NEXT: R&B Is Taking Many Directions And Music Duo THEY. Is Creating Their Own
New York City’s Terminal 5 venue appears to be eerily quiet on a Monday evening. Just over three hours remain before the club’s gates open to anxious millennials who booked tickets weeks in advance just to see the Summer’s Over Tour rock the house. A seemingly infinite line of crazed girls dressed in skimpy skirts and heels, who were bobbing up and down as if live music were playing at that moment, scale the side of the building on West 56th Street in the ear-piercing cold, huddling close to each other for warmth. There isn’t a visible door to the venue, just a garage to the automobile dealership next door. And upon asking some of the girls where the entrance is, their looks to each other prove they have absolutely no clue. It’s the blind leading the blind, yet they continue to stand there shivering and conversing amongst themselves. Amid all of the chaos and anticipation, R&B duo THEY.—the first act on the tour—slip in inconspicuously through the talent entrance on the other side of the building.
A brolic security man at the only open door, who insists everyone have their passes clearly stuck on their bodies, gives the green light to enter the three-story establishment where crew members are frantically pacing the ground floor, taping down loose chords and tampering with sound boards. THEY., comprised of Dante Jones and Drew Love, hover in a corner by a table of merch with the rest of their entourage, awaiting their slot for sound check. On the outside of the clique looking in, the preparations seem a bit unorganized: press passes are unaccounted for, the boys have been there for what seems like forever but haven’t even touched the stage, and lighting crews still haven’t mastered a pattern that won’t blind its audience after the first blink. But even through the chaos, THEY. are in high spirits and oozing with excitement. Drew hands out the first round of hugs, followed by Dante and their management team. After a few playful jokes and small talk, a man buried by the DJ booth and sound equipment in the middle of the arena calls the boys to the stage for their quick run-through.
Only seconds into their test run of their cover of Usher’s “Nice & Slow,” the tech crew motions for the group to exit the stage by the side staircase because a couple of remaining tape lines have not been properly mounted in place. Men and women dressed in all black give one final sweep of the area, and THEY. re-enter the spotlights on stage to work out the last kinks. Despite a few hiccups with the mics and earpieces, sound check goes pretty smoothly, but nothing can truly prepare them for what happens when the doors open and the lights signal show time.
Three days before showtime, THEY. is paying a visit to the Midtown VIBE headquarters on a warmer day in Midtown, New York with their three-person deep management crew. Standing in the narrow walkway dead center in the office are two, short men with a distinctly 90s street style. Dante is donning an acid wash, denim jacket with tattered black jeans to match and a folded down bandana wrapped around his natural hair. Drew is similarly giving off a 90s boy band vibe, sporting a grey hoodie tucked into light wash overalls. At first glance, they seem worn down by the constant movement from one press gig to the next, but it won’t take them long to let their guards down and liven up.
After a rotation of handshakes and introductory remarks, the group’s head PR guy suggests we quell the boys’ hunger and walk around in search of a food joint that can promptly host a party of eight (the rest of their managerial crew meets us there). We settle on a bougie clam shack just two blocks from HQ, where everyone is seated on display in the restaurant’s front window. THEY. sits at the right end of the table, farthest from the exit. As jackets and outer garments begin to shed, so do the barriers, making room for their personalities to shine. Drew is a super charismatic kid with a vocabulary of a cat from Southeast, D.C. That’s not crystal clear to those of whom don’t hail from the nation’s capital, but dialogue often includes words like “moe,” “joint” and “kill.” Drew thrives off of making jokes and conversation, often ping-ponging from side convo to convo. By comparison, Dante may seem like the “shy one,” but upon sitting down, that’s not the case at all. His approach is much different, but he has that kind of dry humor that will make everyone crack up as soon as the punch line hits. He’s quirky at times and perceptive to whichever way the conversation is going.
Even with separate personalities, the boys behave similar to brothers or a best friendship comparable to that of Keenan and Kel’s dynamic relationship. As they sit across the table from each other, they go back and forth, tossing around jokes and throwing subtle jabs. They’re only interrupted for brief moments, when Drew blasts his friends at the other end for taking shots at his menu selection. You’d think that the musical connection in the studio and constantly feeding off each other’s energy would be the reason for their close bond during casual outings, but Dante attributes their connection to their mischievous childhoods. In their early teens (or even so early as kindergarten for Dante), the two had a knack for digging themselves into a pit of trouble. And not the type of trouble you get in for lying or talking too much in class, but incidents that warranted suspensions in kindergarten and reprimands that were far greater than any detention. “I think me and Dante just don’t like when people tell us what to do,” Drew says. Devilish smirks instantly light up on their faces as they try to recall the worst thing they ever did when they were younger. After a couple seconds of pondering, two light bulbs spark.
