Dru continued on with a solo career that saw him dominate radio and earn more Juno nominations. This month marks his return with a dazzling new record, The Rebirth MMXX. With 17 tracks, there is no shortage of material and no shortage of winners with potential hit after hit pouring out from every seam. Twenty years after In Essence's debut, I still haul the record out and give it a workout based on Dru's smooth delivery. It was very cool to talk to Dru to find out more about his excellent new release. Here's what he had to say:
antiMusic: Well congratulations on the record. I absolutely love it. Tell us how The Rebirth MMXX. would appear to be a re-launching for you and since your last record was in 2012, why so long between releases?
Dru: Oh thank you. You know what? My last full album was in 2012. I just released singles after that. The biggest reason is that I'm a single father and my daughter was very young at the time. I was trying to juggle doing both but it was just too much and I had to focus on her when she was younger. So now that she's older, she's kind of kicking me out the door, going "Go Daddy. Go do what you've got to do."
So that's the biggest reason. Also making the whole transition from being in a group and then going solo along with the hardships going from major labels from BMG to Universal. It's kind of hard to navigate through that at times also. But we're here now (laughs).
antiMusic: From what I understand, The Rebirth MMXX. is independent. Tell us why you decided to go the indie route after being on Universal for several years. It certainly wouldn't be from lack of interest if any label heard these songs.
Dru: You know, part of the reason that it's called The Rebirth MMXX. is from being in the group and then going to major labels by myself, I never felt that I had complete control over the subject matter...just always having that pressure of "Will this play on Canadian radio?" Being in the studio with that pressure just sucks. I just didn't enjoy that (laughs).
So I finally had the chance to make a full body of work that is literally 100% me. There's no "Oh Dru, this is the new hot sound that you've got to follow right now." Or I didn't have the pressure to sit in the studio and listen to whoever the new hot artist is right now and try to mimic what they were doing. There was none of that. And that did happen in earlier albums where we were literally comparing my songs to say, Usher songs. And that just sucked. (laughs)
So yeah man, The Rebirth MMXX. is I feel definitely me finally being myself and it's like a re-start to my whole career.
antiMusic: Man, you're not cheating anybody with this record which has 17 tracks and with most other records, once you get to like cut 10 or 11, you think the artist should have stopped there cuz the rest is filler. But this is not the case with yours. In fact, I think maybe I like the second half of the record more than first half. Did you clean out the cupboard with back material or did you just hit on a really creative period?
Dru: Oh man. Wow. You know what? I really took my time. The album is really a side A and a side B. Like 1 to 9 is side A and a lot of those songs that were previously released over the past four years. But The Rebirth MMXX. album really started in 2015. That's when we actually titled it and said "OK. This is going to be the next body of work."
We kind of felt rushed at first. At the beginning, I kind of felt like when we were with a major and comparing and all that. So I said to my producer Hollywood Pro, "No, no, no, brother. We can't go back to what we were running from. Let's be 100% authentic this time." And we actually had to throw away some songs that we had started, that we thought were really dope. And that was hard too.
There were a lot of records that we did that were like if new school R&B singer/rappers heard some of these songs, they'd go, "That's the new sound. The new stuff." I cut those out of the album. Those are gone. I mean, we really took our time. So as much as the first half of the album was previously released songs, they were still made with the same mentality.
But I would say that the second half was a lot more personal. I was going through a transition when we were doing a lot of those songs. Questioning if I should still be doing music or not. I'm getting older....should I still be doing this, kind of thing? It was a weird time for myself AND my producer. And that's why the vibe is so different on side B from side A.
antiMusic: "YNF" was released last year and you brought this back from the In Essence days. Man that rhythm is infectious and your voice was just made for this song. Tell us about deciding to redo it and why you updated it. And that's an awesome video by the way.
Dru: Yeah, thank you. I was kind of going back and forth when I was making the album. I mean, the era of music that I love is still the '90s and early 2000's. And I was going through samples of just random R&B/hip-hop tracks from that era. Then I just stopped and went, "I don't need to sample something from that era because I'm from that era." (laughs) I can pay respect to In Essence and of course Mobb Deep....RIP Prodigy...I think it was just a good idea.
