's sorta my M.O though.
It's safe to say we won't hear you Auto-Tuned up on a dirty south beat any time soon (laughs)?
No Auto Tune, because I can sing (laughs). There's a certain element of Auto Tune that seems annoying too me, because it's so robotic. Like see, with me, I always loved Roger Troutman, you know the non-vocal, not singing through the throat, but like singing through the keyboard. I've tried to emulate Roger on the backgrounds of my vocals. Like to take it through a keyboard and to play the chords and controlling your voice with the keyboard, I love that element of it, because it turns my voice sort of like the keyboard. I can turn my own voice into like a choir and it enhances myself instantaneous. It's very creative for myself in the studio, that element of it. But, if you don't know how to use Auto Tune, then yeah it is annoying.
You just dropped B-Sides, which is a decades worth of unreleased music. What made you decide to get this out there?
I've never done that and really I've been influenced by many prolific writers, like writing is their purpose of life, like R. Kelly. He can just churn records out left and right, you know? He is also a major influence to me. I've been a fan of his music and I feel like that, too, sort of influenced me to have that push. That fact that we have the hunger to do what we do, and it's been so long, and we haven't let this music get jaded to where we don't need it anymore, because that would be really unfortunate. I'm a creative force and I want people to understand that.
A lot of people thought you kind of vanished after that Cool Relax album, but in fact, you dropped Pleasures You Like, Stronger Everyday, Hopeless Romantic, Comfortable Swagg, a "greatest hits" album, and the current B Sides release. You are definitely putting in work. Do you feel like you are still evolving as an artist? Or do you feel like you found your niche?
I'm always evolving because there is so much more to music now then when I put my first record out in 1995. I was born in '74, so I can remember when disco, in the 80's, kind of turned into a groovy kind of house thing before electric music. Then, to see it turn into electronic music, grown from a real true, organic, evolution. I've evolved a lot because you have to adjust to the times, because if you don't evolve with the times, then you are gonna be a dinosaur, as they say. Then people are gonna look at you as a relic of the past. In regards to Cool Relax being the last project that people knew about me, as far as that being the case, every single record that I have ever put out has gone gold, if not double platinum. I've gotten to work with every emcee that I've ever wanted to work with, not even so much for the commercial value of that, but like working with Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Eve, Guru and all of these different people all came out of my budget and I had to recoup that back because it was my money. I paid to work with these cats and a lot of people don't even know I worked with these artists because the record wasn't a hit. But, never the less, the experience of having that work was so incredible and I think the people that did all those records see my love for hip-hop and how I was one of the originators who crossed over the two genres (R&B into hip-hop) and started meshing the two together. It was a multi-dimensional east coast and west coast vibe back in 1996.
That brings me to the next question. I had a lot of people ask me this, and they all wanted to know, what was it like working with Tupac?
It was like the most incredible experience, and the most painful experience, all wrapped in one, because it was two weeks before his passing on. He was such a great dude. He was such a force to be reckoned with, in terms of a creative person. He had melody going on. You know what you hear Drake doing now? He is just sort of brain storming that mentality of giving tone and pitch to his verse. Sort of like half singing and half rapping. Tupac was actually the one that told me how to sing the hook to "Are You Still Down?". (Starts singing the hook in a Tupac tone) "Girl, it's alright Baby". The way he did it, I ended up singing it an octave up, but it worked so perfect. For him to be this hip-hop cat and telling me, this R&B cat from the R&B school, "Hey, this it how it should go", was a cool experience to see him in that element. Especially because everyone thinks of him as this super thugged out hard dude, you know? I saw that much more humbler side of him, and I think you can hear that comradery we had on the record. We were laughing and carrying on, doing what we do, complimenting each other because we both were fans and the respect was mutual. You can hear that and that's what's special about it.
Any other songs unreleased with Tupac?
Well, we did a tribute song to him. 10 years later, I wanted to do a part two to "Are You Still Down?" A tribute to Tupac with the producer of the track, Johnny J. Rest in peace to both of those brothers. When Johnny J was alive, he wanted to do this 10 year memorial to Pac, and that's what the part two record was about. He found this old, unreleased Tupac acapella to one of the beats he did for Pac. It was a half finished verse that no one ever really heard before, at that time. For the most part, he took that verse and added into the new beat that we made for "[Are You Still Down?] Part 2". I wrote my lyrics about some things I was going through at that time in my life. The record served two purposes, hence the name "Part Two." It's a deep record, a much more emotional record then "Are You Still Down?" The original was real sexy, where as part two is still kind of bad, but still has that groove to it. You have to nod your head and think at the same time.
When you heard the news he was shot, can you remember where you were at that time?
