"I Wanted to Make Every Song Sound Like it Could Be a Single:" Donell Jones Reflects On His R&B Classic 'Where I Wanna Be' [Interview]
On October 12, 1999, Donell Jones released his sophomore album Where I Wanna Be, which spawned hit singles like “U Know What’s Up (Remix)” and the title track. We spoke to the singer about the making of his classic album 20 years later.
Donell Jones’ story begins on the Southside of Chicago.
Born the son of gospel singer Roys Jones, it seemed he was destined to pursue a career in music. At the tender age of eight, he began singing. By the age of 12, he was writing his first composition. Two years later, he received his first instrument: an electric guitar — a Christmas gift from his parents.
While in high school, his love for music continued to grow. He performed in high school talent shows around the city. During one of his work shifts at McDonald’s, he was discovered singing by his manager. As a result, he was encouraged to audition for a position in a local singing group. He was chosen — and they began performing together as Porché, making a name for themselves in the crowded local scene.
For the next three years, they worked diligently to obtain recognition outside of their hometown. Their journey for success led them to attend the Black Radio Exclusive music convention in Washington, DC in 1993. Here, is where Jones’ fortunes would change.
Despite the low attendance at the convention, the group performed outside the venue and was signed by Edward “DJ Eddie F.” Ferrell to his brand-new record label, Untouchables Entertainment, a joint venture with LaFace Records. Jones’ group would disband shortly after. But, this gave him the opportunity to work as a songwriter for LaFace.
In 1994, he experienced his first taste of success when he wrote Usher’s first hit song “Think of You.” After delivering a hit for the record label, and previewing his own material, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid, allowed him to write and produce his debut album, My Heart. Under the steady hand of Ferrell, My Heart was moderately successful.
Three years later, Jones would strike platinum with his sophomore effort, Where I Wanna Be, which was released on October 12, 1999. The record would spawn four singles, including the number one hit “U Know What’s Up (Remix)” and the title track, which peaked at number two on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts.
Twenty years after he released his apex, we had an in-depth conversation with Jones about how he crafted his timeless R&B classic.
What’s the story behind you getting signed to LaFace Records?
I met Eddie Ferrell. I had a group at the time, and we had a showcase in Washington, DC. Nobody came to it, so we just went outside the hotel, and played for everybody who happened to be at the hotel at that particular time. Eddie F. happened to be one of those people, and he signed our group. Shortly after that, we had a song on his new record label entitled “Make You Feel Real Good.” After that, the group broke up, and then I started working on writing for other people. I wrote some songs for myself, and Eddie played them for LA Reid, and that’s how I pretty much got signed.
What was it like when you first met Babyface and L.A. Reid?
Man, it was incredible. I met them in 1994. It was one of the highlights of my life. Seeing those guys on TV, and back then, they were the hottest producers on the planet. Eddie F. and I had a meeting in Atlanta. We had to fly from New Jersey to Atlanta. I went into his office and played him a couple of records. He enjoyed them. He had to hear me sing live, and I had this song on my first album called “Yearnin.’” I sang that song for them, and he was like, “Wow. That was hot.” That was pretty much it. It was unbelievable. Just to be in their presence was incredible for me. For L.A. to tell me that he was going to sign me was a big deal. Back then, LaFace Records was like Motown to me. It was a dream come true. I was with the best label, and I had the two top producers believing in me and my talent.
What were some of the other songs that you played for him?
At that time, I know you worked on some songs for Usher’s debut album. What was that journey like as an artist from the time you began doing music until you got your record deal?
I wrote my first song when I was 12. It was called “Love Can’t Win,” but I was about 16 when I started singing seriously. I was working at McDonald’s and the manager heard me singing one day. He was putting together a group, and he wanted me to try out. When I tried out, I made it. Everything started from there. I was just doing everything I could with music, and I was around other people who were doing it, too, so I was soaking it all up like a sponge. We did a lot of shows around Chicago. We made a name for ourselves. It took about three or four years to really build that name up, and that’s pretty much where we started at. We couldn’t get a deal in Chicago, so that’s why we went to the Black Radio Exclusive convention that was in Washington, DC in 1993.
