Talking With Rock City

by Moe Arora on April 12, 2010

Rock City

Calling brothers, Theron & Timothy (aka Rock City), just rappers or singers, would be to barely scratch the surface.

They are artists – in every sense of the word.

I spoke with Theron aka Da Spokesman about Rock City’s entry into the music business, writing for the biggest artists on the planet, and of course, their movement – PTFAO.

What originally got you guys into music?

Me and my brother are from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Our parents were into music – they never did anything musical, like singing, writing songs, beats, or play any instruments, but they got together very young; straight outta high school.

So, they were the clubbing type, the partying type, so as kids we always heard music that was hot at the time. There was always music playing, so we just got drawn into Hip-Hop culture; the fashion, the dancing, all that – we just wanted to be a part of it. By the ages of 8-9, we knew we wanted to be a part of this.

You guys do R&B, Rap, Pop & Dancehall. With the upbringing you just described, and being from the Virgin Islands, do you make it a point to make your music culturally diverse?

To be honest, not really. You gotta blame my dad for that, because my dad was working with us in the beginning and we just used to rap. That’s what we liked, it was pretty much all rap. The first concert me & my brothers ever went to was Run DMC, in St. Thomas. That was the first show we ever saw live. We used to rock the denim jackets with the Kangols on. I’m talking about this was when were little kids, like 4-5 years old.

[laughs]

We actually started out as backup dancers first. We didn’t start to rap until Kris Kross came out. My dad told us we needed to stand out and be original. Kris Kross were wearing their clothes backwards or whatever, but what makes us original? We just rap.

So we thought we could do rap and reggae, but you know, my dad was saying that’s cool, but there’s a few other groups that do rap and reggae – so we started to sing.

Someone else used to write our lyrics when we were kids, but after some time, he pretty much stopped, and we had to learn to write our own songs, and come up with our own ideas. My dad just kept telling us whatever we sing or rap about, just make sure people can relate to it.

When you listen to our music – from kids until now – you’ll notice the growth. We sang about everything we were going through at that moment. We wanted to be as real as possible.

So, the diversity definitely came from my dad. Also, there’s no real format to radio in the Virgin Islands. There’s no Urban, or Crossover, or Rhythmic, or Top 40. They play everything at the same time. So you’ll hear “Birthday Sex”, and Pink, and Calypso, and Beenie Man, all on the same radio station, and probably in the same hour. Growing up with that, we had no choice but to be diverse.

Don’t get me wrong though, our local culture is more of a Soca & Calypso-driven culture, but if something was poppin in the US, it would get play in the Virgin Islands too. I remember going home one time, and the big song in the US was “Hollaback Girl”, and they were playing that on the same radio station as all the Calypso. So, being from that type of an environment, how could we not embrace everything the way we do, you know?

So, it’s not really that we make it a point – it’s just natural to us.

Since you guys got into music early on, did you & your brother end up going to music school or learning on your own?

To be honest, I’ve never had a voice lesson in my life – neither has my brother. We can’t read music; I don’t know what an A note or a G clef or any of whatever that shit is. [laughs]

Thing is, I would love to learn, but I just haven’t up to now. Everything my brother and I have done is by ear. The beat comes up, we hear a melody, and we go.

We’ve been blessed to get by this far, but hopefully in the future, me & my brother get some lessons and actually learn more about our craft.

To be honest, everything’s just been kinda natural so far.

How about when you’re writing songs? Do you just just flow with it then, as well, or do you structure a storyline and work around that?

It depends on the person that we’re writing for. When we’re doing Rock City songs, our whole concept is that we make music for ordinary people. Because ordinary people can’t relate to the floss, and the flash, and all the diamonds and jewels, you know? Regular people don’t do that.

So conceptually, and subject-matter wise, me & my brother try to sing about ordinary things. If it’s about a girl, a regular guy working a 9-to-5 can hear it and say “I can do that. I don’t need a lot of money to do that.”

If it’s about struggle, and you’ve struggled in the past, or even if you’ve never struggled, we try to paint the picture so well that you can understand or relate to it.

