Signed as a new act to Island Records back in 1996, Dru Hill were a young and talented vocal foursome with ties to gospel music who pretty much became an international success story overnight. Whether it was their authentic, honest musical delivery or their individuality as far as their image went, the boys from Baltimore sure knew how to bring it.
Constantly compared to the bad boys of R&B Jodeci, Dru Hill weren’t the only all male R&B group on their grind at the time. The ’90s was a decade that played host to a gang of upcoming male rhythm and blues acts. The likes of Blackstreet, Silk, Shai, Color Me Badd, and Bel Biv Devoe were just some of the groups vying for that top spot.
With a Top 20 Billboard charting hit in the form of “Tell Me,” the boys went out of their way to prove they were a refreshing alternate to their stiff competition – and it wasn’t long until the world caught on.
Releasing their self-titled debut album on November 19, 1996, the foursome, which consisted of Mark ‘Sisqo’ Andrews, Larry ‘Jazz’ Anthony, Tamir ‘Nokio’ Ruffin, and James ‘Woody’ Green, packaged up a solid product with modern day influences and nods to the soul of yesteryear. Going platinum in just seven months, the album spawned four major singles – “In My Bed,” “Never Make A Promise,” “5 Steps” and the previously mentioned “Tell Me” – and solidified the group as someone to keep a very close eye on.
With half of the album submitted by the label and the other half hand crafted by the band themselves, it featured a host of songs with different leads throughout. While Sisqo is considered Dru Hill’s lead singer, there were tracks included that heard Jazz take lead (“Never Make A Promise”) as well as Woody (“April Showers”). For the most part, with his signature dyed blonde hair and dapper dress sense, Sisqo was regarded as the group’s frontman.
Executive produced by Hiram Hicks, the man that started it all by getting the guys to sign on the dotted line, the 14-track LP was a gem from its very conception. As far as the actual beat production goes, the likes of Terrence Dudley, Keith Sweat, and Nokio himself collaborated with a host of others to create the the seductively alluring mid-tempo jaunt in to the next stage of R&B.
After being shelved during their first record contract, along with Destiny’s Child, the group, who at the time went by the name Legacy, took two years to be released from that particular contract. With all hope gone of ever reaching their dreams of becoming professional musicians, they switched genres and decided to take the gospel route. However, one meeting in New York, singing one particular song, and the guys were signing their names on a napkin, quite literally.
While the foursome have been through a few formation changes over the years, they’re still performing, although Woody has now been replaced by Antwuan ‘Tao’ Simpson. With four albums under their belt, the group’s most popular are still their first and second (Enter The Dru).
Talking to SoulCulture, frontman Sisqo explains Dru Hill’s humble beginnings, record label struggles – and of course the group’s debut album, Dru Hill.
“When [Dru Hill] had first gotten signed, before the first album, [ourselves] and Destiny’s Child were signed at the same time,” Sisqo explains. “We were like 14-years-old. We had gotten signed to another label and they [ended up] putting us on a shelf. Both us and Destiny’s Child. It took us two years to get off of that and out of that deal.”
Admitting that it was a tough pill to swallow, according to the Dru Hill frontman there was a life lesson to be learnt from the experience. “A lot of people when they meet me say [that I’m] a pretty down to earth guy. A humble guy,” he claims. “One of the reasons for that is because when we first got signed at 14 our heads had (mimics his head growing bigger) gotten huge. I went back to school and was like, “Fuck you. Fuck you. I never liked you. Fuck all y’all. I ain’t even gonna be here next year. I just got signed to a record deal.” Then we sat on a shelf so we had to come back the next year and look the same people. [They were like,] “Hey Mr. Superstar. Thought you were getting signed. What happened?” So I had to eat humble pie from that point on.”
