Born to a musical family, Jon B. was raised on a varied melodious diet of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. By 1992, the Rhode Island native had begun to shop his demo around when he caught the attention of Tracey “Babyface” Edmonds and from there it was on…
Contracted as a songwriter, Jon B. went on to write songs for Toni Braxton, Michael Jackson, Color Me Badd and others. After earning a Grammy nomination, the Rhode Island native is prepping his fifth album entitled Hopeless Romantic and with a renewed spirit sits down with GIANTMag.com to reminiscence on Tupac Shakur, how his marriage has made him still and has some choice words for Robin Thicke.
GIANT: You’ve been out of the spotlight for a while, so of course, I gotta ask – what’s been up with you?
Jon B: I just recently had a daughter. That’s the most exciting thing so far. I’ve been recording this record called Hopeless Romantic. It’s my fifth album and I feel like that with every one I just have to take my time with it. It’s my first independent record, so it’s really special for me.
GIANT: The industry has changed radically – people stopped buying CDs, downloading is the wave and more folks get deals via YouTube than the regular hustle-bustle of the grind. Some artists wouldn’t think they’re the right cog to fit into this new machine. What were a few reasons to make this album?
Jon B: For me it’s a calling that I have to answer. Music is such a passion for me. It’s more to it than just to be famous and business. My studio calls me, my keyboard calls me. They say, “Daddy come play with me,” like my daughter does. I don’t do music for the same reason that a lot of people do it. I do it because I have to. That’s my communication to. That’s how I communicate to myself. I’ll write a record and it all reveals itself to me in the end. The Internet – because I’m a creative person – now give us the power to share all of that with one another. I’ve never really knew the possibilities of the Internet, but it’s given artist’s like myself to get the music to the people completely unfiltered. If I want to share a live studio session I can hook up a webcam to invite the people into my world. I want to do some innovative thing with the music.
GIANT: In some people’s opinions, the music that’s out now doesn’t really scream “hopeless romantic.” Where has the love gone?
Jon B: Basically what we did was that we lost the romance somewhere along the way. It’s just straight sex records. We flirted with that in the 90s, but we still had some romance. I love Chris Brown’s “With You” record. It reminded me of how music used to souond. These young kids need that musicality and melody to their songs. The lyrics are devoid of story lines. It’s all about being in a situation without it being explained. You hear a lot of game being spit, a lot hip sayings being said, but you don’t hear the essence of what made R&B music. You don’t hear the blues anymore. It’s real special when they press the envelope and change the scenery like a John Legend – with his soulful Frank Sinatra-esque voice. If you like it, then you like it, if not, then you don’t. I’m excited, though, that there is both. The youth is getting their shine on and their crack at being innovative. The youth is simplifying the process that all of us music cats are trying to learn. I’m keeping my ear to the street as far as the production that I’m hearing. I loved that Usher’s little brother produced Lloyd’s record. I wouldn’t put a bad vibe in terms of my appreciation of – I’m just learning music. People in the end may be afraid to be themselves and I’m concerned with issues that are truth. I’m not in the streets hollerin’ at girlies, I used to be, but now I have to keep it real in terms of the timing of things. If I’m going through things then that where’s Hopeless Romantic ties-in.
GIANT: You got a love from the ladies of all colors with your songs and one that will always stand out in my mind is “R U Still Down?” featuring Tupac Shakur. Can you talk about how that collaboration came to be?
Jon B: I want to say R.I.P. to Tupac and Johnny J. He didn’t like the way that his life was going. It was pretty heavy. He was genuine. It allows me to grow through his experience to see that I have to love my life. I have to love the stuff that is hard to take. He [Johnny J.] did so many wonderful things while he was here and I’m a part of his musical legacy. I had first met him during th “How Do You Want It?!” video shoot and we’re waiting for him to do his thing and he’s wildin’ out. Heather Hunter walks up in the RV. It was like a rock ‘n roll video. K-Ci and JoJo were there and they introduced me to him. He knew who I was. It was all love from there. I was a definite fan of ‘Pac’s work. He spoke extremely strong and wise, but he was just a regular dude. He’d start freestyling whenever he heard a beat that he liked. I played him this simple beat. I had sampled “Impeach the President” and he came in and started going in on this freestyle. I remember Sway and Tech were there and we were all sitting there with our mouths dropped. You’re in that right place at the right time at that moment.
I took like an hour Pan Am to Van Nies, California and this was the Death Row studio that had nothing but metal detectors to get in. People are putting their guns in their with the security. This was definitely wasn’t my scene. He knew that and he would always make sure that I got the respect that he gave me. We cut “R U Still Down?” in 3 hours. Johnny J did his thing and ‘Pac came up with a lot of the melodies and the lyrics in that song. He was telling me how to do it. The last thing he told me before I left was, “You leavin’ already,” I was kind of tired and he said, “Don’t waste your time, man… Don’t waste your time.” Two weeks later he passed on.
GIANT: You had got a lot of black girl love from Ohio – at least – once that song hit the airwaves. Now as a family man and husband – have there been any changes that have affected your songwriting?
Jon B: Definitely! I think I’m ready for the family life now. I wasn’t doing what I needed to do to keep my relationship healthy. Why would a girl want someone who’s not all the way there with her? I tried to settle down early on in my life. I went through everything. I understand stillness now. That’s a very key word to explain where I’m at now. Things shake me up, but nothing is more important than my wife and my daughter. It used to get me when people would ask me where I was at, but this album is full of genuine me. I’m in a very still place. I’m at the bottom of the ocean. I look at my career like the Titanic. It was designed to be a beautiful ship, but whenever you want to see it you have go deep to get an understand of how important it was. A part of that stillness is to say that the things that I was worried about – status, whether or not my song was played to be on the radio – is something I’m not worried about now. I feel people’s love for me around the world. I’m giving that back. Honestly, that’s why I’m still making music.
GIANT: A little word association, Jon… Okay?
Jon B: Ok.
GIANT: “Everybody Here Wants…” What?
Jon B: You.
GIANT: Sarah Palin…?
Jon B: Ugh…
GIANT: Robin Thicke…?
Jon B: Gettin’ there buddy… Just a little more seasoning on it… Then you’re straight. You just need to pay some more dues. He’s a dope artist, but he just needs a little bit more…
GIANT: The “white boy with soul” seemed to hit a manufactured level at one point in the industry. Coming up with the likes of Babyface and writing songs for Toni Braxton and Michael Jackson – are their some key ingredients that are needed in order to rightfully earn that title?
Jon B: Yeah, I think so. You have to be selective with who you work and who you produce with. I had that opportunity as a protégé of Babyface. He presented me with those opportunities. I got to work with Left Eye before she passed. Those were things that made me look at myself as someone who was established. I didn’t doubt my talent. I still had to go up to the labels to showcase my work and I’d get turned away because I was white. I have a voice and felt that I could perform but people didn’t think so. I would wait in lobbies until they closed. I ended up getting a production deal from being so hungry. Next thing you know I’m working with Brian McKnight and I started to get my name more established and I wanted to write and produce. I knew the white boy thing and the trappings, but I wanted to get my voice heard. Babyface pushed me in a right direction – writing and producing equals longevity.