A new world order

Baltimore group Dru Hill, headlining Artscape, has a different outlook and member

July 17, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

Dru Hill is free. Now an independent act, the Baltimore R&B quartet, whose biggest commercial success came in the late '90s, makes its own decisions about image, touring and, most importantly, the music. Six years have passed since Dru Hill's last album, the platinum-selling Dru World Order.

Since then, the group went through a contentious break with its former label, Def Soul Records, and contractually was unable to release new music for two years. The guys also took time to refocus their business affairs and management.

But even after the sudden, somewhat dramatic exit of founding member James "Woody" Green in early March, Dru Hill is undeterred and ready to put new music out.

"I think we're the best we've ever been. We've grown as artists and men," says Mark "Sisqo" Andrews, the group's flashiest member, who enjoyed a brief, platinum-plus solo career about eight years ago. He and the rest of Dru Hill - Larry "Jazz" Anthony, Tamir "Nokio" Ruffin and new recruit Tao - will headline Artscape on Saturday night.

"The only thing that's still the same about us is that we use live instruments and we're still singing for real."

The group is still tweaking its new album, InDRUpendence Day, and there's no release date. "It'll come out when it's ready," Sisqo says. Dru Hill is also taping a reality show chronicling the making of the new CD and the group's return to the urban-pop scene. For the past two months, the quartet has done a few spot dates - singing the old hits, of course: "Tell Me," "In My Bed," "Never Make a Promise" and "We're Not Making Love No More." It has also included a few new songs.

"People are inclined to call what we're doing 'old-school,' " says Sisqo, calling from his Randallstown home. "Because of the onslaught of the computerized sound, our sound is new."

When Dru Hill first hit the scene in 1996 with its platinum self-titled debut, the group's amiable yet edgy approach pitched them somewhere between Boyz II Men and Jodeci. The silken harmonies were often offset by Sisqo's emotive, lacerating lead vocals, which drew comparisons to David Ruffin and KC Hailey of Jodeci. Although the band's throwback churchy sound would have meshed well with the back-to-basics neo-soul genre bubbling at the time, Dru Hill elected for a sleeker, more pop-oriented direction (especially on the ballads) with just enough urbanity to keep the group out of tepid, adult-contemporary waters. Still, the group had a much bigger presence on the R&B charts. The guys scored 12 hits between 1996 and 2003, including three No. 1 smashes, and crossed over to the Top 20 on the pop charts five times.

But when Sisqo went solo in 1999, he eclipsed the group for a short period. He scored a huge international hit with "The Thong Song," which pushed sales of his solo debut, Unleash the Dragon, past 4 million. "Incomplete," an emotional ballad from the album, topped the pop charts. But his second CD, Return of Dragon, tanked and only sold a fraction of what its predecessor sold.

"In the last year, I've been working on my own material in addition to the group," says Sisqo, who comes off as reserved and a bit reticent on the phone, a sharp contrast to his wildly energetic presence on stage. "But the focus now is Dru Hill. In today's market, it's about giving your fans something they can't get anywhere else. You got to prove yourself all over again."

But about four months ago, during a radio interview on 92Q-FM, it seemed as though Dru Hill's comeback efforts were over before they had even begun. In the middle of the interview, founding member Green announced that he was leaving the group again to dedicate himself to his gospel ministry. (He had briefly left Dru Hill after its first wave of success in the late '90s.) A YouTube clip of the interview shows Sisqo storming out of the studio as a result. Soon afterward, the remaining three members start pushing and shoving each other.

"We had no idea he felt the way he did," says Sisqo, 29. "He had just been in the studio recording with us the night before. It took us by surprise and brought out all these emotions on that day."

The singer says Green's vocals are still on the album. But soon after the blowup, the group held a citywide contest on 92Q in search of a replacement. An Annapolis singer who goes by the name Tao was selected two months ago.

"We're sounding good, and our fans want to hear from us," Sisqo says. "I mean, you look at groups like Maze and the O'Jays, and they've been touring longer than I've been alive. So real music never dies. The new artists with gimmicks have the most problems staying out here. We have no gimmicks. Our music speaks for itself."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Dru Hill for free at 8:30 Saturday night on the Main Stage at Artscape.

Artscape cover

Illustration by David Cowles

[Special to The Sun]

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