R. City, the rap duo behind the Number One Pop song in the country, have been performing together since they were elementary school students on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But brothers Theron and Timothy Thomas are suddenly finding themselves in uncharted waters.
The pair are getting ready to go onstage at the 45th annual Atlanta Pride Festival, the largest LGBT festival in the Southeast. It’s six o’clock on a Saturday evening, and the skies over Atlanta’s Piedmont Park are filled with dark, rumbling clouds. In front of a stage in one muddy corner of the park, a few dozen people — several wearing rainbow flags as capes, one sporting pink fairy wings — mill around, chatting, checking their phones.
“We’re used to performing in front of Caribbean people and thousands of black kids,” Theron later says of the performance. “Now we’re performing in front of thousands of white kids, thousands of homosexuals, that’s a different demographic. When we walk out here and start doing this are they going to say, ‘Yo this shit is wack?'”
As it turns out, no. R. City bound onstage, arms and legs flailing, and launch into “I’m That,” a raw, high-energy jam that’s musically distant from their hit “Locked Away,” a slice of Caribbean-inflected pop-rap featuring Adam Levine on the silky-smooth hook. The previously disinterested millers explode and are soon joined by hundreds more who stream from tents in other parts of the festival toward the muddy pit in front of the stage.
A few songs into the set, Theron looks out at the crowd, and nods. “I see people looking like, ‘Who the hell are these dudes?'” Timothy picks up the thread, “We think y’all know us but don’t know you know us.” And with that the pair kick off a medley of songs they’ve written for other artists — i.e., the work that has kept them well-fed for the past few years: Nicki Minaj’s “Only,” Usher’s “I Don’t Mind,” Rihanna’s “Pour It Up.” The audience screams their approval. When the clouds open and the rain begins to fall in heavy sheets just before the pair launch into “Locked Away,” no one scurries for cover.
R. City’s road to success has been longer and harder than most: two desperately poor kids from an island of 50,000 people, clinging tightly — for more than two decades — to the belief that they’re going to be international recording stars one day.
“My daddy was considered crazy,” Theron says. “He was just a real non-traditional cat. That’s why me and my brother are such strong believers in creating our own rules. Only crazy people are remembered.”
The R. City story really starts with their father, Miguel “Kiebo” Thomas. Kiebo was a die-hard hip-hop head on an island of calypso fans. He was a basketball star, a black activist and a burglar. The five years he spent in prison when Timothy and Theron were kids — and their mother’s continued devotion to him through it all — inspired “Locked Away.” He was a guy who kept duffel bags of weed in his closet but threatened to “tear the ass” out of either of his sons if he caught them smoking with their friends. He was also the group’s first manager.
“My dad taught us everything we know,” says Theron. Timothy, sitting across from his brother, on a leather couch, nods.
“Hip-hop was underground,” he says. “It wasn’t popular. There were just a few people throughout the Virgin Islands who had an appreciation for hip-hop culture. My father was one of them. So growing up, we was influenced by all these great hip-hop artists from Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, Tribe Called Quest. The Fugees changed our lives.”
Theron is 10 months older than Timothy but most everyone assumes it’s the other way around. Theron is hyperactive and playful — “Everything about me says ‘little brother,'” he admits — while Timothy is calm and composed. Theron, dressed today in a striped Puma track suit top and red sweatpants, is in constant motion in a control room at Atlanta’s Tree Sound studios even as he tries to sit in its swiveling desk chair. He swigs from a water bottle. He spins around. He stands up to act out a story, or sings snippets of songs — his own and many others — to illustrate a point. Timothy, wearing a white “All Hail the Virgin Islands” T-shirt and black pants, is friendly, but more subdued.
“We’re totally opposite musically, too,” says Theron. “He’s Kendrick Lamar and I’m Fetty Wap. He’s underground, backpack —it’s about the message. I’m commercial. I feel like if we’re not making music for everybody on this planet to enjoy, what the fuck are we making it for?”
