Home Industry Profiles Brian McKnight Talks about New Project and the Changing Music Industry

Brian McKnight Talks about New Project and the Changing Music Industry

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rfocus.orgAbout eight or nine years ago I was asked to attend a concert at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. While I accepted the offer and had a great deal of respect for McKnight’s talent, I wasn’t that enthused about attending the show. I was thinking to myself, “This will be a show with a bunch of swooning ladies and ballad after ballad after ballad.”

Bruno Mars understands the power of this music, which is why he decided to recreate it in his way. Now kids that love him think that is him creating that. They have no idea where it comes from because he’s one of the few examples of someone doing it who is their age and he does it very well.

As my female companion and I entered the theater, I was definitely right about the number of swooning ladies as they came out dressed to the nines with full Brian McKnight adoration in tow. All I could hear were phrases and praises of “Girl, his voice!” or “He is so sexy” or “I might faint when he starts singing” and the man hadn’t even stepped on stage as of yet. Once Brian and his band ascended to the stage, all you could hear were screams from women of various backgrounds, ages, and intentions. A few men were clapping respectfully, some had their arms folded, and others seemed disinterested.

And then it happened! What happened? you may be asking. Brian McKnight caused a complete paradigm shift in the attitude of the audience. About three songs into his show, every man and woman in attendance was standing on their feet in full amazement of McKnight and what he brought to the stage and to music in general. I would be included as one of those arms-folded men who were now on his feet cheering, clapping, dancing, singing, and everything else as this man had completely killed it in less than three songs. The vocal range, comedic timing, fun-loving spirit, multi-instrumentation talents, and even dancing were just a few of things Brian possessed that had everyone captivated and fully engaged on this evening and beyond.

Fast forward nine years later and I’m on the phone with Mr. McKnight, about to interview him about his upcoming album Genesis and his new single, “Forever.” Now that I am “Forever” a fan, it was only right that I told him this aforementioned story. This came to no surprise to him, as he acknowledged he often witnesses and laughs at the metamorphosis that transpires in the audience among his male fans once they get a chance to experience his talents up close and personal.

“One of greatest things I’m most proud of is to watch the men that come to my show that brought their significant others. Many times they don’t want to be there, but they only came because this is the one night they can do something special for their woman so she won’t be on their back the rest of the week. Like you said, by the third song or by the middle of show – because I have included them and I have been who I actually am – I have won over those guys. I can actually see a physical change in them and it is a great thing to see. I try to tell guys: If you are having problems, if you are looking for somebody, or have somebody and want to continue to keep them, my show is the perfect place to bring them.”

I have to absolutely concur with the above sentiments of Mr. Brian McKnight. He is the songwriter’s songwriter, he is the musician’s musician, and – frankly speaking – he is damn good at what he does. I would say that his live show, albums, and the of songs are the perfect solution for those who crave genuine and soul-searching music. Although Brian has been quite successful around the globe, I think some people still sleep on his legendary talent. Although he has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, there is still somebody at the show with their arms folded. Although he is an extraordinary singer, songwriter, and producer, there is still someone who hasn’t witnessed his brilliance. Although Brian is a multi-instrumentalist, playing nine instruments including piano, guitar, bass, drums, percussions, trombone, tuba, flugelhorn and trumpet, there is somebody saying, “What about the saxophone?” rfocus.org In the end, it doesn’t even matter because Brian McKnight has nothing else to prove to any naysayers. He is a living legend who deserves his “Forever” in the world of music. Now that he is back, flexing his grown-man status with the new single “Forever” that is heating up the Billboard charts, Brian is poised to bring some legendary rhythm & blues back into the game with Genesis. With the album title and feel representing something of a new beginning for Brian, we had the chance to talk about where he is in life, including working with his musically gifted sons, being pigeonholed as an artist, the state of music in general, the business of music, being a charismatic introvert, happiness, and even his beautiful wife, Leilani. Check out our back-and-forth below.

: You wrote the song “Forever” alongside your son, Brian McKnight Jr. How is it to write with your son? Do you find yourself more critical, inspired, amazed, or appreciative?

Brian McKnight: My son is one of the best songwriters I know, so when we get together it’s like me writing with myself. That is how much we are exactly the same. What he brings to the table is a perspective of youthfulness that I don’t have. I don’t want to say he is keeping me current, but he brings a new fresh perspective musically and lyrically that an old jaded person like me wouldn’t have.

RF: I’ve witnessed your sons Niko and Brian McKnight Jr. rock on stage with you and they are obviously talented. You also come from a musical family. Do you think your family is just blessed with God-given talent, is it genetics, or is it more about the immense amount of effort you all put into your craft?

BM: I think it is genetic. I have a hard time believing if there is a God, he has decided “I’m going to give Brian’s family all this musical acumen.” I think somebody had it from my grandparents or before and it’s been passed down because if you have some of my grandparent’s blood in you, you are musical.

RF: Is the album title Genesis symbolic of a new beginning for you or does it possibly mean something else?

