‘The Block’ Turns 10: How Lady Gaga, Divorce & Fans Fueled New Kids on the Block’s Comeback (Exclusive)
By Leena Tailor
Jonathan Knight will never forget the day Lady Gaga strutted into the studio to lend her vocals to New Kids on the Block’s reunion record, The Block.
“She would walk into the studio and have this air about her of being this huge celebrity even back then,” he recalls to ET. “I was always thinking, ‘Who is this girl? What is she all about?’ She had this mystique to her that was so intriguing.”
Still going by her real name, Stefani Germanotta, the songstress was on the verge of mind-blowing success. Meanwhile, NKOTB was finding their feet again, almost two decades after ruling the pop world with the same level of hysteria-inducing fame Gaga was about to undergo, yet anxiously unaware of how their comeback would be received by fans so long after their heyday.
Having gone their separate ways in 1994, by 2008 the idea of getting the band back together had been brewing for some time, from Joey McIntyre and Donnie Wahlberg’s conversations about how a reunion might work, and the pair’s deepening relationship with now-manager, Jared Paul, to the frequent reunion jokes in a group email ignited by a new line of merch at Hot Topic stores. However, with ringleader Donnie immersed in his hard-earned, post-NKOTB acting career, it wasn’t until the breakdown of his 11-year marriage to Kimberly Fey (with whom he has two sons) that he found himself depressed and needing new ventures to throw his attention into.
In the band’s 2012 biography, New Kids on the Block: Five Brothers and a Million Sisters, by Nikki Van Noy, Donnie recalled being heartbroken in Connecticut while filming Righteous Kill with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and spending his downtime riding Harley-Davidsons and lying on a friend’s couch depressed while “trying to breathe.”
During a costume fitting in New York, he visited NKOTB’s lawyer, Jamie Roberts, who handed him demos by another one of his clients, Nasri Atweh, now better known as the frontman of pop-reggae band Magic!, behind the 2013 hit, “Rude.” Donnie, 48, became powerfully mesmerized by Nasri’s touching ballad, “You Got My Heart.” “I just broke down crying and was crying the whole time,” said Donnie, who then set about securing rights to the song.
At the time, Nasri was a struggling, unknown Canadian musician with nothing but a few dollars and a bunch of songs to his name. Luckily for Donnie -- who would sweep in and use his charm to convince Nasri to hand over those prized musical possessions -- he was also a Blockhead. “I was a little singing-and-dancing, 7-year-old fan because of my cousin, Julie,” Nasri, 37, tells ET. “She had all the music and posters, so whenever we went to her house we’d do all the dance moves.”
When Donnie called declaring he wanted NKOTB to record all the demos, Nasri was both flattered and dubious. “I said, ‘That’s actually my album,’ and he was like, ‘Well, you’ll record a new album!’” says Nasri, who was working with musical partner Adam Messinger. “I was like, ‘What!?’ I didn’t know that I’d be the songwriter that I ended up becoming. At that point, I had whatever songs I had and that was my life and my assets. I was so hesitant, but I wanted to meet them, so we went to the studio and next thing Jordan Knight shows up. Jordan was my favorite and I idolized him as a child, so to meet him was crazy. Then Joey came by and I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually happening. I’m working with an artist.'"
While Jordan, 48, was one of the first on board with the reunion, his brother, Jonathan, admits he had reservations about returning to the limelight. Having left the group shortly before they disbanded, he was happily pursuing a contrasting career in real estate, where he didn’t have to worry about being in the public eye or hiding his sexuality. “It was scary for me to go back into the spotlight knowing that I hadn’t officially come out yet,” Jonathan, 49, says. “That was a big worry for me -- it was scary to have to address it publicly and have prying eyes on me. And, it turned out to be [a valid concern] because during rehearsals I’d be out on a date with [now-fiancé] Harley and we’d be spotted kissing in a restaurant and suddenly the blogs started and it was crazy.”
“Plus, I went into a whole different career after leaving the group and that was my life, so going back into rehearsals, living on a bus and being in front of an audience had become foreign to me,” he adds. “We all had different reservations, but we were able to express them, figure it out and make it work so that it was a phenomenal time again.”
Both Jonathan and Jordan moved in with Donnie in Los Angeles during the recording of The Block. “Sometimes we’d go to the studio, but sometimes we’d just go downstairs and meet Nasri and Adam in some room off the kitchen, so it was pretty cool doing it like that,” Jordan, a father of two, said in 2013. “It was a makeshift studio in his house and I would fly out on the weekends, record for a couple of days, then fly home. I did that for two and a half months and we had an album. I don’t think we’d ever done an album that quickly, which shows that when you have chemistry with the producers, you don’t have to take a year or two.”
EXCLUSIVE: New Kids on the Block Makes a Cameo on New Episode of 'Wahlburgers' -- Watch!
