“The stars at night shine so low, you could pick one out of the sky with your hands,” Josh Milan says over the phone, extolling the virtues of his adopted home of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.
The firmament was probably a bit less sparkling in where he grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, or in Newark, New Jersey, where he moved in his teens — but Milan’s gaze, it seems, has been directed upward and outward from an early age. Raised in the church and steeped in the sounds of gospel music, he was just in his mid-teens when he joined friends Chris Herbert and Kevin Hedge in Blaze, the Newark-based music machine that helped to define the New Jersey soulful house sound; he also was part of such beloved Blaze offshoots as Phase II, Klubhead and Black Rascals. After a short stint on Motown and the release of 1990’s “25 Years Later” full length, Herbert left Blaze, but the remaining duo carried on, with the multi-instrumentalist Milan serving as coproducer and, often, vocalist.
In 2010, after two and a half decades and tons of now-classic tunes, Blaze fell silent. The reason behind the painful split, as is too often the case, was money, a subject that Milan’s alluded to in past interviews. But Josh was still looking to the stars, and within the year, he had launched Honeycomb Music. Over the past 11 years, the label has positioned itself as a home for dance music for the mature clubber — rich R&B-tinged instrumentation and soulful, sophisticated vocals draped over a subdued house template — with a packed discography that features Dawn Tallman, Kia Stewart, Lamone, spoken-word artist Janine Lyons and, of course, Milan himself, among others. (Milan’s 2017 long-player, “6.9.69,” boasts covers from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers and Gill Scott-Heron, artists who are clear precursors to the Honeycomb sound.) Speaking with 5 Mag, Milan enthusiastically spoke about finding success at an early age, the Honeycomb ethos, working during a pandemic, and more.
Photo: Mario Romay
By sheer coincidence, Phase II’s 1990 track “Mystery” was on the turntable when I found out I was going to be interviewing you.
Oh man, those were beautiful days. We were really doing it, and those were good times. I got a chance to enjoy the music business as it was before the internet took over, when it was really flourishing. I mean, you could do an album, and then not have to do another album for another five years! Now, you almost have to put out an album every month, just to stay relevant. It’s so different, and just not for the people who are making the music. The younger generation approaches music differently and listens to music differently, and you need to find way to keep up.
You’re a pretty social person. How have you been dealing with the isolation of the past year?
Man, it’s taken a toll on my brain [laughs]. I’m a people guy. My whole career has to do with people — connecting with people and performing for people. But now there are no people! So it’s a struggle.
As far as I was concerned, failure wasn’t an option. That very week, I got a tattoo right across my hand — a place that you cannot hide — that says ‘DIE TRYING.’
Has that struggle had any bearing on your work?
Definitely, but I’ve found a way to create without that people connection by going to the old records — War, for instance, or Pink Floyd. I’ll get into those sounds, and then try to try to come up with my version. That’s my new way right now. You have to roll.
It’s been a bit more than a decade since Blaze disbanded, and though that chapter of your life didn’t end well, I’m guessing you still must be quite proud of what you accomplished over those years.
Oh, yeah. Especially considering our age — I was 15, Kevin was 17 and Chris was 18 when we started. And not long after that, we were traveling the world — I was in London for the first time when I was 18. We were living the life of a rock star — first-class flights and all of that.
Not bad for a Brooklyn kid living in Newark.
It was like a surreal dream. It felt like it was moving so slow and so fast at the same time — I still can’t really remember everything. We were chasing this thing, this moment of success, that fancy-car and big-house kind of success.
Abigail Adams [the force behind the seminal New Jersey label Movin’ Records] once said in an interview that “I can remember talking to Josh when he was struggling as to whether he should do secular music or not.” Was that a major conflict for you in the early days?
That was actually a tough time. I’m just a kid, and then this Blaze thing — signing papers and money and all that stuff. And I had been raised in the church, and my family believed that if you play music for the devil, you’re going to hell. And you’re going to burn for eternity.
Yeah! And that’s all I had ever been taught, so of course I was afraid. I was like, oh God, should really I do this? But I took a chance, and I’m not burning yet [laughs]. And life is obviously different for me now. I mean, I’m 51 — with a grandchild! Success now is more a day-to-day thing. It’s about finding the joy of just doing it. It’s an enjoyable ride if you think about it that way. There’s a magic to it.
I don’t want anything that doesn’t belong to me. a lot of artists are a little scared to sign with anybody, and you can’t blame them.
