SisQo Shares Memories Of 'Unleash the Dragon' For Album's Anniversary
The late '90s was a magical time for R&B, with a plethora of talented acts infiltrating the genre. Among these new jacks was Dru Hill, a quartet out of Baltimore, Maryland with vocal chops reminiscent of the ensembles of yesteryear. Comprised of SisQó, Jazz, Woody, and Nokio, Dru Hill stormed the charts in 1996 with their self-titled debut, which struck platinum off the strength of hits like "Tell Me," "In My Bed," "Never Make a Promise," and "5 Steps." Riding high off the success of their debut, Dru Hill hit the movie soundtrack circuit hard, contributing singles for Soul Food ("We're Not Making Love No More") and How to Be a Player (“Big Bad Mama”) the following year. By that point, SisQó had emerged as the breakout star of the group, with his distinct vocals and palpable charisma quickly catching on with fans. He also began making waves with his songwriting, most notably his work for fellow DMV native Mýa, whose first two singles, "It's All About Me" and "Movin' On," were powered by his penmanship.
Returning alongside his groupmates with their 1998 sophomore album, Enter the Dru, SisQó and Dru Hill's careers skyrocketed, with the album peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard charts and earning double-platinum certification within months of its release. Featuring standouts like their chart-topping Rush Hour soundtrack single "How Deep," as well as ballads like "These Are The Times" and Beauty," Enter the Dru marked another victory for Dru Hill and positioned them as one of the hottest groups in all of music. However, Dru Hill would begin to splinter with the defection of member Woody in early 1999, leaving the direction of the group in limbo during the height of their success.
Taking matters into his own hands, SisQó capitalized on the buzz surrounding his name and decided to keep the fire burning with his own solo album, Unleash the Dragon, which was released on November 30, 1999, on Def Soul. A departure from the traditional Dru Hill sound, Unleash the Dragon, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, included a mix of ballads and amped-up club bangers and cast SisQó as a captivating dance machine with a voice thunderous enough to crush the buildings. Featuring the singles "Got To Get It," "Incomplete," and the seismic anthem, "Thong Song," Unleash the Dragon was one of the biggest R&B releases of the year, selling upwards of five million units in the U.S. alone and minting SisQó as a bonafide megastar.
With twenty years having passed since its release, VIBE spoke with SisQó about recording Unleash the Dragon, struggling to make the transition as a solo artist, the lasting impact of "Thong Song," label drama and much more.
VIBE: When were you first approached to record a solo album and what's the backstory behind that?
SisQó: I was not really approached to do a solo album, basically what happened, it was right around the time all of the labels were consolidating. Back in the late '90s, early '00s, a lot of the labels were combining into one label and we were kinda being pushed onto the Def Jam imprint. We had previously worked with Def Jam and had great success with the song that we did, "How Deep," for the Rush Hour soundtrack. When we did that record, at the time, we had gotten paid more than anyone else to record a soundtrack song. So that song was our first No.1 single across the board and I believe it was a part of the Latin invasion, if you will, and that was all on Def Jam. We had also had another platinum success with the How To Be A Player soundtrack.
Dru Hill had just gotten on their label so they wanted a Dru Hill album. And we had just had prior success, like I said, with the song "How Deep" from the Rush Hour soundtrack and then we had a song with Will Smith called the "Wild Wild West." If you look at the video [for “Wild Wild West”], you'll see there were four of us in the beginning of the video and only three of us at the end. Woody [one of the members] decided that he didn't wanna sing with the group anymore. He had pretty much quit the group on the set of the "Wild Wild West" video and needless to say, it was pretty rough. That's why if you look at the video, I got my hat pulled down so far so you can't see my eyes 'cause I was really [upset].
We were really broken up because we had just gotten off our very successful European tour that *NSYNC and 98 Degrees were opening up for us on. We were at the pinnacle of our success, but when Woody quit the group, when we went to do the second leg of our tour, our American portion of the tour, the fans were very confused. They were used to the four of us being Dru Hill so attendance at the shows was kind of dwindling.
