Johnny Gill Dishes on His Comeback Hit, the New Edition Biopic and Playing ESSENCE Festival

Having scored his first No. 1 hit in 20 years with "This One's for Me and You," Johnny Gill is still winning in the R&B game.

Johnny Gill is not surprised that “This One’s for Me and You,” featuring his old bandmates New Edition, went No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. After all, the man titled his seventh studio album Game Changer for a reason.

“This One’s for Me and You” evokes nostalgia for a time when classic love songs ruled the airwaves. And judging by the single’s video, New Edition can still hit the choreography we’ve grown to love. At 49, Gill still tours all over the world with NE; in fact, he and his group will be performing at ESSENCE Festival June 30-July 3 in New Orleans. We chatted with the veteran crooner about how he's still winning in the R&B game after 32 years. 

Congrats on your No. 1 single,“This One’s for Me and You.” Did you know you had a hit on your hands?
I believe every song off this album had hit potential. I made a conscious effort that I wasn’t going to put filler on the album. [I wanted to] make sure people get their money's worth and that I can listen to it knowing that I did my best. I was so happy and so elated that we were able to reach this milestone.

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What did you want for fans to take away from Game Changer?

When I named this album Game Changer, it wasn’t because I thought it was cute, fun or just a fly idea for a title. The purpose behind this album was about me making an impact, continuing to fight for R&B. [The genre] has been really overlooked and it has not been respected in the way that I think it should be.

You’re constantly touring with New Edition. What’s the difference in touring now versus back in your 20s? 
It’s been fun. I think we all have an appreciation for it more so than ever. The thing that I regret more than anything when I look back over my career is [that] we’ve accomplished so much, but when you don’t take time out to live in the moment, to take it all in, it goes by so fast.

Is it a bit more challenging now to do the choreography than it was years ago?
You know, we’ve done [the moves] for so many years, it’s like second nature. We can do them in our sleep. It’s just when you lay off for a couple weeks and then you go back, it takes a minute to get reacclimated.

Is there any song you won’t play now because maybe the lyrics don’t resonate anymore?
No, I’ll do them all. When you have so many in the catalog like I’ve had, it really becomes a thing of trying to figure out how to put songs in a medley so that people can say they got a chance to hear a little bit of their song. That’s the challenge, which is a great problem to have. But there’s not a song that I recorded that I can say that I’m ashamed of, or that I would never perform for people. Every song that has been successful in our careers has been the fabric of somebody’s life.

You told Billboard you didn’t make music for 15 years because you were waiting on a record deal. How did you get over that hump?
I ran into Jamie Foxx and he said to me, “Hey, man. There’s a voice that’s missing out there. There’s no more Luther [Vandross]; there’s no more Gerald [Levert]." He was going down the list. Then he said, “I have a studio at home, an engineer that’s sitting at home. My studio is your studio, man. You need to do something.” Then about a week later I ran into [director] Antoine Fuqua, and he said to me, “Man, when are you going to put out something? We need to hear your voice.” Lo and behold there was an opportunity that came with a young lady by the name of Ira Dewitt, who put an offer on the table for us to be partners to put out some music. That’s what really got the ball rolling.

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How involved are you all in the BET New Edition biopic? 
Totally hands-on. As a matter of fact, they started shooting Monday. And it’s funny because Monday was the official day the record went No. 1. You couldn’t have planned it better. Everybody’s been on the set watching [director] Chris Robinson do his thing. It’s coming together.

At this point you’re an ESSENCE Fest OG. What do you love about ESSENCE Fest that keeps you coming back?
People that want to see you, that want to hear from you. Do you know what a blessing it is [after] 30-something years, knowing some of the people that started with us are no longer here? I think we all are grateful that somebody wants to hear from us and still see our talent that God has given us. 

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