An arena-ready chorus from Adam Levine might sound like a strange fit for what’s otherwise a straight-up Caribbean slow-jam, but the Maroon 5 frontman’s appearance on “Locked Away” was the extra little push that helped propel Timothy and Theron Thomas, together known as R. City, up the charts this fall after years behind the scenes. The brothers, who have made a name for themselves as hired-gun songwriters in the decade since they moved to the United States from the Virgin Islands, have helped pen songs for everyone from Miley Cyrus to Rihanna, whose strip-club anthem “Pour It Up” earned them a Grammy in 2014. But their dream has ultimately been to put out their own music. “We started out as artists,” Theron says. “We ended up writing songs for other people by mistake.” Twice they recorded albums that were eventually shelved and never released, first on Akon’s KonLive imprint and then on their own short-lived label. It was the third time that ended up the charm for the brothers—their debut album, What Dreams Are Made Of, was finally released in October.
What was the first song you guys wrote together?
THERON: The first song I can remember us writing was called “Fresh,” and it was terrible. We were like 10 and 11 years old. From then we just wrote music all the time. Music was a great outlet for two project kids from the Virgin Islands who didn’t have anything. When Hurricane Marilyn hit in 1995, it shut down everything. We couldn’t go anywhere, and there was a 6 p.m. curfew. We had no electricity and no water. So we wrote and sang songs.
After having albums shelved, how does it feel to finally release one?
TIMOTHY: It’s a dream come true. We literally come from a 32-square-mile island, and we started out making music just for the kids in our ghetto. We went from making music for Saint Thomas to eventually making music for the entire Virgin Islands. We moved to the United States to introduce the world to our home. It always kind of felt like an unrealistic dream because no one had ever made it out of the Virgin Islands doing music—no one had really made it out of the Virgin Islands doing anything. It’s kind of like when you heard N.W.A. for the first time. They were so proud to say, “We’re from Compton.” For us, we’re so proud to say, “We’re from Saint Thomas.”
With artists dipping their toes in Caribbean sounds lately, it feels like there’s an audience for the kind of music you make that didn’t exist just a few years ago.
THERON: We believe that we’re original and different enough for the time. There ain’t nothing like the music of R. City in the marketplace right now. There ain’t no other us. But the music we make is global—there’s a Caribbean parade in almost every city in the world. Los Angeles has a Caribbean parade, London has a Caribbean parade. We everywhere. You can’t get rid of island people.