Jon B. reflects on his 1997 album, Cool Relax

Cool Relax was released on September 16, 1997 by Epic Records. Coming off a successful debut album, Bonafide in 1995, Jon B. returned to the heavily crowded R&B landscape by leaving an indelible mark with his sophomore album.  He drew comparisons to his mentor, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds due to the fact Babyface was the executive producer of his first project.

The singles that were released from the “Bonafide” album contained many of Babyface’s trademark production elements.  It wasn’t public knowledge that Jon B. wrote and produced the majority of the songs on his debut release. Cool Relax revealed the production and writing talents of Jon B. and established him as an artist to be reckoned with for years to come.

For decades, the R&B genre has been dominated by African-American artists, but Jon B. became one of the few White artists to succeed and have staying power with a predominantly Black listening audience.  Alongside the production talents of producers, Tim & Bob, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Marc Nelson, Babyface and Diane Warren he crafted a distinct sound, which ultimately led to the highest selling album of his career.

A native of Pasadena California, Jon B. grew up in a musical household. Both of his parents were music teachers and his siblings were also musicians. At the tender age of five, he began learning how to play the piano and gradually moving toward keyboard, drums and bass guitar. By the age of nine he wrote his first full composition. As a teenager, he sold his first album during lunchtime at his middle and once he attended high school he started his own rock band with neighborhood friends, called The Switch. This is where Buck started to gain a following and continued to hone his skills as a songwriter.

His big break would occur in 1992 when Tracey Edmonds, then President and CEO of Yab-Yum Records, heard his demo and immediately contracted him to write songs for After 7, Gina Thompson, Color Me Badd, Toni Braxton among countless others. Shortly thereafter, he would be signed as an artist to Epic Records and release his solo debut album.

Between September 1996-May 1997 the majority of Cool Relax was recorded in DARP Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, AIR Studios in London, England and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds studio in Los Angeles, California.

SoulCulture recently sat down with Jonathan “Jon B.” Buck to talk about the album and some of its creative influences.

Buck explains the origins behind the album:

Cool Relax was an album where I really dug in and found my identity as an artist,” says Buck. “I think every artist has an influence or a mentor that they can call on for guidance. I was heavily influenced by Babyface on my album Bonafide. He was the main person that opened up the doors for me in the industry. Even though I had my own identity on my first album where I wrote and produced the majority of the album, much of the project was overseen and executive produced by Babyface. Every song was gone over with a fine tooth comb.

Cool Relax was my first record where I was confident about all of the songs I was bringing to the table. Tracey Edmonds and Babyface didn’t agree with me on certain parts of the album so I had fight for some things to stay on there.”

Jon B continues, “It was a beautiful process because it was the discovery for me of everything I had learned with Kenny [Babyface], but at the same time I discovered that identity I already possessed within myself and the confidence of seeing my ideas through even when I was put into the position of working with another producer on a track. I was used to doing all of the tracks on Bonafide and I had no outside production except for Babyface.

“On Cool Relax, they recommended me to work with Tim & Bob and I was open to that and what came from that collaboration was the song ‘They Don’t Know.’ It was more like fate that brought Tupac and I together to work on ‘Are You Still Down?,’ which was produced by Johnny J.”

The first single to be released from the album was “Don’t Say.” It received a lukewarm reception on the Billboard Singles Charts peaking as high as #34 on the Billboard R&B Chart and #68 on the Hot Billboard 100 Chart. But Buck wasn’t concerned about it because he knew the next two singles off of the album would change the overall direction of the project.

Buck recalls on how the record came together.

“‘Don’t Say’ was a record that Marc Nelson from the group AZ Yet wrote for my album,” says Buck. “What was so cool about Marc is that he was a writer and an artist too. Through having that camaraderie, we ended up hanging out in the parking lot of the Edmonds Record company. I heard that song ‘Don’t Say’ playing and I said ‘I want to cut that song! Who wrote that song?’ He said, ‘I wrote that song man’ and I told him I wanted to record it for my album. It was one of those things where I had never done that before.

“I’ve heard tons of records from all of the producers back then, but none of the songs really struck an accord with me. ‘Don’t Say’ was a record where the bluesy and church vibe from it really attracted my attention. It almost reminded me of a Kenny Loggins type of song and I was a huge fan of Kenny Loggins. I want to give credit to Marc Nelson and Jon-John Robinson on doing that track.”

