Dru Hill fights on
In 20 years, Baltimore R&B veterans have seen plenty of ups and downs
Left to right: Nokio, Tao, Sisqo, and Jazz are Dru Hill. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / January 16, 2012)
Above all else, Dru Hill is a loving but complicated brotherhood that's been through it all. To the group's members — Mark "Sisqo" Andrews, Larry "Jazz" Anthony, Tamir "Nokio" Ruffin and Antwuan "Tao" Simpson — Dru Hill is family.
Just not the suburban, picket-fence kind.
"I don't know anybody that has a family where everything is just cool," said Nokio, 32. "That may be the front that's put up, but you have the family members no one talks about, the members that do all the wild stuff. That's just part of life. You can't learn or grow without that."
If growth is measured by success and turmoil, Dru Hill has been on legendary spurt over the past 20 years. What began as four friends singing for customers at an Inner Harbor fudge shop has evolved into a group worthy of its own "Behind the Music" episode.
There have been platinum albums, seven Top 40 hits, international tours, one member's overshadowing solo career, extended hiatuses, public infighting, members quitting, new members and, most recently, an inability to reclaim the spotlight.
Now, Dru Hill is a group focused on leaving the past where it belongs, with a renewed focus on achieving success without a major label. On Saturday, the group will take the stage at Rams Head Live for three sets — one with Dru Hill, one with Sisqo and one with Black Angel Down, Nokio and Tao's rock band. Sisqo said the group will pick the show's set order out of a hat.
"InDRUpendence Day," the group's fourth album, which was released in July 2010, isn't just a pun — it's Dru Hill's first record released independently and not on Def Soul, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. It debuted at No. 30 on the Billboard 200 and failed to recapture the national buzz the group once had.
In the pop world, it seems like an eternity since Dru Hill, and in particular Sisqo, has dominated the charts.
Dru Hill was strong out of the gate, with a platinum (selling more than 1 million copies) self-titled debut album in 1996 and a 1998 double-platinum follow-up, "Enter the Dru." As the group's fame grew, so did Sisqo's, as the de facto lead singer with the flashy blond hair.
In 2000, while riding the success of the summer hit "Thong Song," Sisqo's debut solo album, "Unleash the Dragon," went on to sell more than 5 million records — more than any of Dru Hill's albums.
Sisqo's solo success came as the group went on hiatus, with each member focusing on his own music. As is the case for much of Dru Hill's history, Sisqo's star shone brightest. He said timing was everything, and suggested the pop climate at the time wasn't right for Dru Hill.
"I was there with Britney [Spears], 'N Sync and Christina Aguilera," said Sisqo, who still travels with a security guard. "I was Token on 'South Park.' I was the black guy, and it was awesome. Four black guys might not have worked in that same place."
As a solo artist, Sisqo eclipsed his bandmates, which caused tension and uncertainty about Dru Hill's future. The group's third album, 2002's "Dru World Order," was a disappointment, marking the first Dru Hill album not to go platinum. Afterward, the group left Def Soul.
Six years and a greatest-hits compilation later, the group appeared on 92Q to announce its big comeback. Except with Dru Hill, nothing is ever that simple.
While on the air, James "Woody" Green, a member of Dru Hill since he was 15, unexpectedly quit for a second time — the first was in June 1999. To the shock of his bandmates, Woody announced he had been "called by God on an assignment," effectively killing the reunion before it started.
Then all hell broke loose.
The group's embarrassment over Woody's decision quickly gave way to anger and mild chaos. A YouTube clip with more than 600,000 views shows Sisqo storming out of the station. Sisqo jumps into a Range Rover (while someone pleads for him to stop because he's "not supposed to be driving"), and Nokio throws punches at Woody as 92Q staff and Jazz try to separate them.
"It shouldn't have gone down like that," said Nokio, who describes himself as the "one with the short temper." "That was the emotion in the moment, and it was left in that moment. Me and Woody [still] talk all the time."
Sisqo laughs about the fight now.
"There's been a lot of those fights we haven't filmed," Sisqo, 34, said. "Me and Nokio have fought a lot of times. He pulled a knife on me when we were 16. Nokio had got with my girl at the time."
Every member of Dru Hill discusses Woody's situation with empathy and understanding. In 2008, Woody even had a hand in selecting his replacement, 32-year-old Annapolis native Tao (pronounced Tay-oh), who won the "Dru Idol" talent competition at the Belvedere Hotel.
With the new lineup in place, Dru Hill headed to Atlanta to reunite with longtime mentor Keith Sweat and, more important, to start its comeback. The reality show "Keith Sweat's Platinum House," which aired on Centric, a subsidiary of BET, focused on the recording of "InDRUpendence Day" but also the group's struggle to reconnect as friends.
It wasn't easy — episode arcs are typical reality-TV fodder, with fighting and bickering at every turn — but Dru Hill says the group has emerged stronger than ever.
On top of touring in support of the latest album, members are working on their own projects. Sisqo plans on releasing a new single in the next couple months. ("I'm really not playing. I'm about to reset the game," he said.) Black Angel Down plans to release an album this year. Jazz is working on a solo record.
Older and wiser, the group has entered a new phase in its career, one with less emphasis on charts and numbers. They may not be international stars anymore, but Dru Hill — a group that takes its name from Druid Hill Park — still feels the love from its hometown.
"I can walk in the 'hood with my jewelry on," Sisqo said. "Everybody can't say they can do that."
As things change, the Dru Hill brotherhood remains the same. No matter how many scraps and arguments they've had, its members never hesitate to call it what it is.
"Would I describe it as 'dysfunctional'? Nah," Sisqo said. "It's an American family, with the ups and downs that go with it."
And no matter what happens, family sticks together.
If you go
Dru Hill performs Saturday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Doors open at 7 p.m. $35. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.