Arts & Culture

The Kings of Dru Hill

Baltimore's biggest R&B export stages a comeback.

The members of Dru Hill have gathered at the Belvedere Hotel’s Owl Bar to discuss the logistics of a forthcoming tour to promote their reunion album, InDRUpendence Day, the quartet’s first new music in eight years.

As they talk, Larry Anthony Jr.—known as “Jazz”—orders a Long Island iced tea and a crab cake to take home to his wife. All three of the original members still in the group have kids, and family-friendly travel is a sticking point of their plans. “We have to learn how to balance work and family,” says Tamir Ruffin, a.k.a. Nokio, who founded the group in 1994. “It’s not the same as when we were teenagers.”

That’s for sure.

Nokio was 17 in 1996, when Dru Hill’s self-titled debut became the soundtrack to a million love affairs. With songs ranging from the sexy drama of “In My Bed” to slow-dance anthem “Never Make a Promise,” the Baltimore-based quartet of Nokio, Jazz, Mark “Sisqo” Andrews, and James “Woody” Green (who is replaced by Antwuan “Tao” Simpson for the new album) presented a sophisticated, sultry form of R&B that made audiences—particularly women—swoon.

“We were young, but we made grownup music,” jokes lead singer Sisqo, whose solo success with hits like “The Thong Song” and “Incomplete” boosted Dru Hill’s profile but also contributed to its demise. “Dru Hill made relationship music.”

Over the course of three albums—Dru Hill (1996), Enter the Dru (1998) and Dru World Order (2002)—the quartet became R&B stars, with number-one hits “In My Bed,” “Never Make a Promise,” “How Deep is Your Love,” and “Wild Wild West” with Will Smith. Critics compared them to soul sensations Boyz II Men and Jodeci.

But, in a turn of events that could have been Xeroxed from a Behind the Music script, the former church boys were tempted by flashy demons and sank into a quicksand of jealousy, depression, and drug addiction, before disbanding in 2003.

“I started smoking a lot of weed and taking ecstasy,” Nokio confesses. “We had done everything in excess and we were tired.” Later that year, Sisqo was arrested in front of his Randallstown home and charged with first-degree assault, resisting arrest, and reckless endangerment for allegedly firing a 9mm pistol at his neighbor’s brother’s car. Charges were dismissed, but the incident underlined the demise of Dru Hill.

In the years since, band members have kept a low profile—except for Sisqo, who recently appeared on UK’s Celebrity Big Brother. But in 2008, Nokio, Sisqo, and manager Kevin Peck first discussed reuniting the group, and brought everybody together for a meeting.

“Once we got together, it was like a party, and we started messing around in the booth,” says Jazz. “I’d forgotten how good we sounded together. It was like no matter how mad we were at each other, there was no denying the magic we make together.”

Now, they’ve got a new album co-produced by fellow ’90s R&B refugee Keith Sweat, a single with hip-hop heavyweight Ludacris (“Rollercoaster”), and a forthcoming reality show on BET’s new Centric Network documenting the comeback, including infighting, real fighting—the trailer shows Sisqo and Nokio in a boxing ring—therapy sessions, and recording sessions.

It won’t be easy for the aging harmony specialists to land on top of the R&B heap again. Male soul groups have dropped off the radar. The quartet’s two-step mission is to remind R&B fans why they loved Dru Hill and to convince them to fall in love again.

Tamir Ruffin grew up surrounded by music. His grandmother played piano by ear—any song you wanted to hear—and every Sunday he watched his mom wail in the church choir. His Uncle Irvin even bragged about a friendship with Motown king Smokey Robinson. So it was no surprise when, as a lanky but sharp-dressed teen, Ruffin started a singing group called 14K Harmony.

“I remember singing in the City College courtyard and a workman dropped five dollars down,” recalls the singer, who was already going by Nokio at the time. Nineteen years later, stepping outside of the Belvedere for a smoke, he wears a knit cap covering his purple Mohawk—still a sharp dresser, as cool as the diamonds in his ears. “I was happy just singing for girls,” he says. “But, at that moment, I realized—hey, we can make money from this. We can be famous.”

