T H E Y.

 

“We balance each other out,” explains Drew Love of his partnership with Dante Jones. “He brings something different to the table when it comes to production, he approaches things very left of center. I do the same from a songwriting perspective, I bring a lot of the mainstream appeal, with my own twist.”

Together, Dante and Drew are THEY., two like minds determined to shatter expectations and trash perceived genre parameters. Their debut album, Religion: hyena, cannot be boxed in as simply R&B. Listen a little harder—to the minor chord guitar ripples on “Motley Crew,” the jarring futurist verses of “What You Want,” with its swaggering pop topline. Then there’s “Dante’s Creek,” with the unexpected lift from the Dawson’s Creek theme tune. THEY.’s inventiveness is stitched into songs full of surprising cadences and musical swerves.

“I feel like right now in urban music things are very stagnant and it’s become so easy to make music, that people spend so long trying to emulate each other that creativity suffers,” says Dante. “There’s always been imitators, but as an artist and a listener, I want to hear something different. We want to be an alternative to everything else that’s out there. That’s where the concept of Nü Religion comes from.”

Born in Denver, Colorado (with stints in Oklahoma—after his mother passed when he was 15—and Chicago), Dante grew up pillaging his mom’s record collection. His love for Cameo, Prince, and Ready for the World segued into New Edition, Guy, and Bobby Brown. But he’s also very much a child of the 90s, religiously tuning into MTV and VH1, watching as much TRL as Oasis and No Doubt videos; he voraciously consumed issues of Vibe and XXL, immersing himself in the work of The Diplomats and Juvenile. Likewise, Dante floated between cliques at school. For instance, from his friends on the basketball team he got into Fall Out Boy, Senses Fail, and Circa Survive, meanwhile in secret, on is brother Marvin’s MPC, Dante would make beats and record one-take raps. Early on his focus lay largely in production: “I wanted to be able to sing and Drew encouraged me to sing certain parts on the album. There’s a certain texture to my voice that actually works on a lot of the songs.”

While Dante was spending his teens jumping from genre to genre, Drew—who was born in San Antonio and raised in Maryland—grew up exposed to an equally diverse palette of sounds. In his mom’s car it was Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson; in his dad’s, Funkadelic and Kenny G. He declares Hansen’s “MMMbop” was his favorite song for the first few years of his life, while also celebrating sheeny pop of N*Sync and Britney’s “…Baby One More Time.” Drew would sing in the shower, manipulating his voice to imitate his idols. “I think because of all the different musical influences, I just kind of channel it all into my own jambalaya mix of how I approach everything.”

But Drew’s adolescence was markedly different to Dante’s. His parents were in the military and Drew’s instinct has always been to push against strictures. “I was combative,” he says. “I didn’t like to listen to anybody.” While this innate stubbornness would stand him in good stead as an artist seeking to forge his own sound later, initially, music was simply an escape: “I was severely bullied all through middle school and high school,” he explains. “I was easily the least popular kid in school for sure—the butt of every joke. I always wanted to get revenge on those kids, but not in a violent way. Music gave me an outlet.”

Dante moved to LA first, after he started making trips to California when he was just 21, encouraged by the keen ear of producer Brian Kennedy (Rihanna, Ciara). Some of his beats landed with artists like Chris Brown and Cee Lo; one song wound up as Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All” from her Grammy-winning record Stronger. Meanwhile, Drew was making moves of his own: posting his work online, his skills also piqued influential ears—he can claim credits on songs for Jeremih, K. Michelle, and Jason Derulo. Still, it wasn’t till 2014, after meeting through a mutual friend, that the two genre-agnostic talents coalesced to create a project of their own. “Africa,” the glowering cut that opens their debut album, was actually the first song they ever wrote together, back in 2014.

There was one other crucial twist of fate and talent that accelerated the pair’s ascent from the studio to center stage stars: When Dante first moved to LA he fell in with electronic producer ZHU, which organically lead to Dante meeting the Mind of a Genius crew, whose roster boasts ZHU, Gallant, and Klangstof, and now THEY.. So in 2015 when ZHU was looking for that final hook on collaboration with Skrillex, THEY. stepped up. To date “Working for It” has been streamed 150 million plus times.

Around the same time they released their debut EP, Nü Religion, and a few short months later found themselves playing their first ever live show—in front of a 1500-strong audience opening for Bryson Tiller on his Trapsoul tour. It was trial by fire.

In many ways, Nü Religion: Hyeana is their mission statement, songs that take the traditional and turn that on its head, but also say something. It’s on “Silence,” with its sparse sensuality and rippling hi-hats, that Drew feels the most exposed (“It’s about that moment right after the climax when you hit that cigarette or that blunt, when you’re not saying anything and she’s not saying anything.”) Elsewhere, on the bristling “Say When,” which Dante acknowledges marries Rage Against the Machine’s ferocity with trap tropes, the producer and singer holds a mirror up to society.

“My dad instilled in me to never forget: you can be whoever you are, but at the end of the day you’re still a black man and you need to conduct yourself a certain way,” explains Dante. “A lot of guys are getting shot down because of the way they look. It’s important for artists to speak on stuff like that too because we’re all in this same world together. I did want to have one song on there so people know we have opinions and we can speak them in an articulate and effective way musically.”

THEY.’s record, and indeed their overall mindset, is one of progression—that’s their nü religion. As for the hyena, well what is a hyena? Feline or canine? “They can’t really be classified,” says Dante. “That’s a little bit how we feel, especially with this project: Hyenas are still feared and they’re outsiders too.”