Today’s music industry is saturated with cats who belt radio-ready, sappy tunes over regurgitated tracks. And then there’s Joe Thomas. The chocolate balladeer who we first met on his debut album “Everything” reminds us that authentic, soul-stirring rhythm and blues still exists. His smooth and sultry voice had us from the moment we heard his early hits like the confessional “Don’t Wanna Be a Player” and the seductive “All The Things (Your Man Won’t Do).” Finally, the Georgia native releases his eighth solo effort, “New Man,” which delivers his same brand of soul. The 35-year-old, soft-spoken gent got personal with ESSENCE.com about his bold move to own his masters, his beef with R Kelly, and spoiling the special girl in his life.
ESSENCE.COM: Did having your own label lead to the professional and personal growth you’ve experienced or did the growth lead to the independent label?
JOE THOMAS: I’m an independent owner and artist with my own label, 563 Entertainment, which is my name if you spell it out on your cell phone. As an artist, it changes my commitment and things that I have to do because I’m looking at it from a CEO’s perspective. The fact that I can really build a serious catalog and I can do things at this point at my pace the way I want to do is incredible. I’ve been in the game 15 years and I had one of the best mentors, Kedar Massenburg, who is also my manager. [And as far as] my own personal growth, I looked around and I said I’ve worked really hard for an organization and didn’t really get any residuals at the end of the day. I mean, for years, Stevie Wonder put in his best work, Marvin Gaye put in his best work and didn’t really get the full effect of their labor. It’s a completely different strategy when you’re independent. I own my own masters, which is a huge accomplishment. I don’t have to sell as many records as I did before to see some money. And it’s not just about the money situation but when you look at someone [else] benefiting from your hard work, you want to be a part of that, be a beneficiary.
ESSENCE.COM: Going independent also removes you from any label-artist rivalry. We’ve heard about the whole R.Kelly and Jive situation on the radio recently and it is all over the blogosphere that he tried to sabotage your career. Is that true?
THOMAS: What you heard and what you read is something that was told to me by a program director. They told me what was going on and how it went down on the inside. I was taken aback on that and I wanted to respond to it. My response was to something I had heard, so of course, anytime you say anything, they [the media] run with it. They’re going to take it to where they want to take it. You can call it whatever you want. Ironically, when he [the program director] heard I was doing the independent thing, he wanted to tell me everything that he knew and I didn’t know. I had no idea that this was going on so it all worked out I guess.
ESSENCE.COM: Recently you teamed up with Mario and Trey Songz. What was it like to pass the musical torch?
THOMAS: I admire those cats because they get it. They understand that good music can influence someone else. They look at me as an influence and I look at Marvin Gaye. I give them a lot of credit as authentic R&B. I cherish a lot of the new artists that are coming out like Ne-Yo. We’re not hip-hop. Our lifestyles are similar—the cars, the girls, the jewelry—but we don’t praise it as much, we don’t glorify that. Not to say that it’s wrong or bad, but it’s just that we’re more reserved. [Singing] is ten times harder than hip-hop; there’s so much more that you have to put into an R&B record to make it relatable. Some people only listen to the track, some people only listen to the melody. It’s a lot to deal with. And to see how dedicated they are and how committed they are to moving to the next level. They’re trying to add to it, they don’t want to take away from it. They’re trying to add to what R&B is. And that’s what I like about them. Even Omarion and Chris Brown, they got their thing that keeps them relevant. And I appreciate all the young artists because we need more artists in the music game. In all honesty, I learned from them too. I give them credit. Yeah, it’s not about hating in the industry. We can work together. I take from you, you take from me.
ESSENCE.COM: What’s the secret to your longevity, because you’ve been in the game 15 years now.
THOMAS: I try to be as humble as possible. I try to treat people the way I want to be treated. They say many are called, few are chosen. I was chosen. I was chosen and I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I understand the importance of legacy and integrity. When I first dropped my stuff I was 20, now I’m 35. I could easily say I don’t get enough credit and that I’m underrated, but God is in control of everything. He’s going to handle it at the time it’s going to be handled.
ESSENCE.COM: As a father, do you find yourself spoiling your daughter?
THOMAS: She is daddy’s little girl. She just turned 16 last year. I never want to disappoint her or let her down in any way. This is my only kid. I grew up with five other kids. We had to share everything—clothes, food, ev-ery-thing. You never had your own. So knowing that this is my only child, I’m going to go all out for her. I want her to get the things I didn’t have.