At that moment, I basically came to the label and was like, 'Hey, man, I think maybe now might be a good time for me to do a solo album.' And of course, they didn't want a solo album because that was a gamble for them because they had never seen any prior success with myself as a solo artist and only saw success with Dru Hill. And it was like a new genre for them because they were a hip-hop label. So I took my own money, recorded my album and basically went up and asked for a meeting with the label. I played them my album, "Thong Song" included, I guess they realized that I had something special and they decided to put the album out. And over 10-12 million albums later, maybe I was right (laughs).
Being that you were used to creating and performing in a group setting, what was the adjustment like making the transition as a solo artist?
The studio part was easy because we had been working together since we were fourteen years old. We came right out of high school right into the entertainment industry so we found several different ways to work. The recording part, that part was very easy, the part that wasn't so easy was when it came time to do the video. Hype Williams had shot "Got To Get It”. They shut Hollywood Boulevard down just to shoot my video. So we're on the roof and I'm about to do this performance. Hype Williams, one of my all-time favorite directors, is doing my video, everything's set up. They were like, “And... action!” and I just froze. I froze and I'm not really a shy person, anybody that knows me can tell you that, but yo, I got cold feet. I don't know if Hype still has the footage, but I literally looked back and didn't see Dru Hill and I just rolled out. It might've been a low-key panic attack, I don't know. I was like, “Yo, I can't shoot, I can't do the video.” He was like, “What?” I was like, “Yo, get the car, I'm out.” We had two days to shoot this video and I'm up there like, “I'm not doing it.”
So I hop in the car, I go back to my hotel room and then my brother was like, “What's going on?” I was like, "Yo, I don't think I can do it. What if people don't like the music, what if they don't like me? I don't know if I can do it without Dru Hill." He was like, “Yo if you don't do it now, you'll spend your life wondering could've, should've, would've and you'll regret it for the rest of your life.
“That's the worst thing you could do so why don't you just go up there and just do it, at least you can say you did it.” I was like, “You know what? You're right.” I showed up the next day and we went and shot the video for ”Got To Get It” and the rest is history. I never got cold feet like that [again], but that very first time, I was messed up."
In light of your previous success with Dru Hill and the hype surrounding your solo turn, did you feel any pressure to live up to expectations, especially with y'all going through your internal beef?
Well, we didn't have any internal beef. As a matter of fact, when I got my deal, I made sure the entire group got paid. I don't know if there is another group member or boy-band member that when they went solo made sure that their group members got paid. I might've been the first one in history to do that. Within my contract, when they paid me for my album, I made sure my group members got paid. I was like, 'If y'all don't pay my group members and me, then I'm not gonna sign with y'all so I basically made sure everybody ate while I was eating. Not to mention that I opened up the album to any member of the group that wanted to do a song so they can get publishing. A lot of people don't know that album was on my own label so I own my own masters. Everybody's making it seem like it's something new, but technically, I was one of the youngest artists to ever own their masters, a lot of people don't know that to this day. Like, the "Thong Song' is on my label.
Your album kicks off with the title track, which features a guest appearance from Beanie Sigel, who was a relatively new artist at the time. How did that particular collaboration come to life?
Beanie Sigel being on that record, that was really Def Jam. Beans was fairly new and I knew who Beans was. I had no idea that he was gonna be a part of my record. I thought it was dope for him to want to be a part of that 'cause me being on Def Jam, a lot of times I would see the Def Jam artists around so we would talk to each other in passing from time to time. But Beans being on the record, I thought that that was dope 'cause I felt like Beans had a lot of street cred. And him being on the “Unleash the Dragon” record, I think it gave the words I was saying a little more validity 'cause of him being so street and a part of JAY-Z's camp and what have you.
The album's second single "Thong Song" was an international smash and helped launch your career to unprecedented heights. What was the inspiration behind you dedicating a song to lingerie?