The quartet became an immediate smash at local talent shows. Sliding across auditorium stage floors as girls screeched from the audience, 14K Harmony—later, they changed their name to Legacy—was the group everybody wanted to beat. For years, they practiced in classrooms and basements and as harmonizing employees of Inner Harbor sweet shop The Fudgery.

“They used my classroom to practice after school,” says retired music teacher Carolyn Starks. “The one song they sang over and over was [Stevie Wonder’s] ‘Ribbon in the Sky.’ They sang it so much, I started calling them the one-hit wonders.”

They dreamed of becoming stars, but, since no R&B artist from Baltimore had ever broken nationally, they weren’t sure it could happen. “It seemed like it might be impossible,” says Sisqo. “I thought you had to be from California or New York to make it.”

But in 1996, manager Kevin Peck secured them an audition with Hiriam Hicks, president of Island Black Music, at New York’s famed Hit Factory recording studio. Hicks was so impressed, he signed Dru Hill that night and rushed them into the booth to record the sensuous “Tell Me” for the soundtrack to Eddie, starring Whoopi Goldberg. Chicago-based R&B singer Dave Hollister had already recorded the track, but his vocals were wiped out at the eleventh hour and Dru Hill’s were inserted.

Dru Hill were poised to become stars.

Perhaps the most underrated member of Dru Hill is Jazz, who has been battling with Nokio since they were students at Douglass.

“When I got to Douglass, I had heard about Nokio’s group and I wanted to be down,” says Jazz, who, at 33, still has a baby face and teddy-bear frame like Barry White or Luther Vandross. “But, even then, Nokio could be an ass, so he wasn’t really listening to me.”

That changed when Nokio heard Jazz sing Whitney Houston’s maudlin classic “The Greatest Love of All” in a school assembly. The same song had gotten him accepted into the Baltimore School for the Arts and, onstage at Douglass, he simply made it his own. Soon afterwards, Nokio asked Jazz if he wanted to join 14K.

“Larry Anthony was one of my best students,” recalls Miriam Fitzgerald, a vocal teacher at Douglass since 1974, who declines to call Jazz by his stage name. “He did a lot of classical music and studied one-on-one with Dolores Jones, a Baltimore opera singer who traveled throughout the country. It didn’t surprise me when Dru Hill became successful. The guys just seemed to work so well together.”

Local R&B singer Paula Campbell, who has toured with Ne-Yo and is currently working on new material, was enrolled in the music program with the boys. “In the music curriculum at Douglass, we had a big brother-big sister program and Jazz was my big brother,” she recalls. “He helped me a lot with my vocals. I always sang in a falsetto and Jazz taught me not to be afraid of my natural voice.”

But once the quartet hit the big time, Jazz’s vocal chops took a backseat to Sisqo’s sharp looks and wild style.

“Our label pushed me in front, but anyone in the group could’ve sung lead,” explains the 31-year-old blonde-haired singer, who, more than anyone in the group, has retained some celebrity, as on Big Brother, where he appeared alongside actor Stephen Baldwin, Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana, and was the fifth person evicted. “On the new project, we tried to distribute the vocals more evenly, and, for the first time, you can really hear Jazz sing.”

As a child, Sisqo won countless Michael Jackson dance contests. In grammar school, still going by “Mark,” he and best friend Milo started a dance duo called M&M Productions. Decked out in MC Hammer pants, they danced for classmates and signed autographs. “My love for dancing can be traced back to seeing Michael Jackson do the moonwalk on the Motown 25 special,” Sisqo says of the 1983 television show that aired when he was four. “I was blown away. At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do.” Sisqo, who met Jackson after “The Thong Song” came out, recently recorded a cover of “Billie Jean” for an upcoming solo record, his third.

Wearing a backwards baseball cap over his trademark platinum hair, Sisqo’s thick diamond-encrusted bracelet sparkles in the light. Two platinum chains dangle around his neck: a crucifix and a dragon. In 1996, when Dru Hill arrived for their first photo shoot at a studio in New York’s Chinatown, there was a dragon painted on the wall. They insisted that the fire-breathing creature be included in their shots, and the dragon became Dru Hill’s trademark. “The Rolling Stones have the lips and tongue; we had the dragon,” says Sisqo.

