Nineties R&B group Zhané celebrates twentieth anniversary of debut album, Pronounced Jah-nay
For Pronounced Jah-nay's twentieth anniversary, we spoke with Renee Neufville about recording one of the more definitive R&B albums from the 1990s.
By the mid-1990s, there was an assortment of R&B groups dominating the musical landscape. On the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, two young women were on the verge of staking their claim amongst R&B music’s elite. After a chance meeting with Benny Medina, Renee Neufville and Jean Norris decided to join forces to form a dynamic songwriting tandem. As a result, their debut album achieved platinum success. On February 15, 1994, Pronounced Jah-nay was released by Motown Records. Riding the wave from their overwhelming smash hit, “Hey Mr. D.J.,” Zhane ushered in a new, refreshing sound to rival their contemporaries.
For the album’s twentieth anniversary, I spoke with Neufville about recording one of the more definitive R&B albums from the 1990s.
What is the story behind the forming of the duo?
We were the first artists signed to A Touch of Jazz by Jazzy Jeff. We were students at Temple University. We met Jazzy Jeff because we were students in Philadelphia, and we would enter talent shows to pay our bills. Word got to him that there were these girls at Temple University who could sing. Somebody introduced us to him, and he took us under his wing and formed A Touch of Jazz production company. While we were working with Jazzy Jeff, he was working with Will Smith on their Homebase album, which went platinum. During that time, Will Smith was going back and forth to California because he was pursuing an acting career. So Quincy Jones and Benny Medina were very instrumental in that transition for Will. With the amount of hours that my partner Jean and I spent at the studio, we in turn got to meet Benny Medina. Benny Medina saw us play and sing when we were separate artists, but we were roommates, too. He suggested to us that we should become a group. So we said okay, and that’s how we became a group. It was Benny Medina’s idea. This happened during a random sighting at a studio.
During that time, it was rare to see two women as a duo. Can you explain the process that Jean and you went through to become a group, since you were solo artists in the beginning? How long did it take you all to get acclimated to each other’s styles to make it work?
It didn’t take us long because we were roommates. We spent all our time together as roommates. There wasn’t a learning curve at all.
Earlier you were going to speak about your group’s look, and how it was so different from the norm back then. It’s one of the many things that made you all stand out besides the fact you were a duo.
Well, prior to the 1990s, most of the girl groups had a uniform, homogenous look. I was 5-9 ½ and my partner, Jean was 5-2. I knew that aesthetically we were different. I was dark-skinned and thin, and she was light-skinned. So I tried to think of a way for us to have a look that would make sense for people to accept. I suggested that we would keep our hair cropped. I told Jean to cut her hair low and I would wear mine low as finger waves. So that way, aesthetically, it would be something that would tie us together. And, she agreed.
How did you come up with the group name?
We were presented with a contract, and I’m not sure where Jean was at the time, but I was sitting at my kitchen table trying to figure out how we were going to sign this contract. At this time, we were just recording material, and we weren’t really thinking about the name. I sat down at my kitchen table in Brooklyn. I took out a piece of paper, and I started jotting down names. I tried different names like Nah-jay, Fade to Black, and many others. I remember brainstorming about it by myself knowing that we had to sign this contract, but we didn’t have a group name yet. When I thought of Jah-nay, at first, it was a combination of her name and mine because they’re both French names. I used the J from her name and added to my –nay sound at the end of my name. However, I thought to myself that, if we happen to be famous one day, and we do autographs, the Z would look better. That’s how I came up with the name, and then I told Jean later. She agreed that it was a good name.
The sound emanating from this album was much different than what was popular during that time period. What direction were you trying to go in with the sound of the album?
To be honest, we didn’t sit down and think about a direction for the sound. We just recorded song after song after song, and then at the end of that process, the album was complete. But the influences for most of the hit records from that album stemmed from my childhood in Brooklyn. In the ’70s and ’80s, I was exposed to music from Patrice Rushen, Atlantic Starr, and Loose Ends. I loved the vibes from those records. It was my thing. I loved that classic sound. To me, it was easier to not start a trend, but trying to create a classic sound. The appeal of a classic record is infinite. If you look at today’s market, vintage happens to be popular amongst the younger generation. Everyone likes to go back to what is classic. The music from the ’70s and ’80s, which is so soulful, is what I listened to in New York City.