And we try to put a positive spin on everything. We have a song called, “Bad Day” for our album, and the funny thing about this song called “Bad Day”, is that it sounds happy! When you listen to the record, even though it’s about a bad day, the sound of the song is fun.

That’s been our thing. To take people out of their ordinary day and give them something they can relate to that makes them feel better.

True. And as you said Run DMC was your original inspiration, that was their approach as well. Especially, fashion-wise. Instead of dressing dapper, like everyone else at the time, they just rocked out with some denim jeans, white sneakers and Kangols and made a conscious effort to reflect a mirror image of their audience. That’s what helped their fans relate to them from the beginning.

Yes, exactly! Regular people can’t relate to all that flash and diamonds and all that. You gotta remember who your making your music for.

Definitely. So, just to extend on the songwriting tip a little – what’s the difference in your process when you’re writing a song for yourself versus writing for another artist? And have you ever written a song for someone else that you end up wanting to keep for yourself?

Yeah, actually there’s a couple of songs we’ve written for others in the past couple of months, that we wanted to keep for ourselves. But, prior to that, no we never had that problem.

To be honest, “When I Grow Up”, we originally wrote that song for Britney Spears. They loved the song, but we were late; the album was already done. We did that one for her “Blackout” album.

At the time, Britney was going through all this with the tabloids and the paparazzi, so we did that record specifically for her telling her story “when I grow up I wanna be famous, I wanna be a star, I wanna be in movies”, but still warning that you gotta be careful what you wish for, because once you get it, you’ll see that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.

But again, “When I Grow Up”, not everybody gets the real message because the song just sounds so much fun. We try to sneak a message into the song, because people don’t want to hear preachy songs; so we try to sneak it in there and make it fun.

We originally did “If This Isn’t Love” for Brandy. We were in the studio thinking after all that Brandy’s been through, and she was just coming off such a hard time, love would be the one thing that she would want to find right now. So lyrically, that’s where we went.

So yeah, back to your question, when we write for other people, those records come out a lot better when we actually know what the artist is going through, or we can speak to the artist for a couple of hours.

If I can sit down in a room with you, and you tell me what you’ve been going through, then I can write a song that’s meant for you.

We write songs based on each person’s experience. And that relates back to the point that we focus on making music that ordinary people can relate to. Ordinary people can relate to “when I grow up, I wanna be famous”.

If you listen to the lyrical content of the songs that we’ve done that were successful, we never really had the traditional club, ballin’, flossy type of record. Not to say that we can’t do it, or that we won’t do a record like that in the future; but we feel like it’s very important for ordinary people, who listen to music all the time, to be able to relate to what we’re saying.

You guys seem to get along real well, but we all know every family has some sibling rivalry. How do you guys resolve disputes whenever they do occur?

Theron & Timothy Thomas aka Rock CityMe and my brother have been working since we were kids, so we know each other very well. I know what buttons not to push that get him mad, and I know what buttons to push to get on his nerves when I’m just being an a-hole of a brother, and vice-versa for him.

But we get along real well. We bump heads a lot. Me and my brother don’t physically fight, but we argue about everything.

Anybody around us will tell you that we’re the most laid back people on earth, and we have a great relationship, but we’ll argue about the stupidest things on earth.

But we can admit that, because that’s my brother. That’s what brothers do.

[laughs]

It wasn’t always just you and your brother, right? You guys worked closely with Verse Simmonds & DJ Benny D for a while. Now, all 4 of you are in Atlanta; you and Timothy are Rock City, Verse is a solo artist and Benny D is touring the world DJing for Akon.

Yeah, and we all still work closely together. It started out with me, Timothy & Benny D.

We were broke, everybody was hurting financially, really bad. We were at the point of no return, where we were thinking we might have to give up and go back home to the Virgin Islands.

At the time, Akon needed a DJ, so we introduced Benny to Akon, so Benny went off and did his thing, and came back and started grindin in the streets. When Benny came back, he told Akon he needed to mess with us, and we’ve known Akon for so long, but we still had so much to prove; but he finally said “Okay, cool. I think what you guys are doing is dope… let’s try and get into business together.”

