We recently caught up with Nokio of the legendary group Dru Hill for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we touched on the solo projects he’s been putting out recently, his skills as a vocalist and a producer, his work throughout the years on the Dru Hill albums, the status of the group going forward, and much more. Check out what he had to say below and in the video.
Nokio: The stuff that I put out in February, it was like 20 something songs. That was all stuff that dated back to about 2014-2016. I make a lot of music in the house. I don’t listen to the radio. I’m always making music just to listen to myself or when people come over and stuff. It was kinda like it was Black History Month and I wasn’t doing anything, I just wanted to share with people. The emancipation of the hard drive! That’s what it’s been. Some of the other stuff is abstract and different and vibey. I was just thinking of things I could now with everything going on. I know people know me from Rock and Hip-Hop, but I think it’s been about 20 years since I made a proper R&B project. Just as far as producing. I write a lot of stuff, but production for me is something that’s real personal and it’s a part of myself that I have to put into that goes beyond anything other than the feeling and the energy being right. I’ve never made a beat CD or beat tape.
YouKnowIGotSoul: When we hear your solo music, we can’t help but think of your skills as a vocalist. With Dru Hill, it seems like Sisqo, Jazz, Woody and later Tao only got the respect for their vocals.
Nokio: I didn’t respect it myself for years! You’d catch them any time of day, singing. I’ve never been that guy. Especially through the progression of getting different people in the group, even before we were famous. When Sisqo was first in the group, me and Sisqo sang all of the leads! As we got better singers, Jazz and Woody and all of them took lead. It turned into a thing of what’s the point? I could be over here writing and producing and doing whatever else, these guys love it. Even in the show, from 1996 to 1999, half the time I wasn’t even singing on stage! I’d be on the side of the stage talking to some girl trying to get her phone number! I’d leave off the stage and go to the bathroom! I don’t know. Even with the solo stuff it took me so long to do it. I’d get to this point where I’d do the music, and then I’d picture myself on stage doing it, and tell myself I’m not gonna do it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You were known for your skills as a producer for Dru Hill. Where did you develop those skills?
Nokio: I had some good mentors. I had my cousin Greg, my man Jay, my man Dennis, Wayne. It’s so crazy, we are celebrating the 25th year of the first Mobb Deep album. Well 25 years ago was the first time I ever went into the studio. They called me up one day. I used to carry my keyboard around with me everywhere. They called me to go to New York, they picked me up, it was 1995 and we were in the Range Rover. We get up in New York and we go into the studio. We go in another room and it was the room that the guy who engineered the Mobb Deep album used to work in, Unique Studios. “Shook Ones” had just dropped, it was history. I left out of the room, and went into our room, and my keyboard was set up. Then they told me to get to work. They had brought me up there to produce my first record. I didn’t get in the music business to be an artist, I wanted to be record man. From the Puffy to Quincy Jones and in between, it was really a thing of wanting to find records, make records, write records. Once people saw that in me, they pushed me to keep going. I never used to sleep. When we were doing the first album, I’d get on the train from Baltimore to DC. Then get on the subway all the way out to the last stop in Virginia. I still had to wait for my boy to come pick me up and then wait 20 more minutes just to use the studio! He was the only person that would let me use it, at like 1 o’clock in the morning! That’s always been my passion. I started singing more out of necessity. It was probably like 1999 after we did our last tour before everybody went and did their solo stuff. I had all of these song ideas and there was nobody there to sing the songs. I didn’t want to wait for however long it would take.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Reflect back on your work on Dru Hill’s debut album. We love your work on “April Showers” and “All Alone”.
Nokio: We used to have this thing where everybody would come to my house after school and we’d get some food from the store and just either sit on the steps outside my mother’s house or go to my room to write. I remember we did all of these songs and we had a deal with Sylvia Rhone at East West, and nobody knew what to do with us. They said they had these young guys with real mature voices. We couldn’t do bubble gum or grown man music. We ended up getting dropped. We did talent shows for a while. I remember me and Woody had gone to Virginia and did “April Showers” and another song. Those songs ended up being the songs that got the production company that we were signed to excited about us. I’ve always been a studio rat, first one in, last one to leave. We recorded a lot of the first album at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia. It was crazy. I would have all of the rooms in there going at the same time. The guys would get mad at me. We might be working on vocals in one room, while instruments and sound design was going on in another room. It was a great time. Not a lot of people can say that they got five songs on their first album from stuff you wrote when you were 14 or 15 years old. It was a weird time, because I was the only one producing at the time, and we had part of our deal that we got paid a certain amount of money per record. Obviously, I made a little bit more money, which always is going to turn into somebody having to say something. But I was working! I’m not out partying nowhere, I aint even really trying to hang with my girl if I have work! It’s nothing that’s going to take me away from getting the job done. I take production seriously. It’s the person willing to take the responsibility to take the project from point A to point Z. If something goes wrong, you’ve got to fix it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: At what point did you start getting calls to do production for other artists outside of Dru Hill?
