*Before Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake, there was singer/Songwriter Jonathan Buck, aka Jon B. — and the crooner opens up about breaking barriers as a 90’s blue eyed soul singer in tonight’s (Jan 18) episode of “Unsung” on TV One.
Through archival footage, pictures and interviews by Tracey Edmonds, Babyface, Nautica de la Cruz, Tammi Mac and Warryn Campbell, fans will get an unfiltered glimpse into the life of the artist, who developed an early affinity for Black R&B after his grandparents gave him Jackson 5 albums.
Jon B. worked first as a songwriter for Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton, New Edition, and After 7. He caught the attention of Kenneth “Babyface” and Tracy Edmonds at the age of 19 and they offered him a recording contract with Yab Yum Records. In 1995, his debut album, “Bonafied,” went platinum thanks to the Top 10 Babyface duet “Someone To Love” and follow up hit “Pretty Girl.”
Today, Jon B. tours regularly and continues to collaborate with other artists including DJ Quik. Having recently signed with Warryn Campbell, he is planning to re-launch a mainstream recording career.
EUR/Electronic Urban Report caught up with Jon ahead of his “Unsung” episode to chat about breaking barriers in his heyday, collaborating with the late-great Tupac, and his journey back into the mainstream.
Check out our Q&A with Jon. B. below:
First off, where have you been and what have you been up to?
Jon B: Well, I put an album out usually with about a 3-4 year gap between each. And you know, the industry has changed tremendously over the years — from social media and all that — from when I started, we had CD’s. So it’s been twenty years of making music. For the past two years I’ve been writing and producing and touring really heavy, but basically putting a new album together is what I’ve been doing, and independently I’ve pushed a couple albums out over 2013, 2014, which didn’t get radio support. So it was more like under the radar, but it was really nice to experience that and sort of get my independent grind on and go back to the roots because sometimes you gotta do that.
Sometimes you gotta relearn how you’re gonna live in this modern day age, cause it takes more than talent and more than even the name and the brand. You gotta really know a lot more now. So it’s just about locking everything down and really just trying to make the best business decisions for whatever the next step is, as far how to get the music to the people. Cause you want to do that the best way possible now. There’s a lot of different changes happening in the industry now, people don’t buy music as much anymore. So you gotta be able to exist in this time. It’s sorta been an adjustment. It’s really amazing to sort of go back to grassroots, like selling my CD’s straight outta my hands at my shows sometimes. That’s the realist thing in life — going back to the real grind.
In the “Unsung” episode, you mention that you learned how to properly sing after you joined a black gospel choir. Can you talk a bit about how that experience helped shape you as a young artist.
Jon B.: I love that question. I don’t really get to tell this story all the time. Well, I went to an arts high school called L.A. County High School for the Arts, and there was a lady who was actually a member of The Fifth Dimension back in the day — a soul gospel sort of group, and they were amazing singers but she was an amazing gospel teacher as well. I worked with her at the high school, and this was the type of situation where everyday I come in and we’d warm up and we would learn how to sing properly, and she would show us ways to really project our voices, but then on top that, we all had to sing a solo. So you got put on the spot at that point to really show what you had, and you wanted to impress everybody as best as possible. It really just kinda helped me figure out how to project and how to believe in myself as a vocalist.
Your career started as a writer producer for other artists. What did you find most challenging during this time — working for other artists, or transitioning into a performer?
Jon B.: It’s always more challenging producing someone else because you can’t make them physically do what you want them to do sometimes. It’s very much a kind of thing of coercion. If the communication is good, then it’s always an easier session. When the camaraderie is there it’s painless and very easy, but working by myself can also be easy and hard too because sometimes I’m very indecisive with whether I’m satisfied. I’m a bit of perfectionist. I hold myself to a very high standard with my music. So some of the stuff is a little more rawer, but I genuinely have a sound that I’m trying to maintain.
You may be the last R&B artist who authentically appreciates black women and featured them prominently in your videos. How would you compare 90’s R&B to today’s R&B music?
