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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.

READ:
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Beyonce, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy Carter attends the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.
Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

An Ode To Jay-Z, The Ultimate Rap Dad

Rap, throughout its history, has always referenced parenthood in some form. Most often, it was to extol single mothers for their goodness while deadbeat fathers were berated and called out for going ghost. In recent years, as the social media landscape has blown open the avenues of communication, famous rap dads, in particular, have become increasingly transparent about their lives as family men. Where years ago there seemed to be endless bars mourning the demise of the father, artists are now using their platform to balance the scales. They’re showing themselves to be present and intentional.

Few albums make me think more about the concept of parenthood, and legacy, than Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. It’s a stark and blistering work of memoir, heavy on confession and self-examination. When 4:44 finally dropped, I, like many others, was filled with wonder. How was it that Jay had managed to so fluidly deconstruct everything I’d been wrestling with for the last few years? Though the specifics of our experiences differed greatly, the central ideas dissected on 4:44, especially those concerning fatherhood and family life, had been swimming around my brain for some time.

***

Hip-hop saved my life. And it was fatherhood that set it on fire. This bears explaining.

What hip-hop has done for me, is what it has done for millions of fatherless and heart-wounded kids—it provided, at the very least, the shading of a better life. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, and the value I ascribed to it, it would be impossible to know just how far I’d have settled into the more lamentable aspects of my environment. Forasmuch of a goon as I was growing up, something always kept me from becoming too emotionally invested in harsh crime. I dabbled in mischief like an amateur chef knowing he would only go so far. I saw in hip-hop, in the art of it, something worth pursuing with tenacity; something like a healthy distraction. So I committed to finding my lane.

Though there were brief stints dedicated to developing my modest graffiti skills and footwork, it was the words that flowed and came without struggle. The school cyphers sharpened my wits and compelled me to feed my vocabulary daily. Only my wordplay could save me from getting ripped to shreds in a lunchroom battle. I read books and scoured the dictionary for ammunition, I listened to stand-up comics who fearlessly engaged the crowd and proved quick on the draw. It seemed fruitless to know a billion words if I couldn’t convert them into brutal attacks. I had to break the competition down and render them defenseless, stammering for a rebuttal. There could be no confusion as to my superiority. So instead of joining the stickup kids or depositing all of my energy into intramural sports, I put my soul and mind into the task of taking down all manner of wack MCs. That’s why I say that hip-hop saved me.

But fatherhood was its own saving grace. It showed me that the world did not revolve, nor would it ever revolve, around my passions. Fatherhood put an extra battery behind my back as a creative, sure. But it’s more about being a consistent presence at home than chasing any dream.

***

As an artist and writer, I cannot so much as think about fatherhood without considering some of the material that deals with feelings comparable to those I felt after I became a father. Songs that contextualize very specific emotions over the drums.

In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z, someone who had long been vocal about his strained relationship with his father, reflects on the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, his first child with wife Beyoncé. Produced by the Neptunes, “Glory” was released on January 9, just two days after Blue was born. From start to finish, it carries a sort of gleeful melancholy that resonates on multiple levels. While it is, in essence, a comment on the exuberant joy attached with welcoming a child, “Glory” is also a note on death and mourning.

Before Blue came along and flipped the script, Beyoncé had suffered a miscarriage. The pain the couple experienced left them fearful of not being able to conceive. The dual purpose of “Glory” is made clear from the outset, and with blazing transparency. “False alarms and false starts,” offers Jay, laying the groundwork for what immediately follows: “All made better by the sound of your heart.” The second half of the couplet establishes what was, as we come to learn, the most pivotal moment in the rap mogul’s life up until then. The moment where all is made right, where the sting of loss is eclipsed by the possibility of new birth. Jay continues in this mode, shining light on the redeeming gift that is Blue and, also, how the child is a composite of her mother and father, yet more still.