Slightly deflated, the group admitted to not really wanting to continue on after that occurrence. “We had gotten discouraged about being in the music industry in that capacity. So we became a gospel group,” Sisqo admits. However, things were all about to change for the group. “Our manager Kevin Peck, who has been managing us ever since way back when, was asked if he could bring us to New York. We were pretty much over it. We didn’t even wanna do it because we were so embarrassed the first time [around],” he says.
“The guy [in New York] was like, “I tell you what. [If] you come up here and sing for this guy, if you don’t get a deal or get a record put out this time then you can go and sing gospel or whatever and I’ll leave y’all alone.” So we hopped in the car and headed over to New York.” Continuing on, Sisqo says, “We met Hiriam Hicks, he was the President of Island Records back in the day. He played us a version of ‘Tell Me’ that had Dave Hollister [singing] on it. [Hicks] played it once. He stopped the record. We sang it back to him [after] one listen. Granted, we didn’t have all of the words right but we had the harmony perfect.
Describing the rest of the story, he states, “They all left the room and talked to Kevin in the hallway. [Hicks] came back in and asked if we liked the song. We were like, “Yeah.” [He then asked], “Do y’all see yourselves singing it.” We were like, “Hell yeah.” He then said, “We’ll let you sing that record on one condition, you sign to my label.” So at this point it was like, minimum wage job [or] record deal? I think I’m gonna go with the record deal.” Then in an almost Suge Knight with 2Pac manner, Sisqo admits to signing his life away on a serviette – “He pretty much made a makeshift contract on a napkin. It was one of those yellow sheets of paper or something. So we signed that at the time and did a long form later.”
Explaining that the same night on the day they were signed by Island Records was the same night they recorded their first hit, “Tell Me,” Sisqo admits to not having any other material at the time. “We didn’t have an album. All we had was ‘Tell Me’. They then put ‘Tell Me’ on the radio. It blew up so quickly that we had to hurry up and put an album together.” Feeling like the album was just thrown together, he adds, “The label had these songs that they wanted us to sing because they had these different artists [potentially] signing to their label. So it was like we sang the song [and] they got the publishing. [Not all of] the records were that good.”
While none of the material featured on their originally shelved project made the cut, Sisqo breaks down why that was. “Every project [of ours] has been completely separate or different to the next,” he admits. “It normally stems from a record. ‘Tell Me’ had so much energy that anything that came before ‘Tell Me’ just didn’t have the same energy. You know what I mean? So we just built from there and went forward.”
Whether it’s between group members or record labels, disputes are going to happen. Sisqo recalls having a disagreement with the label over his trademark dyed blonde hair. “When we got there the label said that they didn’t think I should have my hair blonde. They just didn’t like my blonde hair. If you look at the first album I got a hat on in every picture because they didn’t like my hair.” Explaining the requests of Island Records, he adds, “They asked me to dye my hair back to its original colour, which is almost jet black. And on the set of the [‘Tell Me’] video I went in to the bathroom and dyed my hair back [to blonde]. I came back outside and they was like, “What are you doing?” The president of the label was mad. He told me I was gonna ruin my career.”
According to Sisqo, after releasing the video everyone changed their tune. “[When] ‘Tell Me’ came out my blonde hair is what separated us from every other group. They didn’t even know it was gonna work. Then everybody was dying their hair blonde. So it’s not really an arrogant thing. I’m a musician in every sense of the word so everything that we would do I would put real thought into it because we had a blueprint from the [likes of] Michael Jackson… I even had a signature move. The one hand jam. The first time I flipped was in the ‘How Deep’ video. Now all the R&B artists try to flip.”
Not having complete creative control has driven certain artists to the brink of insanity. Whilst not quite as dramatic as that, Sisqo did confess to not liking some of the tracks picked for the album at first. “[Not all of] the records were that good,” he admits. “I didn’t like all of the records that they had picked. It was about half and half. Half I liked and half I didn’t like that much. I didn’t like ‘In My Bed’ when I first heard it. The demo sounded kinda…” Pausing for a brief moment, the ‘Thong Song’ singer bursts out laughing and simply says, “It was special.”