BM: I would say it is definitely a new beginning. Being in this business as long as I have, you’ve tried everything under the sun. Now it is almost like if I was to make a record that no one ever heard or knew who I was, what would that sound like? It’s “genesis,” from that standpoint.

BM: I would say it is definitely a new beginning. Being in this business as long as I have, you’ve tried everything under the sun. Now it is almost like if I was to make a record that no one ever heard or knew who I was, what would that sound like? It’s “genesis,” from that standpoint.

RF: What else can we expect from this project? I saw the video for “Forever” and thought it was simple yet highly effective. It was classic Brian McKnight but with an edge. I see you rockin’ the grown man beard now, so is that the vibe we can expect from the album?

BM: I think it is all of the above. It is what you expect and what you don’t expect. That is all we ever try to do. We want to satisfy those folks we already have and then take stabs at things you don’t think I would necessarily do. The things I like, I hope other people would like it, too. I think sometimes you get pigeonholed into doing the same ole thing. If I do that, people say, “That is just the same ole thing.” If I don’t do that, people say, “That is not what he does.” I have to kind of walk the tightrope of trying to satisfy everyone but trying to expand what I do musically as well.

RF: Speaking of being pigeonholed, do you think it’s the fans, industry, or the artists that pigeonhole themselves? For instance, in 2012 you had that parody song, “Let Me Show You How Your Pu**y Works,” and people lost their minds like you went crazy or something. If R. Kelly did a song like that, everyone would probably just say, “oh, that is R. Kelly,” but with you, people were concerned. Why do you think people like to put you and other artists in such a small box?

BM: The thing about that is, the backlash proved my point. That was just a parody song and I was just messing around based on other stuff I was hearing. There is a perception out there that people don’t want you to do anything except for what they think you should do. You are right. If you start out good, you can never be bad, but if you start out bad, you can always be good. That is sort of a strange place to be in. When I did it, do you think I never got some pu**y before in my life or should I never talk about it? I couldn’t understand how people couldn’t see that was all a joke, especially when they saw the video was for FunnyOrDie.com. They were so confused and I didn’t get it. I could put out regular songs all day and no one bats an eye, yet I can put out one song about some pu**y and I’m the number one trending topic around the world. That tells you right there [about] the world that we live in.

RF: One place I feel every artist can let loose is on stage. You’re an incredible live performer. I’ve attended quite a few shows and many artists are not that good live yet they still sell records. How important do you think the live show is in this day and age and does it still have the power and impact it used to?

BM: I think it is still both powerful and detrimental. When you are in front of someone, you can’t fool them. You can fool them on the radio, video, and even award shows. But if you pay your money to see somebody live and they are not good, that is the first impression that you will never be able to change. I think you have to be good. The only time you may get away with that is if you are really big. How many times have you gone to see someone and you find yourself saying, “Man, the light show was really awesome.” I’m like, “Didn’t you go to hear music?’ Technology and money can make you look good, but if you are not at that point yet, you better be good.

RF: Speaking of being good, I was interviewing another R&B artist and they said they felt today’s R&B is lacking emotion, love, and it’s not very good. Do you agree with that sentiment or think something completely different?

BM: I think that is just society in general. I think has always had its finger on the pulse of what is happening in society more than any other kind of music. If society doesn’t love anymore and if our kids only want to have sex and have a good time, then it is going to reflect in the music. I have an 18-year-old in my house and she is the only one that I know who would love to have the real thing. Everyone else that she knows in school and online are ten partners in at 16 years old. When you look at it from that perspective, the music can only reflect the times. Either we have to call the music something else or we have to resign to the fact that R&B is now this.

rfocus.org RF: Bruno Mars, who is a very successful and crazy talented artist who is doing his variation of black music, was quoted as saying, “When you say ‘black music,’ understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, and Motown. Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland [Africa]. So, in my world, black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag.” Do you think it will take more artists like Bruno Mars to speak the truth about black music for it to truly be appreciated in our current ? Do you think other artists should own up to the fact that most genres in America are a variation of black music?

Brian McKnight: The paradox here is, why does it take someone who isn’t black to revive what we consider to be black music? Why aren’t our young artists doing the same thing, because it would change the paradigm. Surely, Bruno Mars understands the power of this music, which is why he decided to recreate it in his way. Now kids that love him think that is him creating that. They have no idea where it comes from because he’s one of the few examples of someone doing it who is their age and he does it very well. He is doing it better than all the young black artists that are out there. That is unfortunate or even sad to say, but it may be true. I think it is great that he is saying it and I think it is even greater that he is owning up to it, but my question would be to the young African American artists out there – do you not see what’s going on? How do you not get a piece of that? He’s so popular because he is actually doing music. Interesting.

RF: That’s a great point. Why do you think black artists don’t go that route? Are we afraid? Are we persuaded to do other things in order to make money?

BM: I think our people, in general, do what we think is the coolest thing at the time. Maybe they think doing a song about love isn’t cool. It’s far cooler to smoke weed, drink, and party. That is the trend. You can’t look cool if you’re doing something different. Honestly, I really don’t know. I do hope they take his and bring some sensitivity and emotion back into the music.

