Remember trying to do the dance routine from the “Spread My Wings” video, or how about testing your own vocal ability while trying to mimic the sounds of “I Will Always Love You?”
Those sounds came from none other than the quintet known as Troop, or Total Respect Of Other People to be exact. The group–consisting of Steven Russell, Allen McNeil, Jon Jon Harreld, Rodney Benford, and Reggie Warren–ruled the radio airwaves in the late 80s into the early 90s and then there was nothing…or so the world thought. If you’ve heard Chris Brown’s “Take You Down”, Jordin Sparks’ “No Air,” or even the soundtrack to the blockbuster film Dreamgirls, then you’ll realize that Troop never really disappeared.
Meet Steven Russell, co-lead singer of the group Troop and the pen behind the sound that you hear on the radio today. As a member of the successful production team The Underdogs, Russell has worked on projects for artists including Aretha Franklin, Beyoncé, Brian McKnight, Justin Timberlake, Tank, and Tyrese, just to name a few. Under his own production company, The Motel Media Music, Russell released the album So Random.
Soultrain.com caught up with singer/songwriter Steven Russell to discuss a Troop reunion, and how he’s influencing the music industry.
Steven Russell: We were at Pasadena High School, and I made the decision at 15 years old that I wanted to play pro football or do music. I always really loved music, and at the same time Rodney and Reggie were in a group that was kind of like New Edition and were on a show at the time called Puttin’ on the Hits. During that time, I was in a talent show, and the young lady who had organized the show asked me if I knew Rodney and the other guys that were on TV. During that time period, a producer had written a letter to the show asking if the group could really sing because he really liked him. He wasn’t a big time producer, but he was someone that had always been in the music industry. At the same time I was looking for Rodney, Rodney was looking for me, so we met up at school and he was telling me about the producer and asked if I was interested in being in the group. So anyway, I made it into the group–we were called Five of a Kind–so that’s really how we got started right there at Pasadena High. Jon was also at the school; he joined the group after I did. I used to go around Pasadena to Air Force bases when I was like 12 years old, performing Michael Jackson songs. I had 14 dancers and Jon Jon was one of the dancers that performed with me. So once Jon Jon heard that I was in this group, he was like, ‘forget that I’m coming, too!’ (laughs) He actually got off the bus when Rodney did and followed him, so Jon Jon demanded his way into the group (laughs), but you know that’s how you know God is real because when Jon Jon was forcing his way into the group, one of the original guys quit. It was just so crazy. I met Allen through my cousin, and he said if you ever need someone in your group, let me know. Right after that one of the other guys stopped coming to rehearsals and quit. So Rodney’s mom, our manager, kind of like our Joe Jackson (laughs), she put him out of the group and I told her about Allen. I left a letter for him at one of his friend’s house, and he finally got it, and that’s how we became Five of a Kind.
Soul Train: That is an awesome story. So you guys were at the prime of your careers then Troop just disappeared. What happened?
Steven Russell: What happened was the way we signed with a production company through the producer I was telling you about. When we became successful, we weren’t signed directly to the record label, and we didn’t understand the structure of business. The production company got us the producers and songs and ended up being the reason we were signed to Atlantic Records. We were offended in our ignorance because we weren’t signed directly to Atlantic, not realizing that the production company brought the group to the record label, the group didn’t bring itself to them. So, what happened was it kind of opened our eyes to the business and that we made an agreement and these are the decisions that we made in our hunger to get out of the ghetto, so now we have to deal with it. So for a short time after that, Allen had taught me how to write songs, so at this time I was a fluent writer. It was like he lit a match and started a fire. I mean I started writing songs, getting them onto the Troop album, writing for The Whispers, it was crazy. When we signed with the production company, we signed over 50% of our publishing and its mechanical royalties, and that is money that is generated every time a record is made. So we signed 50% of that in our contract not knowing what publishing was.
Soul Train: Are you serious right now? Fifty percent as in they get half and the group gets half?
