It can be tempting to dismiss social media as the altar of idle self-idolatry, an insufferable scroll of selfies, an abyss of the inane. While most of the time that's a fair assessment, we are also seeing the hugely persuasive political power of social media.
"In 2017, I think it's time we enter a new era. I grew up in an era where an urban artist was an intimidating intellectual presence; a raw extension of black culture unafraid of the judgement that came with fame. Now, when I look at my contemporaries, I can't help but think that a [lot of] black musicians could step into a minstrel show because it's 'what people want these days'. I don't buy it." So went a recent Instagram post from They., aka Dante Jones and Drew Love, an L.A. based duo determined to defy expectation through their raw, rugged and rough R&B.
We see our music as one step, or one chapter, in a movement of people that want to bring about change.
"We see our music as one step, or one chapter, in a movement of people that want to bring about change," Dante reflects. "I know we're not the only ones that think the way we do and who want to blur the lines the way we do. I hope we inspire others to do the same thing - there's power in numbers."
It was a little over three years ago when a mutual friend in L.A. introduced the two aspiring songwriters to each other. Despite different upbringings - Jones was raised in a freewheeling, non-religious household in Denver, while Love comes from a strict religious and military background in Washington D.C. - each quickly recognised the other as being a misfit, an outsider, a 'they'. "One of the first things me and Drew found out we had in common was that we had both been bad kids," Dante grins. "We probably had over ten suspensions between us. I would always challenge authority. I'd finish my work and then immediately distract everybody else. We were smart kids, but we refused to listen to anybody." Drew was bad, but also a loner. "I was always an outsider growing up as a kid," he says. "I was the kid that got picked on the most, the kid nobody would really mess with. Music was my outlet, that's where I went when I didn't have anybody. Music was my friend."
Stuck in a studio trying to write a song for Maroon 5, the pair began to listen to some beats Dante was working on for his own project. Immediately inspired, they gave up on Adam Levine and started work on their own project. Bored with R&B, fed up with being fed the same sound, by the same artists, they wanted to return to a time when R&B pushed boundaries and brokered experimentation. Though their musical influences are disparate - Miami bass, Go-Go, Hanson, R. Kelly, Tupac (Drew), Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Vampire Weekend, Kanye and Jam & Lewis (Dante) - they shared a belief in the power and importance of the almighty melody. Combined with a shared sense of humour, love of Mexican beer and a desire to be different, They. was born. "We both really like dynamic music; songs that use different rhythms and that hit hard," Dante says. "Whether it's grunge or new jack swing, we like music that has that in common." The result was the Nu Religion EP, which quickly won them fans in the form of Timbaland ("he was one of the first to believe in us") and tour slots with Bryson Tiller and Partynextdoor. Later this month, They. release debut album, Nu Religion: Hyena, recorded everywhere from Tupac's old bedroom to the studio where Jackson recorded Thriller and was named in honour of the solitary scavenger. "It harks back to us being bad kids," Dante points out of the album title. "Hyenas are the bad kids of the animal world, the outsiders. They look different, they're not in with the cool animals, but they're still very powerful." Sampling Nirvana's Polly, the album also recalls vintage Death Row, new age R&B, classic slow jams and experimental rock. The lyrics meanwhile examine L.A., love, liquor and living the dream, but are also punctuated in places with deeper ruminations on race and identity. "We try to constantly expand what we talk about, rather than insulate ourselves in a little box," Dante says. "We're in a transitional era, an era of uncertainty, and there are dangerous ideas floating around. But as young black Americans we're transitioning; our voices are being heard, so we want to continue to stay positive and push forward our message."
Essentially, They. is about friendship, about making music that is familiar and yet altogether different. It's about two people who might never have met bringing out out the best in each other. "We're friends and we're brothers and that plays heavily into the success of the music, but also the quality of the music," Dante says. "We've never been people who like to listen to authority or to people's rules," Drew continues. "We don't want anything to be forced; we do what we want to do and it ends up being different because we don't follow any rules and we don't deliberately try to be different. We go in, and if it sounds tight, it sounds tight."
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Maxwell Tomlinson