You launched Honeycomb in the immediate aftermath of Blaze’s breakup, right?
I did. That was such a devastating split. There was this shocking feeling of deceit and ill feelings that was kind of overwhelming. But then I thought, why don’t I take this energy and step out into midair and start my own thing, just me by myself. And that’s what I did! And it was scary!
In what way?
I’d already been in the music business for 30 whole years, man — but I spent those 30 years doing music, not business. I was actually a bit embarrassed, because here I was, Josh Milan, and I don’t even know the first thing about the business.
Did you do any research on how to set up a label before you started Honeycomb? Or did you just figure that you’d work out the details later?
I just jumped in headfirst. And as far as I was concerned, failure wasn’t an option. That very week, I got a tattoo right across my hand — a place that you cannot hide — that says DIE TRYING. But it was not easy. Like, I didn’t even know what an LLC was, but everyone said I had to get one. I’m thinking, oh, I’m a music guy, this is too hard. And then I did something smart.
What was that?
I called [veteran NJ dance-music figure] Adam Cruz, who I’d known for years. Adam is a business guy, and he’s also a trustworthy guy. And he had worked with Blaze, so he knew my story, the entire story, better than anybody. So who better to ask for help? He jumped on and saved me.
I knew I was a target for people to take advantage of. But through Adam’s wisdom, he convinced me to delve more into the business end myself, and not to be so afraid of it. At first, I was afraid even just to read an agreement, but with Adam around, I felt my gears completely shift. Because of him, that anger I had because of what had happened with Blaze turned into the best fuel, and it made me the businessman I am today. I still feel those muscles growing.
Is Adam still a big part of Honeycomb?
Adam is a complete partner. At first, it was more like he was just helping me out, but he was working so hard, I figured I should make him a fifty-fifty partner. And here we are, 11 years later, still killing it.
Did you have a specific musical ethos in mind for Honeycomb from the start?
Well, at that time, everybody was into drum machines. It was the standard of everything. So I thought, well, I’d like Honeycomb to be a little more organic than that. The first tune out was with Chinahblac.
“Till You Go Home”?
Yes, and that was with a live drummer. That was kind of unusual at the time, and I knew it was taking a chance. But I cool with taking chances. The only thing I wasn’t cool with was engineering.
What do you mean?
I wasn’t good at it! I could make the tracks really well; I could give you great parts. But I couldn’t make them sound that good.
Blaze records sound pretty amazing, at least to my ears.
They do sound amazing! And that’s because Kevin was a true artist at engineering. He’d spend hours mixing a track, sometimes a whole day. But my sound… it was terrible, and I think Honeycomb suffered in the early days because of that.
So what did you do about it?
I just kept rocking, mainly because I couldn’t afford an engineer to come in and fix my records anyway. I just had to keep getting better at it. It helped that I was blessed that people still wanted to hire me for work, and to do remixes or whatever. That was awesome, and I feel like I’m still riding that.
Beyond the live-instrumentation aspect, and the fact that the music that you release is pretty vocal-heavy, what exactly are you aiming at with Honeycomb? Is it simply “soulful dance music” or is there something more that you are reaching for?
I don’t want to sound like “that guy,” [laughs], but I like to call to call it “soul music,” period. That’s it. I could veer off into a jazzy sound, or I could revert to using a drum machine and electronics and go four-to-the-floor real hard — but it would all be in the name of soul music, that good old soul that people like the Spinners, War and Mandrill were making, but sounding like today.
Mandrill was such a good band, yet you don’t really hear much about them nowadays.
Oh, man, Mandrill was the truth. They knew how to hold onto a groove and stay right there. That’s how house music rocks today, but they did it with live instruments. You can learn a lot from them.
How do you go about deciding who you’re going to release on Honeycomb? Obviously, you’d want to have artists that you get along with.…
Let me tell you, that’s difficult nowadays. You need to have people who will submit a little bit. For instance, if I get a new artist — somebody I don’t know — he might have all of these lofty dreams on how his career should go. He might sign with Honeycomb and expect that we’re going to turn him into a star. But that’s not what we do — we’re not star-makers, so I have to be careful about who I connect with. The trickiest part is finding people who have talent, a level head and hustle, which is a lot to ask of artists. And before we even go into the studio, we have to reach an agreement, because I don’t want any problems.
What kind of problems, specifically?
For one thing, I don’t want anything that doesn’t belong to me, and a lot of artists are already maybe a little scared to sign with anybody. And you can’t blame them — the music business is very dog-eat-dog, and it’s easy to get taken advantage of them. Record companies do it all the time.
