One of the weirder and least acknowledged hits of this summer is R. City’s “Locked Away,” a reggae song about prison and trust that features Adam Levine, of Maroon 5. It’s been embraced by Top 40 radio, climbing over the summer until reaching and holding the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart in early October.
Formerly known as Rock City, R. City is a pair of brothers named Timothy and Theron Thomas. They grew up in Saint Thomas, one of the Virgin Islands, where they became local stars before immigrating to Atlanta and finding a lucrative songwriting career. Their credits are ridiculous: Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop,” Iyaz’s “Replay,” Beyoncé’s “I Been On,” Rihanna’s “Pour It Up,” the Future song about loving Ciara, “I Won,” and the Ciara song about breaking up with Future, “I Bet.” In years of interviews, I’ve heard their names dropped and whispered—their melodies are the unseen thread between dancehall and rap and pop, The Fugees and Becky G and Drake.
R. City began digging deep into songwriting after 2009, when an album they recorded for Akon’s Interscope imprint was shelved. Six years later, they’re set to release their major label debut, What Dreams Are Made Of, via Dr. Luke’s RCA imprint, Kemosabe. A song from that album which flips Barrington Levy, “Broadway,” premieres below, along with a conversation with R. City. At The FADER’s New York office this summer, they spoke about the success of their songs over the years, and all that it points to: the foolish binary of American radio formats, the accidental synergy of Caribbean and Atlanta music, and the opening up of global taste in the iPhone age.
What was your upbringing like? How did you begin to make a life in music?
TIMOTHY: We're from Saint Thomas Virgin Islands. We started in a shack and we moved into the projects. Our dad was a trash man. Me and my brother used to watch early hip-hop videos. Everybody would dance, so we wanted to be backup dancers. Then time went along and we wanted to become artists, we wanted to rap. We was good kids in a really bad place—we knew that music was our ticket out. My dad was like, “You're two kids from the Virgin Islands, why would anybody want to listen to y'all rap?” So we did reggae rap. Reggae was in, popular in hip-hop; he was like, “A lot of people do that.” So we started to sing. We incorporated all the genres. In Saint Thomas, we don't have segregated radio. We don't have urban, rhythmic, pop. Demi Lovato, Future, Kid Ink, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Bob Marley—it all plays on the same exact radio station.
THERON: We moved in like 2000, 2001, to Miami. Ten months later went to Atlanta, then we moved back to Saint Thomas. We officially moved to Atlanta in 2005. We wasn’t writing songs for anybody. At the time, we're the number one group in the whole Virgin Islands, but in Atlanta we were broke, we had regular jobs. I would be in Foot Locker and a girl would come in and cry like, "Oh my god, it's you!" and I'd be like, “Yo, I'm at work, bro.”
TIMOTHY: He skipped a part. At first in Atlanta, we didn’t have regular jobs. Our only means of paying our bills and buying groceries was to do talent shows where you could win money. We started winning so many talent shows that they stopped us from competing.
THERON: On the stage, they couldn’t fuck with us. But when we couldn't do talent shows no more we had to move back home. We put out independent albums there and did shows. When we moved back to Atlanta [in 2005], we was working on an album. We had a song called “Lorraine,” from our second independent album back in the Virgin Islands. Our DJ, Benny, was like, “Akon can use this song.” We knew Akon for years, we had all been friends. But we didn’t know people wrote songs for other people. It was like, we write our own songs, so obviously everybody else writes their own songs. Akon payed us $5,000. I worked at Party City and Timothy worked at Publix. We was like wait, “People pay you $5,000? We'll write a whole bunch of fucking songs man!” Then this door opened and all these opportunities came. We were actually signed as artists with Akon to Interscope for four years. We put out one record. Interscope was a great experience, but I just don't think they understood us. When we tried to incorporate our culture, it was like we was too Caribbean for America and too American for the Caribbean. We were stuck in that place. And we was tired of being in a room with a producer and saying, “We working on an album,” and them being like, “That’s dope. Let’s do some songs for Rihanna though.”
That’s a familiar struggle for songwriters. If you give your best to others, there’s not always something great left for yourself.
TIMOTHY: What was crazy for us with that whole experience—and still is—is that in the States, in the industry for writers, so few people have seen us perform. They know us as writers. When we go back to the islands, they don't give a fuck about none of the songs. They want to see us perform our songs.
THERON: It’s so weird for us when we’re trying to convince somebody that we’re artists. But after Interscope it was like, if nobody gives a fuck about us as artists, let's stop forcing it down people's throats. We wanted people to fuck with us because they liked our songs—we didn’t want to force it. Writing was out main source of income. We bought our parents a house. We still continued to release music back home, and we’d go home and do shows. But in the U.S., we were like, “Let’s just get hot as writers.”
TIMOTHY: Cause in the music business if you're hot at anything, then you have more say at something. After we did Miley Cyrus “We Can’t Stop,” we got the call that Dr. Luke wanted to work with us. That’s when we did “Shower” for Becky G. Our friend Groove Chambers in Atlanta is like Luke’s best friend. Groove asked Luke, “You’re working with Rock City? Are you going to sign them?” Luke said “They're artists? I thought they was just writers." So one day we was in the studio working on the Becky G records and Luke was like, “What does your music sound like? Let's make a song for you.” And we recorded, like, nine records. At the time, because we were consecutively putting out successful songs, we was getting calls from labels to give us a label, or make us artists. And Luke was like, “Nah, man, we should do it over here.”
