Boyz II Men has experienced heights in their years together that even some of the most seasoned artists are still yearning to attain. With multi-platinum singles and albums, they set records for keeping songs at #1 on the charts – first with “End Of The Road” in 1992 at 13 weeks, followed by 1994’s “I’ll Make Love To You” for a 14 week run, then “One Sweet Day”, a duet with Mariah Carey, topping them all with a 16 week run in 1995. Needless to say, Boyz II Men knew how to make hit records, and their fan base grew at every turn.
By the time they recorded their Evolution album and released it in 1997, situations over at Motown Records had become a challenge for the now older and wiser young men. Even though the album went double platinum, it hadn’t matched the success of their earlier work, and critics and the label were less than receptive to it. After Motown merged with Universal Records in 1999, Boyz II Men got a new contract and a new direction with more control over their own songwriting and production. Their 2000 album entitled Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya received favorable reviews, but didn’t do much more than gold at the time. The group went on to sign with Arista for their 2002 album Full Circle, but ultimately it just wasn’t the right move for them.
In 2004, the once four-man group emerged as a trio with their own independent label and distribution deal through Koch. Their latest album, Throwback, is a collection of covers encompassing classic R&B songs from various eras. Boyz II Men presented AllHipHop.com Alternatives with the opportunity to spend some time with them in New York while they were doing some promotional work for the new project. Shawn, Nathan and Wanya gave us a rare in-depth look at the past, the present, and the future of one of the greatest R&B groups of all time.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: How do you feel about some of these newer groups getting so much love from producers, critics and the public when you could out-sing pretty much any of them on your worst day?
Shawn: First, I’d like to say thank you for that compliment. At first, we were mad as sh*t. We felt the same way that a lot of these other folks felt too – we got cats that really ain’t serious about the craft, and they get a little hot record and they get a little gimmick going, and the record pushes them with the extra dollars and they get the extra airplay. It’s really not about what it should be about. At first we were really upset about that, and to a degree we’re still displeased about the whole thing, because it’s the state of the industry right now. Everybody is using the business more as a hustle as opposed to it being about the artistry. It will fix itself, but in the meantime we really can’t concern ourselves with those other people. Everybody gotta eat, and we’re not gonna knock anybody’s hustle – get your paper however you need to get it. At the same time, we still have to do what we have to do, and we know that people appreciate us on a deeper, more spiritual level. We’ve been in the business since 1991, and we’ve seen a lot of artists come, and a lot of artists go. We don’t even trip anymore.
AHHA: I feel like Evolution was your best album from a standpoint of vocal maturity, yet the critics really didn’t support the record. How did it make you guys feel as artists that people weren’t really recognizing the growth in your music?
Shawn: You know, a lot of people ask us ‘Where have you guys been’ and ‘What have you been up to’ and ‘Why haven’t y’all made any records’, and one of the reasons you might not have heard too much from Boyz II Men is because we were dealing with that very topic. We came out with what we thought was a great piece of work, and I guess the MTV crowd didn’t feel the groove anymore. The industry has a way of chewing you up and sh*tting you out. They do it to everybody. Because of the fact that we were painted as these ‘good guys’, we kind of fell into that in a way – making sure we treated everybody in a congenial way, and not creating any enemies. Doing pretty much anything that anybody tells us. It kind of hit us a little harder than maybe another band that didn’t put that much effort into trying to be the most that we can for everybody. We felt that our music was for everybody, so when that whole thing went down, we took it personal. Just like anything, when something like that happens you want to go rebellious and you wanna lash out. We knew that wasn’t a smart move.
A lot of the things we went through were internal, and we tried to work it out internally. In the midst of us going through that change, and everybody not loving us anymore, it took a while for us to realize that it wasn’t personal. It was just how the industry does successful acts, and we were very successful. At that time we had sold about 30-40 million records – we were at our peak. We were all over TV, we were winning Grammy’s, and the very thing that people was tired of us doing… the main thing people said was ‘you guys are overexposed, you’re everywhere – y’all need to chill out’. It’s so funny, because rappers overexpose themselves so damn much it’s ridiculous. This was the very thing people didn’t want us to do, but it’s cool now.
In these last few years we were dealing with the industry, and how, in so many words, for lack of a better phrase, turned on us. We were like, ‘Okay, where do we fit in?’ – that’s all that mattered to us. If MTV didn’t want us no more, fine. That still doesn’t downgrade or discredit us as artists or as performers, because we know what we do.
AHHA: How do you feel about the way that R&B is now compared to the early ‘90’s? ‘Uuh Aah’ was too hot back then because of the sexual noises, but basically now they are f*cking on wax.
Shawn: [laughs] Yeah, the industry changed a lot. The stuff that we did, which we thought was kind of provocative, is like a Boy Scout thing compared to what’s being played on the radio [now]. Even album fillers on certain albums, you hear ‘em… they’re pretty much bonin’, the things that they sing about. We kind of jokingly call ourselves ‘the last of the Jedi’ – we’ve seen the industry change from one extreme to the other. We’ve seen a kind of changing of the guards, so to speak, where there were certain artists who were very prominent are non-existent now. We see deejays and programmers and even executives come and go, and now it’s the newer cats that are making these records. It’s not about the artistry – it’s about shock value. Until someone says ‘That’s enough, I don’t wanna hear it no more’, they’re going to keep playing it.
AHHA: Shawn, your falsetto is extremely slept on. Do you feel like you’ve been slept on?
Shawn: You know, I think the main culprit that slept on Shawn is myself. A lot of people didn’t know too much about me – I was kind of shy and introverted. Things that people were trying to push me to do, I wouldn’t do it. There were so many solo projects that came in front of me, and I did a few, but as far as an album, I was like, ‘Naw, I don’t want to do that’. Now my mentality has changed, because I grew a little bit more and I understand things more. I think that if I had done anything like that [in the past] it would have been for the wrong reasons. Now I’m a little older and I understand why I would do a solo record, which I am working on. Everything happens for a reason, but there were a lot of opportunities that I might have slept on just because I was unsure. I’ve always been a team player, I’ve always been a part of a group, so for me to step out and do certain things was almost taboo.
AHHA: Who are you feeling in the new generation of singers?
Shawn: One of the artists I really like at this point is Usher. I knew Usher when he was very young, when he was being brought up in the same group of people that the group was brought up in. I understand and I respect his talent. He’s off the hook – he’s not just dancing, dude can sing. I love the fact that he’s getting the success, because he’s one of the few that’s getting this MTV type of popularity and acceptance, but he’s still real about his sh*t. There’s very few people like that – 98% of MTV, honestly, is bullsh*t. I watch the videos and things of that nature hoping to find an artist that breaks that mold and doesn’t give a sh*t. Outkast kind of did that, but they came from a different place too. They were brought up around the same mold too. We all came out around the same time, so everybody’s mentality was different [than now].
This is a situation where it’s a very unique group and what we’ve seen on this planet. We try to share the wealth –there’s some people that listen and some that don’t. We try to be the same way that people were to us – growing up witnessing all these artists, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Michael Jackson – we met all these people and they gave us sound advice, and we listened. We try to do the same thing.