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.
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.
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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