The group landed a record deal with Universal Music’s Interscope Records, thanks to longtime Blockhead Aimee Nadeau working at the company. Getting wind of her favorite band’s reunion through a music scout, Aimee -- who would turn up to Donnie’s house as a young fan -- scored a meeting with Jared, then convinced her bosses to take the risk of signing the boy band.
The Block quickly took shape and while the record eventually adopted more of a contemporary and urban sound, meaning “You Got My Heart” was dropped, another one of Nasri’s tracks proved a game changer -- fan favorite “Click Click Click.” Yet, Nasri says its inclusion didn’t come without a “war.”
“Donnie discovered this different kind of R&B singing that I was always developing, like on the lyric, ‘Pose for me, pose for me,’” explains Nasri, whose vocals can be heard on the track, along with many others on The Block. “So, he gravitated towards that song, but that was the one song I didn’t want to give up. It was a big fight and even [Interscope Records co-founder] Jimmy Iovine was chiming in. Everyone was going, ‘We need this song!’ but I wanted it to be my single, so it got crazy. They ended up getting it and I think they were right to. I didn’t realize I would write so many songs out there now and Donnie was like, ‘Just write another one! Just do it again!’ Eventually, that’s what I ended up doing. Maybe he saw that in me and I didn’t at the time.”
Nasri says the song “lit a fire” in Donnie, who up until that point had only been planning to find and write songs, stay predominantly behind the scenes and throw down the odd rap. “Then I started singing on 'Click Click Click' and that was it,” Donnie says in the band’s biography. “I was hooked.”
From that point, Donnie and Nasri were inseparable. As a brotherly bond developed, they spent their downtime working out, taking trips to Las Vegas and playing poker tournaments at Donnie’s Los Angeles home. “I even started dressing like him -- it was pretty hilarious,” Nasri says with a laugh.
Of course, there was no record without a single and once again, Nasri was key. “I got a call from my lawyer saying, ‘Listen, they just got a record deal and now every songwriter is trying to write for them. You’re the closest one in there -- you have to write them a hit song,’” recalls Nasri, who has since worked with Justin Bieber, won a GRAMMY for his production work with Chris Brown and is now preparing to release Magic!’s third album, Expectations, on Sept. 7. “I was like, ‘What’s a hit song?’ I was totally oblivious, so I started listening to hit songs and went, ‘Oh, they just want something simple.’ That night I wrote ‘Summertime,’ which became the single and from there Ne-Yo started working with them, big writers started giving them songs, Lady Gaga showed up.”
Gaga was introduced to the band through hitmaker RedOne, who was working with the then-unknown singer when he was asked to get in the studio with NKOTB. “I first met Donnie who later became a very personal friend to me,” RedOne tells ET. “We had an instant connection. I was a fan of the group growing up in Morocco, so I said, ‘Of course I’ll do it!’ I was honored.”
Through RedOne’s encouragement, the quintet welcomed Gaga on board and the catchy “Big Girl Now” came to life. “It was a very simple, fun process,” says RedOne, who then co-wrote a second track, “Full Service” (featuring New Edition), for the record with Donnie and Gaga, who later joined the boys on 2009’s New Kids on the Block: Live tour. "I'm a huge New Kids fan," Gaga told MTV in 2008. “I've been blessed to be able to work with some top-tier producers and artists."
“I think she brought a freshness to the record and tour,” Jonathan reflects. “When she first started performing I would watch her and think, ‘What is this? This is going nowhere.’ She was just so out there and I wondered how people related to it. As it turns out, so many people related to her.”
“She was always around and she was super nice,” Nasri adds.
While the group sensed Gaga was on the brink of musical dominance, she was just as confident that NKOTB was about to explode back onto the scene. “Working with them is the most incredible experience,” she told The Daily Starahead of The Block’s release. “They are an amazing talent. It is going to be a good year for them -- I have faith that they are really going to come back with a bang.”
In part due to pressure from Interscope to work with certain artists, a string of other collaborations followed, including with the Pussycat Dolls on “Grown Man,” Ne-Yo on “Single” and Akon on “Put It on My Tab.” RedOne also worked on further tracks like sexy concert favorite “Dirty Dancing,” which came about after he was given the chorus idea by a friend and then turned it into a song with Donnie.
But behind the star-studded recording process, the reunited quintet grappled with the challenges of getting back in sync as a group after 14 years apart, while Donnie continued to throw himself into the project to help him get through his divorce -- quietly aware that the record could jeopardize his acting career.
“I just stuck my head in the water and started swimming,” he said in the biography, having since found love again and married media personality and Blockhead Jenny McCarthy in 2014. “I ignored my agents’ phone calls. I didn’t want them to make me aware that I might be doing something crazy. I knew I was possibly doing something crazy, but I had to do it. I couldn’t sleep at night and I was depressed and wanted to do something different, so I just started to explore.”