Drew:It was April Fool’s Day, so everybody [was] playing jokes like it’s cool. You remember how the teacher used to have those overheads and sh*t? She was sitting with the little overhead joint. I didn’t care what she was talking about. I thought it was April Fool’s Day; it’s my time to make a joke, bro. I wanted a new girlfriend at that time, so I was trying to make everybody laugh. So I went up to the front and tapped her on the back like, ‘Can you help me?’ But I had a sticker on the back of my hand. So I put it on [her back]. I don’t remember what it said, but it was some f**ked up sh*t on the back of that sticker. She went over to the chalkboard to teach the class, and that and everybody in the class started laughing. Then she went over and sat on her seat, and I had a thumb tack [on it]. You used to read the stories about a thumb tack on the seat, so I tried it, and I got suspended for eight days for that joint. But the worst part is she laughed at first, and I was like okay, cool. Then after the class, she was like, ‘Come here.’ You should have seen when she jumped and sat on that tack, that was so funny.
Dante:I had a pretty legendary freshman year. There was one time, if someone ever said something slick to me, I was really going to get back at you. So this kid said something like, ‘oh shut up p***y,’ or something like that in class. And I was like, alright. So I came up with this scheme to take a sh*t in his backpack and then him open it up in his next class and then him see it. I didn’t give a f**k because he had said some sh*t before. So low and behold, I couldn’t go whenever I got the backpack and got in the stall. So I just shoved it in the toilet and tried to come up with this whole story that I saw the backpack. Anyways, somebody tried to snitch on me, but they didn’t have any evidence. It happened in the bathroom; there’s no cameras in the bathroom. [The victim confronted him]: ‘Your boys snitched on you. They all said that you did it.’ And I was like, ‘I didn’t do it.’ He was like, ‘Dante, they already said you did it. There’s cameras…’ I was like, ‘There are no cameras. I checked for cameras.’ And then I was reading a magazine in class, so they suspended me for reading a magazine. They basically tried to suspend me for both of them at the same time. Like I said, I was a f**ked up kid. After that, everybody heard the story of the backpack, so other dudes tried to start doing it as their own revenge to together people… I would always get blamed for it.
The two’s glory days in high school may evoke the same emotions of terror and shock, but that’s pretty much as close as their childhoods ever got to running parallel to one another. 27-year-old Dante grew up in a secular home with two brothers in Denver, Colorado. His super accepting and open-minded parents were originally raised in the Midwest, with his mother hailing from the Southside of Chicago and his father from Oklahoma. But both moved to Denver for a change of scenery and pace. “We kind of just did our own thing,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d say I had a traditional black upbringing. I don’t know how much of that was in Denver.” Dante also notes that he didn’t grow up around the church, although he wishes he did because “those are the best musicians in the world.” But he got his fair share of unique influences to make up for that.
Early memories flashback to him bumping to anything created by Jimmy Jam and Jerry Lewis, the song and production team that ran the 80s R&B scene and whose most notable collaborator to date would be Janet Jackson. He also found himself tuning into BET’s Rap City in the early 2000s, which broadcasted videos, interviews and freestyles from Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Dipset. And despite what people may think about new-and-coming talent, he’s heard many of Biggie’s tracks. Other than his ear for retro soul and some early trap music, living in Denver put Dante on to the pop and rock scene. “The biggest bands that have come out of Denver are One Republic and The Fray. It’s a lot of pop music and pop writers and producers that come out of there,” he explains. “We got ‘Whoomp (There It Is),’ [a song performed by Tag Team in 1993], but other than that, there’s really not much of a hip-hop scene. It’s always been more of a rock, indie vibe.” Because of his unique circumstances, Dante never dabbled in urban music until he met Drew. “I couldn’t do 808s or the high-hats or any of that stuff. I was purely focused on being an indie pop, more rock-driven producer… That’s the last thing that I figure out, how to be an urban producer,” he says. Dante thanks his partner in crime and music for helping him “ride” those urban tracks.