At the time, no one had really seen one before, myself included. I had gone on this date and the girl had the thong on and I was like, “Yo, what is that?” And she was all nonchalant, “This old thing? It's called a thong.” So basically, when I was putting the album together, I had got to this one song that had this track produced by this group of producers called Tim & Bob. It wasn't even a full song, it was a sample of about, I wanna say, thirty seconds maybe and it was at the end of a CD with a bunch of tracks on it. And this one specific sample was on there and that was the only one out of the whole CD that I liked so I called them and asked them if they could loop it and send it back to me. They looped it, sent it back and I basically freestyled the whole song to the "Dump like a truck" 'cause I didn't really know what I was gonna put right there.
And after I saw that girl’s thong, I told all my boy, “Yo, you gotta see this thing that I saw." He was like, "What are you talking about?' I was like, “Yo, I don't know what it was, but it's like some dental floss, it was like these tiny draws called a thong.” He was like, "A what?" I said, "A thong." I'm from Baltimore, so these are inner-city dudes. So all of a sudden everybody rolled out, going on a pilgrimage to find that one ring... it wasn't a ring though, it was a thong. The next day, my boy came back like, "Guess what this girl gave me?" I thought that she had handed him something and he said, "That thong-thong-thong-thong-thong!" I thought it was super funny that he made this big deal over this thing and even to this day, a thong is a big deal. If you're in some kind of relationship and the person that you're with come out with a thong, that is gonna be a story that you tell your friend the next day. Facts.
The song itself was a success, but it is also remembered in large part for its accompanying music video, which was a watershed moment for the video vixen era. How would you describe the activity on set and what are some memories from that shoot you can share?
Man, that's a whole separate interview, it was a lot going on (laughs). It's a whole other story with the stuff that went on that video. We just got our biopic green-lit by BET. I wanna save some of the stories for the biopic, but I can share one thing. When we had to do the auditions, it was about two days of just different women coming into a room, us pressing play on "Thong Song" and them just shaking off in thongs for two days straight. We had like five tapes of like several hours of different women from Miami and from all over the world that wanted to be in that video and at the time, it was crazy 'cause you couldn't even show a thong in a video. If you look at the "Thong Song" video, you notice you never see a straight-on thong 'cause you couldn't show it. Like when I'm walking on the beach [in the video], the girls are upside down so you're not really seeing a butt in a thong. And then when they're on the beach playing ball, it's like from the side, so you never really see a straight-on thong. After that video, the FCC kinda lightened up and then everyone went bananas. The only thing you didn't see was maybe an areola in a video and you even saw that on BET After Dark [Or BET: Uncut], so you're welcome (laughs).
The "Thong Song" can also be credited with popularizing thongs on a mainstream level and becoming synonymous with sex appeal. How did it feel to play a part in that and helping women feel more liberated?
I feel like women took their power back with "Thong Song," which was the magic of the record. It could've been looked at as misogynistic, which some people tried to make it that. But women took it as empowering because I believe women realized that and found the power that they had in their sexuality. When we were growing up, there was a lot of chauvinists, women were only being objectified in different ways and it was very hard for a lot of women to find their voice. And I feel like younger women of that time, they took that moment and seized it and now women are running everything. They took that like, "Oh, okay, we're gonna use this to kick the door open" (laughs). And that's awesome.
I read somewhere that Lil Kim was originally slated to be on the album version of "Thong Song." Is there any truth to that?
That story got mixed up. What happened was Lil Kim and I did the song "How Many Licks," I had written the chorus. So when I did the record, a lot of people don't know. If you're on a label and you have ownership of the label, basically you and whoever your distribution is, which was Def Jam at the time, basically have ownership of the music. Not only the music but the artist and artist's likeness and how the artist is portrayed and what have you. In order for Def Jam to be on board with me being a part of Lil Kim's album, I had to do some kind of favor for them. The favor that I did was to do a remix to the "Thong Song." Now granted, everybody knows that "Thong Song" didn't need a remix, but they wanted to put the remix on the Nutty Professor soundtrack. So I was like, "Okay, cool, y'all want me to do this remix, then y'all gotta sign off on me being in Lil Kim's video." They were like, "Okay, well if you're gonna do that, we want you to do this song for DMX, and that was "What These Bi***es Want." I did those two songs for them in order for them to not have a problem with me doing Lil Kim's video, but unfortunately, they got amnesia when it came time for me to be in Lil Kim's video and that kind of started the friction between myself and Def Jam.
