r. city r. city

Views From The Studio: Meet R. City, The Hardest Working Songwriters In Show Business

Songwriters/producers R. City spill their studio secrets from working with Beyonce to Miley Cyrus to Nicki Minaj.

The producing duo newly dubbed R. City went from selling decorations at Party City and bagging groceries at Publix to constructing chart-topping tracks for today's A-list artists.

The St. Thomas natives, Theron and Timothy Thomas, may have changed their stage name from Rock City but are still widely known within the music industry and remain virtuosos of the pen and boards, crafting songs for Rihanna ("Pour It Up"), Miley Cyrus ("We Can't Stop") and more recently, Nicki Minaj's "Only" and "Trini Dem Girls."

While working alongside a Top 40 roster, the bros are now focusing on their own talents and forthcoming album. "Hopefully we put out something great that the world loves because we’re giving our blood, sweat and tears, and we’re leaving our heart in those studios when we record those songs," Timothy said. "I just hope when it’s all said and done and it’s out, people enjoy it."

Here, the dynamic duo reveal how your Spotify favorite came to be in VIBE's latest edition of Views From The Studio.

READ: Views From The Studio: Meet Producer WLPWR

VIBE: How did you go from a department store job to now being prominent songwriters/producers?
Theron: We were always working on music while we were working at our nine-to-fives. I know the point for me was my daughter was in St. Thomas and I didn’t have any money—I was broke. I had a job and I was still broke so I called my dad and I was like, “I moved to the States to do music.” My dad gave me this speech and told me that he believed in me and I said, “Dad, you know you’re right. I’ll call you back.” I talked to my manager Ray at the time like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Ray said, “You should just quit that sh*t.” I just walked out, went home, told [Timothy]. He’s definitely the more level-headed, responsible one between us two so he said, “You did what? Damn man!” I said, “If we’re going to make it in music, I’m going to focus all of my energy in that.”

My manager had a studio at the time and my brother kept his job at Publix and Eckerds. From there, I was in my manager’s studio everyday. We wrote like 400 songs and we sold one, “Music For Love” for Mario. All of that was part of helping us [get] to where we wanted to go. I think my brother quit his job maybe two months after I quit mine. We didn’t make any money, nothing was really going on, but a lot of positive things were happening and we said we have to be in these streets everyday. The three of us would get up every morning at 9 or 10 a.m. and just say we're going to make a new Rock City fan. We’re going to introduce ourselves to somebody, and Ray would say, “Just give my guys five minutes, they’re talented, they’re dope, give them five minutes.” We did that in Atlanta until everybody who was important at that moment knew who we were.

In a previous interview with VIBE, you mentioned Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” song was done in a matter of minutes. What was the studio session like and is she easy to work with?
Theron: It’s so funny. Every time we wrote a hit or got a record with Rihanna, she wasn’t there. We worked with Rihanna randomly with Kanye [West] in L.A., which was a cool experience. We just were talking sh*t and going through ideas for this new R8 album. We were vibing like that. But when we did “Pour It Up,” Bu, Akon’s brother, came in the studio and we were writing a pop song that ended up on Miley Cyrus’ album. We didn’t finish it, we just started it and we stopped it because Bu said, “Man, I don’t think she wants to do that type of vibe right now. To be honest, her favorite song is "Bandz A Make Her Dance." She’s on that type of sh*t." We were in the studio with Mike WiLL Made It and he played the beat, and within minutes, we went in and got it. The song was basically done.

Are you guys working on her new album R8?
Theron: With the R8 album, we did some songs and we did some things that she liked and I think she recorded it, but when it comes to people like Rihanna, Beyonce, that caliber of artists, you really don’t know if you made their album until their album is in stores or unless they tell you, “Hey, you got the next single.” It’s like a kid on Christmas morning. Honestly, we can’t say until the album comes out.
Timothy: Hopefully she keeps something on there.
Theron: The song we did was awesome, honestly. It’s nothing like “Pour It Up” but it’s in the same lane as far as the beat is hard.

