We recently caught up with Karyn White for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we touched on her reign during the New Jack Swing era of R&B, working with LA Reid & Babyface as well as Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, each of her albums, her hiatus from the music industry, her return with her new label and artist Akbar, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We love to celebrate the New Jack Swing era of R&B. Often when we discuss it among our readers, your name comes up as the Queen of New Jack Swing. What does that mean to you?
Karyn White: I’m just glad I’m the queen of something! *Laughs* I love it. I’m so excited. That era was magical. Having those uptempo hits as well as those ballads, being on the road, opening up for Bobby Brown, being on the road with Guy, Al B Sure and Teddy Riley and En Vogue. It was an incredible time in music and I really miss those days.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Take us back to how you got discovered and signed your deal with Warner Bros?
Karyn White: Well Jeff Lorber, the legendary Jazz fusion artist. For those of you who don’t know, he started my career as well as Dave Koz, Eric Benet also started with him. I was so blessed. I was able to get on this record and it had such an amazing group of people. Benny Medina signed me to Warner Bros. It was based on this Jeff Lorber record. Thank God that record did well enough. I think it went Top 20. So that was how I got signed. They saw this fireball! People left this Jeff Lorber show asking who we were. The energy was just fire. We opened up for Chaka Khan and it was an incredible tour. That’s how I got my deal. Warner Bros was the premiere label at the time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We certainly felt the energy on your debut album. Take us back to creating that project, which had Babyface and LA Reid all behind the production of it.
Karyn White: Mannn. Let me tell you how lit it was back in LA and Babyface’s studio. You go to a session, you’d have Bobby Brown in one room, Johnny Gill in another room, Pebbles in another. You’d have such a synergy of artists, that I was just so blessed to be able to work with those guys. They loved my voice from the Jeff Lorber record. We started out doing two songs and it turned out being five. Babyface said I needed to do a duet with him. We did an amazing duet together, that was the last song. It was just awesome being at the start of their careers. They were so talented and they had patterned themselves off of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It was a little rivalry there. Jam and Lewis had Janet, so they had something to prove and boy did they prove it. I knew they were amazing, but 100 hits, c’mon!
YouKnowIGotSoul: Speaking of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, you got to work with them on your second album. What was it like creating the “Ritual of Love” album?
Karyn White: I’m just sitting back looking at my life and working with Jim and Lewis, oh my God! Who didn’t want to be Janet Jackson and have those uptempo as well as those ballads. The great thing about Jam and Lewis is they could pretty much do Human League to Janet to Terrence Trent D’arby, their whole sound, they were great at taking an artist whatever direction they wanted to go. I was with Terry, we had a relationship. So, LA and Babyface also at that same time were having their success with LaFace. It became really a choice of whether LA and Face had to do so many records. They couldn’t work with everybody. So they signed Toni Braxton and therefore that was a conflict of interest, working on Karyn White and also trying to break her career. So I asked Jimmy Jam and Terry to do my record. We should have went with LA Reid and Babyface because the chemistry was magic, but life happens. They felt I was in good hands anyway! We were able to do some amazing work. They took me pop, I had a #1. I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records! I was actually supposed to work with Prince on that album! I remember calling him up and he invited me to Minnesota. This is when he was working on the Batman record. He just couldn’t hear what I was trying to do, but he said I was in good hands. I knew I was stepping into the house that Janet built, and I was very aware that people are very territorial in this business. I came self made already. I like to tell Terry that. I had platinum and double platinum before I worked with them. But it was a great time working with all of those amazing artists, it’s such a blessing when I look at that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was it even like being a star within the New Jack Swing era?
Karyn White: It was incredible. I’m going to tell you guys, that era, you could not just be a vocalist, you had to bring it visually, you had to be a performer. It was the MTV era, the VH1 era, the BET Video Soul era. Prince and Michael had set the tone, with these videos, along with Madonna, Janet, Whitney. You had to be all of those things. You had to give them all of it. For me, I’m a ham! That’s where I shine, you put me on that stage, anybody coming after me better be worried, I leave it all out there! It’s fun for me because I turn into this person, it’s all about my audience and I love them and I love performing. That era was just that. We got on the stage and you had that competition. Bobby Brown would say Karyn White was kicking his ass on stage tonight! I had my band and I was a big Sheila E and Prince fan, very Teena Turner. It was a great time. People really loved having artists that were multi dimensional and gave it to them. Also taking you to church a little bit too! *Laughs*
YouKnowIGotSoul: As you were creating your third album, the sound of R&B had evolved a bit. What was it like approaching that one compared with your first two?