Nokio: When we all went home and worked on our own things. I was going to labels and they were basically telling me everything I had done with Dru Hill was amazing, but I had never done anything else, so I had to start over. So that Summer, I took like $100 grand and rented out the old Hit Factory and had three rooms going. We had the rooms booked to do the Dru Hill stuff, but nobody showed up. I just paid for it myself, and I was in there so much, they were bringing us socks and t-shirts and wanted us to keep working! What I did was, instead trying to make meetings, I wasn’t making any beat CDs, I just started inviting A&Rs to the studio to see us work, me and my production team. From there, that actually turned into me working with Ruff Endz and Foxy Brown for the Blue Streak soundtrack. Everything else came from that. Nobody cared about the Dru Hill stuff. They thought it was dope but, they wanted something else. People don’t understand, no matter what level you get to, you’re still fighting to prove something to somebody. I’ve always been about the work, and I knew what I was doing. I didn’t do the amount of records you’d think a producer like me would do, I just did the right records. I was always scared if I got caught up in just producing for money, eventually the sound would get burned out. That’s why I stayed away from making R&B for so long. I knew there was a time when people would want it or need it. I didn’t want to have to go back from making pop sounding records and not be able to have that core of what makes the music we do different from everything else.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your work on Dru Hill’s second album “Enter the Dru”. You were involved in producing some of the biggest hits like “How Deep is your Love” and “Beauty”. How did you progress your production?
Nokio: I remember everybody hated me! *Laughs* We go to the studio, and nobody was there. If we’ve got three rooms and I’ve got three songs, I’m making three songs. If you show up later in the afternoon after you slept all day, there might be a chance you won’t get a room! I’ve never had a problem with doing that. I never cared about what anybody thought! I’d put signs up saying “Do No Enter”. And if somebody walked into the room, I’d cut the music off, and we’d sit in silence, sometimes for a long time! Then I guess when the person realized I was being an asshole, they’d leave. I’m not an evil person, but I’m very serious about my craft and what I do. A lot of times that’s not the same thing that’s happening with everybody. I don’t mean just the group, I mean anybody. I try to keep it where I can stay focused. You’ve got to show up for work. Aside from that, probably I would have to say “Beauty” always stands out. Nobody wanted to sing the record. I had to go sing the whole song after I played it and everybody was looking around clueless. Shout out to Diane Warren, she was there the whole time I did “Beauty”. I’m going to let you in on a secret. I’ve got this tactic I use. I’m going to make you upset in order for you to take that energy and put it on a record! It’s not personal! Sometimes you have to use alternative methods to get what you’re trying to get.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We really started to notice your vocal abilities on the third album, with songs like “She Said”. That one could have easily been a single.
Nokio: With “She Said”, I remember being in the studio and it was me and my man Jojo Brim from Def Jam. I told them to cut the lights off in the booth and put up a partition. They didn’t know for what. But I had to take all of my clothes off to record the record, and didn’t want anybody looking at me! I recorded the record almost naked! It was a time when I was going through a bunch of stuff and the idea came from a girlfriend I had at the time. She asked me where all of the people were who said they were always going to be there for me. It’s funny because there were people at Def Jam that really said it could have crossed us over. What I learned, and I won’t say who said it, but it was said to me more than once, it was basically like if I sing a song it won’t be a single. People aren’t used to me singing. It’s the way the game works. I wasn’t really one for pushing too much, so it didn’t make a different. My thing has always been to do stuff that makes people go back and listen to your catalog. If you make great records, it doesn’t matter if people didn’t catch every one. Eventually they will catch them all.
YouKnowIGotSoul: It’s been 10 years since Dru Hill’s last album “inDRUpendence Day” came out. Has there ever been a time when you guys almost put an album out?
Nokio: There were a bunch of times. We recently did stuff with Troy Taylor that never came out for an album. We started recording the last album in like 2018. It’s stuff around. It’s nothing against anybody, but it’s hard making an album after a while. When you make all of the other albums, it’s happening in the middle of you doing stuff. You don’t have to pull anybody away from kids and other stuff. Once it turns into what it is now where you kinda just move around and gigging and doing blocks of time, the only other time you have to record is when you’re not doing that. But everything else falls into that time. I think I started working on another album after that in 2013 and that didn’t go anywhere. You try again, and again. What happened was we got such a great response from the Christmas album we did, but it’s not a proper Dru Hill album. Radio was ready for us again. Shout out to Empire. They were able to take a song off of the album we put out late, and still got a top 5 record at radio with “Favorite Time of Year”. They were ready for us. All we needed to do was come with a single right after that. But everybody knows what happened after that, Jazz needed some time and all of that. We weren’t able to capture that window. With the newer stuff we did, it wasn’t the time. Getting the “What You Need” single out when it came out, and then not really having a way to promote it now. I’ll say this, I’ve gone to start a new Dru Hill album more times than I haven’t. I started on an album in 2008. I came down to Maryland and did 40 records. But all of those records are all sitting there still. That’s why artists stay in that mode with people around them who keep you in that space of doing stuff. Once you move out of that space, it’s hard to get back to the grind.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We really hope that once the pandemic is over, we see Nokio and Jazz back in Dru Hill as part of the lineup.
Nokio: Not to rehash a bunch of stuff, but if you saw what I said about it, I was serious. I really just feel like people are going to need that. When we get to coasting and whatever this new normal is, it’s a lot of stuff we are going to need to be alright again. Especially as far as the feeling and the energy around. I feel like it may be a good thing for all of us to just get together and do it for the people. I’ll tell you, in my mind, my quick idea is to do something that would benefit first responders and essential workers in Baltimore. I’m sure people would be willing to come see. Especially since next year is officially our 25th anniversary and the 1st year we are eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t know who made up me leaving the group, I never said that nowhere. I said I was going home to take a break. That’s what it is. It’s always love, even when we’re fighting, but things have go to be a certain way. When it comes down to it, this whole pandemic just tipped the scales more in favor of me doing it again, than not doing it again. I definitely need all my boys there. Give the people what they want. The least we can do is give people that.