You also wrote Beyoncé’s “I Been On” track, which was a totally different sound than we were used to hearing from here. When you got the call that she wanted to record the track, how’d you guys react?
Theron: We did it with Polow Da Don in Miami. We didn’t do it for anybody per se, we did it to just be creative and have a good time. When we heard Beyoncé was going to do it, we said, “Wow!”
Timothy: We’re still fans of these artists that we work with. We keep our humbleness when we work with them because at the end of the day, we’re here to provide a service. It’s definitely great news getting a phone call that Beyoncé is singing one of our songs.
Theron: Especially a song that’s as different as that one. To be honest, no lie, we’re the assholes in the studio. This is a true story. You’ll say, “This is the album, this is the kind of songs we have. We want you guys to do a song.” We completely go against every single song you just played for us. We’re like, "Okay, so everybody is obviously giving you music like this. We’re going to be the guys who say, 'Let’s do a song like that.'" Because we know nobody else is going to submit a song like that. That’s always been our thing. How do we stand out? How do we be different?

Will we ever hear the original?
Theron: Polow got the original and I told him he should put it out.
Timothy: Somebody needs to call Polow and put that out.
Theron: No lie, the original is way more graphic. I would say the version Beyoncé put out is rated PG-13. Our version is rated XXX. It’s so in your face.
Timothy: It’s not sexually explicit, but it’s like talking that sh*t. [Laughs]
Theron: I hope one day we convince Polow to put it out because that would make me happy.
Timothy: But even though she changed a few words, Beyoncé still killed it. She still pulled it off amazingly.

Within that same interview, you said Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” song has Caribbean elements within it. As a producer, how’d you weave those sounds into a pop song like that?
Theron: You have to listen like “We run tings, tings don't run we” and “Hands inna di air like we don't care.” That’s how it sounds when we sing that sh*t, but when you get it to somebody with a pop voice [like Miley Cyrus], it's like, “Red cups and sweaty bodies everywhere.” All the songs that we write for people and that we do, we incorporate Caribbean culture because that’s who we are and that’s the base of our creativity. If you don’t have a base, you don’t really have a sound. We’re always like we have to make sure we put that bottom of who we are, that root into the music.
Timothy: We pull so many different melodies from Caribbean music because we like to believe Caribbean music has some of the best melodies in music.
Theron: And some of the most international melodies, too.
Timothy: Just growing up listening to a lot of reggae, calypso, soca, we fuse those melodies with pop, urban music in the culture. You get something different. It’s fresh.

Is the creative process different for each genre, say from pop to rap, or do you approach it all the same?
Timothy: I think it more so depends on the artist rather than the genre.
Theron: Lyrically, what we approach Juicy J with wouldn’t be lyrically what we would approach Becky G with. Obviously we have to be in a different headspace, but I would say cadence wise, we always approach pop music with an urban base. Caribbean vibes, of course, but an urban base. Becky G’s verse on “Shower” is like, “I don’t know but it’s something about you, woo! I don’t know but I can’t stop thinking about you, woo!” That’s reggae. We fuse the two. We’ve been living in Atlanta, born and raised in St. Thomas, so we’re Caribbean by blood and by heart. Then we were raised in Atlanta so that southern bounce and draw of cadence is just what we know.

You also deemed Ciara’s “I’m Out” track as one of your favorites.
Theron: People make breaking up a bad thing when a lot of times, breakups are celebratory. Breakups are like, “I’m so happy I got rid of this motherf**ker. I’m going to go party, have fun.” But I don’t think nobody ever approached the breakup in that way. We just wanted to say, “I just went through a breakup/ But it’s okay I got my cake up.” I’m not at home crying over nobody. I’m out with my friends having a good time and happy that I don’t have that negative energy around me. The concept was dope, the melodies were dope. Again, it has a reggae vibe and we love it. Nicki killed it too.

What about the process of that song stood out to you?
Timothy: It’s everything about it, the energy…
Theron: It’s one of the first songs we were actually a part of the production of it. We were a part of the entire record from beginning to end and we knew what we wanted it to sound like. The lyrics are important to us. Sometimes you write a song and the lyrics don’t matter. I know that sounds funny because people will say, “What do you mean?” It’s a big world out there and everybody doesn’t speak English. Sometimes, it’s more about the melody, but with that song I think the lyrics were very, very important. It’s just about being cool like, “I’m out, peace.” That’s why it’s one of our favorites.