Karyn White: The third album, I was very rich! Living in a 30,000 square foot mansion, with maids and nannies and cooks! I remember Terry would say “If you pay her enough, then she’ll go on the road!” So I started to kind of change this fire that I had. I’m just keeping it 1000. Both of us were at the peak of our careers, and then I had a baby, so that’s when I became a mom. I kind of lost my self confidence. I wondered if I could still do it. Then I remember just really second guessing myself. I’m already a Libra! I just felt like I was going through things in my marriage and it was just a tough time. I knew how to win. They called me Karyn White in elementary school! I was always a star. People saw me that way. I was always a go getter. I was just always that girl. I was very focused and I knew what I wanted to do. Just with that third album, me stepping back, I remember Warner Bros saying to me I could have a Gold record, with this song called “I’d Rather Be Alone Than Be Unhappy”, which at that time, we were dealing with the OJ Simpson trial. That song was about domestic violence and it was great. It was produced by Jellybean Johnson. I took things for granted. If I could go back. I felt myself losing who I was. I was in Minnesota, my life was different. I was the only one there. I was losing Karyn White. I didn’t like it and I didn’t know how to get back to that fire that I had. I didn’t promote the record like I should have. Although, I think it’s probably one of my best records. I was so gangsta with it, I called Babyface and told him I needed him on the record. He came to Minnesota and it was his first time coming to Flyte Time. That’s how they actually came together. He came to record my vocals for “Can I Stay With You”. That was pretty gangsta having Babyface come to Flyte Time, now that I think about it! *Laughs* It was great working with him again and getting together. LA Reid wasn’t there. He was such a big part of our chemistry. He’s like me, he’s wild and knows how to push an artist. Face is more reserved, and I was used to LA kicking my butt. *Laughs* It was a little different. But let me tell you about “Make Him Do Right”. What ended up happening was I had no clue. Apartheid was still going on in South Africa. That record became huge over in South Africa. Bigger than any of the other records I’ve done. I go there 20 years later and I’m like a Whitney Houston to them! I had no clue. When we talk about that timeless music, it lived on, and I’m so thankful. In the states it’s been hard for me. They are on to the next. It’s not the same, but they really cherish. Also in the UK and Japan, they just cherish the artists. Once they love you, they love you. It really made me feel good, coming back and getting that love.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You mentioned you had a child around the time of your third album. This was before social media, so fans didn’t always know what was going on with an artist if they were out of the spotlight. It’s not really fair especially for an artist who takes time to start a family. How did you deal with that?
Karyn White: I remember first and foremost my label. They were like “Ummmm…..you used to be this sex symbol, and now you dress like a Fortune 500 person”. This is kind of my thing. I pick up the energy. It is so important, especially as an entertainer. I was around Terry who was my husband and also the business side of Jimmy and Terry. I became very business like, I wanted my masters. So the label wasn’t a fan of that. Some of my fans felt like when I got with Terry they didn’t like it, and I shouldn’t have stopped singing. To be fair, it wasn’t Terry’s fault at all, he wanted me to be all that I wanted to be. He was an amazing husband and father. That was me just doing me. I always wanted to be an entertainer since I was five. So I was so focused and that’s the thing about me. I have this tunnel vision. I didn’t know how to be all of it. I had a problem with being an artist, a mommy, a stepmother, a wife. Some women can do this. They told me I was superwoman! But that’s just the song! I’m struggling just like everyone else is. That time, people weren’t as forgiving. Now that I tell my story and they understand. I wanted to raise my daughter, I really stepped away and I said I wasn’t going to do music for a while. Then it turned into five years. Then I thought nobody cared about me anymore because they had Beyonce! So I really stepped away and raised my daughter and I’m really glad I did. She’s a casting agent now and an incredible human being an I love her to death. She’s my only daughter. Now I’m back! Me stepping away has preserved me for this time! *Laughs* I feel like I’m 25, that’s what happens when you’re not in this industry letting them wear you out.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We’ve got to give you credit for persevering.