Steven Russell: When he gave us that contract, he drew a circle on a piece of paper and drew a line down the middle and said, “This half is yours this half is ours”. We weren’t even good songwriters at that time, so we didn’t care. Four years down the line, we’re really writing, and we see how Gerald Levert and Keith Sweat [are] all rich, and I’m hanging with these guys so I’m seeing how these guys are living. And here’s Troop selling albums like crazy and I’m really getting it in, everybody’s flossing in the group. I’m in the studio all the time, like I am today, just getting it in. What triggered it for me was, I walked into the production company’s office one day and I saw a gold plaque for The Whispers and I wrote and produced the song, got the placement on my own, and they got the plaque on their wall and didn’t even order me one! I’m like 19 years old and I wasn’t that smart, but hell I’m talented (laughs), so anyway, that bothered me. We were on tour with MC Hammer for so many years. His manager, Louis Burrell, heard the stuff that I had written and produced and started asking questions about me on the road. So I started dealing with them on that level. On the other hand, Allen and I had written the songs together for Troop so we had a nice little pipeline coming into the group. We went to the production company and told them that we understand what publishing is now and we realize that they shouldn’t be getting 50%, especially if the placement we’re doing is on our own, so why would they get 50% of that? We signed that contract as ignorant kids, so they told us to read our contract, and we’re thinking that this is a family type of thing and they’ll say “well, you’re right–we’ll take 25% and you can have the rest”. But it wasn’t like that; they weren’t coming off their 50%, so that changed everything–and I mean everything. My working relationship continued growing with Louis Burrell and Allen started working with him as well while we were on tour. So we met with him about managing the group.
Soul Train: Since Louis Burrell began managing the group, did you completely break ties with the production company?
Steven Russell: Yes. We made the decision to leave our first production company right in the middle of making all of those hits that were going number one. Right in the middle of our success, in our ignorance of not understanding the politics and the business, we decided to part ways with the company and let Louis manage us. Ultimately that decision was what hurt Troop the most. So after making those decisions, we decided to go our separate ways and try something else, not necessarily breaking up but we shot a hole right through the business of Troop.
Soul Train: Wow. So you guys still do shows here and there, but are you working on a reunion album?
Steven Russell: Yes. There were about 4 years where we stopped going on the road, but we’ve always had people calling us to do shows, so we have been doing shows for the past 15 years. We are working together, just getting songs together, because right now the industry is single-driven, and so we are trying to find that one song that will make people say “damn.” We aren’t going after the young people that are not our market, we are trying to focus on music that is fresh for the people that are still young at our age and the older heads that still like good music. We’re reaching for the market that already knows and loves us.
Soul Train: A lot of groups from the 90s are hitting the comeback trail. Why do you think that is? Why re-emerge into the spotlight now, especially as far as Troop is concerned?
Steven Russell: Well, nobody ever took our place as far as we are concerned. In the fog of making bad decisions and going through life in the music business, we forgot who we were, just like the other groups. You think that just because you aren’t who you used to be, that you’ve been replaced. But when you wake up from the fog, you realize there hasn’t been another Troop or other groups. We were dancing, doing flips and trying to do stuff, because we think someone is going to come and challenge that. No one is ever going to touch what we did as far as a performance group. When you lose people like Gerald Levert at such a young age, it makes you realize things. I called a meeting and said we need to do this while we’re still alive. Here I am writing songs for Chris Brown, Ruben Studdard, Tyrese–and that just shows I’m current. (laughs) I’ve been on the radio for the last 15 years straight and people don’t even know why they like that Tyrese song or that Chris Brown song. That’s that Troop sound–they don’t even know why they like that “Gots Ta Be” by B2K, so I said we need to do Troop now. The sound is still working; it’s just not in the name of Troop. So I’ve always been one of the main singers, main sounds in Troop, that makes us current in the sense of the people that we’re trying to reach. That audience likes Tyrese, they like Charlie Wilson’s “Just Can’t Live Without You”, they like Jordin Sparks’ “No Air”, and its all Troop. So that’s my reason for coming to Troop, we’re still alive, we’re early 40s right now, and I didn’t want us to be sitting here in our 50s thinking we should have done this back then. I’m taking advantage of being a sexy young 42 year old guy (laughs).