On Nicki Minaj’s Pinkprint album you also crafted the track “Trini Dem Girls.” Being that you’re from the islands, did this track come swiftly or were you guys like perfectionists knowing that Nicki is a perfectionist too?
Theron: Nicki did her verses and she’s a perfectionist. Nicki will write a verse three or four times, and she'll play you the verse, and you’ll say, “Oh my God, you’re amazing,” and she’ll say, “Yeah man, but I could get it better.” And she does. You’re like, “It could be better than that? You killed it.” Then she comes back, she’s really that talented. We did that record with LunchMoney Lewis. His dad is from Inner Circle (“Bad Boys") so you have three island people in the room. Whenever we do get the privilege of doing island music for artists, those are some of our favorite songs and the easiest songs to write because you’re like, 'Perfect, you got me in my comfort zone.' We love when we get the opportunity to do some Caribbean sh*t especially in pop culture.
Timothy: That song was super cool.

READ: Meet Your Favorite Rapper’s Go-To Guy, LunchMoney Lewis

You also penned Nicki's track, “Only.” Now Nicki is a stickler for letting people know that she writes her own songs, so how do you get songwriting credits on her tracks?
Theron: She writes all her own raps.
Timothy: Her verses we have nothing to do with.
Theron: For us, it’s the chorus. If you listen, you can hear the Caribbean elements: “Raise every bottle and cup inna di sky/ Sparks inna di air like the Fourth of July,” just that vibe. With us and all the writing, we try to stay true to our self and try to give a little bit of our self to the artist doing the record because it’s their record, and they have to go and sell it but still giving them a little bit of our sound. That’s the whole plan.

Does Nicki start with a brainstorming session with producers or songwriters first?
Theron: I don’t know if she does that with everybody, but we had the opportunity to sit down with her and talk to her which we find more beneficial than anything just to hear where the person is mentally. Creative people are moody. If you bring me a love song, I might be in a party mood and it’s not going to come out dope. If you bring me a party song and I’m going through something with my girl, I’m not going to be in that vibe and it’s not going to come off the way it’s supposed to. Talking to the artist and getting an understanding of their headspace is important.

You have a new tune called “Locked Away” featuring Adam Levine. How’d you guys link up with him?
Theron: We’re going to have to give all of the credit of Adam Levine on the record to Dr. Luke because first we had the record. Our manager Ray heard it and said these verses aren't good so we did the verses over and felt it was dope, and our manager said this should be our first single. It represents my brother and me in a personal way—it means something. Luke talked to Adam and he said, “I know the guys, I think they’re talented. I’m a fan of their work.” Luke sent him the records and he picked that one, and said he loved the song, went in and recorded it.
Timothy: Another thing about that song is that it’s very personal to us. Our dad got locked up. He did five years and while he was gone, the whole time our mom held him down like a real ride-or-die. That story inspired the whole song. We were being creative, bouncing melodies around, and we tapped into that whole situation. We felt it was relatable to so many different people on so many different levels, but it’s still so personal to us.

Seeing that Levine can be very comical on his show The Voice did he bring that personality to the studio or was he more serious?
Theron: When he recorded it, we were in Atlanta, working on something else. Him, Luke and Cirkut were in the studio and he came and recorded it. It’s been a blessing because having him on the record has made it bigger than anything. I don’t mean successfully big, but just looked at as a bigger record, looked at as a pop record because the subject line is an urban subject line. It’s a reggae vibe but putting him on it automatically made it this crossover, and now everybody is saying, "You have this big pop record." We’re like, "We do?" To us, that’s some 1990s dancehall sh*t. [Sings Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go"] That’s what the vibe was about. Putting him on it just gave it this huge platform so we definitely appreciate it.

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Afrochella Sets Sight On Connecting The African Diaspora, One Festival At A Time

African music and culture are going global.

There’s a concerted effort to create and connect on the continent and to the continent. In Ghana and Nigeria specifically, a number of events, festivals, concerts, and activations have grown to prominence over the past five years, attracting newcomers and serving locals. This year, December will harvest a crop of opportunities for those abroad and at home to tap into the music, art, food, and fashion of the new-wave vanguard.

