R. City Talk New Song ‘Locked Away,’ Conversations With Rihanna & Treasures in the Dump [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]
R. City may not have those immediately recognizable faces compared to stars like Rihanna and Beyonce, but that's fine by them. They're still making big bucks writing songs for the pop singers, who've called on them for assists with “Pour It Up" and "Bow Down/I Been On" respectively. And that's only naming two out of countless tracks brothers Theron and Timothy Thomas have penned for R. Kelly, Chris Brown, Ciara, Justin Bieber and Future, to name a few.
The St. Thomas-bred songwriters have been at this music thing for quite some time. Since life as teeny boppers, R. City, also known as A.I. and Uptown AP, had their eye on the dream of making it big in the music industry. They garnered a strong following as performers coming out of the hood in Oswald Harris Court, but certainly wanted more. With their parents' blessing, the pair got to work in the late '90s, when they left the island life to head to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career as artists. Bumpy roads were certainly ahead, but with dad's constant support back in St. Thomas, they struggled through the negativity and their current status as top songwriters in the game proves they've weathered the storm.
But playing behind the scenes is only fun for so long. With producer Dr. Luke's help, R. City are back in front of the mic, crafting material for their forthcoming album to be released on Kemosabe/RCA Records, an effort that combines Caribbean flavor, hip-hop storytelling and pop sensibilities. The mantra "go big or go home" comes to mind after hearing the first offering from the project, "Locked Away." The singers, who can showcase their rapping talents all in the same breath, tapped Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine for the reggae-inspired track, which finds them asking their ladyloves a very honest question: "If I didn't have anything, I wanna know, would you stick around?"
The effort is just a sampling of what's to come on their new LP. They've even got a banger with producer Salaam Remi that will please fans of Barrington Levy. Read on as R. City open up about the songs they have in their stash, a very memorable conversation with Rihanna, the treasures that have come from the St. Thomas dump and much more.
You've seen much success as songwriters for other singers and rappers, so why do you feel like this new song with Adam Levine jumped off more than others in your career as artists?
Timothy: With any artist, you just create, make a bunch of music and pick the best ones. It was between three songs and "Locked Away," this was before Adam Levine got on it. We just all agreed -- me, my brother and our manager -- we just felt like subject matter, it's a real song, it's a real story and it comes from a real place. For those who don't know, our dad was locked up for five years, so that's pretty much what inspired the song. My mom held it down the whole time, they were telling stories like my mom would always go to the jail and visit him and she would take me and my brother with her -- we were too young to remember it fully.
It was such a touching story for us. Just looking at my mom and my dad like, wow, I love my momma for that and they're still together to this day. That's pretty much what inspired this song and we felt to be able to share that story with the world and outside of just the story being our story, I just felt that it's a message that travels a lot further than what we experience with our parents. We just felt like people would be able to connect with it on many different levels.
Theron: And s---, Adam Levine got on it.
Timothy: [Laughs] And then that happened.
So how did that happen?
Theron: Dr. Luke did [Maroon 5's] "Sugar." Dr. Luke was like "I have this group" and to our surprise, Adam had heard of us before and was like, "Yeah, I've heard of Rock City, they're dope. Let me hear the records first before I agree to do anything. Let me hear the music." We sent him some records and it's so funny, he loved two songs. There were two songs where he said he would do either and we just thought "Locked Away" would be perfect. He did it. Don't get me wrong, we got a great song, but introducing yourself as a new artist, we would be lying if we didn't say that having Adam Levine...
Timothy: Is a great platform...
Theron: Is a great platform and co-sign to try and build our brand. We already picked that song before he was on it and him getting on it was like icing on the cake.
An EP is next for you?
Theron: We're definitely putting out an album. It's more so about the album for us, today's EPs come out and you feel it, people need content and they need to hear more music. They want to make sure you're not a one-hit wonder and you're not just tricking them with one song. It depends, it all depends. We might go with the EP or we might put out a full album. Nowadays, you can't make people wait too long. They'll be like, man, they were hot last week, I'm on some other s---! The single might be so big that we might be like, hey, f--- the EP. First of all, we have an album ready to go. It's all about the right timing and making sure it's good to put it out. It's up in the air.
