As soon as I sit down with members of Dru Hill – the iconic American R&B music group that rose to fame in the late 90s – in Nairobi (Oct 2015), nostalgic memories cloud my mind. How can you accurately describe 90s music era without citing Dru Hill? Is that even possible? In My Bed, Never Make a Promise and How Deep Is Your Love include their seven Top 40 hits. Initially starting off under the name Legacy, the group later decided to go by the name Dru Hill – a move that would forever tie their legacy to the “the area where we used to rehearse,” Dru Hill founding member Nokio messages me, adding, “We got the name Dru Hill from Drui Park in Baltimore which is near where I grew up. We wanted to represent Baltimore wherever we went with no question.” As I am writing this article I realise that it was the one important question that I forgot to ask Dru Hill during my interview with them so I drop Nokio a message and he responds immediately.
Dru Hill is in Nairobi for their first concert in Kenya. Nokio says, “We didn’t know about all the love we had here until we got here. Hopefully we can spread more love through our music.” They are only doing two TV interviews while in Kenya including this one so I have to make it count – I tell myself. Sitting at the ebony-coloured Sankara Hotel meeting room with Dru Hill members: Nokio, Sisqó, Tao and Jazz – I quickly notice that all have such different personalities. I am surprised that Sisqó the lead singer of the group isn’t the most vocal. It is the founder Nokio who talks most and is most assertive. He’s also protective of Dru Hill, in a caring way. Tao and Jazz hardly speak but their body language says that they support everything the rest say.
Dru Hill’s 1996 debut eponymous, and sophomore album: Enter the Dru (1998) catapulted them into instant success. It wouldn’t be long till the 2000s came with the recession of R&B. By this time the group had also been affected by internal wrangles, tension and an identity crisis leading to temporary separation and some members pursuing solo careers. In 2002 however, Dru Hill decided to reunite and produced the album Dru World Order, which would be followed by the 2010 release InDRUpendence Day. Their 20-year long career has been a roller coaster filled with highs and lows, great memories, tours, travel and breakups to makeups. So what now? I am curious. Nokio says, “It’s a good time for us in music as a lot of generations listening to good music are still discovering us and those who sang with us when we were younger are still getting a chance to see us perform.”
I always wondered what went on in the minds of the 90s kings of R&B like Dru Hill, Jodeci, Silk, R Kelly and Kenny Lattimore. Was it always lovemaking, heartbreaks and songs about sex? I ask Dru Hill to expound on what really went down behind the music. Their story goes that they were signed to a label at a young age forcing their initial sound to sound mature even though they were actually not mature as individuals and as a group.
In My Bed
Written and produced by Daryl Simmons, Ralph Stacy and Raphael Brown, In My Bed was a song Dru Hill detested yet it would later become a number one platinum selling single – the second off their debut album. It spent three weeks at number one on the US R&B chart. Sisqó says, “I never wanted to sing that song initially because nobody was sleeping in my bed that I knew of and I kind of felt like a cheat singing about someone sleeping in my bed. I was like this is our second single and now I am looking like a sucker. I really had to figure out how to channel that aggression in the first opening line. The aggression actually worked out to my benefit because it took away the venom of the words I had to sing.”
That explains why I remember watching In My Bed back in the day and feeling the pain of someone cheating on me even though I was barely 10 years old and couldn’t have known what it really meant to be cheated on. That was the beauty of the baby making music era – singers sold feelings and tales, more than just sex.
Dru Hill suddenly look at each other and burst out laughing at an inside joke. They are mumbling about having had two or three girls in their beds soon after the song’s triumph… Men will be men.
Never Make a Promise
The number one single followed In My Bed and was also written and produced by the American R&B singer/songwriter and record producer Daryl Simmons. Daryl went to high school with future legendary R&B music maker Babyface. Their life-long alliance would flourish into friendship as they joined and formed several music groups and bands from their teen days. Nokio says, “When Daryl presented to us Never Make a Promise we were like – are you sure? A lot of people never understood Daryl and his history in music – him, Babyface and L.A Reid have been together playing in bands and making music since the 70s and he was just the one who was doing his own thing when the rest started LaFace.”
‘How We Found Ourselves’
When Babyface teamed up with L.A Reid to start LaFace Records, Daryl went his separate way yet still maintained his ties with the duo. The trio together discovered, signed and produced artistes as Toni Braxton, Usher, TLC and Outkast. Dru Hill recalls the glitches and perks of having worked with Daryl at an early stage of their career, “We were fresh out of college with ideas in music. He was the first major producer to come to us with mature music. We didn’t understand it totally and one time we sat down with him to learn vocal dynamics because before we were just singing.”
