Genre-Blending R&B Duo THEY. on Advice From Timbaland & Making Their Mark as Black Artists

Brando
THEY.

Over the past several decades, a slew of different duos have come in and put their stamp on the musical landscape. Now, Los Angeles-based R&B pair THEY. is trying to be next in line to accomplish that feat.

The group’s two members, producer Dante Jones and singer/songwriter Drew Love, began their careers separately, working on their own musical movements until a chance introduction by a mutual friend brought them together a few years ago. “My best friend that I grew up with in Denver actually brought him by one day and encouraged us to hang out," Jones recalls about how the duo linked up. "After that, whenever we sat down, we really vibed.”

While Jones had seen previous success for his work on Kelly Clarkson’s top 10 hit “Mr. Know It All” in 2011 and has contributor credits with Chris Brown and Nickelodeon, Love has previously had his foot in the door of the music industry for his work with Jeremih. Now, they’ve brought together their creative skills to form THEY., infusing multiple sounds, cultures and vibes to craft a new R&B style that, lately, the duo has been referring to as Grunge&B.

It was another chance meeting that led the duo to their first release: Jones met electronic producer Zhu and, through him, the people behind his label Mind of a Genius, and in October 2015, THEY. signed a record deal with the label, which then released their three-song debut EP Nu Religion, as well as the Zhu x Skrillex collaboration "Working For It," on which THEY. lent vocals. (The song would end up as a bonus track on Zhu's 2016 Generationwhy LP.)

After THEY. completed a stint opening up for Bryson Tiller on the latter's North American Trapsoul Tour, Mind of a Genius signed a deal with Warner Bros. Records last March, and Jones and Love began releasing the singles that would wind up on their debut album, Nu Religion: HYENA, which dropped Feb. 24. The duo see their first release as an opportunity to offer an alternative to the status quo. “One of the biggest aspirations that we have for this album was to really make a different voice for black music," Jones explains. "Something that’s still as aggressive as this trap stuff that’s going out, but still progresses in the way that it’s made and is still thoughtful and musical."

Along the way, Jones and Love have picked up a few notable co-signs in the music industry, with Timbaland in particular serving as a mentor of sorts for the duo; they say the veteran producer has become an “uncle” figure to them, offering advice on patience and diligence that has stuck with them.

With the album out and upcoming performances at Panorama Festival in New York City, Made in America in Philadelphia and Life Is Beautiful in Las Vegas on the docket this year, Billboard spoke with Dante Jones and Drew Love about their career beginnings, Nu Religion: HYENA, their desire to change black music, Timbaland’s advice and more.

What made you two pursue music as a collective, rather than as solo artists?

Dante Jones: Drew and I crossed paths in Hollywood about three years ago. At first we just encountered each other at different studios, but we never really got a chance to connect. My best friend that I grew up with in Denver actually brought him by one day and encouraged us to hang out. After that, whenever we sat down, we really vibed. I think I’m just naturally kind of a weird guy; I do a lot of voices, I do skits on my own, so it’s kind of off-putting to most people. He was game and just jumped right in. It made me feel like I could be myself with this guy.

So we started just making music together. I think we knew that we both had a [different] perspective. Before we knew it, we had three or four songs together and we saw that the vibe and the chemistry were there. We said, “Let’s make a run as a group. We could really do some damage together.” [Drew's] just a really talented guy vocally and writing-wise. It was a perfect match for me production-wise.

Your debut album, Nu Religion: HYENA, came out earlier this year to a lot of praise from fans and the music community. What are your personal standout tracks?

Drew Love: My favorite track on the project has to be “Silence.” It means a lot to me just because of the topic it touches on. I feel like the vibe and the mood of the music is stimulating every time that I listen to it. It came from a real place. Every time I played it before the album came out, it seemed to evoke the same emotion from when we wrote it. To this day, when I listen to the album, it’s still one of my favorites on there.

DJ: For me, it actually comes down to two tracks: “Africa” or “Truth Be Told.” I feel like I’ve struggled to find my place as a producer because I put so much into my production that sometimes it doesn’t leave that much room for a song. But when I met Drew, he was able to tackle some of these ideas. With those two tracks, I felt like I was really doing something that was progressive and really different. On “Africa,” there’s tribal drums mixed with 808s. Then with “Truth Be Told,” it’s like grunge guitars mixed with an arpeggio that I got off of Juno. It sounds like a video game.

