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Johnny Gill Returns to the ‘Game’ [INTERVIEW]

At 17, he had it all: a budding solo career, a handsome face, the perfect Jheri curl, and a chart-topping musical future arriving in the form of New Edition—just five years after releasing his debut album. To put it in Johnny Gill’s own words, “I [was] the man.” For years the R&B crooner was just living in the moment, having “no idea about getting rest” while juggling two musical gigs: his solo ventures and his work with New Edition. Gill did “whatever needed to done,” he says.

Looking back now, the famed falsetto singer admits he was young and just didn’t know any better. But at some point along the yellow brick road to a musical Oz—after New Edition bid their fans a final farewell with Home Again and Johnny recorded his last solo project, Let’s Get the Mood Right, that same year—the Washington D.C. native lost his spark. He wasn’t inspired with the music bug anymore.

And for 15 years, fans went without any new sounds from Gill (with the exception of the New Edition’s brief reunion and new album, One Love, in 2004). But after a phone call from a now good friend begging him to get back in the studio, New Edition’s sixth man got a fresh taste of sonic motivation.

In 2011, Gill released Still Winning, which housed the project’s most notable track, “In the Mood.” But the musical high didn’t seem to last long because once again the D.C.-bred performer didn’t want to produce another project for at least another five years, if that. Or so he thought.

“I [was] at home just writing with a buddy of mine,” says Gill. “From there something happened where I looked up and I was finished with an album. I had no intentions.” Next thing Gill knew, he was the owner of a new record label, J Skillz, and preparing to release the brand’s first album, Game Changer.

The 17-year-old kid who thought he was the man opens up to about his rise to stardom, his nonchalant attitude towards music once he lost inspiration, and where he’d be if a career in entertainment never took off. When it comes to Johnny Gill, it’s clear he’s still winning!

EBONY: To kick off your seventh album release, you recently dropped, “Behind Closed Doors.” The track houses your signature falsetto sound and sensual tone. What’s your writing process when you’re coming up with songs to make the ladies swoon?

Johnny Gill: It’s not hard, honestly. This is what I do. I try to make sure I maintain the integrity of who Johnny Gill is. For me, I love all types of music. I am into rap just as I’m into the new wave of hip-hop [and] R&B. From an artistic standpoint, I’ll try different things—I’m recording two different beats, two different songs, two different styles of vocals and stuff. And I don’t mind doing it, but it never compromises who I am.

EBONY: Since you mentioned it, who is Johnny Gill? What defines him and how is that incorporated into music?

JG: Being true to whatever I’m singing about, that’s who Johnny Gill is. I do it with experiences; I do it with living things that I can only talk about and tell the story about. I know my experiences I share with others can be a part of something they can live, connect and identify with. That’s why it’s important that I try to stay in my lane, and I try to continue to do what I do and be who I am.

EBONY: Does being who you are in music include literally putting your experiences on paper? The visuals for your current single are quite interesting and unique. Does the video for “Behind Closed Doors” reflect a moment from the past?

JG: I can tell you, after 31 years, I haven’t had that experience, and I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. [Laughs] In today’s world, we have to have an angle with what we’re doing and how we’re approaching the music and videos. I wanted to do something that artistically is not all over the top for me; that still can be a subject matter that everyone can kind of identify with at some point.

So I called my good friend Nadine, and in doing so I was talking to Nicole [Murphy]. I was like “Nicole, we could never be on camera acting like we weren’t romantically involved because everyone knows our relationship.” I talked to the director and [asked how we could put Nicole in the video], and he said, “Well, let’s think about it.”

I called him back and I said, “I got it! I have Nadine [be the one] who I’m going to be hot and heavy with in our bedroom scenes…[and] what if we’re in the heat of passion, and all of the sudden a car pulls up and it’s Nicole coming? People are gonna be thinking, “He’s about to get busted”… [but] it gives people a bit of a twist to go, “Oh, wait a minute. She was cheatin’ on her.”

EBONY: We’re sure fans love it. Looking at the rest of your track listing, this project will be the first time you’ve reunited with New Edition in 10 years. What made you decide to use this album to bring everyone together?

JG: It didn’t happen by design. Honestly, I was just recording. I was playing them some of the material I had recorded, and they heard “Me and You” and said, “Okay, we gotta be on this joint!” They wanted to be a part of it, and help and support the album. That was a blessing.

EBONY: But they aren’t the only people you reunited with on this album—

JG: And Babyface. We just reunited. I hadn’t seen or worked with him in a long time. He came with his A-game, and I was just like, “Uh oh, we gettin’ ready to cause some problems right here.”

EBONY: This new LP will be the second one since 2011, but there was a 15-year gap along the way before you made your way back to creating solo records. What brought to you back to the music?

JG: Everyone kept asking me every single day, “You still singing? When you going to be writing another record?” I’ve been touring all over the world, [and] I got inspired and that’s the thing I love most. I said when I was finishing up the Still Winning record [that I wasn’t] recording another record for another five years, if that. [Then], I’m at home just writing with a buddy of mine, and all of the sudden we come up with this song called “What Is This?” Everybody keeps thinking it’s an Al Green remake. It’s not. And from there, something happened where I looked up and I was finished with an album. I was just like, “Wow.” I had no intentions.

EBONY: So what were you doing during your 15-year hiatus?

JG: I was just touring. [But] even doing that, it was like the business has changed so much that it put me in a place where I know I wasn’t inspired. It was like, I can take it or leave it. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine—at that point we didn’t know each other that well—contacted me and said, “I wanna do a record; I want it more than anything. I want you to do an album.” I was just like, “Really?” That’s what triggered it.

We sat down and had dinner, and talked about why wouldn’t I do it. Why wouldn’t I put out more music that people want to hear from me? I was kind of like, “Ehhh, I’m good.” But it was one of those things where, once I got started, I got the bug.

EBONY: What makes this project so different from your other works?

JG: It’s coming from and being released from my [own] label [J Skillz] after 31 years from being in the business. I’m my own boss. Being able to put out music and control the business [end] of it has been beyond gratifying and rewarding to me.

EBONY: Now that you have your own label, do you think you’ll focus on producing more classics like “My My My”?

JG: You know what’s so crazy? I didn’t really like “My My My.” I thought it was okay… but it just didn’t have that. I didn’t think for a minute that that was going to be huge. [But] that’s the song that gave me my identity, and I am so grateful.

EBONY: How many hit singles did you have to get in your life before you told yourself you made it?

JG: It was after the first one. But you know, back in the day it was crazy. Just to have a record deal was major. After recording the first record, [it] didn’t work. [But] I was so stupid I didn’t realize that the record didn’t work. I couldn’t tell you how many records it sold. I was just happy to be in the business, and I was enjoying what I was doing. And thank God I didn’t, because it didn’t discourage me.

EBONY: If you had gotten discouraged and needed a back up plan, what would you have done instead?

JG: I had two things. I wanted to be an electrical engineer, and really had a desire to be a boxer. We used to box in our neighborhood. The problem was, I was so fast and I used to think I was so good. But the one time I did get hit and get tapped, I realized, “Eh, I’m cool. I’ll figure something else out.” [laughter] But I always wanted to be an electrical engineer. I enjoyed always breaking stuff down and trying to figure it out. That didn’t happen, so music was my first love. I just didn’t realize it early on.

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