What song are you excited for people to hear next?
Theron: There's two records that I'm really excited for people to hear, personally. We've got this one record called "Make Up" and it's really cool. It has the island vibe to it, but conceptually, I think it's clever and it's fun, which is cool and it's different because a girl is singing the hook and I think that's dope and I'm excited for people to hear that.
Listen to R. City's "Locked Away" Feat. Adam Levine
Who is singing on the hook?
Theron: Right now we have a demo singer on there, but we're going to get a big feature -- we just don't want to say any names yet. That's so exciting. The song is called "Make Up" and it's basically about having make up sex, you know what I'm saying.
So this has nothing to do with the actual cosmetics?
Theron: Nah, nah. The song is about how you have this girl that you love and your woman drives you crazy but she does it because she wants to make up.
Timonthy: Because the sex is better.
The passion is there.
Theron: Yeah, the passion is there. The way that we did it and flipped it, to me, we still feel it's innocent to the ears, it's still there.
So It's not over-sexualized.
Timothy: It's very tasteful. It's not raunchy.
Theron: Yeah, it's very tasteful. It's cool -- it's like you get what they're saying. We have another record called "Don't You Worry."
Timothy: It's one of my personal favorites.
Theron: I just feel like that record could be like "Don't Worry Be Happy" in a sense or Bob Marley's "One Love." Just a record that could bring people together and it's just like, "Don't your worry, don't you worry, I know how you feel, it gets better, it gets better, don't make everything a big deal."
It's a feel-good vibe.
Tiheron: Yeah, it feels really good.
Timothy: It's an uplifting record. Like, we're all going through it. Don't be so hard on yourself, you wake up tomorrow and try again.
Who produced that?
Theron: Dr. Luke and Cirkut. They've produced every song so far. We did have the privilege of working with Salaam Remi. We did this record with Salaam Remi named "Broadway" and one of our favorite reggae artists growing up is Barrington Levy, so we flipped a Barrington Levy hook [on "Broader Than Broadway"]. So crazy.
Theron: Yeah, sick. We did that with Salaam Remi. That's just hard, that's just like hip-hop s---.
You've been writing for other people behind the scenes for years, so why is now the right time for an album?
Timothy: I feel like it's all about timing. One thing that we learned throughout our journey of getting here is that we went through a point where we felt like we were forcing our artistry towards people and I feel that as a consumer, me being a consumer, I don't want to feel like you're forcing me to like your stuff. I want to like it on my own.
In what way did you feel like you were forcing it?
Timothy: We were just putting out free music and all on Twitter, we formed this whole campaign around putting out music and when we got the chance to just sit back and really look at it, it was like, "Did you look at it?" So, we sat back and looked at it and it was like, you know something? If we continue down this road, I think it's going to end bad for us.
Right now, they're calling us for the right songs. That's what they're calling us for, let's give them that. That doesn't mean that we're going to stop being artists, we are artists, that's in our heart. But, we're just going to let that sit for a minute and focus on this -- focus on one thing at a time and get hot on something. Once we got hot as writers, we were able to 360, come back to doing our artistry and it wasn't forced, it was organic. I feel like right now is a great time for new and different. You look at the charts, a lot of these new artists, the reason they stick and their music is standing out the way it is, is because there's nothing out there like it.
Theron: Yeah. I think right now that's what people want to hear. I think people want to be like, "I've never heard that before" or there's nothing like that at the time. I don't think we're reinventing the wheel. I don't think we're doing anything that's never been done, but I think at this present time in music, you're like, "Yeah, I haven't seen that in a while. I used to like s--- like that." For a generation now, they're like, "I've never seen this." It's just in that energy and vibe, you know what I mean.
How do you feel when the big artists call on you guys -- the Beyonces and the Rihannas?
Timothy: It's still surreal.
