Tomorrow, Ro James’ debut album ELDORADO hits store shelves and streaming services worldwide. For a few years now, Ro has been one of my favorite R&B singers, and whenever somebody asked for new R&B song suggestions, I’d point them right to this guy. Earlier this week, I got a chance to sit down and have an in-depth convo with Ro about his start in the industry, being signed to ByStorm Entertainment/RCA Records by Mark Pitts, his debut album ‘ELDORADO’, his unique style, the state of R&B music and much more. Check out the interview below:
First off, I just wanna let you know that “Pledge Allegiance” is one of my favorite R&B tracks ever. From the first time I heard that song, I knew you were gonna be a problem. So I’m hella excited everything is finally happening for you!
Word?! I appreciate that man!
For those who may only know Ro James as the guy that sings Permission, how did you get your start in the music industry?
Aww man, where do I even start? Well…I put out this project called ‘Coke, Jack & Cadillacs’ about 3 years ago. ‘Coke’ represented my first girl. ‘Jack’ represented myself. And ‘Cadillac’ represented my journey. Cadillac was also my first car. The whole project was super nostalgic; me thinking back to when I was 19 years old, listening to Jodeci and Prince and all different types of music. I wanted to combine all of those different feelings into my own music.
But before that, I spent a lot of time traveling. My father was in the military, so I moved around a lot. And when I moved to New York — my mom’s from NY and my dad’s from Indiana — I was just around partying and just being out here. And that was before I actually put music out. So people thought I was just this cool kid that was running around, but it was really just me gearing up to release some music and making sure that I didn’t prematurely put out something that I wasn’t proud of.
You know, ‘Coke Jack & Cadillacs’ was really my way of showing “This is what I sound like, this is what I’m doing, and this is the story I’m starting off with.”
And listening to those 3 EP’s, I hear soul, I hear rock, I hear hip hop…
Most definitely! Growing up was interesting man. My dad was also a pastor, and so he was super strict with the music. He would only let us listen to the old school when it came to secular music. He let us listen to like Donnie Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding — he felt like they were the most soulful. But on my own, I kinda branched out and got into Johnny Cash and Bowie and you know, Sting…just a bunch of different bands. Green Day! So yeah, that how my sound came about.
Between that Coke Jack and Cadillacs and now ‘ELDORADO’, you got signed to ByStorm Entertainment/RCA Records through Mark Pitts, which is huge deal! How did that partnership come about?
Basically it came from me putting out ‘Coke Jack & Cadillacs’ in 2013 and being able to demonstrate what it is I wanted to do. You know, when I was in the studio, I’d be like “Yo, I wanna mix rock and R&B and gospel and country!” And they’d be like “Bruh…you gotta figure out ‘how’ and ‘what’.” And when I finally figured that out, I think that’s what made it easy. I would go and tell people these things, but when you can let them listen, it’s different. And “Pledge Allegiance” was the perfect example of that — it was country, but it was rock, it was soul and it was hip hop at the same time. That’s what caught Mark’s eye actually: “Pledge Allegiance”. And then when he heard the other music, I was in there!
Not to mention, I also knew Miguel and I had met Mark through Miguel like 3 years prior — when I was still working on ‘Coke Jack & Cadillacs’. So everything kinda just came full circle. You know, I had a few other label interests and meetings, but Mark understood exactly what I was trying to do. And, he’s from that 90’s R&B era, and that era plays a huge part in my whole movement. I’m very 90’s influenced. You know! Those vibes, that energy! So yeah, Mark & RCA was a perfect fit for me.
You mentioned that ‘Cadillac’ symbolized your first car and your journey. Now, you’ve named your debut album ‘ELDORADO’ after that car. Talk a little bit about the process behind making ‘ELDORADO.’
Man, making ‘ELDORADO’ was definitely a different process because when I did ‘Coke Jack & Cadillacs’, I was independent. It was all me: all my ideas, all my yes’, all my no’s. Moving into a partnership with a label, you have to accept other peoples’ ideas. But at the same time, it allowed me to grow, it helped me to extend my scope, my sound. I allowed myself to get out there and experiment with different producers, which I had never done before. So yeah, that was the biggest change when we made ‘ELDORADO’: getting people you’ve never met before to tap into your world and your vision.
And “Permission” is killing on radio and on the R&B charts, so congrats on that!
In 2016, male R&B singers aren’t as respectful and lowkey in love songs as they used to be. Nowadays, everything is about being as blunt as possible or rapping your girl into the bed. There’s no chase and no tenderness in love songs like there was in 90’s. So when you released “Permission” as a single, were you super conscious of that; that you were going against the mold of what’s the new norm?
Hell yeah! I mean, listen: in our era of music right now, it’s all about trap, it’s all about which hoe do you have now, etcetera. And I’m like, how do I stay current, but at the same time, stay classic. And I wanna make sure my music can be listened to 10, 20 years from now. So it was definitely very important to me that I show some type of respect. I want my mom to be able to listen, but at the same time, I’m not making music for my mom. It’s all about balance. I wanna get young woman that wants to move too. “Permission” was about being sexy and at the same time discreet; not being so in your face with sex sex sex. The title “Permission” itself is suggestive, but at the same time, it’s respectful. And I think that goes with everything for me — I try to find balance. I’m bad! But, I also got a little bit of good in me.
