Interview By: Melody Charles
If influence could count as royalties, then both Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake would owe Jonathan ‘Jon B’ Buck a solid stack of benjamins right about now.
Before either of those two even decided to get on the R&B good foot, the Long Island, N.Y., native caught all the original flak for being a white boy who gravitated to, as well as convincingly performed, R&B music.
With his songwriting skills, silky tenor and Babyface connection (remember “Someone to Love,” “They Don’t Know” and “Are U Still Down,” featuring Tupac Shakur? Classics!), Jon B still found himself a casualty of imploding labels in the late 90’s, but his fifth studio effort, Helpless Romantic, definitely puts the musician back in the groove. “I’m definitely happy right now,” says the performer during a recent phone chat. “I got my own label, this is my first independent record, it’s finally come out and everything’s official now.”
It’s been an uphill battle for the man to stay in the game until recently, and it wasn’t until Jon B untangled himself from another big-name music mogul, Mathew Knowles (owner of Musicworld Entertainment, creator of Destiny’s Child and manager to Solange and Beyonce Knowles), that he could begin to secure his footing again. Like anyone else taken under the wing of Sanctuary Records in 2004, Jon expected big-dollar promotion and exposure, but unexpectedly, got quite the opposite.
“I had 2 singles out, 2 videos,” he reveals, “but they weren’t promoting it right.
Everything I thought that Mathew Knowles would bring to the table because of who he was and who his daughter was….I was taken in on that one. It seemed like a bad thing to be on his label: radio stations were stand-offish because I was associated with him, BET didn’t play my video, and I’ve never had one of my videos not played on BET. It had nothing to do with me, it was all about the politics of the business and what not, it was kinda over my head. I only had a one-album contract with him, so I was able to get out and do this new album independently.”
How could the pairing not have been a success?
Jon has his theories. “I think that Destiny’s Child, along with his other projects, took a lot of hustle from Mathew Knowles. And when you have major success, there are some people that you piss off along the way, because you may not do a free show every time, you may want a certain amount of money, and if you put a bad taste in people’s mouth, every time your name gets mentioned in conjunction with another artist, it doesn’t resonate well. It felt like people were saying to me, ‘Okay, you’re on Mathew Knowles’ label and so is everybody else and they mama, you know?’ ” he laughs. “He signed up everybody (at the time), like Kool & The Gang, Ray J, me, Chaka Khan, Earth Wind &Fire, De La Soul…major, major groups. He also acquired Nelly’s management company for $30 million dollars, and I was asking, ‘Okay, where’s the money for my project? Where’s my tour support and money for the tools that I need to let people know that I have an album coming out?’
Instead of trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, Jon read the writing on the wall (pun intended) and bounced.
“I’m a grinder, I gotta hustle and keep this music comin’ out.” he says. “Four years is as long as I can possibly wait. And if it wasn’t for the fans holding me down with the live shows…. people going, “where you been, what are you doing?” I would tell em,’ ‘it ain’t got nothing to do with me, it’s everybody else around me trying to stop my grind.’ Well, maybe it’s not that they’re trying to go out of their way stop it, but they weren’t trying period. I need a team of people around me that are dedicated and want to see me win. The Ushers and Beyonces, they don’t make it just because they have good music. There’s crazy money, politics and all of that goes into breaking an artist. I haven’t had a lot of that red carpet roll-out for me in the last 10 years. There have been major opportunities for me, like with Tupac Shakur and with Babyface, all that, and I got my Grammy nomination in first year out. I thought that would be enough, but the music industry is a toss-up, man. I’m not gonna worry about it, I just stay in the studio and keep smashing these records out.”
And what does he have to say about who he’s been compared to recently, when it should’ve been the other way around? (I’m talking about Robin Thicke, y’all.) Jon isn’t bitter, but he does want to set the record straight.
“Robin Thicke wouldn’t even have a style or a swagger right now if it weren’t for me. People gotta recognize where something comes from, and once they can recognize it, then they can relate to it. Nobody had a Jon B before Jon B. There was George Michael, the poppy kind of British rock thing. There was a soulful vibe, but the closest thing I related to before him was Hall and Oates. My first five to seven years in the game, I took all the flak from people for being a white boy who sang R&B: people calling me ‘ Babyface’s white boy’, over and over, until I proved myself. Robin Thicke doesn’t have to deal with that.”