I just a caught a vibe one day, to tell you the truth. And I just started free-styling over it and said, "Why don't we do this? It would be kind of cool and an interesting way to have a little bit of nostalgia and bring people back and also let the younger audience feel that vibe." So I re-wrote the verses and bridge and when I was in Russia for The Voice, I thought how cool would it be for an R&B singer to shoot a video in Moscow?
The concept for that video came from a dream that I had in Moscow when I was there. I woke up one morning and I had the full video about stealing the car and going on the crazy joy-ride through the city and the police chasing us. It was all a dream I had and I brought it to life.
antiMusic: Your latest single is "Can't Get Enough" and it will probably be massive in the clubs once things go back to normal cuz like "YNF", you just have to move when you hear this beat. Give us the story on this song.
Dru: Uh, I can't wait! Hollywood and I did this song almost four years ago. I've always loved that 70's funk/soul/pop, almost disco kind of vibe that Pharrell likes to mess with a bit and also Bruno Mars, whom I'm a big fan of. And on this record, I wanted to do songs that would separate me from either R&B artists.
I feel like a lot of other R&B artists, either old-school or even some of the new-school artists, they kind of feel like they have to go in this kind of lane and they all sort of sound similar in a way. You know what you're going to be getting on the album from them. And I like a lot of it, don't get me wrong. But I kind of want a bit of mystery. I want people to be a little bit unsure of what they're going to get, and have that excitement of "Oh, it's going to be new and fresh and not like everyone else."
That was the focus for the album, to still give them R&B but just a little bit extra. So doing this song was like, Hollywood would get into his Quincy Jones vibe. So he kind of channelled Quincy in that production (laughs). Even with the songwriting. I kind of wanted to go with...remember those '70s funk songs like "Brickhouse"? Those kind of fun, funky, sexy songs that kind of say certain things but you don't take it too seriously. That's how we wrote it. It's a simple concept. A little questionable on the pre-chorus, saying, "She's a bad, bad bitch," but you've got to take it in context.
antiMusic: I don't know if I can pick a favourite on the record because there's several different vibes on here but one of the ones I just listen to on repeat is "Deja Vu". Tell us about this one. Really cool falsetto on this one.
Dru: OK! Nice! I just love this one. That was actually nominated for a Juno in 2016 for Best Solo Recording. Every now and then I kept trying to release at least a single after my last album came out just to stay around. Like I said, I was questioning myself, "Am I still in this industry or not?
That song was definitely Michael (Jackson) inspired. A little bit of Justin Timberlake, I can't lie. But once again, it's just a simple concept. It's about a girl and you just know that we've been here before, in another life. Hollywood and myself like to keep the writing kind of simple. A simple story that's kind of vague and open so that people can find what they can really grab onto and what might pertain to them in their life. But yeah, fun song. I can't wait to perform it. And I'm going to be shooting visuals for that also.
antiMusic: I love "Shades". Great song and I love the way you weave the Corey Hart song into the chorus. What's the background on this song?
Dru: I heard Hollywood messing with the keyboard and I was like "Yo, that is pretty sick." But I wasn't thinking of Corey Hart. I just started singing the verse that's on it. (sings several lines) And then when we got to the chorus, I think it was Hollywood who started humming the melody, "I wear my sunglasses at night". And I was like, "Oh man. Yes! That's it. That's it right there." So we didn't sample Corey Hart and we kind of re-worked the keyboard part that sounds like it's the same but it's actually not.
antiMusic: One song that has a bit of a different vibe than the rest is one of my favourites, "Gunshot". What can you tell us about it?
Dru: Yeah, "Gunshot" was when I was having some issues with my management. It was just weird. Hollywood was just playing the beat and the click, click Boom part of the beat and I was like "Yo. What is that? Is that a gunshot in the beat?" And he said, "Yeah, that's what the actual production was called." He had labelled it gunshot. I said, "Leave me with this." He said, "You're going to write something to that?" I said, "Yeah, leave me with THIS." (laughs) He left the room and I started writing right away. He came back in a few minutes later and went "OK. That's it!" (laughs)
Again, it's a very open song. Very vague. And a lot of the time, I'll weave in personal experiences but I'll flip it coming from a female perspective. I do that in "Caroline", also, where it's actually about me but just to flip the concept so no one could ever relate it to me. "Caroline" is actually about me feeling lost and trying to find my way back.
antiMusic: Well I was just going to ask about that. I guess if I had to pick a favourite, it might be "Caroline". This song is a beast and I think this may be your best vocal on the record. What's up with this one?
