No nineties block party or backyard barbecue was complete without blasting R&B duo Zhane's infectious summer anthem "Hey Mr. D.J." And let's not forget the club banger "Groove Thang” or the sensual “Sending My Love.” The laid-back twosome comprised of Jean (Norris) Baylor and Renee Neufville was formed on the Philly campus of Temple University. And their sophisticated cesar cuts defied industry standards, empoweing and inspiring all women to embrace their natural beauty and even garnered them a January 1994 ESSENCE cover. Baylor still recalls scaring passersby with her excitement when she first heard the groups' breakout hit on the airwaves in 1994. Baylor, who now has new reasons to be excited, thanks partly to her new solo album, “Testimony: My Life Story," shares with ESSENCE.com why she has Bobby Brown and Queen Latifah to thank for her career, how love found her, and the secret to surviving in a girl group without drama.
ESSENCE.COM: What’s up, Jean? Tell us about this new smooth album, “Testimony: My Life Story.”
JEAN NORRIS BAYLOR: I’m in such a good place right now, and it’s been a labor of love. A lot of times when you’re doing things independently, there are some obvious challenges, but we’re on the charts and moving up, so it’s very cool. The single “Come Go With Me” is probably one of my favorite songs on the album and the message is deeper than it sounds. I’m imploring the listener to come into a place where I like to dwell and enjoy a lot of peace of mind. I’ve been in this place for seven or eight years, so it’s been great. Giving my life to the Lord set the foundation for that place of peace, wisdom, wise decisions and where your dreams come true.
ESSENCE.COM: And your dreams continue to come true, including meeting your better half, drummer Marcus Baylor. How has love changed you and how is the experience of working together on your label?
BAYLOR: (Laughs.) It’s definitely different. We’re partners in life and business. It’s great that way because we get along very well and we understand each other. It’s a blessing and of course sometimes it’s trying. We met in 2000 in New York when I needed a drummer. Someone hooked us up and we just hit it off, though I was never really into musicians like that. We were on the phone for two hours on our first conversation, and eight years later, we’re still having those long phone conversations. It’s such a blessing having someone there who’s really in your corner and honestly rooting for you.
ESSENCE.COM: Congrats on love! Now we have to take it back and remember when we first fell in love with you and Renee as Zhané. When did you realize you wanted to pursue music professionally?
BAYLOR: Well, I grew up in a little town in Jersey. Growing up there, there was no music industry. You are going to laugh, but I remember going to college and seeing a concert when New Edition got back together and Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, and Al B. Sure! were on the tour. It was crazy Bobby Brown who inspired me to the next level. He got up on the speakers and was shaking and taking off his shirt. That definitely was a moment when it clicked that I wanted to perform. Soon me and Renee started performing together. We would do a talent show and win $50 and you couldn’t tell us we were not paid (laughs)!
ESSENCE.COM: (Laughs.) And soon you were working with Naughty By Nature. How did you and Renee keep the friendship strong without drama, and did you ever feel competition from the other girl groups?
BAYLOR: We were friends before the name Zhané and got into the industry, which is a key ingredient. We didn’t like all the girly drama. We didn’t feel competitive with other groups. There was more room then. When we sang for Queen Latifah’s label, Flavor Unit, her mom happened to be there and liked us. They told Kay Gee [from Naughty By Nature], because he was looking for a girl group. At that time, girl groups were big with Jade, SWV, TLC and others. Along the way we met Queen Latifah and they put “Hey Mr. DJ” on the Flavor Unit compilation album with new artists. She was instrumental in us starting out because “Hey Mr. DJ” was our break.
ESSENCE.COM: What is the biggest lesson that fame has taught you?
BAYLOR: Not to think of yourself as famous. Honestly, I never felt famous. People knew who we were and liked us fortunately, but I never felt famous. I still remember being starstruck by Anita Baker. I like a life of normalcy to a certain degree, that’s why I don’t think I could live the life of a superstar. But my level of fame has taught me to just live life and look at things in a broader sense outside of your “fame,” because some people can really get caught up in themselves. Renee and I learned early on not to believe your own hype. Fame is fleeting and it comes and goes with your popularity but purpose never goes away.
For more information on Jean Baylor and to purchase her new album visit Jean Baylor.com and dajams.com.