Were you influenced by any of the music your contemporaries were releasing during the making of this album?
Yes. Definitely! When N’Dea Davenport came out with that Brand New Heavies album, it was a breath of fresh air. The sound was cutting edge. It wasn’t a New Jack Swing sound. We came from the New Jack Swing era, but our music wasn’t New Jack Swing. We had more of a London, rare groove, soul, jazzy feel. I loved the Brand New Heavies stylistically and visually. They were somewhat of an influence because they were trying to push the envelope and going against the grain of the New Jack Swing sound. They were trying to have a more individual sound. I felt like, back then, the artists coming out of London definitely approached their music with a very individualistic mindset. Of course there was music that we loved, but didn’t sound like ours. Mary J. Blige’s album came out a year or two before ours. Mint Condition was hitting big. We loved and respected those artists.
What was the creative dynamic that existed between Jean and you while you were constructing this album?
For the most part, on this album, there were certain songs that were one hundred percent us. We were both musicians. Some of those songs were written in the music hall at Temple University on a piano. For the hit records that were released, they were produced by Kay Gee from Naughty by Nature. He would provide us with a cassette tape with a bunch of instrumentals on it, and send us home with it. We would go back and forth from Philadelphia to New Jersey. Both Jean and I would have a cassette of those beats. Whoever wrote lyrics to those tracks, we would move forward with it. It just so happened that I was writing prolifically at that time, and Kay Gee liked it and it worked. Writing is where my heart is. I would write the lyrics to the songs. I would write the arrangements. I would teach Jean her parts within a song, and we would record it. We recorded our songs in a studio in northern New Jersey. At that time, Naughty by Nature was starting to hit, and it was at the beginning of their careers. So Kay Gee didn’t have his own facility, yet. He was working out of a spot off of Route 1 and 9 near Jersey City.
We would go back and forth from Philadelphia on the weekends. We would take the Amtrak train every Friday night to Newark, and he would pick us up and put us in a hotel. Then, we would go into the studio first thing on Saturday morning and work all day. We would work on Sunday, too and head back to Philadelphia on Sunday night. He did this for a long time until the album was done. Most of our friends at Temple University didn’t even know. It wasn’t the popular thing to record records back then. Getting into the music business seem far removed from most people’s realities at that time. It wasn’t as accessible as it became later on. We were still living in the dream. We didn’t understand what was happening. We didn’t know what was going to be the outcome. We didn’t know if people were going to understand us because we were so different than what was out in the mainstream. We just took a chance, and that’s what youth allows you to do. The groove between Jean and I was that the tonality of our voices were very compatible. I wrote a lot of harmonies back then. So when we got together and did a song, our harmonies almost sounded like one voice. She had a lot of highs in her voice, and naturally, I had a lot of lows in mine. So together, it really worked sonically, and we lived together. You know when you live together with someone for a long time you start to sound like them — that’s what was happening. If one of us picked up the phone, the person on the other end couldn’t tell if it was me or Jean. Our connection was seamless.
How long did it take for you to start and finish this album?
The process took from 1990 through 1992.
What is the background story of you getting signed to Motown Records?
The song “Hey Mr. D.J.” was one of the many tunes we recorded for the album. Kay Gee was doing some work for a compilation album called Roll wit tha Flava under Flavor Unit Records, which was run by Queen Latifah. Queen Latifah essentially signed us into the business. We came into the business under Flavor Unit for that one song. She did Kay Gee a favor by putting that record on the compilation album to give his group, us, Zhane, a little bit of shine. It turned out that song was the breakout hit from the album. Back then, deejays weren’t dictated to as to what to play. So when the deejays got the promo copies of Roll wit tha Flava, which had Fu-Schnickens, Freddie Foxx, Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature, and many other great artists, they, for some reason, decided on their own to play our first single. So our first single ended up being forced to be our first single because the record label couldn’t ignore any longer the success that was bubbling up from the underground. So they jumped on it. That’s when Zhane’s career started.
