Before there ever a Justin Timberlake or a Robin Thicke, there was Jonathan 'Jon B' Buck, the Long Island, N.Y., native who caught flak for being a white boy who gravitated to, as well as convincingly performed, R&B music. Inescapable when he first burst on the scene, thanks to his Babyface connection and hits like "Someone to Love," "They Don't Know" and "Are U Still Down" (featuring Tupac Shakur), he nevertheless found himself a casualty of the label mergers in the late 90's and temporarily lost his groove thanks to a poorly promoted release on Mathew Knowles' Sanctuary label (Stronger Everyday) in 2004. These days, the singer, songwriter, producer and musician is back in the mix, with a family, a new label and a new CD, Helpless Romantic. In a candid chat, Jon B. discusses his new baby girl, how Matthew Knowles' big rep hurt insteaad of helped and yes, what he really thinks of Robin Thicke....
Congrats on getting back into the music game Jon, it's been awhile.
Thank you, I'm definitely happy right now. I got my own label, this is my first independent record, it's finally come out and everything's official."
I hear that you're a husband and a father now.
I am: I had my daughter last year, she's 15 months now, her name is Azzure Zuna---it means 'blue moon.' I'm a family man, I gotta get home to my baby (laughs) . She's a little angel and the inspiration behind the CD.
Is she a daddy's girl?
She is, but she spends a lot of time with her momma, so it takes her a couple of days to get adjusted when I get home. She loves me, but she'll act like, 'where did you go?' (laughs) I gotta work my way back!
I read previously that signing into Mathew Knowles' label wasn't exactly a good thing for you. Can you give me any details about that, and is that experience why you're independent now?
"Definitely. I was heading in that direction anyway. I kinda went through some things with my last label, Epic. With the merger of the mutiple labels going on at the time, a lot of artists got dropped. Before they could drop me though, I asked for a release. The didn't promote enough singles from (2001's) Pleasures You Like album: I had a song with Nas on there, a song with Faith Evans...we had a lot more singles to go, but they didn't want to release anymore. Mathew Knowles came and picked me up, and then... that turned into a repeat situation. I had 2 singles out, 2 videos, 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. It's a wonderful thing, becuase everybody that I have behind me now has first hand communication with me. It's a great feeling to know that as long as I stay on my grind and do what I need to do as an artist, this album is gonna have the visibility of a major. And everybody's given me such a warm welcome back, I feel solid about it."
I felt that the last CD, Stronger Everyday, was a good one, especially "Through The Fire," where you sampled that Aretha Franklin hymn and added the Scarface cameo. It was brilliant.
Thank you so much.
Back to this Sanctuary thing....why wouldn't his exposure give you more avenues instead of less?
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 everytime, you may want a certain amount of money, and if you put a bad taste in people's mouth, everytime 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?' (laughs). He signed up everybody (at the time), like Kool & The Gang, Ray J, me, Chaka Khan, EW&F, 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?' Rather than stick around and try to figure out what's going wrong, I'm a grinder, I gotta hustle and keep this music comin' out. 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?" and 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.
What do you say when people who don't know any better try and compare you to Robin Thicke?
"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 releated to before him was Hall and Oates. My first five to seven years in the game, I took all the flak 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. He's busy complaining that he's not on the cover of 'VIBE' magazine; 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 undrstand where the swagger originates. If it was anybody else, especially someone black, doing the same thing, there wouldn't even 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 straight up, I'm not worried about another grown man.
Elaborate on how the family life impacted Helpless Romantic.
"Our relationship is what's chronicled in this album. '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.
Any other projects you're working on?
I've actually just finished producing Keith Robinson's album (Effie's younger brother in Dreamgirls), and I'm really looking forward to people hearing that one. "Got me a Cadillac, Cadllac, Cadillac..." (laughing) The album'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.
What advice do you have for new artists, aiming for a major deal or just trying to hang independently?
"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. I want to be an example as an artist and as an entrepreneur.
What do you hope the fans---or newcomers--- take from Helpless Romantic?
"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. 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, it's like vitamins or 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, because there's only one me, you know?
Any parting sentiments Jon?
Love your children, respect your spouse, keep it true. My boy Paul Wall says 'get money, stay true.' I like that one.
By Melody Charles