The next two songs to be released would be the infamous ‘They Don’t Know’ and ‘Are U Still Down?’ These songs would catapult Buck’s career into another dimension. ‘They Don’t Know’ and ‘Are U Still Down?’ featuring Tupac Shakur were released as a double sided single. Both songs peaked at #7 on the Hot Billboard 100 Chart, #2 on the Billboard R&B Chart and #32 on the UK Singles Chart.

Buck tells an intriguing story of how both songs ended up being released as one and the process involved of making the record.

“We actually did a double A-side  for ‘Are U Still Down?’ because I came to the label and said I really love this song ‘They Don’t Know,’ but I also love this song,” says Buck. “Of course they wanted to put out another song that I didn’t want to be put out as the first single. We were at odds on that, but then Tupac passed and putting ‘Are U Still Down?’ became a big political issue and they didn’t want to release the song as a single.

“It was Afeni Shakur that came to my aid on that record. Through her involvement we were able to press on and we received clearance from her to release it. The record label went ahead and released it. I received a call from a DJ at an Atlanta radio station telling me that it was a hot record. I told him it was hard to receive compliments on this song because Tupac wasn’t here to represent it with me so it was kind of a bittersweet experience.

“One person I want to give credit to is Tupac. He actually came up with the melody for “Are You Still Down?” Not many people know that at all. Of course you could tell he had a melodic sense through his rhymes, but this was an instance where he told me ‘Yo, this is how it goes and how you need to sing it.’

“He was essentially teaching me on how to sing this song. Thinking back I remember his smiling face and how I kept singing it a certain way and him telling me ‘No, you have to sing it this way.’ When you hear the first hooks on ‘Are U Still Down?’ both of those hooks were all Tupac’s coaching and by the third hook you can hear the difference between the two. Not one hook is the exact same.

“Back then, we didn’t slide vocals we actually sang them. Every single hook had its own nuance. By the third hook he was like, ‘Go ahead man and riff away.’ I remember there were 40 guys in the studio and it really was a Death Row thing for sure. There were metal detectors on the way into the studio and brothers were handing pieces over to the security guards before walking into the studio. I also remember how adamant Tupac was in the studio by letting everyone know that I was Jon B. and this was a hit record.”

The next single to be released off of the album was ‘I Do (What’cha Say Boo)’ and it peaked at #13 on the Billboard R&B Chart and it became one of the favorite tracks off of the album for many R&B aficionados.

Buck remembers how the song originated and why it was placed on this album.

“I wrote ‘I Do (What’cha Say Boo)’ in my first studio, which was in my bedroom at my parents house,” says Buck. “I basically had a make shift home studio with a 16 track recorder and a mixer. I was producing high quality material for the time. I was trying to keep up with the likes of Devante Swing, Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Babyface. ‘I Do’ was a song that was on my demo tape before I recorded my first album, Bonafide. ‘Can We Get Down’ was also on that same demo tape.

“I said to myself in the process of recording Cool Relax, ‘Why don’t we bring back “I Do (What’cha Say Boo)’ so we brought it up on the 24 and 48 track recorder and I was able to beef up the vocal and I had a girl sing over top of it and it became more polished. I actually co-directed the video for this song with Tim Story. The song was about getting my courage up to ask my girl if she would be my wife. I was actually letting people in on what was truly happening in my life back then because shortly after that video I married my high school sweetheart.”

The final single to be released from the album would be the album’s title track, Cool Relax. Buck gives a detailed account of what inspired the track:

“Cool Relax” kind of led into ‘Are You Still Down?,’ says Buck. “I wrote the actually lyrics to the song, but the track was produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest.”

“To work with him was a dream come true for me because I was a huge A Tribe Called Quest fan. They were very influential to me and my style. It was their brand of East Coast Hip Hop that made me want to learn from those guys and I wanted to see how they did it because he was such an abstract producer with a lot of different jazzy layering and I felt like he suited the project. I went to New Jersey and actually stayed at his house for a couple of weeks. I also stayed at my man Beezo’s house in the Bronx and he was the one who introduced me to Tupac.