Aside from your own singles, "What These Bi***es Want" was another song that really boosted your own profile as well as DMX's. What was it like working with DMX on that song?
Nokio, one of the members of Dru Hill, he's one of the producers on that record. I didn't know X that well and I had already done my favor for Def Jam which was the "Thong Song (Remix)" so I wasn't really interested in doing an extra favor for Def Jam. But Nokio had sent me the record and asked if I have an idea for it. Just out of respect for my brother, I was like, "You know what? I'ma go 'head and lace this joint and hopefully Def Jam won't have amnesia when it comes time for them to make good on their part of the bargain." But we all saw how that panned out.
The song recently gained new life and was reintroduced to a new generation of listeners via the #DMXChallenge on social media. What was your reaction to the song becoming a viral sensation twenty years after its release?
Let's just put it this way, it's good to have hits. Because you have a whole bunch of younger cats, a whole new generation who might not have even known the song or might not even have been born when it came out that got introduced to the song. That was cool, I was really happy to be a part of that song at that moment. It's crazy though, I just got back from Australia and they don't know the song as much as people know it over here. That's wild how different songs impact people in different ways.
Another song from Unleash the Dragon that caught on with the public was "Incomplete." How did that record fall into your hands?
Even to this day, people don't even know Montell Jordan wrote "Incomplete." I didn't even want to sing "Incomplete" initially because it sounded too much like Dru Hill, but to be fair, I hadn't really listened to it. I just heard the first couple of piano licks and was like, "Nah, that's too much like Dru Hill." If you notice, I sing in Dru Hill so it's undeniable that my voice is there and I can't not sound like me, but my music doesn't sound like Dru Hill's music. Like you can never hear Dru Hill singing "Thong Song," it's not a Dru Hill [type of] record. Back then [former Def Jam executive] Kevin Liles had asked me, "Just listen to the song... I mean, have you even heard the song?" I said "Nah, 'cause I didn't want anything that sounded like Dru Hill." And he was like, "Yo, just listen to the song, if you just listen to the record and you still think that it's bullsh*t, I won't try to force you to sing it." I listened to the record and then soon as I heard that line, "Got a bank account bigger than the law should allow," I was like "Yeah, I'm singing that." (laughs)
If you could choose three of the album cuts outside of the singles that struck a chord or are among your favorites, which three would you name?
I would say "Enchantment Passing Through" because the great Elton John had written the song and I produced and arranged it with Nathan Morring, my MD (music director) from my band and Dru Hill. And that song, I think, is just an incredible record. The song I did with my female group [LovHer], "Is Love Enough" was an incredible record. And the song "How Can I Love U 2nite" which I did with Nokio, which I feel was the best ballad that I sang as a solo artist that was written and produced by him.
What can the public look forward to from SisQó moving forward?
On Black Friday, you'll be able to pick up my brand new EP called SisQó Genesis. It's got three new songs and a song from the last album I did, The Last Dragon. I'm basically doing a series of EPs where I'm releasing three separate EPs and one new song from The Last Dragon and maybe I'll compile 'em all together and make one album. It's basically a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Unleash the Dragon album, that's why I called it SisQó Genesis.
Twenty years later, how does it feel to see the album still being talked about and celebrated as a classic body of work?
When we did the album, I had gotten nominated eight times for a Grammy. At the time, I was told that was the most that anybody had ever been nominated. And then a couple of years ago, Beyonce had gotten nominated nine times, which broke my record, but it was almost twenty years that I held that record so that was pretty cool. Even though I didn't win a Grammy, for some people who may not know the music so well or relegated the album to the most popular record, "Thong Song," for the whole album to still be recognized today, it really makes you feel good as an artist that you can still be recognized. It's a validation of your artistry and every artist just wants to be validated in their art.