Claiming that he had to aggressively push out the first lyric on the song because he disliked it so much, Sisqo explains his reasoning for disliking the song so much. “[The original writer] was talking about someone sleeping in my bed and it’s like… nobody had slept in my bed that I had known of. You know what I mean? I didn’t really wanna be portrayed in that light, but that’s why when you listen to the song the first lyric (pushing out his hands hard and singing) “I got this feeling,” because I was really upset and didn’t want to sing it.”
Discussing some of the tracks he actually liked, he lists the Keith Sweat-produced “Share My World” as one. He then mentions a track he had to give a bit of time to before warming to it fully. “I ended up liking [‘Love’s Train’] but I didn’t like it at first.” A cover of Con Funk Shun’s track of the same name, Sisqo gets a little deeper and explains what he likes to do with a record he doesn’t particularly feel at first.
“I put emotion in to the record. I’ve always been a firm advocate of doing the best I can to work with the label. I didn’t wanna snuff ‘em. I figured that if they gave me a record I didn’t like then it was my job to make me like it. Because if other people heard the original and might not have liked it, like I didn’t initially, then if I can make it hot to me then the other people who may not have liked the original now [turn around and] like it then that proves my worth.” Laughing to himself, he adds, “I got a box of turd polish. I can make anything the shit.”
Sisqo breaks down the reason for the success of both Dru Hill and himself as a solo artist using creative control as a catalyst. “Some artists need the label to work in cohesion with them to come up with quality material. Other artists are actual artists that create music, and we just so happen to fall in to that category.
“As far as being a new artist, we just had to prove that. It was proven by basically word of mouth because the only song that had come out were the ones that [the label] chose. But the second we got an opportunity to bring out something that we had written they saw the response from it and they had no choice but to give us a shot. Like ‘5 Steps’; we wrote that. We basically wrote from the song ‘Satisfied’ until the end of the record. Everything before that they picked.”
“We did half of the album and they did half of the album.” With more to add, he says, “We did pretty good on that. I think we sold about three million. The second album though, we had all of the creative control and that was our highest seller. Then my album [Unleash The Dragon], [I had] full creative control, it was under my label, and it sold even more.”
Identifying a trend in terms of arrangement of the songs featured on Dru Hill, it appears that the first half of the album was recorded with input from the label while the other half was the group’s baby. The dancing machine thinks about it for a second and says, “It’s just coincidental, but because it was our music [during the second half], it flowed together. So it just sounded better. You can hear it.”
Sisqo himself favors the band’s second album over their classic debut, and as above, it all comes down to creative control. “We were able to just do what we wanted to do,” he excitedly states. “We saved a lot of time and money by not having to fight the label at every decision, and it ended up working for us. We got our first across the board number one hit.” Referring to Enter The Dru’s debut single “How Deep Is Your Love,” the Dru Hill frontman educates fans on something they might not know about regarding the song.
“[We] helped usher in the latin invasion with ‘How Deep’.” Singing a few lines from the first verse, he explains the latin explosion – “After that… Jennifer Lopez. Everybody blew up because that song became mainstream. There was always latin music but it had its own market. After ‘How Deep’ it’s like we proved that kinda sound could work. You can go in your archives and you will not really see [much latin] mainstream [music], with the exception of way back in the day with War or something – the guy was Spanish. I’m just talking about putting Spanglish in a song. It might have been blowing up in the latin market and there may have been a bunch of songs they re-released, but they didn’t become huge until after the ‘How Deep’ [record].”
Standing head and shoulders above the rest, Dru Hill’s self-titled debut was the benchmark upon which other upcoming [credible] boy bands measured themselves by. Celebrated as one of the better group’s to come out of the ’90s, this album was where it all started. According to Sisqo maintaining the popularity experienced first time around was key: “As long as you can do what you did when they fell in love with you or better, then you’re pretty straight in the industry.”