“Ghana remains home to the global African family,” Ghana Tourism Authority CEO Akwasi Agyemang said in an interview earlier this year. "We are positioning Ghana as a gateway to the West African market," Agyemang added. As African cultural productions popularize abroad, Accra and Lagos have become the go-to grounds for people of the diaspora to initiate immersion into experiencing Africa. 

The Ghana Tourism Authority and the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture have lined up a slate of activities in an effort to boost the country’s tourism industry. The government has taken initiative to further pushing for mobilization, galvanizing both descendants and diasporans to visit, invest, and live in the country.

Certain factors make Ghana appealing for visitors. Along with it being one of the more stable nations in West Africa, according to a 2011 Forbes report, Ghana was ranked the 11th -most friendly country in the world, ranked higher than any other African country. But as of last year, according to the World Atlas, Ghana didn’t rank amongst the top 10 African countries to visit for tourism in 2018. There is already a history of diasporans permanently relocating to Ghana. The government attempted to facilitate this process when it waived some visa requirements and passed amendments to a 2002 law that permits people of African origin to apply to stay indefinitely in Ghana. 

But this year has been a particularly important one for visitors. This December marks the ending commemoration of the Year of Return. Ghana 2019 is an initiative of the government formally launched by the President of the Republic of Ghana in September 2019 in Washington, D.C. as a program for Africans in the diaspora to unite with Africans on the continent. The mission transcends a marketing strategy. The year 2019 commemorates 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. The program serves to recognize the surging people and the following generations of achievements, sacrifices since then. 

The past year has seen a steady influx to West Africa. According to a report in Quartz Africa, Ghana’s tourism sector contributed 5.5 percent to GDP in 2018, ranking in fourth place after gold, cocoa, and oil in terms of foreign exchange generation for the country. And the government is hoping for more growth. Ghana is reportedly projected to rake in an annual $8.3 billion from the tourism sector by the year 2027 in tandem with an estimated 4.3 million international tourist arrivals.

But with the opportunities for connection and investment comes a slate of new concerns attached to old ones. Tourism, for example, can be lucrative for local business, but also can have a broader disruptive impact on the nation’s economy. Then, there are the issues that programmers face to bring locals and visitors the sought-after idealized experiences of Ghana— a taxing and a challenging feat to execute in an environment that’s still developing its infrastructure in multiple sectors. Along with improper documentation of visitors, the 15-year development plan put in place to help push the numbers, in ways, has not been implemented in full force.

But a rush to Ghana is still projected, and there’s a slew of events coinciding in the region at the same time this year aiming to accommodate this. One of the events slated for a return is Afrochella, the annual art, music, and food festival happening in Accra from December 20 to January 5. Separate from the official year of return events, each event also aims to fulfill a similar mission and market individual appeal amidst similar events. There’s AfroNation, the popular Europe music festival holding its first-ever edition on Ghana’s coastline at the same time as Afrochella, while Nativeland is planning a selection of panels and immersive activations with Melanin Unscripted focusing on music, art, and culture in Lagos right before it.

Afrochella was conceptualized by Abdul Karim Abdullah in 2015. Abdullah, along with co-founder Kenny Agyapong, and COO Edward Adjaye, launched the full-scope festival with the hopes of curating a connection to the continent this year, focused on increasing visibility to the rising talent on the continent. Their 2019 theme is “Diaspora Calling,” aiming to promote networking within the Ghanaian community and diaspora, ensure African youth value and celebrate their native cultures while connecting communities through education, fashion, art, music, and business in Africa. 

Community involvement representative Emmanual Ansa states they want the event to become “the impetus and mecca for the celebration of African music, culture, and art.” But amidst the many options on the ground this year to fulfill these missions, where does Afrochella stand, and how does it stand out?

VIBE sat down with the Afrochella co-founder Abdullah to talk about the structural challenges of executing this initiative while appeasing the demands of a growing consumer base, the cultural significance of the event, and envisioning Ghana as a premier frontier for a global black connection.

