7 Questions With R. City: On Starting From The Bottom & The Gender-Neutral Genius Of “Pour It Up”

R. City & Adam Levine's "Locked Away"
Hear the melodic cut from the Maroon 5 singer and the Rock City brothers.

The name Rock City holds a substantial amount of clout to pop obsessives. The duo comprises brothers Theron and Timothy Thomas, and they’ve had a hand in writing and producing some of the biggest pop songs of the past couple years, including Miley Cyrus‘ “We Can’t Stop,” Rihanna‘s “Pour It Up” and Nicki Minaj‘s “Only.” But those same pop obsessives may not know that the bros behind their faves’ hits are also a big musical act back home in the Virgin Islands. And now they’re looking to break into America as R. City, leading off with the summery, Adam Levine-assisted “Locked Away.”

Timothy and Theron are planning to drop their debut release later this year on Dr. Luke‘s Kemosabe Records, and we recently sat down with them in New York for seven questions about the secret to the success of “Pour It Up,” starting from the bottom to get to the top ranks of pop and receiving some sage advice from Quincy Jones. Check out the chat below.

1. I know you guys have released a bunch of music back home, but how’s the transition into America’s pop landscape going?

Theron: Everything blessed, man. We’re doing press, which is something we don’t usually do. We kinda live in this bubble and now we’re putting out our own music so everyone’s like, “You guys gotta get out the studio and talk to humans.” Like, oh shit what are we gonna do?

That’s gotta be the worst part of the job.

Theron: No, it’s actually fun, no lie. The songwriter thing has kept us behind the scenes, and we’ve been successful and able to go to the mall and spend money and not be bothered, so it’s different. But we love it.

Timothy: We started out as artists. We never stopped being artists, we’re artists at heart. But sometimes things happen in your life or career when you gotta make a decision. What’s best for you, what’s best for your family. And writing songs, at the time, was what was best for us and our family. So we put being artists on hold so we could do the manly thing and take care of our family. But like you said, we always put out mixtapes, we always put out music back home in the Virgin Islands. We’re still huge there as performers and artists. So once the opportunity came back around and we thought it was the right one, we’d take a crack at it again, so here we are.

2. So what’s that like, building a fanbase then coming to the US and sort of having to start over?

Theron: Very frustrating and scary. Going from selling out something and everyone screaming your name, and thinking you’re gonna leave this place and move to that place and it’s gonna be easy. Like, “Yo I’m already big, how hard can it be?” Being in for the biggest rude awakening in life. This is not an easy career path to choose to stay in this long.

3. So how are you two dudes, two brothers, so good at writing for edgy female pop stars? How did you tap into that?

Theron: I think women wanna say what men wanna say.

Timothy: Especially this generation.

Theron: Let’s start with “Pour It Up.” We wanted to make it unisex. If you notice, Rihanna doesn’t say “boy” or “girl.” Living in Atlanta, hip-hop and the underground/ratchet rap, whatever you wanna call it, these songs come on in the club, and it’s men singing these songs and the girls go crazy, but it’s only men.

Timothy: You don’t hear any female records in urban clubs.

Theron: Songs for men, but women are like “Oh god that’s my favorite song.” So we were like, how do we make a song that a DJ doesn’t feel like “C’mon you’re fucking my vibe up, I can’t put this in the mix with Future, Rich Homie Quan, Young Thug,” but that girls feel like “Finally! For me!”

Timothy: “Pour It Up,” that was a song for women but it was still relatable to men.

Theron: I’ll tell you a good story about that song. We met Quincy Jones at the ASCAP awards. He comes up to me and says “Hey, how you doing, how’s the songwriting?” And I’m stunned, “Good, I guess…yeah.” Never met him. He’s like “I really like your vibe and I see what you’re doing. But I wanna tell you something: With the songs, fuck verses. Fuck that. You gotta write hooks. People want to hear hooks, people wanna sing with you. You know what I’m saying?” And I say “Yeah.” He says, “You be good” and walks away. And I’m like, “Yo Quincy Jones just came and talked to me man, he knows who the fuck we are!” I was on a high. So when we were writing “Pour It Up,” I was like fuck verses. We’re gonna write the longest chorus ever. It was like we don’t want people to stop singing this song. That was the idea behind it.

Timothy: It comes on in the club, and everybody can sing along.

4. Is there a different mindset when writing your own material?

Timothy: The one thing that’s different is that, when we’re doing our music, it’s our life, our story, where we come from. St. Thomas, it’s a whole different culture and experience of growing up. So we try to tap into a lot of that stuff.

Theron: Our dad, who taught us everything we know, great man, he went to jail for five years. And when he was in prison, my mom basically held him down. She brought us to visit him in jail, she was awesome. My parents been together for 36 years. So for us, “Locked Away” was like we came from nothing, we literally were dirt poor. The first bed we ever slept on was out of a garbage can because my dad was a garbage man. He brought the bed home, my mom scrubbed it and Febreezed it. So now that we’re successful, we’re like, “Are we gonna find a woman that’s like our mom, when shit is fucked up, she’s gonna stay?” Just looking at that story of my parents to where they are now, and our story and blending the two, that’s where “Locked Away” comes from.

5. And how did Adam Levine get involved? 

Theron: Adam Levine is like a first cousin, people don’t even know that. [laughs] No no no, I’m just playing. We’ve gotta give all the credit to Luke. Obviously he felt it was a good song. Luke was like “Yo man, I think Adam Levine wants to do a record with y’all, do you know how fucking big that would be for you guys?” So we sent Adam some songs, and he said, “I love that song, that melody, that chorus, I love what it’s saying, I wanna sing it.” And everything fell into place.

6. With songs like “Locked Away,” OMI’s “Cheerleader” and lots of Major Lazer’s stuff, do you think island music/reggae is having a pop moment? Or has it always been there?

Theron: It’s always had a pop moment. Bob Marley was considered pop, Sean Paul was considered pop, The Fugees were considered pop. The thing about American culture is the minute something is considered foreign, it’s automatically pop music. Because it’s not urban, it doesn’t start in the ghetto or the bottom of the strip club, so it automatically falls into that. Everybody says “Locked Away” is a pop song, but if you’ve ever been to the Caribbean, those aren’t pop people. So we’re gonna do a show and sing it, or if that song comes in the club after “Fuck Up Some Commas,” they get the same reaction. They don’t look at it like what is this pop record doing here? To them it’s a great song and it’s Caribbean, it’s the culture. We’ve realized if you do a reggae song and it crosses over, you’re automatically in the pop genre.

7. If you had to pick one— writing songs, producing songs, or doing your own — which would you choose?

Theron: If we had no choice, and had to pick one, I’d say making our music. Because I think my favorite part of the music business is performing.

Timothy: Absolutely. Performing is where you really get to connect with the people. There’s something about being on that stage and the people are just with you.

Theron: You wanna know what’s so funny? For the 15 minutes or two hours or however long you’re on stage, you’re literally changing the world. “Everybody put your hands up! The person next to you, hold their hand and tell them you love them!” People that never would’ve connected, never spoken, never engaged, for the moment you’re on stage it changes.

Timothy: The one thing we’ve learned over the years is the power of a good performer, we learned it a lot from our dad. You can hate our music, then come to our show and be madly in love with our performance. Then you just became a fan.