He says, “[Before Daryl] our demos did not sell. That was when we learnt at a very young age at the very beginning of our careers [the secret of] working with other writers and producer—they already have their money and notoriety and if they bring you a song that they feel people will like – that’s when you’re artistry comes in. When I was singing in the lead in songs like In My Bed I told myself – Yo! If I can make this song hot then that means that I become a commodity.” From then onwards Dru Hill would always stamp their twist in every project. Nokio says, “Short of it being a record that we love so much, we always make sure we go in and make a record totally ours. 112 liked In My Bed but it ended up being ours. Who knows what it would have been if someone else did it?”
How Deep is Your Love
Any music lover knows too well that every generation comes with its movers and shakers. Dru Hill says that the new skool cats they are digging include Trey Songz, Chris Brown, NE-YO, The Weeknd, Bryson Tiller and Fetty Wap – “the foundation of new R&B” – they describe the collective. Nokio tells me of Dru Hill’s golden years, “To pioneer a genre and set the foundation and still be able to be around now for the younger generation to get us is a blessing,” before digressing thanks to my puzzled star-struck face, “Look she’s sitting looking at y’all like – what?”
The rest start to laugh at me.
At this moment I am here but I am not. I can’t help but think of my growing up in a small town (Molo). Watching MTV was such a luxury so we would record MTV shows with our favourite artists (and Dru Hill would never miss) then we would play it over and over. One of my best Dru Hill jams was How Deep is Your Love.
“See you are talking but I can’t believe you’re here,” I tell them.
“I am not though,” jests Nokio.
We all burst into laugher.
“I gotta keep pinching myself; you can see my expression. I am here wondering were these guys in the video of How Deep is Your Love? On top of that building?”
Nokio jumps off his seat and pinches me as we laugh more. He says, “You know how crazy it is that you mention that. We left South Africa at a Nelson Mandela Celebration event and got a phone call that the director of [the 1998 movie] Rush Hour was finishing to film and wants to shoot the video of How Deep is Your Love with us and we were like – Okay! We went to shoot the video in Hong Kong [but events leading to it make us remember] great memories from Africa.”
Solo Careers | Dru’s New Order
At certain times the group decided to take breaks for members to pursue their solo careers. It has been reported that Dru Hill had made an agreement with the mother of Woody, one of the original members of Dru Hill, that they would let him pursue a solo career in gospel music after their success. Woody recorded a solo album under Kirk Franklin’s label before reuniting with Dru Hill for their third and last album with him as member. By the time Dru Hill released their last album, InDRUpendence, Woody had been replaced by new member Tao.
It always seemed like lead singer Sisqó was also head of Dru Hill or always wanted to pursue a solo career. He responds, “It was a misconception. Initially I never wanted to be a solo artist but I ended up exploring that out of necessity because of different things that we had to work out as a group. I always wanted to be the best group member that I could be.” Sisqó’s debut album, Unleash the Dragon (1999), birthed the hit single Thong Song marking the onset of his successful solo career that also saw him release the album, Return of Dragon in 2001. Little is known about his 2015 released, Last Dragon, album.
Nokio on the other hand says that he would never have been at the forefront of Dru Hill or even sang at all if he had his way from the start. “I sang because that’s the only way I knew how to get into the business. In the beginning I didn’t even want to be an artist. I wanted to be a record man or a producer but I couldn’t figure out that at 14. One of my mother’s friends had a friend who was in the music industry. They came to our house one day and I sang Baby Hold On To Me and they were like, we’re gonna take you out to of school and move you to Philly. Later I started Dru Hill and then I just never left,” adding “Once I saw Jodeci I thought I could be that cool, write and produce. All I wanted was to be the sexiest background singer there ever was.”
I don’t even know what he is talking about – he made it!
Sisqó says that he’s worked with Nokio on most of his solo projects. Nokio also sings in a rock band called Black Angel Down. Both Jaaz and Tao have their solo music too. Having this in-depth conversation with Dru Hill leaves off a feeling of eternal camaraderie between them, whatever the case. I wonder if Dru Hill still has their synergy during the live performances of their songs like in the video of We’re Not Making Love No More. “We’ve got the classic moves and a couple of new ones,” says Sisqó – who has a hood over his head. He refuses to show his hair till show time.
Their concert has a Dru Hill and Sisqó set. It’s not what I expected but it’s still memorable. “Music is never gonna be the same from generation to generation. Even before we came out people were trying to get deals but couldn’t but we just kept going. There is no balance so you either get all of it or nothing,” says Nokio. I wonder if this is his way of accepting the different facets of their career’s circle. However, I really love their dance moves and different renditions of most of their songs at the concert.
Nokio dishes new plans, “Right now we are working on our twentieth anniversary project. It’s not going to be just music but we have a lot of different components that we are putting together collectively, and individually. Thank you for all the love.” I once read a great detailed Dru Hill feature story (but can’t remember where) and told myself that one day I would do the same myself – so grateful to catch up with Dru Hill right when the dragon is planning to awaken 20 years later.
BONUS: Thanks Della, HBR, PRC LTD and Dru Hill. Another cherry on top of my already awesome cake of a year