One of the biggest aspirations that we have for this album was to really make a different voice for black music; something that’s still as aggressive as this trap stuff that’s going out, but still progresses in the way that it’s made and is still thoughtful and musical. I feel like, on those two tracks, we were really able to achieve that.

If someone comes across your catalog for the first time, what do you hope they take away from it after their first listen?

DL: I think one of the main things we were trying to accomplish when we made the album, and I think we accomplished it, was taking chances. I think that’s what we really want to influence everyone listening to our music to do in all aspects of life: take chances as an individual. There are a lot of people kind of emulating each other. A lot of people are taking the safe route. It feels like a lot of people are just making music for money. It seems like the artistic part of music, and taking your time to craft something that’s really different, is happening less and less in the industry.

Not to say that the music that’s coming out isn’t good -- I listen to all types of music every day -- but I think what me and Dante wanted to focus on was to show that African-Americans can still make positive, game-changing music that anybody can listen to. Not everybody is going to like every single song on the album, but there’s at least one song out there for everybody.

DJ: I’m a young black man. I think that if anybody takes anything away from this, it should be that they look at who’s making it, and then listen to the album. A lot of young, black musicians are giving you sounds of the past, or you’re just kind of feeding into the current trap stuff. I feel like there’s a few roles that the black musician has been put into recently. At the end of the day, my favorite is Prince. He makes everything. He did guitars, he did funk, he did drums. It still hits hard, and it’s still of the moment.

I’m not going to compare myself to anybody, but I feel like that energy and that spirit is within us as young black people. We’re doing something that’s different and that’s really going to push the needle. We want to do something that’s going to be jarring. It’s not supposed to fit in. That’s something I want people to take away from the album. Not only what it is and that it’s good, but also who made it and where it stems from.

Drew, you once said that you aspired for the group’s mark on music to be similar to both Nirvana and Outkast. Do you still have that aspiration?

DL: I think we are always going to have that aspiration. Whether we make a mark on 10 people or 10,000 people, I think that we want to focus on inspiring youth to really do something different. What we want to do is influence people in the same way both Nirvana and OutKast did, but whether we become as commercially successful as they have or not, it’s not for us to tell. OutKast came out of the scene, and every single time, you didn’t really know what to expect from a rap standpoint and rhythm standpoint of what they were going to do on their project. I think we want to continue to do the same thing every time we put something out. You won’t really know what to expect, but you know it’s going to be good, and we put 10,000 hours into each album that we make.

You guys take a lot of influence from R&B, and are big fans of New Edition. Have you been able to reach out to any veterans to work with them in the future?

DJ: We’ve met a few people that we really look up to, and it was dope when we were at the BET Experience and got to see Bel Biv Devoe come out and perform. I’m really glad to see those guys are getting the shine that they deserve, because that era felt like pop, coming from a black perspective. I think that’s something that’s missing from today’s music. It was unapologetically pop, but still black. We’re big fans of Missy, Timbaland and Ginuwine. For me, I was always a big hip-hop fan. We did Radio City backstage, and I got to meet Fabolous. That was a huge moment for me, because I’ve always looked up to him and the way that he’s put his lyrics together.

For me, it’s more about just meeting them and getting the experience. Whether or not we get into the studio, time will tell; they’ve got their vibe, we’ve got our own vibe. It would be interesting to see if it could actually work, but I think more just getting advice from those types of people [is important]. Timbaland gave us some advice early on, and he’s still somebody that’s a supporter and really believes in our sound. That’s more what we look towards with legends. Support and guidance, amongst anything else.

Who do you plan on hitting the studio with this year?

DL: I’d definitely like to get back in with Timbaland, just because he serves as such an inspiration for us from the advice he was able to give us from an Uncle perspective. From a music perspective, he was able to teach us a lot about patience and diligence when it comes to music. As far as somebody new, I know the first time we ever went to Spotify, we met Miguel. He’s one of my favorite R&B artists of the current generation -- and all-time, honestly.

DJ: I’ll be honest: I don’t really think I work that well with a lot of people. I think one of the reasons me and Drew were able to gel is the fact that he was persistent and was very consistent with me. From my perspective, there’s still another THEY. project that needs to be done before we bring other people in.

DL: Yeah -- our music is not the type where you can just hop on and the next moment you have 10 features on the album. It’s not a straight-down-the-line urban record. I don’t think we’ll ever be that way. What you heard on the first one could be completely different from what you hear on the second one. I think we need to establish that within the community and let people know that we’re going to take our time with our music. Our music is a lot different than what people are used to hearing.