The two grew up in the Oswald Harris Court projects — known locally as the “Housin” projects — in Charlotte Amalie, the largest town on St. Thomas. Verse Simmonds, a writer/producer/artist who has written for Kanye West, Jay-Z, Chris Brown and others, grew up in Charlotte Amalie, and has been tight with the Thomas brothers since 7th grade.
“Theron was in an R&B group with me,” he says. “We would run around the island and actually sing to different women for, like, Valentine’s Day. People would pay us to sing at their wife’s job or whatever. That’s how we would make money.”
Simmonds says the brothers were unusually focused on music from a young age. “Their dad would make them rehearse their moves and all their songs as soon as they got home from school, before even homework. He was really serious about their performances and making sure they were show-ready at all times. It would be an every single day thing.”
“My dad pushed us, pushed us, pushed us because he was like, ‘This is what’s going to get y’all out of here,” says Theron. “Y’all ain’t gonna be like me and your mother.'”
In the early days, the brothers, then known as 2Ekwip, made what Theron calls “kiddie rap” — rhymes about Kool-Aid or hanging out with their friends — and got popular throughout the Virgin Islands doing it. After high school, the brothers relocated to South Florida and moved in with Simmonds, who was living there at the time, and several others. They slept on a blanket on the dining room floor.
“It wasn’t like we had a plan,” says Timothy. The pair had $85 between them.
“We were young,” Theron says, shaking his head. “We were like, ‘I don’t want to get no fucking job. I came here to do music. We gonna blow up. We dope, man!’ We just didn’t want to work and do that type of hustle.” After 10 months and not much progress, the pair used an opportunity to perform in Atlanta as an excuse to move there. They were so broke they had to hide on subway cars so they could sleep there after the line had shut down for the night. Later, a producer friend let them sleep in his studio. “It was us and Bubba Sparxxx,” says Theron. “Bubba slept there too.”
Things began to look up. The brothers were introduced to some producers out of St. Louis who gave them a chance to write songs for other artists. Trina cut two of their songs but never released either. They were being completely bankrolled by these producers, and when there appeared no imminent return on investment, Theron and Timothy were shuttled back to St. Thomas.
“They were like, ‘We’re going to send y’all to the islands for a little while and then we’ll bring y’all back,” says Theron. “But they just sent us there and left us there.”
It was a low point but also a transformational moment. “You know when you go through that one point in your life when you’re like, ‘I can’t take it no more—everything is going bad?”’ asks Timothy. “That’s when we were like, ‘Fuck everybody!'”
The pair changed their name to Rock City. (They still refer to themselves as such, but had to shorten it to R. City for copyright reasons.) Their music got more aggressive and overtly political. (“We was like fucking Public Enemy,” says Theron.) They grinded hard back in St. Thomas, holding down multiple jobs each (Cold Stone Creamery, FYE, PriceMart supermarket warehouse, Little Switzerland watch shop) while building their hometown fan base considerably. Jamal Samuels, who was a fan back then, living on the neighboring island of St. Croix, and is now part of their management team, says, “They’re huge in the Virgin Islands. They’re Michael Jackson there. I used to get a different outfit every time I’d go see them.”
Still, the pair had an eye on a return to the States, and after a year of saving their money they did just that. Akon, who’d they’d met through friend years before, signed them to his Interscope imprint, Konvict, where they spent four years without ever releasing an album. Their music was a sometimes unclassifiable hybrid of hip-hop, roots reggae, dancehall, calypso, R&B and pop. They would often rap one verse in an American accent and the next in their island patois. Label execs would scratch their heads, suggesting they pick a lane and stay in it, but as Theron explains, “That’s the only way I know how to make music.”
“In America, they have segregated radio: Urban, Rhythmic, Hot AC, AC, Pop,” he continues. “We don’t have that in the Virgin Islands. We have one audience. If you don’t like Jay Z, it’s going to play. After Jay-Z? Bob Marley. Right after Bob Marley? Taylor Swift. That’s how we were raised.”