Nasri reflects that Donnie’s emotional state and the breakdown of his marriage were a key component behind the soul of The Block. “I think what he was going through was important for this album,” the “Kiss Me” singer says. “It’s important to have that passion and have your heart be in distress. There’s something very powerful about that as an artist.”
While today they are closer than ever, Donnie also butted heads with Joey, 45, throughout the early stages of the reunion -- just as they did in NKOTB’s heyday, during which Joey at times contemplated leaving the group due to their tense relationship. “In some ways, with us getting back together, I had to relive all that because all of a sudden you're back in that dynamic,” McIntyre, a father of three, told Huffington Post Canada in 2014. “We were grown-ups and had lives outside the group then suddenly were thrown back in, which was a lot of fun, but also hard for me.”
As for Jonathan, who has been open about his struggles with anxiety over the years, Nasri recalls one particular incident that could have seen him become the new kid on the block.
“At one point, Jonathan suffered stage fright and Donnie turned to me because he knew I could sing and dance and said, ‘Would you want to tour with us? We could break you as an artist,’” Nasri shares. “Not to replace Jonathan, but to stand in until he was ready. To this day, I don’t know if he was kidding or not. I was thinking, ‘Does he really mean this?’ Two days later, Jonathan showed up and it was all good. It was nice to see the five of them together -- and to see what it’s turned into now with all the years of touring and the resurgence of other artists like 98 Degrees. It’s surreal.”
“He would have been so good!” Jonathan says about the idea of Nasri stepping in. “He’s amazing and it was awesome working with him. He came up with some really good music for us. I did get stage fright and we’d always joke about it with our bodyguards. If I was feeling [overwhelmed], we’d be like, ‘Hey, Charlie, you’re going on tonight!’ It was a joke that I had all these understudies.”
Through those many trials, the boy band persevered, cementing their comeback with a carefully orchestrated appearance on NBC’s Today on April 4, 2008. With buzz building beforehand, Jonathan jumped on a train to witness the hype after hearing Blockheads had been camping out for two days, having caught wind of the surprise appearance. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to see this,’ so I went down and started walked around,” he says. “All these girls were peeking their heads out of tents and there were a few people I remembered from back in the day. It was like a high school reunion, seeing familiar faces, but we were all just a little older and at different stages of our lives. Seeing the kids and husbands was super sweet.”
The Block was released on Sept. 2, 2008, but what some members may have anticipated as a one-off reunion project, quickly snowballed into a permanent and palpable comeback, thanks to the loyal, eternal and rabid support of their devoted Blockheads. What followed has been a whirlwind decade involving making the 2013 follow-up record 10, free of label pressure and commercial worries, and 2017’s EP, Thankful. The group has also played their iconic hometown baseball park, Fenway Park, toured extensively, started annual fan cruises, made the reality series Rock This Boat, enjoyed a limited engagement in Las Vegas, embarked on a worldwide jaunt with the Backstreet Boys and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“They’re an amazing part of pop music history,” says RedOne, who has since worked with Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and the late Michael Jackson. “They dance, they sing, they have fun, they have an amazing presence live and they transmit incredible energy that the world’s missing at these times.”
“It’s all negative, depressing music out there and their music makes people feel special, feel better and want to dance,” adds the 46-year-old “One World” singer, who is preparing to release new music in September. “I think they’re absolutely amazing.”
Rose Tours president Hal Roseman never envisioned he would be preparing for October’s 10th sold-out NKOTB cruise. “When I met Jared over 10 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined how great the future would be," he tells ET. "They’re five of the hardest-working guys in the business and each year we’ve stepped up our game.”
Away from the band, solo endeavors have also flourished since The Block, with Wahlberg all over television on Blue Bloods, Wahlburgers and previously, Boston’s Finest and Donnie Loves Jenny; McIntyre having released solo music and starred on television in Return of the Mac and The McCarthys, on the big screen in The Heat and New Year’s Eve and in theater shows including Wicked; and 49-year-old father of three Danny Wood continuing his philanthropic efforts with the Remember Betty Foundation in honor of his mother, Betty, who died of breast cancer in 1999. Meanwhile, Jonathan appeared on The Amazing Race and is now relishing farm life and real estate ventures, while Jordan released a solo record, Unfinished, teamed up with Backstreet Boy Nick Carter for their collaborative Nick & Knight project and became a restaurateur by investing in Milton, Massachusetts, Italian eatery Novara.
But the creative spark that reignited when the five musicians got back together a decade ago continues to burn strong, with news that they are now back in the studio recording new music. The band will also play a one-off show at New York’s Apollo Theater on Oct. 7, to mark the 30th anniversary of their smash record, Hangin’ Tough, with announcements about new music expected the following day.
“There’s definitely new music on the way,” confirms Jonathan, adding that he’s gearing up to join his bandmates in the studio in New Jersey. “We’ve been working back and forth and will make some official announcements soon, so you can expect new music and I think next year’s going to be a really good year for us. I can’t wait -- it’s going to be a blast!”