So, we kinda all helped each other to get to where we’re at right now. We’re all grateful to be in the positions that we’re in.

As far as internationally, Benny is known as one of the most famous DJs in the world; mainly because he toured the world with Akon, which is amazing.

And as far as the behind-the-scenes, me & my brother are 2 of the most known songwriters in the music business now. We don’t even now how we went from nobody knowing us to this many people knowing us, but we’re grateful man, so we continue to work and continue to hustle, to try to make it as big as we can.

Do you think that because you’re from the Virgin Islands, and not the US, that your work ethic and attitude is shaped differently, than if you were from a city like New York or Atlanta?

Oh yes, definitely! I think that we’re more humble, but also, I don’t mean this in any form of disrespect to anybody else in the music industry, but I don’t think anybody else wants it more than us. We have more to prove.

New York is New York. If somebody comes out from New York, then they’re coming from one of the biggest cities, they’re coming from the birthplace of hip-hop. They don’t really have anything that they need to prove.

Atlanta, and the South, is dominating hip-hop right now. So, there’s nothing else to prove other than an artist being dope.

For us man, nobody has ever done what we’re doing, from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Our island is 32 square miles; we’re from a small place man. We’re still not where we want to be, but we’re the closest to do it.

This is a big statement, but what Obama is to the United States of America, we are to the Virgin Islands. What Bob Marley is to Jamaica, we are to the Virgin Islands. Because where I’m from, kids always said there’s no way in hell anybody from here’s going to make it.

And now my best friend, Verse, is doing incredible with his single, “Buy U A Round”. We put him on – he’s signed, he’s touring the country.

Then there’s Iyaz, who’s also from the Virgin Islands. His first single, “Replay”, which we wrote, peaked at #2 on Billboard’s 100.

So, I mean, me and my brother are the first people to do it, and we brought more people from where we’re from and shining the light on them.

You mentioned that you’re still not where you want to be. You and your brother are very vocal about that through the PTFAO movement. Aside from getting the album actually released, where do you want to be when you can finally say that you’re comfortable there?

Well let me start by explaining PTFAO for those who don’t know. That started on the BET Black College Tour, and fans kept asking “When are you gonna put your album out? What’s the delay with your album? Why is it taking so long for your album to drop?”

After we kept hearing that, our manager, Ray Daniels, said that we should use that and just start saying “put the fuckin’ album out”.

When we took it to the label, they felt like it was too mad & aggressive. At the time, we were mad & aggressive; we wanted them to put our fuckin album out [laughs]. Of course, we’re mad and aggressive; what you mean?

At first, it was just the saying, “Put The Fuckin Album Out”, but one day I was on Twitter and this girl hits me back about something I tweeted, saying “LMFAO”. I just immediately reacted & replied back saying “PTFAO”.

It was just a joke, but I looked at it and called my manager & my brother and told them I know how we can push “Put The Fuckin Album Out” and not come off as assholes, and make it fun instead.

Also, since we’re going to be marketing ourselves through the internet, it’s relatable to internet slang. LMFAO, LMAO, BRB, OMG, WTF… PTFAO! It fits right in there.

So we all got together and talked about it, and decided that’s what we’re going to sell. We’re going to sell PTFAO.

We knew people wouldn’t get it right away, that we’re going to have to explain it, but by the time they find out what it is, they can realize it’s a funny thing. It’s not going to sound like we’re mad & miserable. We always get the same reaction when we tell people what it stands for – everyone laughs.

So, PTFAO originated on Twitter?

Yeah, exactly. It started on Twitter, and we just ran with it. It became this whole big hoopla, and it’s been a great thing.

The end result of PTFAO, is PTFAO. It’s to put the fuckin album out. And we won’t stop until they do.

The music business is so iTunes-driven, so singles-driven, they don’t even realize the reason why people aren’t selling albums is because it’s singles-driven.

I could put out a single right now, and it can become the biggest song in the world – but nobody won’t even know who I am. You know?