While Nokio launched the group that would become Dru Hill, it was Sisqo who earned the boys their first measure of acclaim, at The Fudgery. “I was working there first, so I helped the rest of the group get jobs there,” he says, smiling at the memory. “Part of the job was to take popular songs and throw the word fudge in there. So, instead of ‘Isn’t she lovely?’ we sang, ‘Isn’t fudge lovely?’ No one is going to get discovered at The Fudgery, but it was a good place to practice.”

Although their label and managers had always tried to make Sisqo the center of attention, it didn’t start to roil the group until 1999, when Sisqo was featured prominently on Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West” soundtrack song, as well as in the extravagant video.

On the set, Woody quit the band and soon thereafter, Sisqo left to make his solo debut, Unleash the Dragon, featuring “The Thong Song,” which proved to be one of the biggest tracks of 2000.

“It started as a joke,” Sisqo says of the mega-hit, recently heard on the popular show Glee. “A friend told me about a date he had been on, and, in a serious voice, he said, ‘Guess what she gave me.’ I was waiting for a serious answer and he says, ‘That thong, thong, thong, thong.’ Man, I laughed for three days. When it was time for me to go into the studio, I just started freestyling that word.”

Unleash the Dragon sold five million copies. “The Thong Song” became the soundtrack to the summer of 2000, but it wasn’t long before there was a Sisqo backlash. “Thong Song” was seen a novelty hit and nobody took Sisqo seriously. Though it went platinum, his follow-up solo album Return of the Dragon (2001) was seen as a flop. “It seemed like my name was like a curse word,” Sisqo says.

The spring 1996 night Dru Hill recorded their debut single “Tell Me” at The Hit Factory, they were just a bunch of well-groomed teenagers from Baltimore hoping for a break. Willing to compromise in order to make the big time, the group’s name Legacy was changed by the same Island Records executive who signed them.

“What’s the name of the park where you guys hang out?” he asked. Someone answered, “Dru’ Hill,” and that became their name.

“Getting signed felt like taking a rocket,” chuckles Jazz. “One minute, we’re auditioning, and the next, we’re shooting a video, finishing our album, and sleeping in airports. Talent-wise, we were ready, but in terms of maturity, not even close.”

When things ended as suddenly as they began, the group members were lost, adults who never learned to grow up. “I hit rock bottom,” Jazz recalls. “I had to come down off the hype and experience the struggle.”

While Sisqo starred in movies and continued his solo career, other group members struggled. “After the glitz and glamour, all I did was watch television and eat,” says Jazz. “There was no real money coming in, so I would drive around the city [in a cab] just to make seventy or eighty dollars. I had gone from spending thousands a day to hacking.”

Beyond the financial loss, the singers had to deal with a loss of identity. “I’d look at the platinum plaques and rewards and felt like, if I didn’t have that again, then something was wrong,” says Nokio. “I was nothing.”

They started families and other ventures, but when reunion talk came up, everyone jumped. “Being in Dru Hill is like being a superhero,” says Nokio. “When they show the Dru signal in the sky, it’s time to go sing.”

Soon after the joyful reunion, Woody decided to sit out the project to focus on a solo gospel album. Jazz, who had started an artist development company, suggested his friend Tao as a replacement.

Tao won the gig and on the very next night, the new Dru Hill crowded into Sisqo’s home studio and started trying out fresh material. “We recorded a song called ‘Loose,'” says Tao. “And the next thing I knew, we were on the road with Keith Sweat.”

Sweat, himself an old-school soul crooner, helped Dru Hill focus on work, updating their music. “The challenge was to keep the basis of our sound, but tweak it enough to be accepted by new audiences,” Nokio says. “We did a few more up-tempo songs than usual, but we maintained the core Dru Hill sound.”

Sisqo jumps in. “We’ve evolved as artists,” he says. “Our sound is tighter and fuller. I think we’re better now than ever.”