The opening bars of the following verse are equally striking as Jay, addressing Blue, touches on the death of his father from liver failure. Jay is signaling here, leading us somewhere but with the intent to shift gears. Instead of dwelling on his father’s shortcomings like one might expect him to, Jay breaks left, resolving that deep down his father was a good man. What begins as an indictment of a cheat who walked out on his obligations, ends with a declaration of forgiveness and generosity. But Jay soon directs the focus back to his blessing and how hard it is not to spoil her rotten as she is the child of his destiny. It becomes apparent that this is a man at his most self-actualized. A few more welcome digressions and “Glory” closes the same way that it begins, with the final line of the hook: “My greatest creation was you.” This points to something that I, too, came to know as fact. That no matter what I do, and regardless of what I might attain—power, wealth, the esteem of my peers—nothing is quite comparable to the happiness and the terror that comes with siring a child. “Glory” succeeds as it casts aside any traces of bluster and bravado, making room for Jay to unearth lessons that were hard-won yet central to his maturation. And what is the purpose of making art if not to bust open your soul and watch it spill over? Shout out to the rap dads raising babies and doing the work to shift the narrative.

Juan Vidal is a writer, critic, and author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.

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Mike Coppola

The Cast Of 'SHAFT' Talk Family Traditions, Power And The Film's Legacy

Back in 1971, Richard Roundtree became the face of the legendary crime/blaxploitation film SHAFT. His influence in the role paved the way for a new generation of black detectives filled with a gluttonous amount of swag, clever one-liners, and action-packed scenes. Samuel L. Jackson followed suit in the franchise’s 2000 installment as he took over the streets of Uptown Manhattan and Harlem filling in for Roundtree’s original character.

Fast forward to 2019, and SHAFT’s legacy has risen to higher heights, incorporating Roundtree and Jackson together with an extension of their detective prowess. Director Tim Story created a familial driven movie centered around three different generations of SHAFT men. Roundtree plays the grandfather; Jackson plays the dad—and Jessie T. Usher plays the son. All three embark on a mission that’s laced with dirty politics, Islamophobia, and highflying action in efforts to solve a seemingly homicidal death.

The dynamics between all three are hilarious and dotted with lessons learned from past paternal influences. On a recent sunny Friday afternoon at Harlem's Red Rooster, the trio shared some of the traditions and virtues the paternal figures in real life have taught them. Most of the influence passed down to them was centered on working hard.

“People say to me, ‘Why do you work so much?’” Jackson said. “Well, all the grown people went to work every day when I got up. I figured that’s what we’re supposed to be doing—get up, pay a bill, and take care of everything that’s supposed to be taken care of.”

“For my family, it was cleanliness and masculinity,” Usher added. “The guys in my family were always well put together, very responsible especially my dad.”

In spite of the SHAFT men's power, the film's story wouldn’t be what it is without Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp’s characters. They both play strong women caught in the middle of the mayhem created by the men they care about. Both are conscious of the power they exhibit as black women off and on screen, yet are aware of the dichotomy of how that strength is perceived in the world.

“It’s very interesting because I think a lot of times as powerful black women we are seen as angry black women,” Shipp says. “So it’s hard to have that voice and that opinion because a lot of times when we voice it; it becomes a negative rather than a positive. In order to hold that power, it has to be poised. It has to be with grace, I think there is strength in a strong but graceful black woman.”

“People have an idea of what strength is and how you do it and sometimes it’s the subtleties,” Regina adds. “Sometimes our influence is so powerful and it doesn’t always have to be loud I think a lot of times how we navigate is with conviction and patience.”

VIBE chatted with the cast of SHAFT about holding power, their red flags when it comes to dating, and why the SHAFT legacy continues to live on. Watch the interviews below.

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Sony Music

Meet Zhavia, The Musician Who Refuses To Be Boxed In

If you haven’t heard of Zhavia before, that will likely change very, very soon.

The 18-year-old Columbia Records signee is readying her first major EP 17, which is scheduled for June 14. A native of the Golden State, Zhavia catapulted to national consciousness after making it to the top four of the inaugural season of FOX’s singing competition, The Four, which features Diddy and DJ Khaled as judges. Since then, she continues to rise and tantalize audiences with her powerful, chill-inducing vocals.

