David Chance and Dante Jordan stood in Cathy Hughes Plaza in downtown Baltimore, grinning like kids at a birthday party. The group, Ruff Endz, had just released its debut album, and it seemed like everybody in town wanted to sing the duo's praises. As fans and family members cheered, Richard Burton from the mayor's office handed Davinch (as Chance is known) and Chi (Jordan's nickname) a citation officially declaring it "Ruff Endz Day" in Baltimore.
DJ Troy Johnson of WERQ-FM, which was broadcasting live from last week's celebration, praised Ruff Endz' sound and declared that "the new home for platinum music is going to be Baltimore!" Sisqo - one of the hottest singers in America, thanks to the multi-platinum "Thong Song" and his recent chart-topper, "Incomplete" - pulled up in his black Mercedes to hang with the guys. And all the while, the fans crowded and cheered the two smiling, black-clad young men.
Davinch and Chi were obviously touched by the outpouring of support. But rather than show their gratitude with a grin and a few thank-yous, the two sat down at a small table after the ceremony and signed autographs. For an hour and a half. Putting off thoughts of lunch, they affixed their signatures to color photos, promotional flyers and CDs, taking time to chat with the fans as they signed. And when one fellow, toward the end of the signing, realized the duo had affixed their autographs to the shrink-wrap on his CD, Davinch and Chi cheerily signed the guy's CD booklet as well.
"These are the hardest-working two guys I've met in five years in the business," said David McPherson, an executive vice president at Epic Records, and the man who signed Ruff Endz. Considering that, in the course of his career, McPherson also inked Mandy Moore and the Backstreet Boys, that's high praise indeed.
But McPherson was a Ruff Endz fan from the moment he spun the duo's demo. At the time, he knew nothing about the group beyond the fact that a Sony talent scout thought he should give its disc - a rough version of the song `Love Crimes' - a listen. "I heard it and decided to sign these guys on the spot," says McPherson.
In just 2 1/2 months, the Ruff Endz single "No More" has climbed to No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart, selling half a million copies in the process. Obviously, there are a lot of people for whom it was love-at-first-listen with Ruff Endz.
Like most "overnight success" stories, however, Ruff Endz's rise was a long time coming. "We've been around for a while," Davinch says. "We started in '92, trying to get signed. Struggling for it. I mean, my mother told me anything worth having doesn't come easy."
It's not easy to break out of Baltimore. Despite the success enjoyed by Sisqo and the other members of Dru Hill, the local R&B scene remains almost entirely underground, with almost no place for aspiring acts to play out and learn their craft.
Oddly enough, the one exception isn't a nightclub, but a sweets shop: The Fudgery in Harborplace.
"The Fudgery is definitely a place where talent stops through," says Chi. "It's an avenue to sing and be loud and be heard at the same time." Both he and Davinch worked at the Fudgery, as did the members of Dru Hill before them. As such, the fudge shop has developed a reputation for being a good place to hear local talent in the raw.
"I don't think anyone really got a deal from working at the Fudgery," Chi says. "The Fudgery, for me, was good for getting rid of the butterflies, and getting me ready, open to singing for people that I've never seen before. I was able to work on my craft, as far as stage presence and everything."
McPherson confirms that what the two learned at the Fudgery paid dividends over time. "I was surprised that they were as groomed as they were onstage, because these days, a lot of people aren't," he says. "They were constantly developing their skills."
Still, says Davinch, "It was real tough. You have to get in the circle of the musicians here to know what's going on musically."
Chi, nodding, turns to his partner: "Like your mom said, if you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people, because you always find out what's going on. In Baltimore, you might never hear about a lot of the things that happen."
Perhaps the most valuable local contact Ruff Endz made was with Stephanie Cook, who had been following Ruff Endz for years and one day hooked the duo up with producer Oji Pierce.
"The first day we met him, we wrote a song together," Chi says. "The vibe was good." Eventually, the three put together a demo recording, which included the song "Love Crimes." This was the homemade CD that eventually made its way to McPherson's office and earned Ruff Endz a recording contract.
It took Ruff Endz almost a year and a half, working song by song, to complete the album. "Most of the time, we wrote the song right there in the studio, and recorded it with the feeling and intensity that we wrote with," says Chi. "So it was real."