Dru: Wow. Thank you. I really appreciate that. Well, this is new to me to actually find therapy in being 100% transparent in a song. It's hard for a lot of artists and me too to really relate what you're feeling on track. But that's one of those songs that just worked.
Usually we write the chorus first. But for whatever reason, I just started writing the verse first And I don't write lyrics. I just kind of vibe on the mic. If I catch a vibe, I'll just say to Hollywood, "Put the mic on", and then we just vibe and record everything I'm doing. That's how we wrote most of the album.
So I did the verse and after I did the pre-chorus, it just felt like a name should be there. I swear to you, I have no idea of why it cane out as Caroline in the chorus. But it just fit perfectly. Hollywood was like, "That's it. That's the chorus." And we just started structuring the song. That's one of those records that will hopefully be one of those timeless songs.
antiMusic: You got your start with In Essence, a group you helped put together. What are some of the highlights that you'll always take with you from your time with the group?
Dru: You know what? I grew up a really shy kid and I used to stutter horribly. And the group really helped me break out of my shell. Because I was the lead singer, as much as I didn't want to be the main focus of the group, they were like, "Bro, this is what you signed up for." And they would push me out front.
Even when we did rehearsals, we would individually have to perform our show for the rest of the group, on at a time. So they'd sit in front of you and then critique each member. So those workshop kind of things really helped even though we didn't know we knew how to do these things....if you know what I mean....it really broke me into being a lead singer. To be confident, stand up front and lead this group. It was hard being a shy kid and have all the questions focussed on me. I didn't like it at first but it taught me to stand out front and be a lead singer. To stand your ground and be a pop star.
I would say, that's the biggest thing. And also sharing the stage with your high school friends. And to come off stage and say, "Oh you, did you see that girl in the back or the people going crazy over on that side? The crowd was going nuts." I mean, to share that with your high school buddies...I'll never forget that for the rest of my life, definitely.
antiMusic: A few years ago, you participated in Russia's version of The Voice, going right down to the semi-finals. How did you get involved and what is your takeaway of Russia from what you saw of it and also the music industry there?
Dru: You know what? That's another of those experiences that I'll take with me for the rest of my life. I was hitting a breaking point and I find that in my life, things happen that will open up little windows for me. Any time I'm worried about what I'm going to do next, a window somehow opens from somewhere.
So basically I was trying to plan a tour of Europe and relaunch this new album. And in planning the tour, one of my close business associates, who is Armenian but she was raised in Russia, has a friend that works for Starschool Academy in Vaughn (Toronto). It's is a school for the arts that is made up of predominantly Russian kids from the age of 4 to about 14. So she contacted my business partner to ask if I would come in and help them with their year-end recital. They usually do covers of songs but that year they wanted to do an original song and they asked if me and Hollywood would come in and do an original song and actually perform the song with them.
Hollywood has the biggest heart in the world. So I was thinking about it and wondering how much we should charge these guys and in a meeting, Hollywood just jumped in and said, "You know what? We're just going to donate this to you guys." In my head, I was just thinking "What the??? What are you doing? Do you know how much work this is going to be?" (laughs)
But I've learned in life that sometimes you've really just got to sit back and analyze why things happen. Because I was quiet at the meeting and they were so grateful. I love the kids, man. As we were leaving the meeting, I thought I've got to talk to Hollywood and go, "Man, you can't do that. At least talk to me first." And before I could say anything, my business associate said to me, "Hey Dru, by the way, I'll cover your European tour." I just took a breath. She was so impressed by how we donated to the school that she took it upon herself to fund my tour, which she did.
It really made me take a step back and just go, take a breath. And you know a big part of success is giving. You have to give. And I learned that lesson quickly. Shout out to the kids at Starschool Academy. So that's how I ended up connecting with Russia. One of the teachers at Starschool Academy was in The Voice - Russia, season 2 or 3. And he said to me, it would be kind of cool if you went somewhere out of your comfort zone to try something new and who knows?