The Thomas brothers’ frustration with the label became so acute that the duo started releasing a series of mixtapes under the banner, PTFAO or Put the Fuckin’ Album Out. Akon and Interscope never did put the fuckin’ album out, but he let them out of their contract in 2011. As Theron recalls, “It came to the point where he was like, ‘I’m tired of arguing with y’all. Y’all motherfuckers are like annoying insects.'”
By this time though, the pair had established themselves as songwriters, scoring hits with Sean Kingston’s “Take You There,” the Pussycat Dolls’ “When I Grow Up” and Iyaz’s “Replay.” But they thought of themselves as performers first and set about working on album they titled Free At Last that they ultimately abandoned themselves. Unfortunately, this misfire coincided with a downturn in their songwriting fortunes.
“2011, 2012, we didn’t have no hits and we were in the studio every day,” says Theron. “We didn’t make no money.”
Tiring of juggling their careers as songwriters with their careers as performers, they focused on the former, since it had paid the bills. The hits returned: Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop,” Rihanna’s “Pour It Up,” Becky G’s “Shower.” They met popsmith extraordinaire Lukasz Gottwald, a.k.a. Dr. Luke, in their capacity as writers, who then offered them a chance to work on their own music. After signing to Luke’s Kemosabe label, R. City spent over a year crafting What Dreams Are Made Of, with Luke and his lieutenant Cirkut, producing.
“Working with Luke is different because Luke comes from the Max Martin school where they spend three or four days on the melody, then they put words to it,” says Theron. “Ninety-five percent of our songs is the first thing that came to mind. We make music off of feeling and Luke makes music off of science. It’s a formula. We would fight and argue. Most people in the room with Luke are like, ‘Man, we’re working with Luke!’ We’re like ‘I don’t give a fuck how much Number Ones you got. I ain’t doing that bullshit!'”
Ultimately, they feel like the results justify the process. The album is a musical and cultural mash-up befitting the brothers’ unique backstory. “Over” begins with Timothy’s up-from-the-bottom rhymes filled with real details from the duo’s early life (“First bed I slept on came out the garbage can”), then Theron slips into his Caribbean accent for a few lines before the song opens into the chorus, an island-style interpolation of Lenny Kravitz’s classic Philly-soul redux, “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.” “Make Up” weds a loose reggae groove to an indelible pop-soul chorus. They reunite with Akon for Nineties-style conscious rap on “Live By the Gun” and bring in roots-reggae mainstay Tarrus Riley for “Crazy World,” a song they originally wrote for Rihanna then decided to keep for themselves. Beyond just synthesizing the Thomas boys’ past, Theron believes there’s a vibe that comes from these songs that’s difficult to ignore.
“Our music makes you happy,” says Theron. “Whenever I listen to our music, it makes me want to smile. Nothing about that makes me feel aggressive or angry.” This is as close as you’ll get to a sort of foundational philosophy behind R. City’s sneakily subversive pop music.
“Do you know how hard it is to make positive music cool?” asks Theron. With that, he’s on his feet, up from the desk chair, swiveling his hips and singing some examples. “‘One love!/Let’s get together and feel alright.’ The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is damn near a gospel album! ‘Forgive them father for they know not what they do.’ Do you know how hard it is to get a gangsta to sing, ‘Jesus walks!/God show me the way cause the devil’s trying to break me down!'”
With this line his brother joins in, rapping along with Theron and the Kanye in their heads, and their whole journey starts coming into clearer focus. Not just their early days in the Housin projects in St. Thomas, with their crazy ex-con dad drilling them after school, or their days sleeping on trains or their misfires with Trina, with Akon, with themselves, but all the way up through “Locked Away” and yesterday’s show to this very moment.
“Do you know how extremely difficult it is to say something that’s positive,” Theron continues, slipping in a quick chorus of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” “and make people be like, ‘I don’t feel like I’m being preached to, I don’t feel like I’m being judged for my choices, I just feel good when this comes on?'” He sits down and takes a breath. “That’s what the fuck we making music for.”