Did you use to perform at talent shows in the Chicago area?
I used to perform in high school talent shows and stuff like that, but it was just for school. The girls always asked me to sing for them, so I would sing songs by Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson, and other artists. They loved how I used to sound. I put together my first singing group in 1991. Our group was called Porché. We stayed together for about three or four years.
With your experiences as an artist, did you feel prepared when you were working on your debut album, My Heart?
Yes. Most people thought that Babyface was going to produce most of the album. I appreciated the fact that L.A., Babyface, and Eddie F. saw my talent, and let me produce myself, because back then a lot of people weren’t allowed to produce themselves, so I appreciated the fact that I was around so many great people that let me produce my own records.
What was your mindset coming off the success of My Heart? What was your approach in making Where I Wanna Be?
My approach was to make an album that had a lot of records on there that people would like. I didn’t feel like My Heart got the push that it needed. I mean, it did pretty good, but it sold 200,000 records, and back then, that wasn’t really that good. It didn’t go gold or platinum. So my goal for going into Where I Wanna Be album was: I wanted to make every song sound like it could be a single. So, whatever they put out, it wouldn’t matter because it was going to be a good song. I think we accomplished that goal.
Did you create demos for these songs on the album?
No, I didn’t do any demos. I just had ideas that were floating around in my head, and I put the pieces together. If there was something I couldn’t do, I’d bring somebody in who could do it. I used a lot of guitar sounds on my first album, so on my second album, instead of using guitar sounds, I wanted to bring in a guitar player. I knew that would be one of the things to change the music style just to have live instrumentation. I think that’s what made a big difference as well. The first song I wrote for the album was “Think About It (Don’t Call My Crib).”
Did you begin your song ideas at home and then bring them to the studio or were you parked in the studio creating new material?
The studio was in my basement. I was pretty much working at home. I’d come downstairs, and I would link up with Sheldon [Goode], and we’d just make music. It was easy for me to be able to come downstairs when I was feeling something and put it down. Most of my stuff has been done in my home studio. Sheldon was my guitar player. We wrote about four songs together: “This Luv,” “All Her Love,” It’s Alright,” and “When I Was Down.” Our relationship was great. He could play what I was hearing in my head and flip it. That is a beautiful thing when you’ve got those type of people around you. There were certain songs that weren’t done in my house like “U Know What’s Up,” “Have You Seen Her,” and “Shorty (Got Her Eyes on Me).” But the majority of them were done at my house.
Can you talk about your methodology behind creating the music for the songs in this album?
It comes from me having to get something out of my head but it’s always different. Sometimes, it may be the beat first, sometimes it may be some chords or chord progression. So, I can’t really say that we have a set way of doing things. Inspiration comes from a lot of different things. It could have been we were sitting around listening to some Isley Brothers or something because I do a lot of that. I listen to a lot of old music before I start my project, and then I listen to the previous stuff that I’ve done. It could have been a lot of different ways, but I can’t say that there was a specific way that we did it.
Where would you be positioned in the studio while you were working on music?
I would be behind a computer keyboard. At that time, we had an ADAT keyboard. It had 88 keys on the keyboard back then, and I think Pro Tools was one of the things we used as well. Some songs we recorded on a two-inch tape and other songs we recorded digitally, but the stuff we did digitally, we eventually transferred to tape. It was a pretty easy process. We would record from one device to the next. We had to make sure that all the time codes were right and made sure everything was running correctly. We used something called Sync. We had to make sure that all the numbers were right.
What’s the name of some of the equipment and the instruments that you used to create the music for this album?
