Johnny Gill Talks Biopics, Bobby Brown and the State of R&B on the Radio
Johnny Gill didn’t know that his seventh solo album, Game Changer, was going to be his biggest success of the 2000s when he was recording it back in 2014; but the R&B star had a sense of purpose from the very beginning. Taking the reins as executive producer and releasing the project on his newly-formed J. Skillz Entertainment label, Gill was adamant that this album was going to be a statement.
“You become more educated about this business when you’re on the other side of the fence,” he tells The Boombox. “It helps you to also make different choices and decisions and that’s what I was able to do when I put together this album. One thing that I had to recognize was that there was no need [to] look at a clock; there’s no window or time set. I knew I had a special album. This album is beyond special. I felt like it’s about getting it to the people and doing so was not going to be an easy walk in the park.
“I named this album Game Changer for a number of reasons,” he explains. “Babyface wrote and produced the track but the name Game Changer was more than just a cool name for an album. It was about I’m going to make an impact and do my damndest to make sure R&B is respected. I’m going to do my part.”
And over a year after its release, Game Changer caught fire in a major way after the album’s third single, the sultry mid-tempo track “This One’s For Me and You,” hit radio. On the song, Gill reunited with his New Edition bandmates (Ralph Tresvant, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe)—delivering what was essentially the beloved group’s first new recording in 12 years.
“Michael says ‘man, we had to fight to get him to let this song go,’” Gill says, chuckling. “I guess that’s his version. But, no—when I sat down and played them the song, they said ‘Man, c’mon man—this is a New Edition joint.’ I was sitting there in shock like ‘Really?’ It didn’t take long for me to go ‘Shoot--okay!’ I was fortunate and blessed that they wanted to support me on this. Rick and I did it and [everyone else] did their vocals in New York. I was like ‘Wow.’”
Despite Bivins’ take on the song’s origin, Gill says he isn’t one for ego battles. Over the course of his career, he’s been a duet partner (to Stacy Lattisaw, in his early career) part of a trio (as a member of late 90s supergroup LSG) and a member of New Edition. He says it all comes naturally for him. “I’m never a guy that needs to be out front or saying ‘hey, I need attention,’” he shares. “I’m a team player. It brings great balance as an artist and as a person.”
The success of “This One’s For Me and You” has given Johnny Gill his biggest hit since the 1990s; the song reached No. 1 in airplay on R&B radio; but the singer also questioned why R&B music has become marginalized in the contemporary music industry. Do mainstream fans hear these great songs despite how much they resonate with R&B fans?
“Eddie Levert said ‘R&B is the bastard of the music industry,’” says Gill, sounding like a man who's pondered this for quite a while. “There’s a lack of respect that R&B gets. All of the genres are derived from rhythm & blues and it’s troubling to watch it become the least-respected genre in all of music. This is what I do for a living and it’s a matter of those that do this continuing to be consistent and to help people understand that there’s a world of people out there that still love R&B. I knew it was going to be a task, but the reality is we all have to make the time to make the impact.
“But there’s a resurgence. When you look at what’s happening with R&B—even the houses are being packed. I’ve been told that R&B stations are starting to kick some of the mainstreams in the butt because they’re playing R&B and people are hearing great music. This is just my theory; when I look at the audience and all they can rely on is their ear. What sounds good or amusing or reaches them and makes them turn around. Radio has gotten so segregated as ‘R&B’ or ‘hip-hop.’ If a song is a hit, it’s magical—it’s got something in it that connects. I find that it’s just so sad that when you’re a certain age, your record goes to a certain demographic on a radio station. It’s not going mainstream. Not because the record’s not good—it’s because you’re a certain age. It’s continuing to choke the life out of our industry. People listen to the radio with their naked ear—they know what sounds good to them. It’s not based on age. Radio has decided that. You can look on YouTube or Facebook and you’ll see a 75 year old singing ‘This One’s For Me and You’ or a six year old singing ‘Game Changer.’ The naked ear only knows what it hears.
“Radio is squeezing the life out of the industry trying to segregate every genre of music. People aren’t thinking ‘How old is that person?’ It’s the music—when it’s right, it’s just right. Kids shouldn’t have to think that way. It’s just good music—let it be what it is.”
And Johnny Gill’s recent success is proving that belief to be well-founded. Armed with a hit single and album, he and New Edition are set to perform at this year’s Essence Festival and they have a biopic set to premiere on BET next year. In producing a movie about their lives and career together, New Edition has had to work hard to mine their complex history and portray it accurately.
“What a challenge it is. I won’t lie and say it’s easy,” Gill concedes. “You’re so close to the story and we all remember and have different takes on everything. Trying to squeeze that into one [story] and tell the story has been beyond a challenge. But not in a bad way—it’s just so much information; what you cut out, what stays in—it’s a challenge. But the most important thing that we all agree on and what’s important is people getting to see the journey. Most people only see the end results and the process and the road that we’ve been on is a whole different ballgame. Which people are getting to see now.”
One major aspect of that journey has been the participation and personal life of New Edition’s sometimes-estranged sixth member, Bobby Brown. Despite early reports that Brown wanted no parts of the biopic, Gill says that the “Don’t Be Cruel” singer is definitely involved.
“Bobby marches to his own beat,” Gill acknowledges. “We all make some good choices and some bad choices in life. And sometimes it’s just that the choices and decisions he makes are what he feels are best for him. But at the end of the day, you sit down like everybody else--and he reflected a little and recognized this is a great opportunity and he came on board. Everybody is a part of it. And why wouldn’t they be? When you’re dealing with six guys, everybody has opinions and wants things done a certain way and everybody has their own outlook on what they think it should be. That happens. That’s nothing out of the norm for us. It’s a challenge, but one that we welcome and we know it’s going to be worth it in the end.”
Check out Johnny Gill and New Edition in the video for "This One's For Me and You" below: