‘In My Mind, I Was Kinda Mediocre’
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
Georgia-born, New York-living soul singer Joe is something of a household name when it comes to modern soulful R&B; smooth hits glistening with romance and lust such as ‘Don’t Wanna Be A Player’, ‘I Wanna Know’ and ‘All The Things (Your Man Won’t Do)’ ensured his spot in many a bedroom play list around the western world. His sixth album due in spring 2007, ‘Ain’t Nothin Like Me’, throws some roughage into that smooth trend with its abundance of rap-collaborations. Joe talks to Soul Culture about the positive influence of hip hop on his attitude as an artist, and explains how soul and R&B would collectively benefit from adopting the openly competitive ambitiousness and entrepreneurial pursuits that are now standard practise for rappers.
Joe’s musical career began with a pen in his hand, before he ever considered grasping a microphone for anything other than illustrative purposes. “Back in the day I wrote for Mary, Xscape, Tina Turner, Barry White, Babyface, Changing Faces, SWV. My main thing before I came in as an artist, was I was a writer. I was signed as a publisher for a year, and they were throwing deals at me after that,” Joe explains, detailing his lucrative career behind the scenes, in songwriting. “It didn’t take long; once I had a 3-song demo put together, 2 of the songs from the demo made the album – so things took off fast. But songwriting was my first thing, first cheque, first serious money-earning. I think I got about $45,000 in a team with two other guys, so we split it 3 ways. I had a little cheddar on me that day.” It was a passion for the music industry that led Joe to pursue every alluring avenue made available to him; “I just wanted to do music, I just wanted to be around music. I was more known as a writer than as a singer – my own manager at the time didn’t know I sing. So it was on the low; not purposely, but I wasn’t tryna be extra ‘hey I can sing too, check me out’. I wasn’t pushy or nothing like that, it was just that I was singing on the demos I was working on so people got to hear me sing, without me purposely trying to sing.”
It seems that Joe never thought of himself as a singer, as he humbly confesses to having had an unexceptional estimation of his vocal aptitude at the beginning of his recording career: “When I started out, in my mind I was kinda mediocre. I was good but I was all over the place, I had to learn how to keep it down to a minimum. I know a lot of people who are way better than me who don’t get this opportunity,” he begins. “I’m just really granted and blessed at this opportunity to still do it; even though I’m tired today and I’m real sluggish, and this life can sometimes be bearing on you after so much and so much and so much every day. Place after place, travelling from one hotel to the next, can get you exhausted. But this is the life; I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And you only get better.”
Of course, some artists actually don’t improve to a laudable level with time. But whatever the case, time spent in the music industry (regardless of competence) must lead to greater insight of how it all works. Artists that enter the industry with little to no understanding, and lack an informed support team, inevitably tiptoe or stride blindly along paths to hazy destinations. In Joe’s case, he only grasped years later in his career that he could explore his potential as a businessman alongside his artistry, and that major labels are not always a beneficial option to develop one’s craft. “If I knew then what I know now,” he says, “I’d probably have been a mega entrepreneur, starting out with the businesses back then as opposed to now. I probably wouldn’t have signed to a major label, I woulda did it with an independent label. But the way it did turn out, there was no other way to do it. I had no choice; it was designed for me to take that route.” Joe also took time to develop a less personal way of approaching the industry, distinguishing that behind everyone’s apparent friendship is a governing drive to meet their own needs above others. He recalls, “I took things too literally in the beginning, took it too serious, too personal. I looked at everybody as looking out for me, the A&R guy, my attorneys, my accountants… I took it too personally and it’s not that serious. You’ve gotta look at it as a business, ‘cause a lot of them are looking at it as a business. But I was too emotionally attached to each person I knew and if they did something that…I was very uncomfortable with, and it was not something I would do, you know when you’ve been around them for years and they suddenly just turn the code.. That happens a lot in this business.”
Joe relishes that developing his business side has enabled him to support his family, he smiles and explains, “After taking care of family now for 15 years I like this position. I like being able to take care of my moms, my dad, my sisters, my brother, and I want them to have more, I want them to live the good life.” He expands on his relationship with his 15-year old daughter, “I don’t see Kayla as much as I would love to – probably about 6, 7 times a year. She lives in Georgia, so when I do see her, we spend at least 2 or 3 weeks together.” Despite time apart, Joe’s influence on his daughter manifests in her recently expressed desire to sing and songwrite, to Joe’s glee. Her father’s experience will no doubt be to her advantage should she choose to seriously pursue music as a career, and her position contrasts with his own when he entered the industry with only his dreams and musical inspirations to draw on.
The extensive influence of Marvin Gaye is apparent in Joe’s ad-libs, and he cites ‘I Want You’ as his favourite Marvin album, explaining “That’s the same one with [the track from which we sampled] ‘I Wanna Get To Know You’ on it. When they played the record for me I said ‘It’s an honour to do this’, I’d been waiting for someone to give me a Marvin Gaye track to be on. His style was just unmatched.” That 2004 collaboration, which used the addictive chorus of Marvin’s ‘Come Live With me Angel’, had soul purists grudgingly slipping the G-Unit track into their playlists. Talking more about his inspirations, Joe divulges “My mentors were the artists before me. I started listening to more Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder records, listening to the differences between the two and what made each one special. What made Marvin special to me was his simplicity, he didn’t do all the extra riffs but he had a lot of soul and a lot of passion. And Stevie, in a sense, gave a more technical… well, you really had to be good to do Stevie stuff. He’s a one-off. He gives it to you and it’s not gonna be done again, ever again this way. You can’t possibly match the way he sang this record. With Marvin you could kinda get it, you could probably match his tone – but what you can’t get from Marvin was his soul, his vibe.”
We discuss the general state of the soulful portion of the music industry. Are sales too low? Are too many people doing the same thing? Are record labels unsupportive, and are artists collusive or crabs in a bucket? “Soul music has been selfish,” he says of the lack of collaborations between R&B singers. “We get really personal with our music and it’s hard to bring in other artists who sing, because singing is so passionate, and rapping is a whole other thing – singing is more passionate and personal, so maybe that’s why people don’t do a lot of collaborations.” Perhaps competition between singers is another key reason? Actually, “It should be MORE competitive,” Joe postulates. “In one sense it is, but I mean that it should be in a hip hop sense: the way hip hop comes together and makes itself bigger by competing. [R&B singers] compete in a different way, we compete more personally. Plus there are so many people you’ve gotta go through with R&B artists, they don’t just spontaneously jump on a record. Even with Nas, I had no problem getting him on a record – not going through management or a big hoopla with the record company. Rappers are more real, they’ll talk to you straight up like ‘I’ll do this and you do this for me: we’ll make a deal ourselves’. That vibe that hip hop has, that competitive aspect that makes hip hop, makes each artist step their game up. R&B singers usually have other people doing it for us. I’ve got a better chance of working with Britney than I do with Usher or R Kelly probably, it’s sad to say, but that’s just the way it is. But hip hop shows nothing but love.”
The influence of hip hop can be found not just in Joe’s collaborations with a multitude of rappers (his album features Nas, Fabolous, Papoose, Chamillionare, Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo to name a few!), but in his product planning. In the pipeline alongside his musical pursuits, is a clothing line called J. Thomas, a Tequila brand called ‘Soho’, and his own cigar. He elucidates, “[Rappers] definitely taught me that sort of hustle, New York has an incredible hustle. They get that money. Those in the hood who have the talent get in the industry thinking, ‘You know what? This is not always guaranteed so let me capitalise right now and get my home-made t-shirts before I even come out with the first record’. They’re smart like that; they’ve got merchandise before they’ve even got an album. I’m building an empire.”
Joe’s latest album ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like Me’ is scheduled for release this Spring – check http://www.joescrib.com for info.