Now the album ‘ELDORADO’ FINALLY comes out this week and I’m super excited for that. I wanna know: what was the one song on the album are you most hype for your fans to hear?
Yo man…I got so many, but “Holy Water”?! When I first did it, I was like “Yo…this is a joint! This is special!” I did it with Happy Perez in Houston and it was just…from the moment the track came in, it felt like the journey. It felt like ‘ELDORADO’. I got in there and kinda just free-styled the melody and once I did that, the words just came at the same time. So, everything just worked out. I heard it and was like “This is exactly what ‘ELDORADO’ is.” My father was in the Army, so I had a chance to live everywhere and to be aware of that and to be influenced by different cultures and different walks of life. I was born in Germany, but my family is Panamanian…all these different cultures represent my “me”.
With ‘ELDORADO’, I want the whole world to appreciate it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter if you appreciate soul music. If you appreciate good music with a message, you’ll appreciate ‘ELDORADO.’ So “Holy Water” was like all of that combined. It don’t matter if you like pop music, country, R&B, hip hop or whatever, you’ll appreciate this song and the feeling of it.
So the album comes out Friday, and then in a few weeks time, you’re going out on tour with Maxwell…that’s legendary! Did you have a big “ohhh shit” moment when you found out?
I don’t think I’ve had a big “ohhh shit” type moment yet! I think that moment is coming. I’m still stuck on the fact that I have a album coming out on Friday! But when it comes to Maxwell, it’s a huge honor to be able to share the stage with him and just to be exposed to his collection of fans that have enjoyed his music over the years. So, just for me to even be a part of that, to share my journey with those people, is a blessing. Maxwell definitely brought his own vibes to R&B; more finesse and that falsetto. So, it’s just — that’s a part of me as well. When you listen to my music, you hear that too. So to pair us up is dangerous! It’s exciting at the same time.
Who are you listening to heavy nowadays?
I switch it around alot! You know I’m listening to BJ The Chicago Kid, Anderson .Paak…I’m digging what Bryson’s doing. This guy Amir Obé, he’s dope. I try to listen to what’s going on right now because those are my friends too, so I just try to support and appreciate the art.
I was just looking at your album cover and I gotta ask: where do you get your style inspiration from? Because you’re always rocking some super fly shit everytime I see you on something!
I try to be, well not even try, but I am an individual. I just make sure I’m not doing something that anybody else is doing. That’s the first thing. And what’s dope man — it’s very natural for me. I afford that to my father being in the military, so I’ve seen a lot of different things and picked up a lot of different styles over the years.
And when it comes to fashion, I have this rock/hip hop blend. And…yeah. I just try to find fly shit that nobody else is doing. And on my album cover, my homegirl Lambo actually made that fit for me BY HAND. She hand stitched the ‘ELDORADO’ and everything. It just all about having pieces that nobody else has. Just being you; that’s what is most important.
I’m always curious to ask artists about the industry itself. How do you feel about the current state of the music industry? You know, 10 years ago, somebody like Ashanti could go Gold in one week with her debut album. But now, R&B rarely sells. Do you feel like the current shift to focusing on digital and streaming is going to help and hurt the genre of R&B?
To be honest, I really don’t know! I mean, for me as an artist, I feel like years ago people were selling albums. And to come into this space now where…even like 4, 5 years ago I was told, “Yo, R&B doesn’t sell. R&B ain’t the move. You should rap a little bit, use some autotune.” And I just knew, there had to be something that was different about R&B that would make people go and buy it. I think what was missing was the soul and the feeling and the emotion and the connection, instead of just trying to chase a single or try to put out something that was compared to a Chris Brown or a Post Malone, you know? “What are you doing that’s different that’s gonna make me go and spend my money?” was the question I’d always ask myself. If I already heard Chris on the radio, why would I go buy somebody else that sounds just like him?
So with streaming, I feel like it helps my music touch ears that it probably wouldn’t otherwise. On Apple Music, you can listen to the curated radio stations, and I’m there. Same on Spotify and SoundCloud, etc. where new music kinda just pops up on your playlists. I feel like that’s super cool.
As far as sales, it’s just a little bit different now. You know people are still so focused on first week sales but it’s different now that we got streaming. So, I don’t know man. For me, I just wanna put out fantastic music; something that’s real and authentic and continuously pushes the envelope and allows me to grow and evolve. Every time I put something out, I want it to be a different feeling and vibe. I wanna make people want to tap into my journey and spend their $9.99 on album or $25 to see me in concert. I think that that’s what I’m trying to do: put out great music. And I ain’t gotta worry about album sales because I’ll have that support.
Cool man. Those are all the questions I had for you today. You have any last words you wanna leave your fans with?
Yea go get that ‘ELDORADO’ on Friday! And look out for that ELDORADO Tour in the Fall!