It certainly didn’t take long for Magic to live ?up to its name. Virtually ?unknown in the United States a year ago, the power-pop band is currently dominating charts across the board with “Rude,” a reggae-infused smash single that may well go down as 2014’s quintessential summer song.
The story of a well-intentioned guy who gets dissed by his girlfriend’s father — “Why you gotta be so rude?” protests singer Nasri Atweh. “Don’t you know I’m human too” — “Rude” is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated Aug. 2 for a second week. It’s also No. 1 on Digital Songs and No. 2 on Radio Songs. Since its release in August 2013, “Rude” has sold 1.8 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and ranks as the year’s eighth-best-selling pop digital song.
This wry reggae tale of rejection was written by four Canadians now based in Los Angeles: Atweh, guitarist Mark Pellizzer, bassist Ben Spivak and drummer Alex Tanas. (Another co-writer, fellow Canadian Adam Messinger, is Atweh’s partner in the production duo The Messengers, who helped revive New Kids on the Block.)
Magic began with a simple premise. “We were just like, ‘Let’s start a band that sounds kind of like The Police and The Wailers,’ ” recalls Pellizzer, age 34.
That approach is evident throughout the band’s debut album, Don’t Kill the Magic, which debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200, selling 36,000 copies in the first week after its July 1 release.
Like “Rude,” the album’s 10 other songs are punchy, compact and equipped with an irresistible hook. Some are languid reggae tunes, accented with guitar solos in the vein of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up.” Others boast an up-tempo, driving rhythm. It all adds up to the kind of “reggae action” that Atweh, 33, promised the diverse crowd that packed Webster Hall in New York on a hot night earlier in July. To appreciate just how far Magic has come in less than a year, consider this: 10 months ago, the turnout was dramatically different when the band played the same venue. “We had 20 people,” recalls Cara Lewis of Creative Artists Agency, which handles booking for Magic. “And 18 of them were my staff.”
Atweh dances with loose-limbed exuberance throughout the set, a showcase of Don’t Kill the Magic songs interspersed with covers, from Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster” to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Like every smart frontman, the former go-go dancer knows how to work a room, at one point taking time out to thank the Sony Music suits in the audience, “our teammates on this great journey.” The night trip ends, of course, with “Rude” and a massive sing-along. The crowd’s voices are still reverberating off the walls as Magic scoots from Webster Hall to Rockefeller Center for a performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
The sudden success of Magic and “Rude” would seem unlikely in an era when America’s musical consciousness is rarely dented by reggae. A decade ago, Atweh was just another struggling solo artist. He signed with Universal Canada at 19 and, using only his first name, released two modestly successful R&B singles.
He eventually relocated to L.A., sleeping on friends’ couches, taking acting classes and even working as a go-go dancer at a West Hollywood club called Eleven to make ends meet. But by the turn of the decade Atweh was better-known for his production work as one of The Messengers and writing hits for the likes of Justin Bieber, Chris Brown and Pitbull. Then he met Pellizzer, who was already an accomplished studio musician.
“When I met Mark and he started playing that reggae groove, I was like, ‘This feels good,’ ” says Atweh. “I started to be happy around him. When he would play, I started to feel like an artist, like I had value, like I was being heard. He makes me feel that way when we write. And he’s competitive, so we push each other.”
Despite “Rude” catapulting to the top of the charts, Magic’s low-key, Rasta-friendly jams have proven to be easy marks for critics. The Los Angeles Times recently called “Rude” one of the summer’s worst songs, mocking the record’s conceit of a dude asking his girlfriend’s dad for permission to marry. “Wisely, the father says no,” the Times cracked, “perhaps fearing decades of casino and state fair gigs in his would-be -son-in-law’s future.”
The New York Times’ review of the group’s Webster Hall show concludes with a similarly pessimistic fortune that plays off the title of another Magic song, “How Do You Want to Be Remembered”: “Maybe, for a band, there are five words that are even more worrisome: What was your name again?”
But those bad vibes don’t easily harsh the world of Magic. In the Webster Hall dressing room prior to the show, there was the palpable giddiness that comes from riding the wave of a huge hit as the band mingled with friends and record-label employees. The group’s manager, Charles Chavez, recounted how he met Atweh when the singer produced the “big ol’ hit” “Feel This Moment” for Pitbull, who Chavez has managed since 2007. But the exec says he was blown away when he first saw the original “Rude” YouTube stream in April 2013. “I said, ‘Holy shit, I love this record,’ ” recalls Chavez, a tall, bald man with impossibly perfect teeth and a long history of hits. “I told Nasri, ‘Just let me sign the record. I’ll take it and I’ll do my best to make this the biggest song on earth.’ ”
That enthusiasm paid off when Sony International got onboard. But by the time Chavez drummed up interest in “Rude,” the summer of 2013 was nearly over. So it was decided to pitch the single in the Southern Hemisphere, where summer was just beginning. The song soon shot to No. 1 in Australia and New Zealand. The migration then continued to the band’s home country, Canada.
“The Canadian airplay started bleeding over into some of the U.S. border towns like Buffalo [N.Y.] and Detroit, spiking sales in both of those markets,” says RCA Music Group president/COO Tom Corson. “So we knew we had an active record on our hands earlier this year. If we weren’t convinced before, we were completely convinced at that point.”
By the time this summer rolled around, “Rude” was one year old — but its American odyssey was just beginning. “This is a six–format record,” claims Corson. “It has charted significantly in six different [radio] formats. Records like ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Happy’ have done that — but very, very few.
“That’s part of the big story here,” he adds. “It ticks a lot of boxes,” including mainstream top 40, alternative, adult contemporary, adult top 40, Latin pop, rhythmic and triple A.
Meanwhile, Lewis has Magic crossing the country, performing at festivals and colleges until first-quarter 2015, when the group will support another act on a yet-to-be-announced arena tour.
Seemingly everyone in the business of working Magic has unwavering confidence in the band’s prospects. Chavez compares them to the Eagles and suggests that “Let Your Hair Down” — another reggae-inflected slow jam from Don’t Kill the Magic — is destined to be a follow-up smash.
The band itself, however, acknowledges the challenge of overcoming its potential status as a one-hit wonder. “ ‘Rude’ has achieved so much international success that it’s a blessing and — I’m not going to say a curse,” says Pellizzer, who once played guitar in a gospel R&B group called Divine Worship. “But the success of that record could eclipse some things that are possibly going to follow.”
Atweh is more cocky: “If Magic sticks around — which we will — you’ll hear more about my life,” he says, affecting the voice of a born showman with a fascinating story to tell. “In my autobiography …”