Well, we used guitars, congas, live percussion, a Korg Wavestation, a Trinity, and a JV 1080 by Roland. I think there were a few more, but I just can’t remember the names now. It’s been almost 20 years. [laughs]
What was your typical studio routine?
For me, I enjoy making music at any time of the day. Sometimes, as soon as I wake up in the morning, I’m in the studio. It really depends. Back then, I’d be in the studio for at least 13, 14 hours a day, maybe more than that. That’s where I created best. I just enjoyed being in that room.
For your background vocals was there a special method that you used to record your background vocals or was it completely standard?
No. It was pretty much standard. If I’m doing background, I like to do four of the same notes. If I’m doing three-part harmonies over the beat, I’ll have to sing it 12 times. I like to do it that way, whereas if I have two vocals on each side, they’ll be the same.
Did you have an engineer for this project?
I did. Sheldon engineered most of it when I was singing the songs myself. For the most part, I’d record myself, and then we had engineers at the studios we were recording at.
What were some of the studios you recorded at?
In Eddie F.’s studio which was named Playground. In Atlanta, we recorded at DARP studios. I’m not sure the name of the place where we recorded at in LA. Then in New York, we recorded at The Hit Factory, Platinum, Quad, damn near all of them.
Let’s go in-depth about the creation of the songs on Where I Wanna Be. Start with “U Know What’s Up.”
“U Know What’s Up” was produced by Eddie F. and Darren Lighty. It was written by Cliff Lighty, Cliff Harris, [Eddie] Ferrell, Anthony Hamilton, and someone else [Editors note: Balewa Muhammad and Delvis Damon are also listed as writers.] When I first heard the track, I was like, “Man, this is a dope ass record.” But it wasn’t “U Know What’s Up” yet. They had a whole other song. It was something about a car horn, and I didn’t like it. Everybody loved the track, but that particular song I didn’t like. They came back with the “U Know What’s Up” song and I was like, “Man, this shit is a smash.” I was still a little scared because it still had that feel of that other record on it. It ended up being my biggest hit ever.
“Where I Wanna Be”
That’s what I was going through at the time. I was in a relationship with my children’s mother, and we just grew apart. This particular song was something I was going through as I wrote it. I was on the plane coming back to Chicago because my dad’s mom passed away. When I was on the plane, I was writing the song, but when I got to Chicago I forgot about it. But when I went home, everything started coming back to me. I think the reason why a lot of people fell in love with the song was because it was something that was true. I found out that it just wasn’t me that was going through it. Half the world was going through the same thing. [laughs]
It just ended up being a really honest record that did great for me. I had these chords for the record, and I knew how I wanted to sing it. I knew they had all those things, but I had this chord progression, and I needed somebody who I could take it to the next level. Eddie F. suggested that I call Kyle West. He just jumped on the keyboard and played what I played but took it to a whole other level. After we did that, I put the little congas on there. We got Sheldon in there to play the guitar. We didn’t know what we were making, but we knew it sounded different and it was good. The music came out like it came out, and it was meant to be.
“Shorty (Got Her Eyes on Me)”
“Shorty” was written by Eric Williams from Blackstreet and a guy by the name of Wes Hogges. We were in Atlanta and trying to come up with some records. Back then, a good part of my album had guitar sounds on it, so I wanted to get a live guitar on the album. Sheldon was still in New Jersey, so we had to hire this guy named Tommy Martin to come over and play the guitar. Tommy started playing that line, man. It put bite into it. We put the bassline on it and boom. It was a record.
“Have You Seen Her”
“Have You Seen Her” was another joint written by Eric Williams and Wes Hogges. Right after we did “Shorty,” I guess we were still in a vibe, and they came up with that record. Eric wrote it in 20 minutes. That was another one of those records. Those two records were made together at the same time.
Sheldon came up with a dope bassline. He did the beat then I wrote the lyrics. That was it. It was like, “I want to kick it with you but that’s all I want to do.” No relationship involved. At the time, I was young and that’s what we were talking about and living.