I was in England actually. I was working in this really incredible studio that was built in this old Catholic church. It was owned by George Martin (producer of The Beatles) and I remember being in this cathedral with the giant organ in the same place where The Beatles recorded the song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". I was in that room and my assistant, at the time, ran in crying and said, "Something terrible has happened." I was like "What?" and she said "Tupac got shot again". I said, "It's alright, he got shot before and he'll live again". After, I didn't hear anything. I was calling the hospital, and his people. I didn't think anyone would get back to me that quick, but then, I just heard it over the news he passed. I started thinking of the record we did and I remember talking to him in the studio about doing the video and everything. He seemed so pumped about the record. I just know I'm very proud to have that experience, because that's been sort of my jam that I have to do at every show. I definitely feel like Tupac is spiritually apart of my show, every single show I do. What better guardian angel to have then that?
Let's talk about the elephant in the room. I know this has to be frustrating, and in fact, I think it's kind of pointless that people even do this. When Robin Thicke came out, people were calling him the new Jon B. When you first started hearing those comparisons, how did it make you feel?
I remember when R&B wasn't popular for a white artist. It wasn't good [to be that]. People almost downgraded you and people would say, "Oh, you're white and you sing R&B?" (in a snarky tone). After Vanilla Ice, it was almost like white people were making a mockery of R&B. When you heard Color Me Bad's "Sex You Up" record for the first time, you knew it was dope and it was urban. You couldn't help but accept how R&B that record was. When you heard my music, of course, with all the BabyFace production, and how I came out, it was a lane of R&B. It was true R&B that was produced by a true R&B artist. When I made my cross over into records like "They Don't Know" and songs I wrote myself, I was accepted as an R&B artist. It was understood by all the people who lived that R&B and hip-hop culture that Babyface and Tupac put their stamp on this dude, so he's true. There wasn't really anyone in my lane, as far as being a white R&B artist that did the demo and dug in as deep as I did in the R&B realm. When Robin Thicke came along and Justin Timberlake, when he had a solo career and broke off from N'Sync, when he shaved his hair real low and grew the beard, I had a lot of people coming up to me and asking, "Hey what do you think of Justin Timberlake doing R&B now?" It goes with the territory and I'm old enough to know, and wise enough to know, that I love this music and I would love the opportunity to get into the studio with those brothers and make some incredible collaborations. I believe we are kindred spirits in that sense and we do have a lot of similarities. When people ask us what we think of each other, it's complimentary, it's a beautiful thing. God gave us our talent and he doesn't make any mistakes. It's incredible that we came out the way we did and how we did. I think the greatest things are yet to come.
How do you feel personally about Robin's body of work?
I really really respect it and love it. One thing I really love about it is he found where he wants to go sonically and he went there. He kept that grown and sexy vibe. Ever since he came out, I loved that about his music -- his voice, his vocalizing style. I admire Robin Thicke for his contribution to this music. Game recognize game and real recognize real more importantly.
Did you ever get to meet him?
Nope, never got to meet him. There was one time I was doing an event with Babyface for breast cancer and his mother was there, and we took a picture together and I wished him my best. Any time someone asks me about Robin or Justin, I have nothing but positive things to say.
What's a hidden talent Jon B has outside of music?
Nobody knows that I can kill it as a skier. I'm like a double black diamond skier! I'm crazy with the skis, and I don't have fears of heights, or going fast or jumping off of tremendously high jumps. I can't do flips or turns in the air or anything like that, but I can do a lot of ill sh**. It's the dare devil side of myself.
So if things didn't pan out perfectly for you, and you didn't make it in this game, what would you be doing with your life?
It's a scary question to think about. It's definitely like a real question, a real thought, and I want to have a real answer for you. I never really had any other tricks that drove me this far, ya know? It's a scary thing because I know, regardless, I'm a role model and I want kids to understand that to really follow your dreams you have to be passionate about your dreams. A lot of kids have a lot of interests and they don't know what to follow, and that's what's kind of crazy about having a lot of different interests. I only had one interest from the jump and that was music. From my first little Casio keyboard, my first drum set, my first multi-track recorder to my first microphone, I always wanted to do this. You've got to really understand if you want to do something. I don't care what it is, if you want to be a doctor, lawyer or singer, you have to a relentless passion for it. You can't just want the money and fame, you can't walk backwards, and that's what most people see as an incentive and I think that's what takes them longer because the hunger isn't really in the right place. They have to learn, and at the end of the day, you have to pay your dues.
In closing is there anything you want to say to the Ballerstatus.com viewers?
I just want to thank Ballerstatus.com for being supportive throughout my career and especially on my independent journey. And the rest of my career, because I plan to be here for a very long time. I know this is the beginning of a long time relationship with you guys and your readers. I'll continue to share the projects with you guys and what I am working on, as well as any future videos. I have a video from the B-Sides collection that I am about to drop. It's a dope track for the club and DJ's with that classic R&B over that. Look for me in a town near you, I'm always touring. I'm always playing out live in a club or a theatre near you. And, stay locked to JonBworld.com.
Jon B's B-Sides compilation is out now, available for purchase over at JonBWorld.com.