Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris remembers laying down tracks in the studio with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for the first time in 1994.
All he could think of during their sessions, he admits, was the iconic production duo’s musical resume. While it didn’t make him nervous in the booth, he was still in the presence of producers responsible for some of Janet Jackson’s most successful albums — as well as New Editon’s Heart Break, a multi-Platinum-certified set which included vocals from Boyz II Men mentor Michael Bivins, and even inspired the group’s name with closing track “Boys to Men.”
Morris had no idea what the result of the sessions would be or how the group’s second album– following their massively popular 1991 debut Cooleyhighharmony — would turn out. He knew one thing, though. “Who knew what was going to come out of it, but we knew it was going to be magical because those guys are magicians of the music industry… all we knew was, if they give us this record, we’re gonna sing it like Boyz II Men sings it.”
Boyz II Men left those sessions, and others with legendary R&B mega-producers Babyface and Tim & Bob, with the Diamond-certified and two-time Grammy-winning 1994 album II. The record became the group’s most successful project, with over 12 million copies sold in the U.S., five weeks on top of the Billboard 200 albums chart, and even the inaugural Grammy Award for best R&B album to their credit.
Boyz II Men also dominated the Billboard Hot 100 during the II era. Wanya Morris, Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman and Michael McCarey made history with 1992’s 13-week chart-topping single “End of the Road,” and soon continued their success with II’s lead single “I’ll Make Love To You,” which spent 14 weeks at No. 1 in 1994. The record’s follow-up singles, “On Bended Knee” and “Water Runs Dry,” also hit No. 1 and No. 2 on the charts respectively, with the former making the Boyz the first act to replace itself at No. 1 since The Beatles in 1964.
And their sophomore record changed not only the lives of four guys from Philadelphia, but the course of mainstream R&B. “I would hope that II is not just a representation of Boyz II Men, but a standard for real music,” Morris said. “When you look back and ask what music was to someone 27 years from now… We want Boyz II Men to be one of the first things that comes to their mind. We want the II album to be one of the first things that comes to their mind.”
In honor of the upcoming 25th anniversary (Aug. 31) of the centerpiece in the Boyz’ discography, Billboard spoke with the group’s current world-touring three-piece lineup — following original member Michael McCary’s 2003 departure — of Shawn Stockman, Wanya Morris and Nathan Morris, about the creative process, success and legacy of II.
This week marks 25 years since you dropped the biggest album of your careers, and a record responsible for over 12 million in U.S. sales, II. What memory comes to your mind when you think about that time in your lives?
Shawn Stockman: Some of the rosiest-colored glasses I ever had on in my life… The world was pretty much our backyard. We traveled and did things that were so beyond my expectations that it was normal, if you know what I’m saying? We thought that this was what everybody goes through, this is the business. You go here, you pick up an award, you get a Platinum record — all right, cool. We were so young and impressionable that it didn’t dawn on us until much later how significant our efforts and our movements were.
How long after Cooleyhighharmony did you start working on the record?
SS: We started going at that probably around ‘93. We didn’t chill too much back then, it was pretty much right afterwards. The label was excited. We were just coming off of “End of the Road.” So there really wasn’t much break in between.
Some of the biggest names in pop and R&B at the time found themselves on the production credits of this record: Tim & Bob, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Was this a conscious effort to go bigger and better than Cooleyhigh?
SS: Yeah. We didn’t think like record company people. We thought like artists. Our whole vibe was, “Okay. We did good with the first record. Let’s just see what else we can come up with and write.” So we were just excited to get into the studio.
We wanted the label people to just let us do our thing, leave us alone and let us do what we do. And they pretty much did that to some degree honestly. It got everybody’s fingers itchy. When you have a successful album and come off of a successful song — one of the most successful songs in history — everybody gets excited and you have more chefs in the kitchen than what you need. We still preserved our ability to come out with an album that we were very pleased with, and worked with people that we respected.
Do you remember the circumstances behind you initially linking up with these guys?
Wanya Morris: Absolutely. I was in the studio working with Another Bad Creation on their second album and I was doing a song with Tim and Bob, it was my first time meeting them. Our A&R at Motown was like, “Yo, you gotta meet these guys.’ I said, ‘Send me down there, I just did a record with them.” I went in there and kind of just fell in love with them… They were the first producers that we worked with on this album.
Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, they came in afterwards. We were sitting in the studio with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and all we could think of was, “Aw man, they did Janet. They did Sounds of Blackness. They did all of these artists that we loved. They worked with Prince.” So we were just over the moon about that whole circumstance, just being able to be in the studio with them. Who knew what was going to come out of it, but we knew it was going to be magical, because those guys are magicians of the music industry.
Were you ever worried going into the studio with them, knowing they had this massive track record with these artists that you admire?
WM: Not at all. We were the type of group that, if anything intimidates us more, it was performing, it was going on stage. It felt like we were still novices at that. We were still trying to get our performance feet wet and match up to the artists that we grew up on, such as New Edition, The Temptations and Troop and all of those groups from that time. We knew what we were capable of, so we never were intimidated by the studio at all. All we knew was, if they give us this record, we’re gonna’ sing it like Boyz II Men sings it.
What was your favorite part of the sessions?
Nathan Morris: With Jam and Lewis, we walked in the studio and sat down and talked for about three or four hours just about life. And just all kinds of things before we started recording to just get our minds away from the craziness. We’d just talk about whatever’s on our minds, and then eventually we switched gears into a song and took all the emotion and everything with us.
Halfway through the album we hit “Khalil,” the interlude written about your late friend Khalil Rountree. Whose idea was it to honor Khalil, and why did you decide to place it where you did in the tracklist?
WM: It was Michael Bivins’ idea to do a tribute song for Khalil. We were all talking about it and he was like, ‘Y’all should do it.’ Next thing you know, we just came up with that in the studio playing the piano. It was one of those things that organically happened.
NM: It was great, man. That was still a tough time for us because it was the first album we did where he wasn’t around. That kind of helped us get through it, knowing what he would’ve wanted us to do. Being able to come up with something like that to honor him and his family and let people know how much he meant to us. The transition we were taking that time from boys to men by ourselves was a lot.
In the context of the record, that interlude comes right before hitting the ballads. Was this intentional?
WM: Yes, We always tried to do our albums one way, which didn’t change until after that album. Music changed and our sound never conformed, but the production value of the album conformed. The formula, we always wanted it to be allegro and adagio. After the second album, they didn’t really want to do that anymore. We always wanted people to dance and then we wanted them to make love.
Then we get to “I’ll Make Love To You,” which spent 14 weeks on top of the Hot 100, two years after “End of the Road” did the same for 13 weeks. Did having two massive, record-breaking singles follow each other, albeit two years apart, add any pressure to the roll out of “II?”
SS: No. The good thing about being an artist, in this case, is we’re in the trenches. So we already had somewhat of an idea of how people we’re gonna receive our record. Just because we were fresh off the success of the last record. So we were excited about the whole thing. We were like, “If y’all liked this, you’ll like this one.” We were part of the culture, so we understood certain things that even record label people may not have understood because they didn’t see it from our perspective.
We we’re just like, “Y’all are gonna love this one, too.” That’s why we called it ‘II’ in the first place. I personally came up with the name because I wanted people to know that this is a continuation of the first record, like a sequel to a movie or something like that. We were just excited about putting it out, getting back to work and getting back out there.
NM: I think we had pressure, period. Everybody talks about that sophomore jinx. At the end of the day, we just did what we did with the first album and recorded songs that we felt good with and we loved. We figured that if we loved them, the audience would as well.
Did “End of the Road” inspire you guys to push out more ballads on the follow up?
WM: We always wrote ballads. When we started the project, we never said, “All right cool, let’s do a bunch of uptempos.” Ballads just came naturally to us. On Cooleyhigh, we started with ballads. Those songs were written years before we did the album. Most of the ballads, we wrote years before we ever got a record deal.
With II we started with the same formula. We went in the studio and just wrote a couple of ballads. After that, we added the rest of the uptempos and things like that. The power ballads of course came from Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. We understood that they were gonna allow us to fill the album with our sound, but they were also going to bring in the big hitters so they can create this sound that people were often looking for when it came to Boyz II Men. Hence “I’ll Make Love To You” having the same type of intonation as “End of The Road.”