Karyn White: See this is what my parents deposited the resilience in me. Even though I wasn’t singing you best believe I was out there grinding. I became a real estate investor. I was buying up all of California. I was learning all of that stuff. Being with these amazing people I was around, I was using those tools in that way. I needed to do that. I never went to college. I went to high school and had a high school education. One thing I did, nobody could take from me, was my drive. I was very successful at that. I was able to still raise my daughter at the same time. After I kept running out of excuses. People would see me and ask why I wasn’t singing. My daughter was about to graduate from high school. I couldn’t use that excuse no more. I was inspired. I got into the production business. I started producing reality shows. None of them had actually got picked up. But whenever I’d go into these meetings, with people like Russell Simmons, and Sanaa Lathan’s dad. They would always tell me I was amazing and ask what I was doing. I was trying to promote my artist and they’d try to bring it back to me! I had my reign, I was good. But no I wasn’t. I really had it still in me. The minute I hit that stage. My depression was really suppressing that side of me, it made me think I didn’t need to do this because I was a business woman now. When I hit that stage, I’m in my purpose. I can’t really explain to you the love that I feel. When I perform it’s a whole nother thing. Especially when I’m with my band, it’s just a love, the people, it’s healing. This music is something, it means something to me. I really want to give my all to my audience. These people were growing up with me and these are the superwomen out there, the little girls that tell me I was the chocolate girl that made them want to believe they could do it, because everybody else was light skinned. I had no clue! I never knew. I was detached from all of that, we didn’t have social media. But I look back on it and say “Ok God, I hear you!” I’m going to now bring an amazing an incredible artist to this generation. Hip hop has been weaponized. I don’t like the images or what they are saying. I didn’t grow up like that. Hip hop was not originally born out of that. It was fun and knowledge and wisdom and understanding. It was changing you. It was very important to the culture, we invented hip hop. I’m actually going to be coming back with a purpose and I’m so glad to have my artist Akbar to bring with me.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve got a new artist and label. Tell us about them.
Karyn White: So following my last album “Carpe Diem”, I just got my masters back from EMI. Good music is timeless. I know about some music, I’ve done had the best producers ever! Just knowing when to shut up when greatness is in the room. You better believe I soaked up all of that. I know how to recognize talent. This time coming back, I put out my own record. Then I didn’t really know how to navigate. When it’s me, I didn’t how I promote myself. I’m not used to social media. Am I begging them when I post about my album every other day? I didn’t know how to do it. I kind of told my partners at my label Supernova that I wanted to introduce my artist Akbar. I love promoting people. People have gifts, I bow at your feet. I really expect that and I love it. When I heard Akbar, we are going to learn through Akbar, he’s going to teach us something and show me how to promote myself. It’s been incredible. Supernova was born over Covid. I also did a movie I forgot to tell you guys about! I should have promoted that better as well, shame on Karyn White for not letting you guys know! I had a movie that we did on a shoe string budget. When Karyn left the industry for all of that time, she became her own boss, and I make the rules. That’s what I’m doing. I’m not trying to reach the millions of people that I had before. If you love me, great. You’ve got to find your tribe, that’s all we’re doing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: It’s so amazing to hear of the great spot you’re in after all of these years.
Karyn White: It’s so funny because Unsung keeps trying to tell me they want me to go on their show. I say, “Aint nothing Unsung about Karyn White!” I’m on a new chapter baby, you can come along with me if you want to! I’m on my Tina Turner, I’ve got stuff to do! I’ve got nothing to prove, I’m just back.
YouKnowIGotSoul: When can we expect new music from Karyn White?
Karyn White: Oh yea. Guess who hopped into my DM’s? Talking about the King of New Jack Swing, Teddy Riley. He asked if I was ready! Y’all be on the lookout for that. We got some things coming. The return of the 90’s, we’re bringing back soul, we’re bringing back this music, we’re taking the culture back.
Check out Karyn White’s new artist Akbar with his single “YRBG (Young Righteous Black Girl)”