Soul Train: (laughs) Don’t hurt nobody now, or yourself trying to do those flips! (laughs) So how would you describe the “Steven Russell” solo artist sound? Is it different from what we have heard when you sang lead in the group?
Steven Russell: I think I can only be what I’ve been influenced by. My influences include Howard Hewitt, James Taylor, of course Michael Jackson, Chuckii Booker, and Allen McNeil, the other lead singer in Troop. I think my sound consists of a mixture of that whatever that is. It’s like a stew of everything that I have been exposed to.
Soul Train: Discuss your next solo album. What can fans expect to hear?
Steven Russell: My next album is called Come Thru. It’s another collection of R&B songs. As I’ve written songs for other people, I put some songs aside for myself to round it off. I’ll go and dig up some songs that I wrote a few years ago that are really nostalgic and have a sound of that time period, and I will use that to really keep that R&B thing alive. I grew up on this music and I’ll always do R&B; I’m not going to let the music change me. I plan to release it sometime this summer. People can still get the So Random album on iTunes as well. You can order an autographed copy of the CD from my website.
Soul Train: The group remade the Jackson 5 song “All I Do is Think of You”. Did the Jacksons ever contact you guys and if so what did they think of the song?
Steven Russell: Well, the first reaction was from Jermaine. He practically cried when we came to Atlanta to perform on the MC Hammer tour. He was thrilled to meet us. It was like we were the celebrities, it was so cool. I mean yeah we might have been celebrities at the time, but come on, that’s Jermaine Jackson. (laughs) So he was so happy about the song. Then a few years later I was working on something with Jackie Jackson and he told me how when Michael Jackson heard the song he called the whole family asking if they had heard it. He said Michael was thrilled because it was one of his favorite songs that they recorded, even though it wasn’t a hit for them. He called them just tripping out so that was an honor. Janet also gave us a lot of props, too. We met the writer of the song–Michael Love Smith–and he of course he was thrilled and he made a few million dollars off of Troops’ rendition, so he was very happy.
Soul Train: Did you ever get the chance to meet Michael Jackson or work with him?
Steven Russell: Yes, I met Michael Jackson in 2001; it was right after 9/11. I met him on my trip to New York. I was working with the group B2K and I had produced the songs “Why I Love You” and “Gots Ta Be”. I was in the office with a good friend of mine who was running the label at the time, and his boss brought Michael Jackson into the room, and I was like ‘WHAT?!!” (laughs) There were four guys in the room at the time and we all got quiet like little girls (laughs) when he walked in. He was so petite, so nice, so humble, and not at all walking around all cocky like. I mean this dude is the biggest guy on the planet, and so humble, soft spoken, real cool. I was so happy when I shook his hand. I held his hand for as long as he would let me (laughs). Shoot, that’s Mike right there! Michael Jackson was my everything. It was one of the best days of my life.
Soul Train: What’s been the number one highlight of your career so far?
Steven Russell: Dang, just one? It’s hard to say because I’ve done so many things that were exciting. Being on tour and people crying over songs that I wrote while I was sitting in my girlfriend’s bed at her house was amazing. Just people loving you and chasing you, I love that, it’s just awesome. I guess the highlight to sum it up would be the experience of being on tour and performing, and that dream really just coming true. All that time of rehearsing with no management, no hope, but just still rehearsing whether we had management or not, we kept going everyday. Then one day our songs are on the charts at number one over Michael Jackson, Babyface, Hammer, we’re number one that was the highlight for me. Meeting Michael Jackson was the same level as that for me also.
Soul Train: Wow that is a good way to sum it up. Do you have any memories of Soul Train?
Steven Russell: Soul Train was the place where I learned all of my dances as a kid growing up. I’ve seen every episode of the show. My auntie used to take me to Venice Beach when I was a kid, and all of the dancers from Soul Train used to be out there on the beach. My auntie would take me out there and make me dance against those grown men from Soul Train.
Soul Train: Stop it! You are kidding!
Steven Russell: Ok, they were 19. So anyway, to be able to perform on the show with our number one records and meet Don Cornelius was absolutely amazing. That’s another highlight of my career.
Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Vibe, Creative Loafing, or her own site, www.themofochronicles.com. Follow her on Twitter @mofochronicles.