We kind of argued with the president of Motown at the time, because we didn’t want to come off such big success with “End of The Road” and then hit them with a song that was so similar. But the marketplace was already researched, and that’s what people wanted to hear. So right off the bat, the record label said “this is the single.”
Did you pay any attention to your Hot 100 runs back in the day? Were you monitoring the success of your work?
SS: Yeah we were kind of forced to because of the success of “End of the Road.” That made us pay a little more attention to the Billboard charts. When people let you know how big of a deal it is, you say, “OK cool, let’s see what else we can do.” It didn’t really change much of our mentality.
NM: I paid more attention to record sales than charts. I’d be in the offices at a young age checking what singles were spinning in what country and what markets were doing what. I was definitely on top of all that.
I read that you only recorded around 20 tracks in the II sessions, and 13 made the cut. What does this say about your 1994 work ethic?
NM: We went hard and made song after song after song. We spent hours in the studio. It wouldn’t take us that long to get the song done but it took us that long to perfect it.
SS: We were laser-focused… The studio allows us to be who we are. We’re creating this thing that we love to create, harmonizing and making these melodies. Those things are like breathing for us.
WM: If we recorded 20 tracks, that means that we recorded everything we had into all of the tracks. There was nothing else that we could put in it to make it more than what it was. Twenty tracks, nowadays, is not even a lot of records to record for an album. People are recording 100 records and then choosing 30 now. Then the rest of the records they put on another album. But we put so much into these songs, that the choosing process at the end was so grueling. It was hard to hear these songs that you put so much effort into not make the cut.
Do you remember the first time you heard the record in full?
WM: After the whole project was done we were mixing the record, sitting there and listening to it. When we’re together listening, we’re kind of real critical. So after the process of listening, I would listen to it at home. I remember listening to it and my dad came in and he was like, “Yo man, this is about to me crazy.” All we could do was put it out there and see how the people felt about it.
Who do you think today is making a good effort to continue the tradition of what II did in 1994?
WM: Bruno Mars. He paid homage to that era and put some real strong pieces together. He’s a great entertainer. If anybody can sell the sound from that time, it’s Bruno. People are still doing R&B and they’re killing it. Chris Brown is an extraordinary artist. He’s one of the best performers of our time and he’s a song factory. He’s catering to the times, to what the youth today considers to be love — which is horrible, but it makes sense and it’s real.
Ne-Yo was definitely doing a good job. Usher. Of course you’ve got the R&B singers of today, like Jaquees. I wouldn’t say that he’s a great or anything like that, but he has good songs. He’s singing about love and relationships, it’s R&B.
We’re just happy to have the songs that stand the test of time. Because a lot of those songs that you might hear from artists nowadays, they won’t stand the test of time. Songs now have to be so catchy that the next song, if it’s just as catchy, it could sound the same and still be considered a hit.
NM: Wanya has four sons and they have a group called WanMor. At their young ages, from seven years old to maybe 14 or 15, they might be the most talented artists in the business right now.
This record stood the test of time, which brings me to the last question I have for you. What do you hope this album says about your legacy?
SS: That we did our best to try to make the best music that we could for everybody. The industry is departmentalized, and we, by nature, tend to put a lot of boundaries on artists, specifically black ones. Our intention, just like how we grew up and the high school we went to, was to create the type of music that everybody could enjoy and appreciate. Black, white or other. That was our goal, has always been our goal and still is our goal til’ this day.
WM: I would hope that II is not just a representation of Boyz II Men, but a standard for real music. When you look back and ask what music was to someone 27 years from now, I wonder what they’ll do, what they’ll say. We want Boyz II Men to be one of the first things that comes to their mind. We want the II album to be one of the first things that comes to their mind.
If you want an example of what music is, we want the definition in an encyclopedia or on the internet or in any dictionary to be the II album. How do we start the creation of a project? We want the II album to be a blueprint. We want it to be somewhat of a standard in music school. We want people to put this on and say, “This is what lyrical content is supposed to represent.” It’s supposed to be literary and take people to a place where words actually mean something. Not only do words mean something, but words in a song mean even more.
NM: Our music is all about feeling and emotion. We always hoped that when someone heard our songs, they understood the message we were trying to get across. However they took that song in their life or however it pertained to them in that moment, as long as it was something positive, they took that song with them.