RF: I saw recently that you performed in Singapore and of course I know you have performed all over the world. Do you think they have a greater appreciation for our music than we do here?

BM: I don’t know if it is greater but I do know that have a great appreciation for it. Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask because I have done well all over the place. I do think it is harder these days for newer artists to crack that side of the world because they are not doing the music that people over there still love. People like me, it’s like it is 1995 all over again as far as how much they love the music.

RF: Living in L.A. and being in the industry, you hear all these crazy stories about artists and their process in the studio. For instance, I’ve heard engineers talk about Michael Jackson not being able to read or write music but he could create an entire song including the instrumentation all by using his mouth, beatboxing, and vocal ability. If we talked to some engineers, what would they say about Brian McKnight’s process?

BM: They wouldn’t know about it. I’ve worked with one guy for 20 years. Now if you talked to him, he will tell you that he was never in the room. I would literally be in a room by myself and when I was writing I would just call him when I was ready to sing. He would come in and he would tell you the craziest thing is that he would leave, come back in two hours, and we would record an entire song that wasn’t there when I first got to the studio. I’ve been completely autonomous since I was 18 years old. I’ve never really wanted to let people in. That is one of the problems with me; I’ve always been very fixated on what I was doing. It wasn’t really a choice I made; it was more about just the way that I work. There are very few people that know about the process. Now if you ask my significant other, Leilani, she could tell you because she sees it every day because now I work at home. I just came into the the other day with a guitar and asked her what she thought about something I just wrote.

RF: Are you one of those artists who can come up with an entire song in like five minutes? It’s like you get one thought and just run with it.

BM: It happens every single day of my life.

RF: How many Brian McKnight songs are in the vault that most people never heard?

BM: Probably about three thousand. To be honest with you, most of them suck, but I believe you have to finish a song in order to get to the next song. One of those next songs is going to be a hit song. If you want to talk about the process, most people labor over that one song they believe is great. I don’t do that. I finish a song. If it’s great, wonderful. If it isn’t great, that’s fine because I know another one is coming.

RF: I know you don’t do well with letting people into your process, but if you had to let someone in to create the soundtrack to your life, who would it be?

BM: That would be my son. Brian Jr. would be the only one that I could allow to do something like that.

RF: Do your sons ask you for advice musically?

BM: They know I’m here but they don’t ask me about specific songs because I always wanted them to have their own voice. As far as the business goes, they know I’m here because I have done it. They don’t listen to me necessarily but they know I’m here.

RF: Speaking about the business side of music, if there is one thing you could change about the business of music, what would it be?

BM: I think it would have to do more with infrastructure. Artists have been taken advantage of since day one. They will continue to be taken advantage of. Writers will continue to be taken advantage of, so for me, it would be more about changing the structure. The people that created the business benefit more than the actual creators of the music.

RF: Speaking of the current state of the , social media is a part of it. I see that you take advantage of social media as well. Is it something you gravitated to easily or did you have to warm up to it?

BM: I had to warm up to it. It’s the greatest and worst thing that has ever happened, from my standpoint. The worst thing in the world now is that what we do, the value of it has been downgraded to zero because it is all free. I don’t know anyone else out there who is willing to work for free.

RF: On top of that, do you think social media takes away from the mystique of the artist? Back in the day, we didn’t know what Prince was doing. Now we know when some artists wash their socks or whatever.

BM: I believe it is a double-edged sword. Everything is in the open so you better be careful what you do because everything is in the open.

RF: Looking at your post on Instagram, you appear to be in a really happy place. My question is a very general one. What makes you happy?

BM: Leilani! Listen, I’m not just saying that because that is what people would say. Everything you see about us on Instagram is the real thing. I don’t know anybody else that has what I have, but I wish everybody did. There would be no more wars, no more hunger, we would find the cure for cancer, AIDS, and everything else if everyone had what we have.

RF: What do you want people to know about this project that we haven’t talked about?

BM: The only thing is that it is out. The hardest thing to do today is to get people to focus for ten seconds on something you want them to. When a record or single comes out, just getting the word out is probably the hardest thing to do because you are wading through a sea of everything else. It’s a very difficult process to conquer. Thank you for taking the time out to remind people that I’m not dead and I’m still making music.

RF: What do you want your legacy to be while you are still here? Forget about when you are gone, what do you want people to say now?

BM: Just that I wrote some good songs. If they said that, I will be happy.

RF: Lastly, we know you play ball, golf, and I’ve even witnessed you shoot a little pool in small pool halls in L.A. What other talents do you have that people may not know about?

BM: I can fart on command. That’s a talent that very few people have. Just to put a stamp on this conversation, we both laughed out loud after he said that.

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Radio and Music Industry Veteran. Radio DJ, Programmer, Musician and Voice Talent. Worked at the legendary KKBT (92.3 The Beat) during its nationwide heyday. First rap editor for Urban Network.
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