"We are from the Virgin Islands, we make music and we are the shit," says Theron Thomas, who along with his brother, Timothy, form the hit-making tandem R. City. "As humble as we are, that is how we feel in our hearts, and we are going to prove it to the world." Humble may not be the first thing that comes to mind following a statement like that, but when you do some research on the group it becomes clear that he was just being honest. R. City is that good.
During a time signed to Akon’s Konvict Muzik (and stuck in label limbo) the brothers stumbled upon a side hustle: songwriting. As label politics temporarily put their career as artists on hold, their newly found career as songwriters for others began taking off. Since then, the St. Thomas, VI natives have continued to rack up writing credits on records for the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Usher, Miley Cyrus, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber and many others, solidifying themselves as two of the music industry's most sought-after songwriters.
Not loosing sight of their original vision - even as their stock as songwriters continued to increase – R. City continued to release mixtapes and independent projects. The group’s hard work and determination eventually paid off, with them signing to super-producer Dr. Luke's imprint, Kemosabe Records. What Dreams Are Made Of, their debut album, hit retailers towards the end of 2015 and featured the Adam Levine-assisted “Locked Away,” a single that went on to reach the top 10 in several countries, including Australia, France, Canada, the UK, and of course the US. CNNCTD recently chopped it up with R. City. Keep reading to see what we talked about.
You guys are probably super used to seeing songs you've written for other artists performed on some of the biggest stages around the world, but now a hit record you’ve written for yourselves is being performed on shows like The Voice and LIVE With Kelly and Michael. Has it been weird for you guys?
Theron: I wouldn't call it weird. We've been artists and have been doing shows back in the Virgin Islands and throughout the Caribbean for years. This is our first American hit, but we'll go down there and have everybody singing along to all the words. You know what I mean? So I think for us, the only thing that is new is being on television and having the whole world recognize what we are doing. Having people say "Yo, I just saw you on The Voice!" or "I love your song!" - that's new for us. We definitely appreciate the love and we embrace it. This is something that we've wanted to do forever. This has been our goal from day one. Songwriting has been a tool that we've used to get to this point. We were just trying to get in the door and figured once we got in the door we'd figure how to stay in the building.
Has having a Caribbean-influenced record like "Locked Away" become a smash hit, made the success of the song extra special, since you guys have Caribbean roots?
Timothy: The fact that we were able to incorporate our Caribbean culture and also the fact that the song is about the story of our parents, our dad getting locked up and our parents still being together to this day after over 38 years definitely makes this special for me and my brother. For us to be able to put a record out to the world that embodies all of that is really cool to us.
You guys are established hit-makers, who happened to recently release your major label debut, What Dreams Are Made Of. Did that contrast of being industry vets, while also working on your first official release ever get frustrating? Especially with having a major label involved in the process and maybe having to listen to people in a way that you don't normally have to?
Timothy: As creative people trying to be creative and trying to get these ideas out, we're always faced with frustrations. But in being artists versus being songwriters, the only thing that contrasts is we write songs for other people because it pays the bills. I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't fun, but for the most part writing songs for others is a job. Being artists is from the heart for us. This is something that we love and that we've been doing since we were kids. As brothers, we bump heads all of the time, but we're brothers, so that's normal. But there hasn't been any major frustrations.
You guys probably have to have a particular artist in mind when writing songs for others. You may have to get into Rihanna mode or Usher mode or whatever during those sessions. Did knowing that you didn't have to have any other artists in mind or get into another artist’s zone when writing the songs for What Dreams Are Made Of make the writing process for this album easier or more of a challenge than usual?
Theron: Recording our music is always easier, because we’ve always known who we were and who we wanted to be. When it comes to our music we’re always going to talk from what we know, what we’ve experienced and what we’ve been a part of. We're not going to make shit up in our music to sound cool. So because of that, the music is easier. When we write a song for Miley Cyrus we’re just kind of winging it. We don’t know for sure what Miley is going to like. It’s like me going to shop for you and hoping that you like what I bring back, whereas if I go shopping for myself, I know exactly what I like. I think that’s what makes our album more for us. It’s like us shopping for ourselves and knowing exactly what we want, what we want to represent and the people we want to speak to.
Do you guys feel you accomplished representing what you wanted to and speaking to whom you wanted to with What Dreams Are Made Of?
Theron: Hell yeah! One million percent. I think What Dreams Are Made Of is a great body of work. It tells our story. I think that every debut album for any artist should tell their story to where after you listen to it you can get a better understanding of who you’re listening to and who the artists is. I feel like we embodied that to the best of our abilities. We got real personal, talking about what we’ve been through and where we are at now.