“So going back and forth between the Bronx and New Jersey gave me this type of hood vibe and the whole energy of walking those streets. I’m over here in Cali and it’s a whole another world. To get that energy and go to the studio and build with Ali Shaheed Muhammad was crazy. I remember Ali Shaheed telling me he had to go to the radio station to promote Beats, Rhymes and Life, which was the new A Tribe Called Quest record that was out during that time. I was going to the Hot 97 radio station in Ali Shaheed’s BMW with Q-Tip in the front seat and I’m beat boxing in the back and Q-Tip was freestyling over my beats and Ali was bobbing his head and laughing.

“We just had a great chemistry and Dahoud Darien played keys on this track. As soon as I heard this track I said, ‘This is definitely the one for me.’ It was like what “Ascension” was to Maxwell or what “Sweetest Taboo” was to Sade. From there Cool Relax was born in the home studio basement at Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s house. The legendary guitarist Spanky was in on our sessions as well and added his flavor to the track.”

Buck delves into another four tracks off of the album that were some of his favorites, but were never released as single to the music audience at large.

“’Can’t Help It’ was a song that was inspired through my influence of Timbaland,” says Buck. “I was really big fan of his as well. He came onto the scene with that dub step sound that he was introducing to the world and it had a huge influence on me. This song was me trying my hand at doing something Timbaland-like. It was my own personal expression of what it’s like to get my heart broken. I was being this perfect dude and then this Angel all of a sudden turns into the Devil. It had a darker element to it as well as a very romantic element.”

“‘Pride & Joy’ was a song that was originally performed by Toni Braxton, but I was able to get my hands on that joint,” says Buck. “I was like ‘Kenny, I have to have this song.’ And I was so happy when he finally gave it to me. He was like, ‘Yea, you can have it since it didn’t make Toni’s album.’ We recorded it at his house and it was a great session. K-Ci & Jojo actually sang background vocals on that song for me. I was grateful to have them come into the studio and do that for me. From that moment on we became good friends.”

Jon B – “Pride & Joy”:

“’Love Hurts’ had a Babyface vibe to it because he wanted to do a gut wrenching, heartfelt ballad to make everyone tear up real quick,” says Buck. “Every time I hear that song it makes me say that he has such an articulate way of expressing his emotions. He has the ability to take your heart somewhere emotionally and I think that’s so profound. Not too many authors and composers have that authenticity that he has.”

Jon B – “Love Hurts”:

“’Tu Amor’ was my attempt to sing a Diane Warren song,” says Buck. “It was a great song and a really commercial, pop record that Sony/Epic pushed and really wanted me to sing for my album. I saw the commercial viability of the record, but I felt like it didn’t go with the rest of the album. They gave me my way on the rest of the record so this was me giving a little bit in return.

Jon B. – “Tu Amor”:

“Not to discredit Diane Warren or David Foster in any way, but there are just certain tunes that fit my taste and this wasn’t one of them. It was really too clean for me, but people really embraced the record and loved it. I put my little swag on the end of that record as well. I put a little Caribbean influence coming in on the end of it. David Foster allowed it to stay at the end of the record. I just loved the change at the end of it and the riffs I did on it. I was trying to put like a Michael Jackson “Human Nature” feel on it.”

Buck went on to praise his record label at the time for providing such an open environment to let his creative imagination roam free and giving the record the support it needed to become successful.

“To have all of these different creative elements on this album made it stand out the way it did,” says Buck. “There was so much variety and I’d like to take all of the credit for it, but I can’t. It was because of all the great musicians on the album and I really appreciate Epic for giving me the freedom as well as the Edmonds.  Epic was really the muscle and the push for the album success internationally and here. I have to thank them and take my hat off to them.”

He adds, “I had videos for all of the songs we put out for that album. I think we had at least four or five videos for the singles. It was one of those types of albums where an artist can get their way and not many artists have that opportunity.” There were between 30 to 40 records actually recorded for Cool Relax. One of the songs that didn’t make the cut was ‘Paradise In U.’

Cool Relax peaked at #33 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart in the spring of 1998 and #5 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. It went on to sell more than 1 million albums in the US and it garnered a cult following. This album earned a handful of Billboard Music Award and Soul Train Music Award nominations. Cool Relax holds its weight in platinum compared to other classic albums and it remains one of the best albums from the 1990s.

Buy Cool Relax: iTunes US / iTunes UK