Drew had a rather different child-rearing and intro to music. He grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, born to two strict, military parents who wanted their son to get a proper education rather than chase a dream which they chalked up to be “street-rapping” in the early stages of his career. “I was a smart kid and they wanted me to go to school and all that. But towards high school and college, I knew I could do the school thing, but there was no motivation. I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to do music,” Drew says. His thirst for the “starving musician” path probably came from the overflow of music scenes in the DMV area. Although a combination of congas, drums and synthesizers from Go-go bands like Rare Essence, Backyard Band and TCB were blasting from every automobile speaker, Drew opted for a more cookie cutter theme, jamming to songs like Hansen’s 1997 track, “MMMBop,” Britney Spears, N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys. “‘MMMBop’ is one of the best songs of all time. I don’t care what anybody say,” he declares while glaring at his team at the end of the table, who made a snarky comment about his musical preference. But with his love for pop also came the appreciation for 90s band Parliament-Funkadelic, The Supremes and Motown, thanks to his dad’s command of the car radio. He gradually made the switch back to John Mayer and “slow guitar” music, while slipping in a Future or Drake track.
“There’s a lot of flavor and mix of different sounds out there. I brought all of those influences and blended them when I met this guy,” Drew says, pointing to Dante. With that being said, D.C.’s merging of different styles and genres was crippled by what Drew described as “an ignorance,” where “people don’t come together and support each other.” “Everybody’s out for their self. That’s why it’s hard to really make it out there. I had to go to L.A. before I really was able to spread my wings and find some type of success,” he says, making sure to shout out Wale, Goldlink and Logic for making it happen. It’s a good thing he packed his bags and ventured thousands of miles to the opposite coast, otherwise THEY. wouldn’t be sitting here splurging on a meal of clam chowder, crab cakes and a custom-made lobster grilled cheese dish, charged to the company card.
The two crossed paths at least four times in the summer of 2013 in L.A. before they finally exchanged ideas. “He was already in L.A. at that time for a good 3-4 years. He had been working, producing for other people. I came to Hollywood fresh, like I was cool as sh*t, wearing shades inside,” Drew remembers. “I met this dude about 3-4 times before I actually remembered who [he was]. Then one time he was like, ‘dude I’ve met you before.’” “Yeah,” Dante energetically chimed in, “and he reached his hand out and I didn’t even reach out. I was like, ‘I met you four times. Not doing this again.’”
Drew continued, “Then shortly after that we had our first session and we did some trash song for Maroon 5. It never got placed, but the next session, he showed me some secret beats that he was working on. At that time we had clicked so well that he felt comfortable enough showing them to me. It was so different than anything I’d ever heard. He had a melody on one of them, and ‘I was like, ‘Yo, this is exactly what I want to work on.’” After recording a couple of songs, Drew suggested they transform their collaboration into a full musical act, with him commanding the mic with his vocals and Dante masterminding the production and instrumental elements. “Here we are two years [after their first project dropped in 2014] later,” Dante adds.
Drew’s melting pot of Go-go, R&B and pop influences combined with Dante’s fusion of punk rock, 80’s R&B and soul doesn’t exactly sound like a platinum record in the making. In fact, the duo joked that their respective music scenes and influences don’t mesh at all. But even so, the two have been able to create cohesive bodies of work, starting with their EP Nu Religion. “We have such diverse influences and to be able to take them and cohesively put it into a song and combine it with new age R&B and 808s from the trap world, that’s one of the things we’re able to do really well,” Drew says.
Their three-track EP, which came as a pleasant surprise in 2015, was a beautiful and raw blend of Dante’s rock and Drew’s pop. Although it was just a quick teaser, the project represented the new era and direction of the R&B genre. “I remember back when I was growing up, R&B was Jaheim; it had to be slow. But now the context of what R&B is [has] expanded,” Dante notes. As a result, they say, the doors opened up to variations of the category like Bryson Tiller’s “trap soul” and their own, which they peg as “grunge n’ b.” But where does that leave the state of R&B? Both agree the once-definitive lines have been blurred, which could be considered a gift and a curse. On the positive end, Drew says the new age gives “real creatives and musicians a chance to be different.” On the other end, it welcomes the “five-minute” artists—ones who take only five minutes to create a record and then label it a “fire” track. THEY. value the craft and wish to continue to focus on the foundations that R&B undoubtedly builds upon, one of which being its melody. “Melody is winning right now, and I think that me and Dante [are] probably some of the best people in the game as far as melody is concerned” Drew says. “We respect it and have always respected it. That’s our first and foremost priority,” Dante adds.
