Ron Isley sat down with Vibe magazine to discuss his 37-month federal prison sentence for tax evasion, plans for a new album featuring the likes of Lauryn Hill, T.I. and Aretha Franklin, his relationship with R. Kelly and more…
VIBE: How’d you bide your time while you were incarcerated?
Ron Isley: My job was to work in the chapel. I sang for them every Monday and I was watching all kinds of spiritual movies and singing for the guys. I had high respect for anyone there.
Was it a recognition thing?
Yeah. When I came there, what Johnny Cash meant to the authorities is what I meant to [the inmates]. But it was a camp. It wasn’t a prison with a wall around it or nothing. You could get in your car, drive off and go home [but] you would get in a lot of trouble for leaving without permission. They had other rules where you couldn’t have a cell phone but everybody did.
So despite being held there by law, it was a breeze considering where you could have been?
Word on the street is that your fly young wife was coming to visit a lot.
Oh yeah. She was there four times a week with my baby. It was regular visits from 9am to 3pm and on all the holidays – Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. My daughter and my brother came to visit too. That made it go real fast for me.
A lot of black artists went to jail in the 60s, did you ever get locked up then?
Nah, never. This is the first time where, it wasn’t jail but it was the first time I ever been locked up somewhere where couldn’t come home.
How, after all these years, did you fall behind on tax payments?
I had a case against the government so they had a case against me. They wanted me to drop my case and I didn’t drop it and they won. They won because I couldn’t take the stand. I had gotten sick and I don’t want to say they won because of that. They win because they can win. Everything was stacked against me but that’s over with now.
Elaborate on the case they had against you?
case was with me and my brother—we overpaid money to the government and they owed us money, then they owed us the interest on the money and it started off that they owed us five million dollars and then interest on that for 20 years. They didn’t want to hear about that and they wanted us to drop the case. We wanted to carry it through and they wanted me to say I was guilty on some smaller stuff and so that was basically it.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in all of this?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is I never thought I would… At the time, no one had been locked up for something that they locked me up for. If I had signed certain papers, which I was told not to do, it wouldn’t have been any problem whatsoever so I took it for granted and I said that this well never happen because I didn’t do anything. But a picture was painted that I did—like I never paid taxes in my life and that’s a lie. We paid over 25 million dollars in taxes. I paid them 5 million more than I was supposed to but they didn’t talk about that.
Now you’re over the hump and you have an eight album record deal. Talk about your next album and the subsequent music.
My album will be out in September and then I’m going to do a gospel album and who knows what else, I don’t know yet. This album I have coming out in September is finally finished. My business has always been competitive—trying to out do what you did before and I feel that this album proves everything I want to prove. R&B singing can be—some people have said that R&B has went to this side or is like hip-hop now. Although my album has some hip-hop and everything on it, I’m one of the ones who have been able to escape that when it came to that with albums and I’m thankful for that. But this album proves everything that I want it to prove.
Elaborate on what you’re trying to prove.
That I’m the best. I’m gonna prove that I’m one of the best [Laughs].
How’d you end up getting Lauryn Hill?
John McClain [executive producer] was very instrumental in that happening but the duet that we did together – people say it’s the best duet they ever heard [and] I’m very proud of that.
But she’s been so inconsistent with music.
It wasn’t hard for me to get her, but it was hard for everybody else. I’m grateful and thankful.
Ah, so your Mr. Biggs side made her an offer she couldn’t refuse? [Laughs]
Yeah, something like that… And I also did something with Aretha Franklin who is my best friend. We talked about recording something together ever since the beginning, when we first met each other, which was 1962 when she was just getting started.
And what about T.I.?
I wrote a song with Greg Curtis and John Neville, “Put Your Money on Me,” and we talked about the only person who would be able to do this is T.I. and so we reached out and he did a fabulous job.
Talk about some of the album’s production, did R. Kelly hook it up too?
Not on this album. I did 15 songs and we chose 11. I worked with Tricky Stewart, I did two songs with him. I did a song with Tank, which was incredible. When you hear the song I did with him, it’s gonna shock a lot of people.
I don’t want to give too much away but it’s a Mr. Biggs thing. A lot of people will wonder, “Wow, how did y’all come up with that?” It’s one of them kind of songs.
Your music has been sampled ridiculously in hip-hop. What are some of your favorites?
“In Between the Sheets” with Biggie [“Big Poppa”] that’s one of my favorites. And Ice Cube did one of my favorites with “It’s a Good Day,” he sampled “Footsteps in the Dark.” One other song was with Tupac – ”For the Love of You,” he sampled that. All our catalogue has been sampled like crazy.
How did that help you when you needed to make a comeback in the 90s?
It helped in a way. That’s the appreciation that we’ve gotten. That’s where Mr. Biggs comes from. They call me “Mr. I” too. All the young people – they know more than a lot of people think that they know and they chose our catalogue. I’m grateful.
So, who officially named you “Mr. Biggs?”
It was basically all the in crowd. R. Kelly and all of that.
Talk about your relationship with R. Kelly.
He’s like a son to me. He’s very talented and he’s working on a couple albums now. He spent quite a bit of time in Africa. We talked about doing some things together but I didn’t get do anything with him this time. We’ll give it a rest for a second or so and then we’ll get back at it.
Was it that your schedules didn’t match?
Yeah. And like I said, he was in Africa and I was knee deep in doing the album here in The States.