Theron: It's still surreal for us, but if we had to come up with an answer, an honest to god answer, I just feel like we bring a sort of originality, meaning, when it's like, okay, as an artist, everybody wants to experiment and I think Rock City is the experiment. We know how to make records for the radio, we've made hits, we've been proven time after time. Most of the records we do that come out, most of the time people say that artist has never done a song like that. I think a lot of artists are like, I've done this, I've done that, let's get Rock City, because for some reason, those motherf---ers know how to take an artist that's been doing it a long time or doing their own thing and give them something fresh.
Timothy: Something fresh that still fits them.
Theron: Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop," that was like, yo, I've never seen her in that light. Then "Man Down" for Rihanna, just being like, yo, she just went so rootsy and so reggae and so cultural, it was like, damn, a different light. Just trying to push creativity to the furthest limit that we feel like we can push it to. Like Becky G, when we met Becky G she was strictly a rapper. We come in the room and [imitates singing] and it's so funny because we always laugh and say we're assholes, because you'll come in the room and say, "Yo man, I want this type of record," then we do the complete opposite.
Theron: It's like Ciara. Ciara is like, "I want to dance, I want fun, I want energy" and then we wrote "I Bet." We're always in the room like, yeah, but, if that's what you want, you're telling everybody that, so that means that everybody is getting...
The same thing.
Theron: It's like the Christmas present and you told everybody in your family that you want an iPod and then you end up with 13 iPods, you know what I'm saying. We're the people that say, yeah you want an iPod, but I haven't heard you want new shoes. So we got you shoes. That's how we think.
Have you been able to create lasting relationships where the artists will call you on their own rather than set things up through their people?
Timothy: You know what it is? We've been doing this for some time and again, through our journey, we've met a lot of great people and we just always kept those relationships, no matter what.
And never burn those bridges.
Timothy: Never. What's crazy is that, even the ones that did us wrong. It's like, sometimes -- I know it's the maturity in us that's growing -- it's like, you never know where that person was at mentally or what he was going through or where she was at in her life during that moment. For me, you forgive, you move on and we can be successful together and do successful things together.
Theron: We always like to remind ourselves that it's a job. We're at work, bro. It's great when you build a friendship, but I'm not here to be your friend. You called me because you feel like I can write you a hit and I need to deliver and in the process of delivering, if we build something great or if we don't and you don't look at me like, Theron, you should come over for Thanksgiving dinner, that's fine too.
We don't really take it personal and then we think on it like, my manager taught me -- this is a funny story. I was in a car and called my manager one day, frustrated. Going through your celebrity diva moment, or whatever you want to call it, and he said, "Man, that's crazy, Theron, but turn on the radio -- you in your car? Turn it on." There was a song on -- I don't remember what song -- but he said, "Man, did you write that song?" I said, "Nah." "Exactly. The music business don't need you, you need it. So just shut up and..."
Keep it moving.
Theron: Yeah, yeah. You know what? Now we look at it from that standpoint. If me and my brother quite writing and moved back to Saint Thomas and you never heard of us again, the music business would still go on. You would have someone else to interview and talk to.
You'd still be collecting those royalty checks though [laughs].
Theron: Yes, there would be a handful of people that would be like, what up with Rock City? I used to like them. But, it wouldn't be the end of the world. We're just f---ing happy to be here.
Outside of the music, do you find yourselves still collaborating on ideas and hanging out?
Theron: It's so funny, we live like 45 minutes away from each other [in Atlanta], but we talk to each other -- this is my brother here -- we talk to each other every day and we talk about everything and we're big movie fans, so he just put me onto this show called Nikita and I'm on season three, I've been watching it every single day but I'm mad because I've been going to sleep at 5 a.m. every morning. I'll call him and be like, you gotta check this out. Talking about anything, talking about girls.
Watch R. City's "I'm That" Video Feat. 2 Chainz
So you're both single?
Theron: No. I tell everybody, I be like, I'm window shopping like a motherf---er. I just feel like with us, we're so close and that's how we're able to create the music.
Timothy: What's crazy is that we've always been this close. We're what, 10 months apart?
Theron: Yeah, 10 months apart.
Timothy: We started school together, we finished school together.
Theron: Graduated together.
Timothy: Graduated together. We've always done everything together. We're like best friends, you know. If I'm at my parents’ house and we just start talking about something funny, I just might call him on speaker phone and say, "Theron, remember that one time?" Then we all start laughing.
Who is the one that is more of the practical one or more levelheaded thinker?
Theron: I'm levelheaded. When that switch is turned on, it's like, "Timothy, my boy, my boy, I'm with you." He's not political and I love that about him and that's why it's good to be in a group. What you see all the time is what you get, he's 100 percent like, "Look, I don't know what the f--- you're talking about, I'm not with that s---." Me on the other hand, I'm very diplomatic about it and I'll be like, sometimes you have to give and take -- it's good -- but sometimes you can't be...
Theron: Yeah. And sometimes I have a tendency where I'm just so nice and so free that I'm like, it's whatever! You know. Then he's like, "Nah, we're not doing that." It's great when he comes in on that and sometimes he's like, "Nah this one we're just going to sort it out."
Timothy: So it's a perfect balance.
Tell me about a time when you were with an artist in the studio and said to yourself, "I cannot believe this is happening" because the opportunity seemed so perfect?
Theron: This was recent. We were in the studio with Rihanna and Kanye and just like, being fans and being like [whispers], "Rihanna and Kanye in the same room" and then Rihanna turns to us -- Rihanna we know -- she loves us, we love her. But, it was one of those moments where every time we see each other it's always funny, jokes, it's cool.
And we're Caribbean, so we're getting our act on and it's funny. So, she turned to us and she was like "Yo, you know we're not supposed to be here, right?" and I was like, "What do you mean?" She's like "I'm from Barbados, y'all from St. Thomas, can you believe that we'd do this?" I was like, "Every day I think that I can't believe it." She was like, "I respect y'all so much and I'm so proud of y'all because I know how hard it is coming from there and doing that". I said thank you. We just had a little moment, it was really cool. It was real, it was dope. When you get a call that Kanye wants to get in the studio with you, we're huge Kanye fans from the first album, so we're like Okay that's dope. We get off the phone and we're like... [laughs].
Of course, I can imagine.
Every time we talk to people we're always like -- it's like when it was, yo, Beyonce wants to cut that record, we're like okay cool, we'll call say okay cool.
But you're like screaming in a pillow from excitement.
Theron: [Screams] Beyonce f---in' doing a record with us! What? You can't tell us nothing! You get that moment of excitement and you can't believe it. I always tell people -- I just remember moving to Miami -- me and my brother had $85 and we're sleeping in my cousin's boyfriend's floor in his dining room on a blanket, he had five roommates and that's the only place we could stay. My brother called into the radio station with Big Lip and Supa Cindy in Miami, freestyling.
Timothy: They had a freestyle battle radio show.
Theron: He would call in and rap freestyle and I remember being there, I remember when we moved to Atlanta we were homeless, we slept on the train, we slept in the studio, we would takes baths in the bathroom without a shower in the sink. You know what I'm saying. Then he offered us $350 to do a show and that's why we moved to Atlanta, because it was a dude who was big in St. Thomas -- he was like I'll pay you $350 -- we were going to move to New York, we said we were going to stand up in front of the labels and just perform and somebody would sign us. We didn't even know that people didn't write their own songs. We thought everybody wrote their songs, so we wrote a song for Akon, we wrote that song when we were in the 7th grade, real talk. Akon sung it and he paid us $5,000. We were like, hold on, so what you're trying to tell me is that people get $5,000 to write songs? You f---ing kidding?
And now what you're getting is like 10 times more than that.
Theron: Oh yeah, definitely. It's a different time for us, it's a different day. I'm just saying - I was working at Party City, my brother was working at Publics and Eckert's. We didn't have any cars.
Timothy: I'll tell you what, you know what the was the craziest thing about walking to work? We're from St. Thomas; it's summertime all year round. It gets cold in Atlanta -- not like New York, but it gets cold. Having to walk in that cold to work is, for us, it was new.