The boys’ melody-making abilities have paid off. Not only have they cultivated a progressive following (they have an accumulated 44K followers on Instagram and Twitter), but they’ve also nabbed the attention of production heavyweight Timbaland, who’s worked with major talents such as Aaliyah and Justin Timberlake. Aside from getting a special shout out from the legend on Instagram, Timb has also offered his mentorship to the group. Although Drew suggests it’s a “hands off” type of guidance with valuable “tidbits” here and there, Dante spilled that he’s provided him with the understanding of when “enough is enough” on the production side. “He’d throw me little assignments, and then he’d come back 6-7 hours later. I’ve been sitting there nervous like, ‘oh sh*t, is he going to like it?’ I finally press play and he’d be bobbing his head. He’d say after, ‘Oh you made Uncle proud with this one. Now I know, we can keep vibing out,’” Dante says. But hands off doesn’t mean he didn’t steer from the passenger seat from time to time. He’ll still “sh*t” on some of the beats that Dante spent hours crafting as well. Timbaland’s veteran status helped lead the way, but they also took notes from rookie, Bryson Tiller, whom they joined on his Trapsoul Tour earlier in the year. It was the first set of shows for both acts, making the experience even more rewarding and educational. Some best takeaways of their days with Bryson included the enormous fan base they gained, plus observing another career blow up before their eyes.
The duo confessed to bumping Trapsoul until it was tired and outplayed, but now it’s their turn. THEY. is coming back with a new project Nu Religion: Hyena, which in some ways, is a follow up to their early EP, but also an experimentation that incorporates Timb’s musical lessons as well as their own ideas. Their latest releases gave fans a taste of how different, yet consistent they’re coming. “What You Want,” perfectly executes the union of synthesized drums with a rock-inspired energy, while “Rather Die” channels Nirvana’s “Polly” (the song may not make the album because of copyright issues). “When we did the Nu Religion EP, we had other songs we were working on, but for the sake of keeping it concise, while still giving enough for people to get a sense of what we do, we just left it at three songs,” Dante explains. “But there’s so many bases that we didn’t get to cover in the EP, that we’re going to cover on the album. There’s going to be a lot of unexpected turns and vibes.” Although both were hesitant to say what audiences should expect, Drew reassures people that “there’s at least a song on there that everybody can f**k with.” The album is compiled of songs the duo wrote and produced together as a team. There may have been some disagreements sprinkled into their studio sessions, but for the most part the two bounced ideas off each other as Dante jumped from the keys to the drums, while Drew played around with the melodies. The only breaks they seemed to take was to grab a swig of their favorite poisons of choice: Jameson and an assortment of wine and beer.
In the blink of an eye, hours have gone by since first arriving at the venue. The clock strikes a little past seven o’clock, and only now have the security allowed the rush of fans pass through the gates. It is no longer just girls, but a mix of young men as well, piling into the main floor, bringing an echo of chatter with them. THEY. has disappeared behind the stage so to keep the element of surprise. The swarm of fans huddle in front of the stage, awaiting the show’s start. The tour, which is comprised of THEY., Jeremih and PARTYNEXTDOOR, seems like the most appropriate follow up after returning from their run with Bryson, and has even attracted a lot of buzz, but not for the reasons you may expect. Rumors suggesting an ongoing disagreement between Jeremih and and Party’s camp quickly stained the 13-date tour very early on. Although THEY. have stayed mum to the issue, Jeremih has been vocal in accusing Party’s team of sabotaging his mic during his set in his hometown of Chicago on Nov. 29, and then later alleged they swiped his name from the roster at their remaining shows in San Antonio, Denver and L.A. this month. Behind closed curtains, the tour may be crumbling, but their show in New York didn’t reflect that inner turmoil.
THEY. enter the stage with an overwhelming amount of energy matched by the screaming fans who stood sandwiched in between the stage gate and other overjoyed partygoers. As practiced in sound check, the boys perform a short set, highlighting their latest release “What You Want.” Just as they had displayed at the clam shack days before, Dante and Drew are in sync, bobbing and weaving around each other as they dance around and ad-lib when necessary. The audience looks receptive to the newcomers, with many singing along and chronicling the experience on Snapchat and Instagram. “Real music is back,” a comment Drew mentioned earlier at the table discussion, still echoes in the venue.
As far as what their long term goals entail, everything is possible. Dante previously earned a Grammy for his writing creds with Kelly Clarkson years earlier, but he wouldn’t mind seeing THEY. reach that status. “It would be important and dope if an urban, black album won Album of the Year for the Grammys,” he says. That ideal could possibly become a reality at the 2017 Grammy’s with nominations for Drake’s VIEWS and Beyonce’s Lemonade in the running. The group also has their sights set on collaborating with a mix of talent including Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend and Kanye West. When asked if that was still an option considering Ye’s breakdown and controversial comments (an even more recent visit to the trump Tower), Drew’s reply is simple: “Every n***a go through some things. He’s a genius.” But more important than shows, accolades and feature slots, THEY. wants to produce quality content that inspires them just as much as their fans. “If you keep it fun and refreshing all the time, it’s a little harder to get bored and uninspired.”