Donell Jones Interview
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Today I caught up with r&b legend Donell Jones to discuss everything from his TWO upcoming albums, to his collaboration with Big Pun, to the state of R&B music today. One thing I will say about Donell is he has always stayed true to his roots and made timeless r&b music. In speaking with him, I can definitely see that he “gets it” in terms of understanding the importance of making this type of music.
YouKnowIGotSoul: From an early age you began writing songs, and eventually started writing for other artists. How were you able to be successful in writing and where did you draw your inspiration from?
Donell Jones: I think I was able to be successful in writing because I came up around a lot of great songwriters. Like for instance, Kenny Green who wrote a lot of the Mary J. Blige stuff. He was on the Untouchables staff at that time, so I kinda learned a lot from those guys and I think that’s why I was successful with my song writing. Plus I came from Chicago and everybody that I met was in New York, so I came with a different flavor than most of the New York songwriters had.
YNIGS: Did you always want to get into music, or was there ever something else you had in mind for a career?
DJ: You know what man, to be honest with you, that’s all I really wanted to do my whole life, was to make music and just create new stuff, like new songs, and just be a singer man.
YNIGS: On a song you did years ago “Life Goes On,” you mention “if it wasn’t for my daughters you wouldn’t have a reason to exist.” Were these feelings you were going through at the time?
DJ: To be honest with you, I feel like that every day. Kids bring so much joy to your life, so I think without them I wouldn’t be the person that I am now, I might be a loose cannon. But the gift definitely slowed me down and kinda made me into a man, you know what I’m saying?
YNIGS: Yea I know exactly what you mean.
YNIGS: Although your last album “Journey of a Gemini” was very well received, it didn’t sell as well it should have, possibly due to poor promotion. Was there ever a point in your career when you thought you might have to go in a different direction music wise?
DJ: To be honest with you, I never thought I had to go in a different direction. I think that my problem with my records has been the fact that they have never really got promoted to become successful by the record companies. As far as musically, I have a lot of fans that they would probably kill me if I changed my style! I don’t think it’s my style of music, I just think it’s the record companies themselves with the lack of promotion and getting the word out there.
YNIGS: I definitely agree with you on that.
YNIGS: One of my favorite songs from your last album was “Apple Pie.” Can you tell me the inspiration for that song and how you came up with the idea?
DJ: Oh Apple Pie, we was just in the studio man and actually I didn’t even write the song, it was written by Cassie from Changing Faces. What happened was we was in the studio, and we was just grooving, and she started singing some stuff, I don’t know where the inspiration came for her, but I liked the song so much I was like “Yo you gotta get me that, I gotta record that song!”
YNIGS: It’s been nearly four years since you released “Journey of a Gemini,” what have you been up to since then?
DJ: Working man, I’ve just been working on the new project. I got a new album coming out right before Christmas, it’s called “The Lost Files,” and this album is just comprised of songs, like every time I do an album, that in between time where there is no album out, I always record a lot of songs, and they don’t make the album because I like to start from scratch when I make the new record. What I did was just grab a lot of those songs and put them on this “Lost Files” album just as a prelude to when my new album comes out in 2010.
YNIGS: I was actually going to ask you about this album you are releasing of unreleased material, are these songs you recorded all through your career?
DJ: I got songs dating from ’96 in the beginning of my career all the way up until 2004. You will definitely hear songs that sound like they are from the “My Heart” era, you will hear songs that sound like they are from the “Where I Wanna Be” era, it’s just a whole bunch of songs that’s throughout my whole career, that I’m like “Man, people need to hear this stuff, I need to stop keeping to myself, you know?”
YNIGS: Yes we do need to hear that!
YNIGS: Now, you had a chance to collaborate with the late Big Pun, can you tell me what the experience of working with him was like?
DJ: Incredible. I mean in the studio he pretty much already knew what he wanted. I mean, poppin bottles, the studio was full of women; it was just a beautiful experience man! Fat Joe and the whole crew was there, my crew was there, it felt like an event, almost felt like you were going to a party or something, but we were in the studio. It was a great experience, I’m not going to lie. That was one of the only artists that, because I did work with Left Eye, but me and her weren’t in the studio together, she did her part, I did my part, but the Big Pun thing, we were all in the studio, it was just fun.
YNIGS: As someone who has managed to stay relevant in the music industry since the mid 90’s, do you feel you get the respect you deserve around the industry?
DJ: To be honest with you man, it’s iffy, it’s half and half. I get a lot of respect from artists, because they do appreciate the type of music that I do. But then you have some other artist that could care less, you know what I’m saying, and I understand that. It’s basically built off of how successful you are, it’s not the music that you make, so I understand the nature of some artists and how they go about the way they treat people, but at the end of the day, I don’t make music for other artists, I make music for the consumer man, and that’s who I really appreciate, is those people.
YNIGS: Are you happy with the state of R&B music today, since it a lot different than it was when you first started making music?