Can you talk about the origin of Afrochella? What inspired it?

I went to school in Ghana for about seven years, and then I came back to the US and I went to high school in the Bronx—  High School For Teaching And The Professions. I went to Syracuse University in 2006 and got my bachelor's in psychology and biology. And then I got my master's in 2016 at CUNY Hunter college in public health. I've been working in medical research for eight and a half years. But this has been a passion of mine that I've always done on the side, which is throwing African-inspired events.

That’s when my team came together. It started out with me wanting to do a festival here in New York called Native Tongue festival, and that was geared towards food. I just wanted to explain the culture and engage people within the diaspora. But then, on our yearly trip to Ghana, I found that we would gather and we would have a great time, but we couldn't really have that much of an effect once we left. I felt like we could have an effect; we could encourage more people to reach back home and do certain things by creating a space where we can engage each other. I thought there was so much talent coming in from all over the world that were from Ghanian descent or African descent and if we could create a place where we can galvanize all of that and the people that are doing amazing things within those industries, we would be able to create something pretty good. [In] 2017, we decided to do something like that.

How has it changed since 2017? Has it been easier to translate what you're trying to do in terms of this new interest in Africa — Ghana and Nigeria in particular? 

My team is battle-tested. We understand what we have to do in order to make the event successful. But, I wouldn't say it's been easier; each year presented different challenges for us. In year one, it was financial. Until this year, it was navigating bureaucracies. Last year, it was navigating governmental agencies. This year is navigating competition, navigating finding more funding.  One of the things that we noticed about events in Ghana specifically is that once it [nears] completion, people tend to not attend it anymore. What we want to make sure we do is every year we want to increase the amount of people that attend— and each year we have at least by 30 percent. Each year, we've been able to define our message more clearly. 

Talk a little bit about the government in Ghana. How has it been dealing with things on the bureaucracy level?

I would say our event is doing a big service to Ghana. Afrochella has definitely given people an opportunity to visit Ghana. The government should support us in a way that makes gaining access to certain government facilities easier. But that has not been the case. We've had to be very proactive about that with regards to certain policies that may exist that are not written on an online forum. Like in America, if I wanted to do a special event in the park, I'd be able to go to an online source. I'd be able to see all the things that need to do in order to get a specific permit for a specific venue. In Ghana, these things don't exist.

For instance, this year we received an email from some agency. Out of all of the years, we've never communicated with them and in the third year, they're reaching out to us about musician copyrights and, apparently, we have to pay a tax. Those are the kinds of things that we've faced. You can end up paying people that are not actually supposed to get paid. And there's no way of you knowing whether or not it exists or doesn't exist. 

Last year, we had a very weird incident four days before the festival. We were told by the Ministry of Aviation that our stadium is right by the takeoff of the planes leaving Accra. I would think that the venue that we're renting out for this festival would be able to let us know, “hey, you need to do this with the Ministry of Aviation,”— they did not. The day before Christmas, we got a notification that we have to change venues because they feel our lights will interfere with flights taking off. It's, of course, an accident. So, we reached out to the Ministry of Aviation, sat down with the director and devised a plan in order to allow our event to continue. Those are the kinds of things we faced as an event that we are still trying to navigate. Hopefully, as we grow, it will get easier.

Do you think it'll get easier when some type of infrastructure is built to help those types of events move more smoothly?

I think that Ghana is going to have to look itself in the mirror. We all don't know what to expect in December. Because there are a lot of people going to Ghana in December, the anticipation is very high. All the major hotels in Accra are sold out. How Accra responds to the influx of people I think should inform the government on how they should prepare for events and things like this for the future. I do hope that there is an effort created to streamline policies. 

I would like for the government to encourage events. I think events is one of the major drivers of tourism. And if they're paying attention, they will notice that a lot of people are coming to Accra for Afrochella and the events that exist during that last week of Christmas. The double mission is to take a deeper look at this creative industry and figure out a way to encourage that positively in a way that it affects both the people on the ground and the people within the diaspora. 

The government has not been welcoming this with open arms or does it not have any type of structured initiative to help this run smoothly?

