The mood is cheerful, as you might expect. There are many things for the members to celebrate. They've got their own studio -- a music industry status symbol -- a state-of-the-art facility with two recording areas, a master bedroom suite, kitchen, dance studio and a basketball court. The group has also started its own label -- 581 Records -- named for the Casey family's home address, where the group first got its start.
"We're taking it slow," Brandon Casey says of the label, which has signed four artists so far. "This is something that we have never done before. The way we started out as artists, we just kinda jumped in and whatever mistakes we made, we just lived with them and learned from them. But we're not trying to do the label thing that way. We want to educate ourselves first. We are definitely not trying to be the artist label that starts up and goes under in a year."
Wingo and Norman nod in agreement, laughing at the prospect of leaving behind little more than expensive fliers, cheap T-shirts and snippet CDs -- the legacies of many a boutique vanity label gone belly up.
Of course, there would be no studio, label or artists without hit records -- which, after all, is still JE's primary business. The quartet's latest release, Hard, debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's album chart and the lead single, "Walked Outta Heaven," was the No. 1 R&B single for seven consecutive weeks. But the success does not make the specter of legal trouble hanging overhead any less palpable.
In a widely publicized incident, police came to Norman's Decatur home Aug. 28 to serve a warrant for his possible involvement in a local theft ring. Instead, they found 13 pounds of marijuana, $6,000 in cash and two guns. Norman was in L.A. at the time, but they arrested the seven men who were at the house. He turned himself in to authorities a few days later.
Early last month, the charges against Norman were dropped. But the clearing of his name has not received nearly the amount of publicity given his arrest. So the question remains how the incident will affect JE's image as good boys from the 'hood, something they've always tried to project.
Still, the three groupmates make all of that drama seem far away this afternoon, as they chill among JE's extended family in the comfort of JOI.
"The moral of that story is watch the company you keep," Wingo says, casting Norman as someone unaware of the illegal activities going on in his house while he was away. "A lot of times you try to keep certain friends around or whatever, but that may not always be in your best interest."
Casey adds, "You just have plans and goals in life you want to accomplish that don't have anything to do with what they're doing. I have friends that do whatever. I'm not knocking them, but at some point you have to draw the line and stay on your side."
Norman listens quietly as his groupmates speak. "When we got together as a group," he says finally, "we knew we wanted to stay together no matter what. We knew there would be trials and tribulations and we just had to weather the storms."
A lesser storm arrived this year as well, in the form of rumors that there was a beef between JE and its longtime producer/label head, Jermaine Dupri. That stemmed from the group leaving So So Def when the label switched partners from Sony to Arista.
"JD is our homeboy," Norman explains. "We sit back and are thankful for him just giving us the chance."
"A job," says Casey.
"And a career," adds Wingo. "He could've stolen all our money and we would have still been thankful for the opportunity. And before people get it confused, he didn't steal our money. Actually we got it stolen by someone else before he could even get to it."
Norman points out that, in fact, Dupri appears on Hard, and the group plans to have him on every album. "The sad thing is that there are so many haters out there who wish that we were mad with JD or JD was mad with us," he says. "I guess hearing that there is no beef will be disappointing to those who may want the situation between us to be ugly."
Since discovering the group in 1997, Dupri has helped Jagged Edge become a force in R&B, hip-hop and pop, selling millions of records along the way. But the time was right to move on, they say, to take more control of their career. It's just a natural progression toward increased self-sufficiency, they say.
Storms weathered, Hard has managed to insinuate itself quite effortlessly on the radio and charts, particularly given that it's the group's most autonomous venture to date. Credit that, in part at least, to the album not straying too far from what fans have come to expect from the group.
Party jams like "Tryna Be Your Man," the Durpi-produced "Shady Girl" and "Car Show" (which features OutKast's Big Boi) are hip swinging, dance ditties in the tradition of their biggest hit, "Where the Party At."
Hard also does a fine job of revisiting JE's balladeer expertise first exhibited with slow-jam classics like "Gotta Be" from the Jagged Era debut and later hits like "Let's Get Married." Meanwhile, the debut single, "Walked Outta Heaven," expresses the pain and confusion at the end of a love affair. It falls in the group's tradition of producing solid love songs intimately aware of human emotions, like the classics of their old- school R&B predecessors.
"You gotta know about love to write about it," Brandon Casey says. "You gotta get in a relationship with someone and give some sort of effort, [otherwise] you won't get the gist of love. And no one is immune to love, either. I don't care who you are or how hard you are, there's a girl out there that'll make you feel like a wimp."
As for the group members themselves, they say none of them have had to "walk out of heaven" or been kicked to the curb by lady love recently. For that, too, they're thankful. It's just one less thing to distract them from getting back on the straight-and-narrow path that has so far proven quite fruitful.
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