Having relaunched as artists, you led with a single that’s very pop. Or at least in America, where we do have segregated radio, it specifically wouldn’t be considered an urban single. Why did you choose that direction?
THERON: It's weird man. We wasn't trying to make pop music. We don't call ourselves pop music. “Locked Away” is Caribbean music. The only thing pop about it is Adam Levine.
But to feature Adam Levine was a strong choice.
THERON: Adam Levine wanted to get on a song. “Locked Away” was going to be our first song with or without Adam. Luke played Adam some records and Adam said, “I love that song!” What are we going to say to Adam Levine? But that's why I love the Caribbean so much. In the Caribbean they don't see it as pop, they see it as music. They see it like: It's music, it's a reggae record and that shit is made for us. That's our shit. But on radio in America, you get Adam Levine and urban stations are like, “Oh man, that's not our format.”
TIMOTHY: We’ve done a lot of groundwork, which I think makes what we’re doing now [on pop radio] a lot different. We did BET’s black college tour, we put out mixtapes, we built a real fan base.
THERON: If you're a Rock City fan, you expect “Locked Away." Like, “That’s dope, I love when they do the melodic shit.” It’s not our fault that we write big records. It’s not a conscious decision to go into the studio and say,"I'm going to write a pop song." It's a conscious decision to go into the studio and say, “I'm going to write a song that hopefully people are going to like.” Pop isn't even a genre! It's popular music. When Bob Marley was out, he was a pop artists. The Fugees were pop artists.
TIMOTHY: Music is supposed to be about feeling. I just want to write something that people feel. If you feel it, it stands a chance of being around forever.
On a technical level, how might you explain how a writer or singer can bring an island sound into American pop music?
THERON: Most of our melodies come from an island place—we just put, you know, the American accent in there. We can sing anything and make it sound Caribbean. We know how to turn it on and turn it off. The Caribbean is in everything, from the cadence to something like strip clubs and dolla bills [from Rihanna’s “Pour It Up.”] But we lived in Atlanta long enough to embrace their culture too. So we just merge stuff. And honestly, we don’t know! We was in the studio with Gwen Stefani, and she was like, “ I love those R&B melodies.” We was like, “This is an R&B melody?” What the fuck do I know—it just sounded cool to me. We went to school and learned stuff, but we’re not technical music people. It’s one of the good things about us. Everything is feeling for us. We don't write stuff down.
Having worked in Atlanta for so long, do you think there's an observable or a meaningful connection between Atlanta’s sound and a Caribbean sound?
TIMOTHY: A lot of America’s big songwriters come from Atlanta. With pop, urban, all cultures, all radio formats: Atlanta is very influential.
THERON: Records don't start in the streets other places like they do in Atlanta. The Caribbean knew Sean Paul “Give Me The Light” two years before it broke in the U.S. And Atlanta knew Future was going to be hot two years before everybody else in the world. Atlanta to me is the Caribbean. I think a lot of the melodies that the Atlanta guys use are Caribbean melodies. Like Future—that whole energy of the melodic vibe and how he is—is a Caribbean vibe, to us. I think those sounds are connected without even trying and not even knowing. I don't think Future's like, “I'm about to be island.” He from Atlanta! But I think it’s connected. For sure. At least to us.
How do the two of you write together? Who does what?
THERON: Usually, [Timothy] is my ear and he's a lyric person, he’s like a MC, rapper. So he'll be like, "Nah brother, you can't say that." Timothy comes up with a lot of melodies too, but I usually demo the song. It's usually him outside the booth, me in the booth singing, and him saying, “Nah, try this. No, do this.” When someone gets a demo record from Rock City it's always my voice but we usually do it together.
Do you usually start with lyrics, or melody?
TIMOTHY: Sometimes we'll have words, but for the most part we'll just hear the track and a melody will start going through our heads and we gotta lay that down.
THERON: We hear the beat and the music speaks to us.
TIMOTHY: There’s no real blueprint to making the hit. Or sometimes there is and sometimes there's not. Sometimes you can get in the studio, look at the charts and you could say, “I understand why this record is a hit.” Like “Uptown Funk.” I get it. I get why it's a hit. Kids love it, grownups love it. Old people love it! It's ear candy. And what’s funny is, if it had come out 20 years ago, it would have been an urban song. It would have played on black radio. So there are records like “Uptown Funk,” and then there are certain records where you're like, “I like it, but I can't figure out why this record is so big!”
THERON: My favorite song right now is OMI, “Cheerleader.” I think it's genius, but we were surprised that it's this big in the United States. It's like, When I need some motivation—he sounds Nigerian! The world is opening so much and America is opening so much. We're in a place in this country where we've seen it all and heard it all. That's why on urban radio black kids are like, I like to cha cha. Cause like, what is it? I've never heard anything like it. That’s why “Cheerleader” is so big. We're getting flooded with information all the time, so the only things that can stand out are the things that stand out.
Do you think dancehall will have a major crossover moment in America again?
THERON: Dancehall never loses. When America is like, “We ain’t on that dancehall shit,” Caribbean people just like, "Well, we're never gonna get off and we are our own culture and our own world." Caribbean culture is unbreakable. From the food to the music. They making a Caribbean carnival in every state because it's too big!
THERON: That’s Toronto. And Europe, all of that, the Caribbean is in it. The Caribbean, we never fall off, we just go to our people until people in the United States feel like loving us again. We like that girl that you can't really get rid of. You try to stop talking to her but then you're like, “Man that bitch is so bad, that bitch did some shit that nobody ain’t never did to me before man! I gotta call this bitch back and see where she at!”