Music video channels don’t show music videos; there aren’t as many outlets for people to be seen anymore. It’s hard for artists to get on the road, because labels aren’t spending as much money as they used to – because nobody’s making as much money. So you know, the internet is a very important tool.

For my brother and me, it’s very important for us to market ourselves, moreso than a song, because God-willing, when we do get a number one song, people aren’t going to say “I love that new song”, they’re going to say “I love Rock City, and that new song they got is dope”.

As a new artist now, that’s what you need to break through.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes the whole world to break an artist.

[laughs]

I fully agree.

You know what I’m saying though? We need the entire world to know who we are, and to back us up in our movement, and in what we’re trying to do.

So, when we put out a song, it might not connect with every single Rock City fan, but people who are Rock City fans will still support it because they support us, and they know that when that album comes out, they’re going to get a great body of work; based off the mixtapes and what we’ve done in the past. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.

Right – you’re creating a real, lasting fanbase; as opposed to just a Trending Topic type audience.

Exactly! That’s what I’m saying, if people support you, they will do it, but they have to support you. Meaning, you need to create a following for you as an artist, not just a catchy single that nobody knows who it’s from.

I like how you called it a Trending Topic audience, because that’s exactly what it is. If you got a catchy single that’s everyone’s singing, that’s great – but we gotta work on our long-term career. If people know our name, not just our song, then we have real fans that will support us throughout our career.

Most definitely. So, let’s talk a bit about your current situation with Konvict? There’s a lot of hearsay, so let’s address that right now. Is Rock City still signed to Konvict or have you parted ways?

Well, to be honest, our current situation with Konvict – actually our situation with KonLive/Interscope – is sorta up in the air. We’re doing everything on our own.

I’m not saying that nobody wants to help or anything, but… okay, this is the realest thing I’ma say:

Let’s say you came to me and you said, “Theron, you wanna do this interview?” and I said “yeah, yeah, yeah, no doubt. I gotchu Moe. I’ma do it”, and then I never call you or I never answer your phone calls, then after a while you’re gonna say “fuck it. I’ma interview The Roots because they pick up my phone call”.

That’s what we’re doing.

We call, we reach out, we say what our ideas are, we try to get involved, but still I can’t reach you, I can’t talk to you, and there’s no movement. I got my own family to feed, so I can’t wait – I gotta do it on my own.

With me, and my brother, and our whole team; nobody can really get offended at our rebellious attitude, because we’ve tried everything.

They call us the rebels right now, saying that we’re saying this and that, or we’re doing this and that – but the funny thing with us being “rebels” is that we’re not beefin, or anything. We’re not out here saying “eff you” or anything like that. It’s nothing like that.

Me and my brother love everybody. We’re still willing to embrace everything and be a part of it – but at the end of the day, I’m gonna ask you for what I want, and if I don’t get what I want, then I’m gonna get it myself.

If me getting things my own way is rebellious to you, then what you want me to do? Get me what I want – because I’m not gonna stop to get what I want.

Fully agree. Far too many artists rely on their label to get things in motion, but nobody will put you as high of a priority as you put yourself; so it’s up to each act on the roster to go out and handle their own business, rather than thinking they’re taken care of by the label or anybody else.

Exactly! That’s exactly what it is, and that’s what we’re doing.

So what’s up next for Rock City? What do you guys have in the works?

Well, we’re setting up to do a college tour, and some international stuff. We recently did the British Virgin Islands and Costa Rica, we’re doing Japan, London, and a few other places.

We’re also working on new stuff for Chris Brown, Rihanna, Plies, Jamie Foxx, Usher, Flo Rida and a couple others. We’re really excited about working with Tami Chynn because we’re actually doing the whole album. We’re writing every song on the album; so we’re really psyched and excited about that.

For Rock City, we’re still working man, we’re still moving man. We’re just trying to get people to understand what we’re doing as artists.

It gets difficult for us, because look at the artists I just mentioned, and some from before like Britney Spears and Pussycat Dolls – we do any kind of music. We’re supposed to be working with Estelle, we can work with Sean Paul… you know?

