98 Degrees is known as one of the most popular boy bands from the 90’s, but what’s interesting about the group is that they were initially introduced to the world as an R&B group. The group was originally signed to Motown by Andre Harrell after they sang backstage for Boyz II Men. Of course the group ended up having much more Pop success down the road with hits such as “I Do”, “Because Of You”, “The Hardest Thing” and the Mariah Carey and Joe collaboration “Thank God I Found You”, but we really wanted to touch on their early beginnings working with the likes of Montell Jordan and Robin Thicke on their debut album. We talked to group member and founder of 98 Degrees Jeff Timmons about the history of the group, their influences in R&B as well as upcoming music from the group including Jeff’s solo single “Lit”.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You just released your new solo single “Lit”. Talk about the record and how it came about.
Jeff Timmons: I ended up writing and producing this song with Pompey. I was introduced to him through a really old relationship with Larry Fridie who used to be James Brown’s business manager. He actually saw the first incarnation of 98 Degrees which was me with a bunch of other guys from Ohio. We weren’t able to work together on that project because those guys quit and then I got together with Nick and those guys afterwards. I always kept in touch with him throughout the years and he had this artist/producer Pompey who is featured on the song. They were like “I think it would be good for you to co-produce this with Pompey” and the song was for a younger guy. It’s not like a 98 Degrees or in my lane being a dance song, but he liked it. They liked it and told me that they’re not going to touch it and they’re going to release it. I was like “If I release this, they’re going to think I’m trying too hard” but they were like “The song stands out on its own”. We thought it was a timely post-COVID and it was a fun time to do it. The song caught on and we’re getting a dose of people actually reacting to the song. It doesn’t mean it’s me from 98 Degrees or that it’s Pompey, it’s just a fun record.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Now that song is starting to take off, do you have a plan for what to do next?
Jeff Timmons: I’m starting to formulate that. We’re going to release a set of new remixes and a music video. You have to do a music video and put it on YouTube right? We’re going to do that and just continue to have fun with it. It’s actually doing very well overseas, but I think we’re just going to go with the flow and ride with the wave. If people like it, I’m going to take advantage of the situation and promote the different things that I’m working on like different TV shows and different acts. I’m going to utilize this as a promotional tool. The song draws attention to other projects. That’s the goal at the end of the day. It’s always nice to have songs out, but at this point in my career, it’s about launching other artists and giving people another chance to create and make money while creating.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Take me through the creation of your group 98 Degrees. I know you and your group moved to LA from Ohio and then the original members that you were with ended up going back home.
Jeff Timmons: LA is the second biggest market in the country and it was a lot different than where I’m from. I’m from a really small town and everyone knows everyone’s business. I moved to LA and it’s massive. Those guys I was with, it was a little intimidating to them. We got a lot of attention early on and they were surprised by that. We sang acapella in every place and we would get ushered into different shows and sang for executives. We had a lot of attention from major labels right away and it got real very fast. It wasn’t a joke that they could phone home and tell their girlfriends in college that they couldn’t stay. They thought I would get over it and they would be able to go back home and finish school. Those guys quit and I got a job working security. I worked security for all the clubs and in some type of way, I met a guy that went to school with Nick. I heard his voice on a tape and I had no idea what he looked like. I had a phone conversation and I was like “I have these people interested” and Nick was just like “Yeah, whatever”. I was also like “By the way, what do you look like?” because I was trying to think of the imaging of the group. Nick was like “I think I’m a pretty good looking guy if that’s what you’re asking”. I was like “It doesn’t matter, I love your voice”. He came to LA and brought Justin with him and then Drew came as well. We sang backstage at a Boyz II Men’s concert and got discovered. We got signed to Motown afterwards. We met Montell Jordan’s tour manager who passed our demo to Motown and we got signed.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Watching Montell Jordan’s success during that time must have made it super crazy for you guys I assume.
Jeff Timmons: We were in the audience and it’s a big venue. We were seeing Boyz II Men live in person and we wanted to be like them. It became crystalized for us and Montell was on fire at that time. He took us under his wing and we were going to all these events. We weren’t even signed yet, but we thought we were super cool. It was a whirlwind and it almost seemed like it wasn’t a real story. It was real to us and ended up becoming really real. Out of all of that, Nick is now world famous as a host. Jessica Simpson came out of our camp, same with Ashlee Simpson. These mega stars came out of all that stuff that was just a dream for us when we were younger guys.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What were your expectations when you initially signed to Motown?
Jeff Timmons: We knew it was a process. We’re blue collared guys and we’re not allergic to working. We knew there was going to be some hard work involved. We knew the small amount of time we were in LA together, it was going to be a grind. For us, there was no time limit on what it was going to take for us to be successful. A lot of people would say “I’m going to do this for a few months” but when you want to be part of a big group or do these dream jobs, you have to go with no limitations on what you’re going to do. When we got signed to Motown, we were excited. Motown is historically a black label, but it was the dream label because we were so inspired by those acts like the Four Tops, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Jacksons and all of that stuff. We were like “This will put a stamp of credibility on us”. With that came a whole different experience. Of course, we were an white group and they were an Urban label. They were trying to figure out different ways to break us and give us credibility. They wanted to make us cool, but I’m not the coolest guy on the planet. *Laughs* I love music and I love to entertain. Whatever they were trying to package us as having some sort of street credibility, that wasn’t a legitimate way to market us and people didn’t believe it. They just liked the way we sounded and it was a simple formula. It was a process for us and it was a struggle in the beginning. Ultimately we just stuck together. We didn’t think we fit in with the label and it had nothing to do with it being a black or white thing, but it was more on a marketing level on the executive side of things. Ultimately we owe a lot to Andre Harrell for giving us the shot and understanding we had something there, but we had to stick together and figure out a way to promote ourselves. Fortunately for us, the radio department understood we had good records and they did a heck of a job of promoting us and telling us where we needed to go. Eventually we ended up breaking, so the stroke of luck was there.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What did artist development look like for 98 Degrees when you guys first got signed?