So for the first audition which is not televised, I was actually turned down. I flew to Russia for 24 hours, just for the audition. I did that and then they put you in different groups and then say which groups go home and which ones have been chosen. So I was in one of the groups that was sent home. So I was like, "Oh wow. All this for nothing." And then I was like "Whatever. It was an experience. I can say I had been to Russia."
By the time I got home, there was an email saying that there was some kind of mix-up and they did want me to come for the blind audition which is where they turn the chairs. So I went back for that and three out of the four chairs turned for me and I was one of two black guys that was in the show, so we definitely stood out which is what I love (laughs). Being the token black guy. I thrive in those settings.
So it worked out well being in Russia. We went to certain events and people were always like, "Aren't you the guy from the show?" And it was something like 40 million viewers per week that I got to be in front of for four weeks, So, it was a really good setup for me to go back and I had already started booking shows there when COVID hit. So as soon as everything opens back up, I'm definitely going to be going back to Russia and Ukraine and I'll be doing another European tour.
antiMusic: In Essence started as illegal downloading was just starting to explode. Now artists also have to deal with record sales cutting back in favor of streaming. Can you tell us from your personal experience as an indie artist in 2021 about having to overcome these challenges and what you have to do survive in such a rough business.
Dru: I can't even lie. It is hard to be an artist in 2021. It's almost like you have to pay to work. And on top of having to pay to work, music is basically free, So with COVID now, we can't tour which was our main outlet to make money. So music is free. We still have to consistently put out content and new music that costs money to make but we can't tour now also on top of it.
So now I'm planning a full virtual release event where I've got to hire some quality camera guys --- shout out to Charlton Visuals and Dougie --- and produce, I guess it's like a production now. I can't call it a music video cuz it's going to be live. But it will be a virtual show with dancers, DJ and different sets and I'm planning on teaming up with LG so we'll have some cool background screens.
So this is what we have to do now on top of producing new content to stay relevant in these times. At this point, you really see which artists are really going for it right now, that are taking advantage of the majority of people being at home. And you see other artists that are starting to lose it and get frustrated and discouraged. I just want to say to other artists out there, stay focused on what you can control. If all you can control is writing some new songs, then write and write and don't stop until we get to the other side of this pandemic.
But on top of the pandemic, the whole streaming thing is a different matter. We celebrated 1.2 million streams of "Don't Be Afraid" not too long ago and that's one of those songs that has just taken on a life of its own. In Brazil, people have a dance called zouk and people have been doing their own videos with this song for the last little while and really upped the streams. So we're still proud of the streams but when you really break it down --- over a million streams...$3200 dollars. So if you paid X amount to get on to playlists and do all this viral marketing, Spotify this and that, Google and YouTube....my goodness, my head is spinning as I prepare this album release.
At the end of the day, we're really not making any money. So we're doing it for the love now. This is all for the love at this point so this is where we're at. As artists, we should have always known and I will tell younger artists, always have another hustle...something that your music can spin you into another business or other aspects of your industry. I'm just staying positive and I'm excited about the album coming out. But there's a lot of planning to do.
antiMusic: It looks like by the fall, things will be back in full swing in the States and perhaps by then in Canada, as well. What are your plans if everything lines up the way we hope by then. Are you targeting Canada first and then looking to the US or the other way around?
Dru: I think I'm targeting Russia and Europe first based on recent experience and the reach that I have out there right now. Put it this way, years ago there was another artist, a black guy who was related to Louie Armstrong. And he's still known as the black guy that was on The Voice Russia. All these years later, he's still remembered and the fans in Russia just really respect soulful vocals. I really got a great response there. They compared me to Stevie Wonder which was just a humbling comparison because I'm such a big fan of Stevie.
And so even just through the streams, that's where I've been getting the most response so I've been really paying attention to that. The Philippines also is showing me a lot of love as well as Japan. So it's cool that I can break it down and see which people are listening. I would focus on Canada but I just feel that I've been off of Canadian radio for so long. I'm actually doing a full international radio campaign starting in a week and a half. I've never done this ever in my career...solo by myself...independent. So my head is spinning a little bit.
Morley and antiMusic thank Dru for taking the time to do this interview.
Stream the album here.
Visit the official Facebook page here.