From Baltimore to the big time for R&B outfit Music: Dru Hill climbs on the strength of hard work ... and one very lucky break.

November 19, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Show biz myth is fond of stories about groups that owed their big break to being in the right place at the right time, but in real life that sort of thing rarely happens. So it's pretty amazing to hear that Dru Hill owes its recording career -- not to mention its Top-20 single "Tell Me" -- to a producer who just happened to say, "OK, let's see what you kids can do."

It helped, of course, that the producer in question was Island Records vice president and general manager Hiriam Hicks, who was assembling the soundtrack for the Whoopi Goldberg film "Eddie" when he was introduced to the Baltimore-based quartet. Hicks first heard about Dru Hill from Haqq Islam of University Entertainment; having been impressed by the demo tape, he asked if he could hear the group in the flesh. So Islam took his young charges to the New York where Hicks was working on "Eddie."

"We came up and we sang a song that me and Woody wrote," says Nokio, the 19-year-old leader of Dru Hill. "He was blown away. So he brought in Stanley [Brown], the guy that produced 'Tell Me.' Stanley let us hear 'Tell Me' with another guy singing it, Dave Hollister, who used to be in Blackstreet, and it was, like, 'Yeah, man, we love this song.'

"So he said, 'Do you think you all could learn it?' "

Figuring this could be their big break, the group -- Nokio, Sisqo, Woody and Jazz -- dove in. But as Nokio recalls, they weren't convinced they had it nailed when Hicks came back and asked to hear what they had.

"We didn't want him to hear us singing it and messing up," says Nokio. "But he was like, 'Naw, go ahead. Sing as much as y'all know.' So we started singing it, and he looked around to some of his other staff members -- you know, 'What do you all think?' And they were like, 'Forget it. It's done.' "

Indeed, Hicks not only added Dru Hill's version of "Tell Me" to the "Eddie" soundtrack, but signed the group to Island's Black Music division. "Dru Hill," the group's debut, arrives in stores today.

If that seems like a case of overnight success, rest assured that Dru Hill had worked long and hard before that fateful night in New York. "We've had different members in the group, so the particular group that's together now started two years ago," explains Nokio. "Me and Sisqo were in the group since '92, and we had a couple other members. But our manager [Kevin Peck] has always kept us in the public, doing functions in the music industry and things like that. So when the time came for us to step up and do what we had to do, it was like second nature. Because we were already used to it."

Despite the group's name, only Nokio is from the Druid Hill area. "Sisqo and Woody are from the East Side, and Jazz lives out in Pasadena," says Nokio. "But everybody was born in the city."

In fact, the group (whose members range between 17 and 19 years old) met up through the city's school system.

"We all had friends do singing in talent shows in high school," says Nokio. "So whenever people would see us singing, they would say, 'Well you need to hook up with Nokio, you can sing.' Or 'You need to hook up with Jazz.' 'You need to hook up with Woody or Sisqo.'

"So one day we all met up at one of our high schools, and we sang a couple songs together, and it sounded kind of good. And that's basically how we became a group."

Despite the group's youth, the sound proffered by Dru Hill's debut has a decided old school slant. Listen closely to such songs as "Satisfied," "Never Make a Promise" or "Love's Train." What you'll hear in the group's sophisticated harmonies and polished interplay is a sound that evokes the likes of the O'Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Stevie Wonder.

Although there wasn't any conscious effort to imitate those older groups, Nokio points out that each of the quartet's members was well-schooled in music before joining the group.

"We were music majors in high school, so we were always put around different types of music," he says. "All of our parents loved music. We've been listening to it since we were little kids, so we kind of got an appreciation for everything.

"So a lot of the things that you hear from us are a combination of old school performers we liked, and a lot of new school performers. Because we never really closed our eyes and said, 'Well, I'm just going to listen to this type of music,' or 'I'm just going to listen to that.' There was so much different types of music coming into our households."

Now that they're music has the nation's ear, Nokio and his bandmates hope they can open the way for other Baltimore acts to reach a wider audience.

"There are other artists that really have the talent, who do the same thing that we're doing, if not better," he says. "We're just trying to position ourselves to bring them up -- develop them, produce them, write for them, what have you. Just to make sure that people realize that there really is a lot of talent in Baltimore. They just need to take the chance to come down and check it out."

Listen up

To hear excerpts from Dru Hill's new self-titled release, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6128.

For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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