We had to rush our album, and we had to get a record deal because the song took off. We hadn’t finished recording songs for the album yet. The song was climbing up the charts. We were playing in everyone’s car. People were requesting us to perform across the country, so we had to strike when the iron was hot. Our album wasn’t done, and we didn’t have a follow up tune to that song. I wrote that song in my bedroom while sitting on the floor. I remember presenting it to Kay Gee. I told him I had this song called “Hey Mr. D.J.” I told him it reminded me of when I had block parties on my block back in Brooklyn. When I sang it to him, he laughed at me. [laughs] He thought it was a joke. But we recorded it, and everyone seemed to love it. So imagine that “Hey Mr. D.J.” was a hit, there’s this group that no one has ever seen before, there’s no video for the song, the album isn’t done, and we hadn’t sign to a record label for a full length album yet. There was a bidding war for us.
We ended up signing to Motown Records. Queen Latifah’s mother was very instrumental in terms of us being signed because she was the first person we met. She told us that we needed to meet her daughter Dana. When we met Dana, she said, “I want to sign your group.” Kay Gee said, “Cool.” And we were on Flavor Unit Records. After that, there was a bidding war for the group. We went with Motown for the album deal. The album was released in the first quarter of 1994. It was the fastest gold-selling album in the history of Motown Records. It went gold overnight. I remember being under a lot of pressure because we needed a song to segue from “Hey Mr. D.J.” into everything else that was on the album. We needed a song that had a similar feel and rhythm, but we didn’t. So Kay Gee sampled Patrice Rushen’s “Haven’t You Heard.” He slowed it down, and he sent us the cassette. I went into the basement, and overnight I wrote “Groove Thang.” He listened to it, and he told us this would be our second single and now, we could release the album. After “Groove Thang,” we released “Sending My Love.” Everything happened so, organically. A lot of the process was capitalizing on the opportunities as they came. Once we realized that the audience was responding to the music with this energy, it was important for the label and Kay Gee that we continued that. It has stood the test of time because these songs are still played pretty much everyday in New York City, which is amazing and a blessing.
How many songs did you record for this album?
Every song that you heard on the album is how many we recorded for it. [laughs] It wasn’t like we went into the studio, hung out, and got a big budget to record the album. We went in and recorded the songs. Then, we would come back the next week, and do the same thing. When we had enough songs to make a record, we put it out. Every song we recorded made the album. We had a small budget for the album. We weren’t proven artists, yet. Kay Gee was basically taking a chance with us. He just had a whim that this would work because he liked it. He followed his own instincts. Queen Latifah followed her instincts. When I was writing these tunes, I was following my instincts. Jean followed her instincts. Patrice Rushen was our blueprint.
Take me through the creative process in making each song for the album?
On “Vibe” we used a sample from George Benson’s “Love X Love” record. The chord changes were very jazzy because George Benson’s background is in jazz guitar. This song was written for the people. It wasn’t about love or a critical situation. It wasn’t personalized. It was basically a song to the people telling them to keep their mind in a state of Zen and stay optimistic and be open to life. It’s one of those songs that sounds like background music, but feels like a glass of cool water when you hear it. I remember WBLS at the time was called “The Vibe.” So when radio stations got the album, they were told to start playing the second single “Groove Thang,” but WBLS decided to play what they wanted to play, which was this song. It caused a bit of drama with the record label because they liked to keep everything uniform throughout the market. WBLS wanted to do their own thing. They coined that song as their theme record. Between commercial breaks, they would use our song. I do remember that.