The singer-songwriter—who tells VIBE she’s hopeful that her forthcoming EP will be “inspiring” to her ever-growing fanbase—dropped the project’s latest single “17” on May 31. Produced by hip-hop hitmaker Hit-Boy and co-written by RØMANS, Zhavia explains that the retrospective song is more personal than her previously-released tracks, such as the trap-tickled “100 Ways” and “Candlelight,” the stand-out single that showcases the vocal prowess of the petite blonde ingenue.

"’17’ is a song that I wrote about my life story, and how I got to where I am right now,” she says. The track details hardships such as a lack of resources to thrive in her childhood home and staying in a motel in order to accomplish her musical goals. “I just wanted it to be something that [fans] can relate to, whatever it is that they're going through.”

“I saw it in my dreams, I knew that life would change for me,” she croons on the new single. “This is reality, look at me now.”

Zhavia’s humble beginnings start in Norwalk, Calif., as a daughter of two musicians who introduced her to numerous genres. In fact, her mother was a member of a metal band called Xenoterra, and Zhavia’s impressively-versatile vocal range could be attributed to this Chex Mix bag of sonic stylings.

“From doo-wop to punk to R&B, metal, rock...” she says, listing of the types of music she was brought up on, which helped her in honing a unique style. Her own tunes feature an R&B and hip-hop flair and sprinkles touches of other genres throughout, in order for her to remain true to her roots.

“I feel like for the most part, [my music will] always have that R&B feel to it, but I'm always gonna have a lot of different vibes for people to pick and choose what they like,” she explains.

Zhavia's urban-tinged musical affinity was palpable during her time on The Four, where she put her spin on hits such as French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” Although she was unanimously selected by the show’s four celebrity judges to advance after a stellar first-round performance of Khalid’s “Location,” she admits she initially wasn’t planning to compete.

“When I was younger, I had wanted to go on a [singing] show, but I had made up my mind. ‘I'm gonna try to do it myself,’” she chuckles. “But, the people that were having auditions, they happened to be at the studio that I was recording at when I was making my own songs. My manager told me, 'Just go sing for them.'”

After showing off her impressive pipes, she was convinced to join the show, and was further influenced to compete after discovering that The Four appeared to focus on R&B and hip-hop-leaning artists.

“I was like, 'Okay, that sounds like me, they'll probably accept the style of music that I do,'” she continues. “I feel like on other singing shows, it's a little more pop, or towards the pop genre. Also, the panel that they had [DJ Khaled, Diddy, Meghan Trainor and Charlie Walk] seemed really relevant, and I could tell it was legit. I figured I'd just try it out, and it led me to where I am now.”

Since placing fourth on the show, Zhavia has proven that her star power was built to last longer than 15 minutes. Other than her forthcoming EP’s release, her gifts have found her among the company of some big names. She can be heard on the soundtrack for Deadpool 2 in the song “Welcome To The Party” with Diplo, French Montana and Lil Pump. Recently, moviegoers were treated to her rendition of the Disney classic “A Whole New World” with Zayn Malik, for the live-action version of Aladdin, which plays during the film’s end credits.

“I think it's been amazing, and it's definitely a lot of exposure that comes in a unique way,” she says of working on big projects with even bigger industry names. She continues by stating that she’s had a blast “putting her own twist” on songs she didn’t pen and doing material “totally different from what [she] would normally do.”

The pressures of Hollywood and the entertainment industry could be difficult on anyone, however, young stars under the U.S. legal age in the limelight may find themselves succumbing to various pressures, temptations and burnout. For Zhavia, she makes sure to keep a level head and a positive attitude in order to persevere in the industry as she matures.

“I feel like it's not that hard to stay focused, because I've wanted to do this my whole life,” she says affirmatively. “It's what I live for. For me, one of my number one priorities besides my family is music. I don't really go out, I don't party, I don't do none of that. I just work! [Laughs] I think for me, it's just focusing on myself and what I wanna do, and what I wanna get done.” She’s also hoping to keep surprising people throughout her career by coming up with genre-bending songs that show off her style, personality and abilities. Let her do her, and watch her as she goes.

“I'm not gonna be put in a box to do just one type of music or one style of song,” Zhavia affirms. “I don't want people to get used to one thing, you know? That's kind of a hard thing to express to the world. I feel like it comes with me coming up with more music, and to keep creating music for people to listen to and get to know me.”

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