For that studio session with Rihanna and Kanye, was that for her new album?
Theron: This was for Rihanna. We didn't even get to write a song. We were just vibing. It was us, Rihanna, Kanye and Travis Scott. We were in the studio -- again, I don't know why we don't feel like we are a part of the in crowd. I don't know why, because we're in the room, we're like, holy s---!
Timothy: We still can't believe like, that's Rihanna. That's Kanye. He's on the keyboards and Travis Scott is standing behind me. What the f--- am I doing here?
Theron: Who's idea was this? This is a joke. I'm being punk'd.
In this particular session, was there anything that was memorable that stuck out about Kanye or was it just witnessing him go to work?
Theron: Just witnessing him.
Timothy: Just witnessing him be creative.
You're really into movies. Is there a movie that you feel like you could compare your life to, together collectively?
Theron: Honestly, A Knight's Tale with Heath Ledger. It's about this poor dude that comes from nothing and his dad was a thatcher -- he had to send him to work with knights in order to have a better life. When he was 11, his dad had to give him away. Remember Kanye said, "I changed my stars" one of his lyrics [on "Last Call"]? Well, that's what he got it from, he got it from A Knight's Tale.
There's a scene in A Knight's Tale where the man was like, "When I grow up dad, I'm going to be a knight." This dude that was sentenced for execution was next to the kid and he said, "Ha, ha! If you want to be a knight when you grow up, it's like a man saying he will change the stars." He said, "Dad, can a man change the stars?" His father was like, "Yes, a man can change the stars and don't let anyone tell you that you can't" and then he grew up and in order to be a knight, you need to be of noble birth and he wasn't, so he lied about it and became the biggest knight -- the biggest knight in all of England and no one was bigger. They try to take it away from him and then the king was like, nah. You know what I'm saying? Some s--- like that.
That movie was so powerful because it was -- you've gotta understand -- they told my dad, our dad is the greatest man to ever live -- they told our dad he was crazy. I mean to his face, they told us that we need to focus on school and that our dad has got us running around here on this music dream, y'all ain't going to make it, that's not what we do here. That man was like, "F--- what they're talking about. Y'all are going to be the biggest thing ever. Remember I told you." My dad believed that. He convinced us to believe it. Just that movie -- which is my favorite movie, by the way -- I'm not saying it's the best movie ever made, but just because of how it's relatable, that movie mirrors our life more than any movie that I've probably seen.
What did your dad do for work while you were growing up?
Theron: He was a garbage man at first. It was funny, the first bed we ever got came from a trash can, so he had to scrub it off and my mom was spraying Febreeze on it.
Timothy: I'll tell you what, how crazy is this: That was the first bed we got, it came from the Virgin Islands dump. When we got it, we were so excited because we had a bed. We came from nothing so it was like, what? We got a bed? It didn't even matter where it came from.
Theron: He used to always bring back stuff from the dump. I remember having a Superman with one arm and thinking like, "Whoa." You couldn't f--- with my Superman.
You were just happy to have it.
Theron: My daddy gave it to me and you don't touch it, you understand. For real!
So how did you guys even get the inspiration to start writing? It comes from family?
Theron: My dad. We moved to California in the 8th grade [around 1996] and when we moved there, we didn't have anyone to write our songs. We would call our dad and our dad was like, "You write it. What because you don't have anyone to write your songs you're just going to stop? You write it." Then [Timothy] started writing all the songs at first -- like I said, we've always been so close.
You became the tag team.
Theron: Then we started writing songs and stuff. It's so funny, I always tell people that I remember the first song I wrote. Can I be honest with you? We had a song, I remember my manager said, "Did you write a song called 'Pretty Brown Eyes'?" I was like, "I don't know." He's like, "you know it's in the top 200 on iTunes?" I was like, "Yeah? We did it?" Then we went to listen to it and it was like, "Oh yeah, I remember that one. That's dope!" Because we write so many songs -- but I'll never forget that first song.
Well, that's an awesome issue to have -- not remembering the songs because you have so many of them.
Theron: [Laughs] Yeah.
See Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2015 (So Far)