Jeff Timmons: A lot of people think that the labels will drop a ton of money into the curation of artists, but if you watch some of these documentaries with legends like Clive Davis and David Geffen, you see that these guys went to a concert and were enamored by artists for whatever reason whether it was their performance ability or their voice. They saw something and then they signed them and they would build them over the years. They would put out singles and they would flop, but they would ride the wave with these artists that they believed in because they knew other people would feel what they feel. When we got signed, that was just starting to go away. Those days were done and the labels were becoming more corporate. Obviously then it’s about the bottom line and the numbers. For us, we did get lucky because although we had a hit song on our first record, the album didn’t do every well. George Jackson came in from the movie industry and replaced Andre Harrell at Motown. He saw immediately that we were a Pop group and marketed us that way. We got lucky in having a second chance, but that doesn’t really exist today as a young artist. You have to cut through right away and they have to look at the streams. There’s too much weight on those numbers and I think there are people that get a ton of streams but aren’t stars.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about the group’s debut album. It’s amazing looking at the credits and seeing who worked on this album. You guys worked with some of the key figures in 90’s &&B such as Montell Jordan, Shep Crawford, Marion Winans, Tricky Stewart, Robin Thicke, Sam Salter, Kenny Greene and many more. Talk about the work on that album.
Jeff Timmons: We had a good list of folks. We were blessed to be with all of those folks. We had The Trackmasters as well and they had a ton of hits back in the day. We worked with Eddie F and I love that you mentioned Sam Salter. We worked with Tab who was part of Tricky’s camp and he wrote a bunch of hits for other people. We had a crash course on really good production with really good people. We were blessed. The album ultimately went platinum but that album should have been a really big seller, but not having the marketing strategy left us in the dark. I wouldn’t trade that experience of working with them for the world. I learned my chops in the studio with them and how things worked. It was a really great experience.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We spoke to Robin Thicke last year and he told us he had so much fun writing for you guys.
Jeff Timmons: Robin was another guy! They couldn’t figure out his lane. He’s an R&B guy, but he’s a white guy. Even Andre Harrell signed him to his label Nu America with Babyface and Robin came out and didn’t hit right away. They couldn’t figure out a way to market him. At the end of the day, it’s about the good songs. It doesn’t have to be overthought. For us, it was just like “Put us out there. Let us go meet people and sing”. That’s what we ended up doing and that’s why we ended up having some success.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I believe you worked with Devante Swing from Jodeci during that time as well?
Jeff Timmons: Yes we did! Devante was in Rochester at the time. We took a train from New York City and visited him. We didn’t end up putting any of the records out. We did two but we never finished them. It was an interesting situation and he was indisposed at the time. We spent a little bit of time up there doing some pretty cool vibey stuff with him but none of it fit with what we were doing on the album.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The debut album was very R&B. How true was that album to you and what you wanted to do?
Jeff Timmons: That album identifies us. That’s more along the lines than some of the other ones. I don’t want to take away from the second album “98 Degrees and Rising” which was our big hit album with “Because Of You”, “I Do” and “The Hardest Thing” but that R&B vibe on the first album, that’s really what our influences were at that time. We were definitely R&B influenced guys. It was about Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson and Michael Jackson. That was the stuff that we would pop in and listen to in our apartment. It was also Jodeci, Boyz II Men, Silk and Shai. We would look at those groups and say “Man, we want to be like them”. It wasn’t even about their image, it was about their vibe and their music. I’m very proud of the first album. It’s actually my favorite album along with our Christmas album.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The second album “98 Degrees and Rising” is four times platinum at this point. What was it like during that era to sell that many records?
Jeff Timmons: It was crazy. I sit here with my youngest daughter and she flips through these influencers, but she’s not engaged with them. When you’re selling physical copies and people literally walked into stores to find the album, that means that you’ve done something and you’ve connected with them in one way. For us to have that kind of audience and see those people in person, it was crazy. Literally overnight we went from buying our own albums to not be able to get out of our tour bus because we were on TRL. All of a sudden you can’t go anywhere and people following us around. People would be screaming or crying hysterically, the music translated and made an impact. I don’t think we knew what to expect and you never quite get used to that reaction to you.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about the record “Thank God I Found You” with Mariah Carey and Joe. What do you remember about making that song with Mariah and Joe?
Jeff Timmons: Oh man, it was a huge honor. First of all, I’m a huge Mariah Carey fan and a massive Joe fan. I was onto Joe before his big album came out. His first one wasn’t very popular and then he had “I Wanna Know” and all those jams. I was onto him and loved his voice. The second I heard there was an opportunity to jump on a song with Mariah Carey and Joe, I was like “Absolutely”. And then to do it with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, they did a lot of the Boyz II Men hits along with Babyface, so that was a dream for me. Of course it went number one, but we’re critical in that we’re just on it a little bit, so we don’t count it as a number one song for us. *Laughs* It did go number one though and it was a complete honor to be with her. She was gracious and awesome and Joe was amazing. I couldn’t be happier. You can’t complain when a record you’re featured on goes number on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.