Every artist I just mentioned, we can go in a room with them and make their genre of music. We can make a whole reggae album, turn around and make a whole R&B album – and then turn around again and do a whole hip-hop album.

And it’s not like we’re reaching for it – this is us – this is what we do, and this is what we’re capable of doing. But with Rock City music, we incorporate it all in ourselves – and to me, 9 times out of 10, people are usually scared of what they don’t understand, or they’re nervous about what they’ve never seen work before.

We got people telling us that we should put a girl in the group because it worked for the Fugees and the Black Eyed Peas. They’re telling us that if we do it, we’ll take off.

[laughs]

You know what I mean? We’re not trying to be difficult, we’re not trying to be outsiders – we’re just trying to create our own lane to do our own thing, and build our own brand.

The thing is, everybody has to fill a void. I’m not trying to offend anybody, because I’m friends with all these people, but you know they classify Keisha Cole as a new Mary J Blige. Mary J Blige is still around making music, but Keisha Cole is usually compared to someone like Mary J Blige. Chris Brown is considered like the new Usher. He ain’t Usher though. He’s Chris Brown.

We could be a new Fugees, we could be a new Black Eyed Peas, but we’re not them. We have our own twist.

Everybody always wants to do something original, but there is nothing new under the sun. Nothing. So, me and my brother ain’t in here re-inventing the wheel. We’re not doing something that’s never been done before. We’re not doing something original – but it is original for the where the marketplace is right now.

So, I mean, we’re still busy; we’re still working. It might just take a little longer for our own stuff to come out.

What are some of the lessons about the music business that you had to learn the hard way?

Oh, I like this one. [laughs]

Okay… don’t write songs with a lot of people, and don’t write songs with people you don’t know.

Let me tell you what people do:

There are some people out there, who aren’t that talented, that aren’t fast; they come in and tell you 3 or 4 lines, and then say “yo, I wrote it with you. I want 5%. I want 10%.” They’ll try to weasel their way into your money.

I don’t want people to get offended, but me and my brother don’t work with other songwriters. Especially, if I haven’t known you for years.

We just wrote a song for Chris Brown’s album with Rico Love. Rico Love is our friend for over 5 years. Me & my brother wrote a song with Verse, who’s been my best friend since the 7th grade. Other than that, I don’t care if someone wrote the biggest song in the world – no, it’s not happening.

If I don’t know you, I won’t do it. You write your songs, I’m gonna write mine.

And it’s not even about the split sheets, because that’s your money – I can’t spend your money. I just want what I deserve, but sometimes people want more than what they deserve, because they’re just so hungry. They want to bully it and trick their way in.

Since I had a bad experience, that’s a turn off to me, and I don’t do it. It’s not happening.

Rock City aside, what do you want your legacy to end up being?

I want to change the world. I want people to love people. That might sound cliche, it might sound weird, but at the end of the day, I just feel like music is my tool, and my brother’s tool, to do something big.

I want to give back. I want to make a lot of money so I can help people with it. Because when I die, that money stays doesn’t go with me, it stays right here – so I want it to be put towards helping people.

Of course, I want to make sure that my kids, and my kids’ kids can live well after I’m gone; but while I’m here, I want people to know that I did this because I want to help people.

And of course, being from the Virgin Islands, I want to help make it more known and prosperous. Our number one source of income is tourism, so if people don’t visit St. Thomas, we don’t eat. If people don’t visit St. Croix, we don’t eat. Right now, the economy is messed up, people aren’t really taking too many vacations. But the little bit of people trying to take a vacation, if they do, I want to keep reminding them that we are from the US Virgin Islands, and if they’re from the United States, they don’t need a passport to come and see us. When they visit us, it feeds us.

That’s what I want our legacy to be. Yes, I do want people to say that we made great music; I would be lying if I said I didn’t. But, I really want people to say that we went to Africa, and to other places, and we helped feed people, we helped build schools. I want people to remember us for more than just music. That’s what I want.

You can find Rock City on Twitter (@R_City & @RockCityVI) or at PTFAO.com.

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