So how much sympathy does he feel for Mr. Thicke’s recent complaints that he can’t get soul magazine covers? Here’s a hint—not much.
“I’m like ‘man, you’re lucky that you even have a Vibe magazine and are on a major label and have the Neptunes working with you.’ Stop complaining—soul music isn’t about the negativity, its about the cats sticking together and showing love. I just feel that I need to send a message out into the world that, the only reason that people are into him right now, with all due respect to his music, is because I didn’t have an album out. Now that I do, people can judge for themselves whether they like what I do or listen to him. I let each album tell its own story, and let people tell me what they like. I’m just trying to do me and let people just listen, you know?
I’m not mad at my man Robin Thicke for what he’s doing, I just want people to understand that if it was anybody else, especially someone black, doing the same thing, there wouldn’t be a comparison. But the fact that he’s white makes it more of a competitive thing for other people—-they always ask me what do I think about his success, and I tell them I’m not worried about a grown man.”
Speaking of his CD, where exactly is he going with his sound? Jon reveals that a couple of life changes—marriage and fatherhood—were a definite influence.
” ‘Helpless Romantic’ was a metaphor for love, for settling down…I kinda look at it like sinking. You can’t help but to sink a bit when you immerse yourself in a relationship. My love for my wife and our child, our life together, I compare it to the ocean, and I’m relating myself as the 34-year-old man that’s sunk so of myself into that new life that people gotta dig deep to find me. The song (with that same title) is basically saying ‘you’re the ocean, I’m the Titanic, baby I’ll sink for you.’ I let people know about my new life through the music. I also have this new single with Paul Wall, called “Ooh So Sexy”; it’s a little different for me, it’s got that Southern crunk energy, it’s got that high hat sound that folks love in the South.
That’s where I’ve been hanging pretty tough for the last two years, doing shows, so I’ve come by the influence naturally, and I’m glad I followed my instincts because the song is taking off. I kept it real simple this time; my last album had a lot of different artists on it. I really wanted to go back to my roots, more of the straightforward R&B. I was also influenced by today’s cats like Ne-Yo, J. Holliday, The Dream, T-Pain….you know what I mean? Even Kanye West has has a big influence on R&B. as far as production.”
What does he hope that fans get out of Helpless Romantic, for themselves anyway?
“I think that one tradition that I’ve kept in all of my albums is the passion, the love energy. I feel that God gave me the gift of communicating the love message, which is my purpose as a person and as a spirit. Some people may not have a lot of love in their lives. Being in a relationship is hard, but when you get that right energy, being in one is lke vitamins, eating good food. I haven’t gone anywhere, and I just get better with time. Tupac didn’t bless no punk, I haven’t disappeared, I’m here to stay. Tom Joyner always says, ‘don’t let anybody take your spot.’ No one can ever take my spot, there’s only one me, you know?”
Not one to just have one iron in the fire, Jon B, who’s also put in work on Keith Robinson’s (Effie’s younger brother in Dreamgirls) album, (“it’s called Utopia, it’ll be coming out a little bit after mine, and we’re gonna be touring together, shooting videos together, that’s my partner right there”), tells artists that independent may be the way to go these days. “I think when you’re self-contained—writing your music, producing your music, there’s no reason for a major label to come in and take 67% of that and put their name on it. It’s not fair, and you’ve put too much hard work and and energy into this to not make any money off it it.
A lot of artists are barely making anything because they don’t write their songs or get into production, so I say that if you’re a talented singer, dancer, entertainer type of performer, then yeah, you probably need to get on a major label, because that’s what they do, create huge stars. I’m a composer, I’m a producer, I’m a musician, I’m a singer, so for me to be able to sell 150,000, 200,000 units and have a million dollars in my pocket, it seems a lot more of a lucrative situation than to be on a major label for 10 years. My royalties are what they are because I write my music, but if I didn’t have the royalties…man… I love showing people that it is possible to do it on your own.”
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