I remember writing “Sending My Love” when I was coming home from college on the New Jersey transit bus. I was going to my brother’s house in Philly. “Sending My Love” was a song I wrote for my boyfriend at the time. We had a long distance relationship. He lived in the next town over but it was still long distance. He was my first love. I thought about Stephanie Mills and the way her lyrics were written. Her words were so poetic and visual. I sat on the bus and said to myself, “If I could mail my heart right to you, I would.” And that was the first line to “Sending My Love.” “I would pack it up, seal it tight, and send it overnight.” To me, that’s how grown folks used to talk to each other when they fell in love. The studio that we worked out of in New Jersey was run by a guy named Dave Bellochio, and Dave played keys. I think Dave and Kay Gee came together, and Kay Gee would get on the MPC and he would make a break beat. The break beat that was used for “Sending My Love” has been used by EPMD and Jodeci. It’s a very common break beat. Dave would add some color and chords on it. Kay Gee always loved hearing the keys, and the track is very simple. Kay Gee comes from a hardcore hip-hop background, and Zhane’s sound along with Kay Gee’s edge was a very nice marriage. A lot of guys who were into hip-hop could relate to it because it wasn’t too soft or too sweet. With “Sending My Love,” Kay Gee made sure that the balance was there. He sent the track to us and I came up with the song.
“Sweet Taste of Love” was written at Presser Hall in the music department at Temple University in one of their practice rooms. This song was also written for my first love.
“Changes” was also written about my first love. It was written over the summer of 1989. I was working at the Department of Social Services on 98 Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn. I was a clerk there. I would type out all the welfare checks for the recipients. I remember being at work writing down lyrics to this song because he and I might of had a quarrel. It’s your first love. There’s distance and you’re missing each other. I felt like he was putting me through a lot of changes. When I got home, we had an upright piano in the living room, and I wrote the chords to it and I put the poem I wrote to the chords. It was one of the first tunes Jazzy Jeff had heard when we met him. These were songs that I came to Temple with.
I’m going to let you guess who “You’re Sorry Now” is about. [laughs] He cheated on me. It was my first love, and my first heartache all in one. They always say love can do one of two things: it can break you or you can make beautiful music out of it. I used music at that time as a diary. It was my way of dealing with my life.
“Love Me Today” was a song that was written about love lost. It was a rebound situation where you’ve broken up with someone you love because you felt like you had to. However, you’re not ready to let go of one another. So there’s a tug of war that goes on between the two of you and some days you want to forget about everything and tell them love me today and make love to me right now. It’s a real feeling. We’ve all been there.
“Off My Mind” was a song where I was feeling feelings for the very first time in my life. This song was that moment where I was trying to be so strong, but I had to be honest with myself that I’m extremely vulnerable and I’m weak, and I can be as strong as an oak tree or I can bend like a willow. “Off My Mind” was a song written in three movements. It started off like a slow ballad and then it went into what we call in jazz, a swing rhythm, and after that, it goes into a classical arpeggio without the drum machine. I have to be thankful for this relationship. It was me on the piano. We hired an acoustic bassist and trumpeter. We had live drums. We cut the record so we could have a jazz record on there. It was a very emotional tune.
“La La La” was a song that Jean and I wrote together. We were in Presser Hall. Jean played the piano. We sat beside each other at the piano, and we would vibe together between classes and this song came out. It was a combination of whoever she was dating at the time, and the same guy I was dating.
“For a Reason” was a song that Jean wrote. It was a time where our years at Temple were over, and life as we knew it, was pretty much over. We were embarking on this new journey with the music business. This was unmarked territory for us. “For a Reason” was really about the transition from college to this new world from adolescence to adulthood.
As you look back 20 years later, how do feel about the impact the album has made on popular culture?
I’ll never get over the feeling of hearing our songs on the radio for the first time. Every time I hear them, it’s like the first time. It’s a feeling I’ll never get over having. One thing I can say is during the peak of our success, I was fully aware of the blessing that it was and the importance and rarity of it. I never took that opportunity for granted. So now, when I hear our songs, I feel very proud of the material, and the mark that was made. I’m grateful to know that once my soul leaves the physical body, the music will outlive all of us. It’s one of the biggest gifts I could ever imagine receiving because life is so short. This is the legacy we’ve left behind. We came up in a time when classic music was being made. Not just hit records, but records that will be played forever. The music industry has changed so much. I don’t know if that formula is there anymore to make a classic record that will last 60 years from now. I’ll always love the music we created.
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