You’ve said in a prior interview that working with Dr. Luke was different for you guys, because crafting songs is more of a science for him, while for you guys you base everything off of feelings. Following your extensive work with Dr. Luke, has the songwriting process changed for you guys in any way?
Timothy: When you look at how many hits he has under his belt you have to believe that they weren't all by chance. There is definitely a formula to what he does. We’ve learned a lot from working with Dr. Luke and Cirkut. Whether we're working with another producer on songs for other artists or working on stuff for ourselves, we definitely incorporate some of what we’ve learned while working with them into our own working process. We use it to continue to push to be better. We feel as artists, you should still be produced - I think all of the great artists were produced.
In the early stages of your careers you guys were told to pick one genre and stick to it, but you didn’t, and in the long run it paid off. Did you know early on that your ability to tap into a diverse range of genres was going to be your secret weapon?
Theron: I just think being this diverse is what makes us special and different. We was diverse when it wasn’t cool, but with the way music is now, the only way to be successful is to be a hybrid. You can’t just rap. You can’t just sing. You can’t just be one thing anymore. You have to incorporate different genres. The element of surprise is really hard right now, so what can you do to stand out? I think just by being able to incorporate all of these genres is what makes us special. But then again, we’ve been that way because of the Virgin Islands, where we don’t have segregated radio. We play Country, Hip Hop, Pop, R&B, Reggae all on the same exact station, so we grew up thinking it was all just music. If it’s jamming, we play it.
No matter what roadblocks or obstacles have presented themselves, you guys have kept pushing. What were some of the things that kept you guys so committed to making your dreams a reality?
Timothy: Even though we’re from an island that is a US territory, we’re still looked at as foreigners to the average American person. So with coming from the Virgin Islands we’ve always been looked at as outsiders. At first, some people made us feel like what we were doing wasn’t good enough or that we wasn’t good enough to compete with the people here. We always felt like we were able to compete with the people here and we just always wanted to prove it. We had something to prove, not just for ourselves, but for our home. We wanted to let people know that there are a lot of Caribbean islands and it's not just Jamaica with a lot of talent. We just believed that we had to continue working hard and continue to believe. The more you work, the better you get with time, so even if we were wack when we first came to the States, we're not wack now [laughs].
I read that you guys worked on some stuff for Rihanna's ANTI. Kanye West was mentioned. What role did he play in what you guys worked on? Was he involved in the creation of any records or was he just their to oversee the direction of the session?
Timothy: It was actually more of just vibing to beats and ideas. We laid a few melodies. Kanye laid some melodies. It was a track that Kanye did. I don’t know if anything ever came out of that, but that was pretty much all we did that day. It was just one session. It was a cool session, but it was more of just vibing and figuring out exactly what we was trying to do.
What’s that process like - having to wait and see if the songs you worked on make the final cut?
Timothy: It’s frustrating [laughs]. It don’t matter whether it is an A-list artist or a C-list artist. This is our work. This is our blood, sweat and tears. You know what I am saying? And if the artist sat on the record for too long, the time or moment for that record could have passed and now that record is dated and you can’t do anything with it. That has happened before. We try to protect our records and our work the best way we can, but with some artists, especially the A-list artists, that is just a part of the game. All we can do is continue to work and work and work until we get to that point where we’re considered A-list and then maybe we could have more say with our records when we’re trying to shop them.
Let’s say that while you guys are in a session for another artist, you write an amazing song. You guys also happen to be working on the follow up to What Dreams Are Made Of at the time. Do you finish the song for the artist or do you keep it for yourselves?
Theron: Our music is really different from the music we make for others. In the years of us making music, there’s probably been only one song that we’ve written for somebody that we've wanted to keep. When we’re working with artists we’re making music for them. What we do for them doesn’t necessarily represent us. It may sound cool, but chances are that it may not really be something we’ll say.
What should we expect from R. City in 2016?
Timothy: Expect us to be everywhere. We just plan on grinding, living on the road and continuing to build our base. We’re trying our hardest to not get caught up in the new music business where the focus is only on trying to break singles. We’re trying our best to not to be put into that category of a singles-driven group. We really aim to establish a core fan base, so that when we come back with our second album people will be looking forward to an album and not just a single. There will be new videos, remixes, content, footage of us being on the road - just a whole lot more of R. City doing what we love to do.