I'm not saying that. I just feel like in general, we do not know what changes in infrastructure or policy being made to accommodate the amount of people that are coming in. For instance, with Afrochella we understand that because there's going to be so many people—there was an excessive amount of traffic coming into the stadium last year—that we need to figure out a way to get people to the festival in shuttles. If we can get people that are shuttles, then we could reduce the amount of cars. We reached out to the Ministry of Roads to help us so we can avoid traffic in front of the stadium and that we can make sure that there's a safe way for people to enter. This is some of the planning that we have done. Until now, I personally have not seen any information come out, access [to] policies that exist. 

One of the major complaints that people from the diaspora face when they go to Africa during Christmas time is we feel that we should be having the same sort of customer service that we enjoy abroad. With the influx of people, I think that it's going to get worse.

We just wanna make sure that infrastructure exists to make sure that people that are coming do not disrupt the way of life in Accra.

There are a lot of other events happening around the same time as Afrochella. What is the concerted effort to kind of stand out from the rest?

Our goal is to highlight the thriving millennial talent from within the continent. So we take pride in making sure that we're highlighting people within various industries of food, fashion, music. With our Afrochella Talk series, we’ve been able to highlight people that have been doing amazing things within the creative industry. In December, we'll be doing one on music. And this is an opportunity to be able to educate people on opportunities that may exist within their field or create a platform for people to be able to discuss questions they may have. 

We're also involved heavily in charity. Last year, we supported Water Aid to help provide clean water to families in need. The year before that, we gave out school supplies to kids within Madina Zongo. This year, we're doing charity twofold. We're rebuilding an orphanage school, in Jamestown, Accra and also providing them with school supplies. We call this initiative Afrochella Reads]. We’re also doing Afrochella Feeds on December 26th. 

Our goal when we bring people to Ghana is not just to come and turn up, not just to have a good time, but also to give them a feel of the vibration of the country, what the culture is.For us, it's a holistic approach.

What does the full festival entail?

The festival itself is art, music, food, fashion and all of that culminates in our eyes what culture is. We believe that each part of these is equally as important. Not one part is more important than the other and that we should celebrate them together. In addition to people getting to go to our festival, we also give them the opportunity to be able to engage with the country through our tours, through our charity. The tours and the charity that we do is to make people understand that yes, Africa is a good time— you can go to all the clubs— but we want to make sure you leave and provide an impact at the same time. 

Talk a little bit about the Audiomack rising star challenge and that effort to kind of curate the connection with music and culture.

With the rise of afropop music in America, I feel these artists deserve a chance. Right now, the popular, mainstream artists are the ones that are getting the looks they deserve. But I think that there are a lot of talents that exist from the continent that deserve to showcase their talent.

The other aspect of it is, I feel that people in the continent are using all of these apps and all of these different services and they hardly get to connect with representatives from those services. One of our goals is to make sure that we partner with these companies and give them the opportunity to invest in the talent directly. With Audiomack, we're doing exactly that in that we're giving seven individuals an opportunity to perform at Afrochella. And the one with the most streams, we’re giving them $1,000 towards their career and we’re giving them an opportunity to for a studio session at our partners BBnZ Live. This is one model of the type of partnerships we want to, we look to create with companies in the future. 

Why is this year in particular so important for the reconnection of the diaspora in the context of the 400-year anniversary?

A lot of the conversation between the diaspora and the people from the continent is what makes us different, why we don't get along. What we want to do as a festival is take that conversation and change it into what can we learn from each other and how can we help each other. I think that it's very important that as you see the Chinese and the Japanese and the Americans and everyone reaching for Africa, that we engage the people in the diaspora to make them understand that there are opportunities that exist and there is amazing talent in Africa and they are interested in starting a business and you're interested in developing a space and you can engage with your counterparts on the continent and help build the continent yourself.

I think the more black people we get to invest in the continent, as a whole black will be helping each other. This year is absolutely important and I think that shoutout should go to Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana for declaring this year The Year of Return. Ghana is definitely a good site that people can visit, but we hope that as people enjoy themselves and have that experience that they use that as a platform to visit other African countries and see what opportunities are there for them to be able to leave a lasting impact on the continent.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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