“All Her Love”
Most women sing a song about being in relationships with guys and they have another woman, but no man really sings about that. So, I wanted to flip the script and sing it from a male perspective about being in love with a woman who already has a man. I thought that would be kind of interesting, because I thought that women could listen to the song and put themselves in that position, and the guys around the world, who would never admit that they’re in that predicament, could vibe with it, too.
It was another one of those records where I was just coming up with some ideas and that track came out. It was really about just enjoying a good time with your woman.
“Think About It (Don’t Call My Crib)”
[That] was written and produced by me. As I said before, this was the first song I wrote for this album. I had it since I finished my first album. I was trying to come up with something that reflected the Chicago style. I was influenced by the Isley Brothers on this one. I just had to show that I was from Chi-Town. That was a Chicago type of beat and that’s where the idea came from.
“He Won’t Hurt You” was another record written and produced by me. I just felt like I had to drop a few songs on the album that paid respect to women. When I was growing up in Chicago, I had family members in abusive relationships, so I wanted to write something that spoke to what some women go through in relationships.
“Pushin’” was produced by Eddie F., Bilal, Darren Lighty, and Cliff Lighty. Eddie did a great job of making sure that we got the up-tempos right and my thing was doing the ballads. It was an easy record to do. I wasn’t in the studio when they made this song. I just came in and sang my parts.
“I Wanna Luv U” was a song we recorded as a group. I had live percussions on there and strings. I really stepped outside myself and put something together that I thought was really nice because I had never done live strings, or even seen them done before. I hired a lady to come in and do the strings. It cost a lot to do it, too. It was one of those records that I wanted to show that expressing your love for your woman was a beautiful thing.
“When I Was Down”
[That] was probably the last record we did for the album. It felt like a real smooth laid-back song. It was talking about something real street, a little edgy. It had all those elements of R&B, but it was fresh, so we just felt like ending the album with a Curtis Mayfield sample would be awesome.
“U Know What’s Up (Remix)”
“U Know What’s Up (Remix)” was a song that I had nothing to do with. Eddie F. and the label wanted to get Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes on it. They wanted to make me a bigger artist. I wasn’t even in the studio when they recorded her part. When she got on the record, it just took off. I went from being a regular R&B cat to somebody that people needed to start listening to. I really appreciated her for jumping on the track. It changed both our careers. It ended up being a number one record for me.
Were you involved during the mixing process?
I wouldn’t have it any other way. This was my album. This was my baby. I wanted to be there every step of the way because I knew I had something. I just didn’t know what was going to become of it, because at the same time, you still have to put the album out, people still have to like it, and you still have to promote it. I knew I had something, sonically, that sounded pretty good, and I knew they were good songs. I just wanted to be there every step of the way. Hell yes, I wanted to be at the mix. A guy by the name of Serban [Ghenea] was our mixer. He had mixed a lot of the Teddy Riley stuff, and I felt really comfortable with him mixing the record. I think the first record he mixed was “Shorty (Got Her Eyes on Me)” Once I heard the mix, I said, “Let me get out of the way and let him do his thing,” because I appreciated what he was doing. If there was something, I would say, “Maybe the kick may need to come up here or there.” Maybe that happened a few times, but other than that, that guy was awesome. He did an incredible job.
As you look back 20 years later on the making of the record, how does it feel to be a part of such a classic recording?
As a team, we were just going in. We were trying to come up with ideas to make a good album. It was just a fun album to record. One of my favorite moments was making “Where I Wanna Be.” Because it was something that I really needed to get off my chest. I was really going through something. It was an unorthodox song. At the time, most of the songs on the radio had drums to it. This song didn’t have any drums, just congas and live instrumentation, which was something new. It was one of my fondest moments — when I put this record out and the love it received from a lot of people. It was based on a true story. Making this whole album was an awesome process from beginning to the end.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.