Jon B.: I think people really get it twisted of what is like, representing the culture that we grew up in. And when I say “we” I mean, anybody who’s 35 and up, or 40 and up. The culture is different. It wasn’t so popular. Not everybody got R&B right away. I was one of those guys who grew up with grandparents who had a record store. I grew up immersed in playing vinyls — every style of music there was. To me, music is music. Whatever was popping at the time was what I was into. So my thing was growing up immersed in that, and seeing how popular it became over the last twenty years, and how now R&B music — what sounds like it could be R&B music is being done in Pop way, and people love it.
One thing that’s definitely clearly different in the music — in the approach, is that we weren’t afraid to say something that was emotionally straight up to the heart and it was truth. All the bells and whistles and metaphors and slick stuff that the kids are using now, that’s all great and everything but what about just saying what you really mean. What’s in your heart right now? That’s what I’m trying to convey. I’m a grown man and since I was 18 and had the opportunity to make records with Babyface, I’ve been a grown man saying what grown men feel, emotionally. Over the last 20 years that’s all I’ve ever done is just share my heart with people.
Can you share a fond memory from working with Tupac on the track “Are You Still Down”?
Jon B. – Absolutely. It always gives me pleasure to talk about it because he’s not here anymore to celebrate the song with me. We did that song two weeks before he passed away. We were rocking in the studio. I loved the beat when he played me the beat, cause I had played him some things and he was vibing to the music I was playing him. He played me this beat that was produced by the late great, rest in peace to this brother, Johnny J — who produced most of the Tupac hits that you know, the big records. Johnny J had this beat and Tupac played it and that was the ‘Are You Still Down’ beat, and soon as I heard it, I was like..’This is so slick, man. We’re gonna be….This is that Marvin Gaye, like -what!’
So we started jamming out in the studio. Pac was coming up with melody ideas, which was interesting for me as a singer, and him being a rapper. It was a fun experience. I remember at one point we were really open. We were drinking, smoking — back then it was a lot of fun. It was about 40 people in the studio and I’m sitting jamming on the keyboard to the song while we were recording and he was like, ‘Hold on, man, you gotta play that right, man.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t nobody give him no more smoke or drink til he play that joint right, right now.’ I knew he was looking at me. So what you hear on the record, of like the voice box, that’s me playing the voice box in the background. But just imagine Tupac staring at me like, ‘Man, stop messing around.’
It was a great experience. But the whole thing is like, we like to live in the good part of it, and not the sad part. But rest in peace to Afeni because without Afeni Shakur, it wouldn’t have even come out. I went to Afeni Shakur’s house to speak to her. They invited me for the memorial of Tupac to sing, and she told me, ‘My son never played me his music, but he played me ‘Are You Still Down because he was proud of it.‘ So, rest in peace to my fam. I know they got me. They’re looking down.
TV One’s “Unsung” is about recognizing those who are under-rated and who have not been celebrated. Do you think that fits Job B?
Jon B.: I feel that any way I can allow the people to know that I’m still here rocking — doing my thing, even in this day and age when you don’t have many venues for R&B music now … for us to play in. They’re not catering to artists like myself. A lot of the radio doesn’t cater to artists like myself. So where do we get it? We get it in by Youtube and old spins from like… the AC (adult contemporary) radios wanna play me once in a while, but that’s not what I call support. I have to commend all the radio stations that still do play my music because I’m grateful to even have that outlet still, but I grew up in a time when I sold millions of records, internationally. So that’s why I’m still going to London and doing sold-out shows in London. I do sold-out shows all over the United States as well. As far as the want, the want is there. The people are there, but like I said before, how do you get to the people? Not everybody wants to do just a homemade video and a homemade record. That’s not how I rock. I do things on a much more professional — very, very focused level. The industry can change all it wants. It’s my talent, my music and the drive and passion that I have for what I do that is going to really matter in the end.
Tune in to “Unsung” with Job B. TONIGHT at 8/7c on TV One.