We need to keep the music going. But understand that before it’s anything else, it’s a business.
Once you have signed somebody, do you take a hands-on approach to artist development?
I used to. When I first started Honeycomb, my hands were all in that side, because I really wanted to chase after [Motown chief] Berry Gordy. I wanted to give my artists everything I had gotten when we signed with Motown, with everything paid for, food waiting for you, all of that [laughs]. And Berry had decided that he wanted his artists to look a certain way, and to appeal to the world a certain way. Like, the Temptations look amazing. So I used to spend a lot of money on photo shoots, outfits…just making sure everyone looked a certain way. I wanted Honeycomb artists on the covers — I wasn’t into artwork covers. But I couldn’t afford to keep doing that. Regular photo shoots cost like fifteen hundred dollars, and if the photographer found out that it was for an album cover, it would be like, “Oh no, that’s gonna cost you three thousand dollars!” I was going for it, but I couldn’t keep that up.
But even if you aren’t pushing the image aspect as much, I’m guessing you’re still very much involved on the musical end of things, right?
Oh yeah, I do it all. There have been one or two other producers on Honeycomb, but otherwise it’s all me. It’s hard dealing with other people —what their asking for, what they want, all of that — and since I can do the production myself, I might as well do it.
How about musicians?
That’s all me, too! Well, almost all. I’ve got a guy who I love, Lawrence Clark, who plays the sax, and there’s another guy, Jason Roberts, who also plays sax. I have this guy, Giovanni Perez, who plays a beautiful, classical sounding flute, and there’s Sheldon Goode on guitar. I used those guys over and over again. But keys, bass, drums, everything else, engineering and production is myself. And I love doing all that, and I love hearing how the music comes out in the end. It’s a joy.
Honeycomb has been branching out a bit from dance tunes in recent years, right?
We’re even doing ballads. I don’t believe we should just groove to one thing. I’ve been doing that one thing for 30 years, so let’s do something different! Lately I’ve been working a lot in the jazz arena — I’m going for it.
I’m guessing spreading the word on Honeycomb is a bit part of the job as well.
I’m on the internet a lot, man, just pushing Honeycomb. Since we’re in a pandemic, there’s not much more than that I can do.
How much has the actual recording and production process changed during the pandemic?
Well, my studio is my home. And I haven’t many people coming here except one — Dawn Tallman.
You’ve said in the past that Dawn is kind of Honeycomb’s rock.
She’s performed the background vocals on pretty much every record that Honeycomb has put out. She’s an awesome person to work with in the studio, and she translates ideas incredibly. She’s family! Otherwise, it’s been almost a year since I’ve had another vocalist here — but that’s fine, because I can write and produce for artists remotely. I can finish a song, send it out and do it that way. We’re still spreading the message of love through the music.
Who’s the recipient of that joy? Is the Honeycomb demographic mostly older listeners, for instance, or do a lot of kids buy your music?
It depends on where, really. In South Africa, I would say the people who are waving their hands to Honeycomb music are 30 and up. Here in the States, I would say 45, 50 and up.
You’ve been mostly releasing your music digitally, right?
Yeah, but we’re getting into vinyl, which is a new thing for us. It’s feeling great, and it’s looking like that’s going to be a new suit for us. People really seem to want tangible music; they want something they can hold in their hands.
It’s been a few years since you released “6.9.69.” Any plans for another Josh Milan full-length?
Of course! But the “6.9.69” album…man, I’m telling you, it’s like your first baby. I love that album, I love the way it was recorded, and I love how the musicians on that album were heroes of mine. I think I’m actually going to release a remastered version on vinyl.
Now that Honeycomb has passed the decade mark, do you feel like you have any advice for someone who’s thinking about starting a label?
I would tell them to do it; we need to keep the music going. But I would also tell them this: Understand that before it’s anything else, it’s a business. The music business is very attractive — people just like to be around it, and hang out around people who are doing music. Because of that, too many people jump in without knowing anything at all, and not even wanting to know anything at all. They’ll get taken advantage of, just like I did. If I had known about the business end from day one, everything would have been perfect. But it’s all good. I have all this great music that I believe in, and I’m going to keep putting it out there.
Finally, how’s semi-rural Pennsylvania life been treating you?
Man, it’s beautiful here. And at my age, at 51, I need that. I need peace and tranquility. The only problem I have is that there are too many deer running around. Those deer!
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