DJ: You know what man, to be honest with you, I’m not. I mean there are a few artists out there I really like, that is doing their thing. To me, it’s too many people trying to be r&b thugs. It’s almost like the r&b game has become almost like the new r&b/rap game or something. There’s no more love in the music, it’s almost like when you are having a special night with your woman, like what are you going to play? You have no choice but to go back and play some “dusties.” Everybody else is talking about cars and how much money they got, and to me the love is not in the music anymore.
YNIGS: I completely agree!
YNIGS: How do you feel about certain artists using voice technology to enhance their voice?
DJ: It doesn’t bother me. The only thing that bothers me is that everybody is doing it. Like T-Pain, I really appreciate what he did. You have to look at people like Roger Troutman, they really made a big thing out of that, but it was fresh and it was only a couple of people doing it. Now it’s almost like why is everybody jumping on the bandwagon when this is this guy’s sound? I’m not saying T-Pain owns the sound because he doesn’t, but it’s almost like it’s too much of it now, its ridiculous.
YNIGS: You mentioned there are a few artists you are feeling in r&b today, can you tell me some of your favorite artists of today?
DJ: I’m gonna be honest with you man, I don’t listen to a lot of music these days. I would say I do like what Trey Songz is doing, I have a couple of his songs that he has out. To be honest it’s not really a lot of artists, I don’t listen to the radio that much. I’m kinda like a “dusties” man myself. When I make new music, I draw off of old music, you know like Teddy Pendegrass, The Isley Brothers, and I’ve been doing that for years, ever since I came out. I’ve never really listened to the radio and new artists that’s out, because I always try to pattern my style of music to my favorite artists from the past.
YNIGS: How would you describe the style of music you make to someone who is listening to your music for the first time?
DJ: I would describe it as true from the heart r&b. I would describe it as, just it’s mellow, it’s smooth, and it’s all purpose music to me. If you are driving long distances, you can drive and listen to the whole thing without having to fast forward. I try to make albums; I don’t try to make singles. I try to make a full album where you can honestly appreciate it, so that’s how I would describe my music.
YNIGS: So besides the album of unreleased material you will be releasing, you are also working on a new album for next year?
DJ: Definitely. Working on a new album as we speak, and it’s going to be incredible. It always takes me a little time to finish albums, and that’s because I’m always looking for a great song, you know? I don’t like to rush through an album because I hate when you buy an album and it’s only like two or three songs on it, so that’s why it takes me a little bit of time. Plus at the same time, I’m not with the label anymore, everything I’m going to be doing from now on is going to be independent.
YNIGS: Did you approach your new album as you did with your previous albums, or did you set out to do something different? What should we expect to hear?
DJ: I approached it the same way that I’ve done all my other albums except for that it will sound fresh and for today. I haven’t gone outside of my comfort zone or anything like that. It will just be the same Donell, but just with new songs, new flavor. I really think people appreciate it because with me it’s all about the subject matter, it’s all about what people actually go through in real life, and those are the songs I’m touching on right now.
YNIGS: Do you have any titles in mind for the new album?
DJ: Nah, it’s untitled right now. I have no clue what I want to name this album man.
YNIGS: You just mentioned you are independent now, what do you see as being the major differences there?
DJ: The major difference is, I’m in control of my own destiny. You know at the major label, I’ve always had to compete with the Usher’s and the R. Kelly’s and all of those other guys because we were all at the same label. It’s kinda frustrating when you see someone get pushed and you feel like you have, if not better, just as strong of material. So I mean, me being independent, and I know that I’m working for myself, it’s more like I work even harder now, because I know what the end result is, I’m working for me instead of me working for them.
YNIGS: Did you ever feel like when you were signed to the major label that they tried to push your music in a certain direction or did you have full control of what you wanted to do?
DJ: I never really had full control at all being at the label. They pretty much pushed it to where they wanted it. There is a lot of people still today just discovering Donell Jones, that’s like “wow I didn’t know you had all these songs, I didn’t know this, I only heard a couple of songs on the radio!” As time has went on, I kinda gained a lot of fans just by word of mouth or somebody stumbled upon an album they didn’t really listen to. To me, I don’t know if it’s by chance, but I think in the end it will work out great for me that my career has went this way.
YNIGS: Final question, do you have any goals for the future as an artist or anything you’d like to accomplish?
DJ: You know what man, I’m really into, I love video games. I don’t know if I will be singing forever. I’m not talking about like playing video games, I’m into like, I like technology a lot. I want to get into more interactive stuff, more internet type of stuff. I don’t know if you are familiar with UStream, I want to kind of build a website somewhat like that, really really interactive where my fans can actually come in and see me do a real performance, and just…..I just got a lot of things on my mind I want to do, it’s just going to take some time! *laughs*
“The Lost Files” will be available November 24th, and his untitled 5th album will be in stores early 2010.