Pro­ducer Nine­teen85 and vo­cal­ist Daniel Da­ley emerge from the shad­ows to lead the 6ix’s big R&B mo­ment


Last Septem­ber 5, an R&B act from Toronto called dvsn up­loaded two songs to Sound­Cloud ac­com­pa­nied only by a logo of the math­e­mat­i­cal divi­sion sym­bol. Weeks later, pro­ducer Paul Jef­feries, aka Nine­teen85, played the tracks on Drake’s OVO Sound Ra­dio show on Ap­ple Mu­sic, set­ting off the now usual round of spec­u­la­tion among fans, crit­ics and in­ter­net sleuths.

Who was this “mys­tery” R&B act from Toronto? And who was singing? Was it Jef­feries? Had the pro­ducer be­hind Drake hits Hold On, We’re Go­ing Home; 0 To 100/The Catch Up and Hot­line Bling been con­ceal­ing a tal­ent for Ush­eresque melisma this en­tire time?

“Even some of my friends and fam­ily still have no clue what the dy­namic is,” Jef­feries tells NOW. “And I don’t talk much, so cer­tain questions just go unan­swered.”

What was in­stantly clear was that dvsn’s mu­sic didn’t have the numb­ness and ag­gres­sion un­der­ly­ing a lot of sex-ob­sessed con­tem­po­rary R&B.

Those first two songs, With Me and The Line, as well as later sin­gles Hal­lu­ci­na­tions and Too Deep, are unashamedly erotic and de­cid­edly love songs. For long-time R&B fans, dvsn’s warm, cas­cad­ing gospel har­monies vividly evoke the 90s silk-py­ja­mas mo­ment, while their cours­ing elec­tronic rhythms, re­verby guitar, un­du­lat­ing sub-bass and trappy hi-hats nod to the brood­i­ness and tough­ness of con­tem­po­rary hip-hop. Glid­ing over it all is singer Daniel Da­ley’s cool, con­fi­dent falsetto.

Too ex­per­i­men­tal for ra­dio but tra­di­tional in their ro­man­tic lean­ings, dvsn have carved out a space some­where be­tween main­stream and indie, clas­sic and fu­tur­is­tic. Hence their name, pro­nounced “divi­sion.”

“It’s about us not con­form­ing and be­ing okay with be­ing dif­fer­ent,” ex­plains Da­ley.

“That’s lit­er­ally where it comes from,” adds Jef­feries. “The divi­sion be­tween us and ev­ery­thing else.”

It’s a good time for R&B mu­sic in Toronto. At 2016’s mid­point, seven of the top 10 songs on Bill­board’s Hot R&B Songs are by Toronto artists or pro­duc­ers, and the num­ber-one song, Drake’s Nine­teen85-pro­duced One Dance, is also at the top of the Hot 100 sin­gles chart.

Even five years ago, a lo­cal R&B singer or rap­per with chart dreams would have had to pon­der a move south. Now, thanks to the pop­u­lar­ity of Drake, the Weeknd and their re­spec­tive pro­duc­ing teams, the in­dus­try is clam­our­ing for sounds com­ing out of Toronto. It’s a re­mark­able turn of events given that Canada’s mar­ket for hip-hop and R&B is smaller than that of most U.S. states, and Toronto has no ded­i­cated ur­ban mu­sic ra­dio sta­tion.

In March, dvsn signed to Drake’s OVO Sound la­bel, and a month later re­leased their de­but LP, Sept. 5th. Jef­feries and Da­ley didn’t do in­ter­views to pro­mote it and em­barked on a 12date North Amer­i­can tour in June, sell­ing out ev­ery show.

Dur­ing the tour, Da­ley sang on a shad­owy stage along­side three gospel singers, but Jef­feries was nowhere to be seen. He was at the board. “Right now we have no sound guy,” he says with a shrug.

When we sit down in the Lib­er­tine, a dimly lit sub­ter­ranean Dun­das West bar, on a muggy Satur­day af­ter­noon – their first in­ter­view as a duo – Jef­feries im­me­di­ately warns that he’s prone to mum­bling. They look more like low-key pro­ducer dudes than the man­scaped R&B show­man stereo­type Da­ley’s falsetto runs call to mind. Both wear black with OVO- and dvsn-branded shirts and hats. The next day they’ll head to Lon­don for stu­dio ses­sions, and then join Drake on his 48-date Sum­mer Six­teen North Amer­i­can tour, which in­cludes two Toronto shows as part of the sev­enth an­nual OVO Fest.

Dvsn in­sist they’re not mas­ter­mind­ing a Weekn­desque mys­tery mar­ket­ing strat­egy. The de­ci­sion to up­load the songs on­line was spon­ta­neous, and when the mu­sic picked up steam, they had no vi­su­als ready so rolled with it. That’s not to say they haven’t en­joyed the spec­u­la­tion. “Times have changed,” says Da­ley. “You can be cool and con­fi­dent with­out hav­ing to say, ‘Look at me, I’m cool and con­fi­dent.’” Ini­tially they avoid eye con­tact with me, but the en­su­ing con­ver­sa­tion is full of fond rem­i­nisc­ing and sly grins. They grew up in Scar­bor­ough, met in high school and im­me­di­ately bonded over mu­sic. Whereas their peers lis­tened to what­ever was hot, they would nerd out over Led Zep­pelin, R. Kelly, Baby­face and Jimi Hen­drix. “I was on the com­puter in the li­brary and I just heard some­body singing and I was like, ‘Where is that com­ing from?’” re­calls Jef­feries. “It was this guy.” “I think I was singing R. Kelly or some­thing,” says Da­ley. “I had lit­er­ally started mak­ing beats two weeks be­fore this hap­pened,” says Jef­feries. They had other things in com­mon. Both are from Caribbean back­grounds and grew up in Chris­tian house­holds with fam­i­lies who didn’t share their love of sec­u­lar mu­sic. When Jef­feries told his par­ents he wanted to be the next Hen­drix, his par­ents said, “You can do that if you play Chris­tian mu­sic.” Un­de­terred, he took a bus down­town to Steve’s Mu­sic on Queen, bought a guitar and taught him­self how to play. Mean­while, Da­ley had sim­i­lar bat­tles, though his mom paid for pi­ano lessons at the Royal Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic. “I owe her a lot,” he says. By the time Jef­feries met Da­ley, he was all about mak­ing “the hardest” hip-hop beats. Rec­og­niz­ing melodic el­e­ments in Jef­feries’s Just Blaze-style sam­ple choices, Da­ley in­sisted they make R&B. But his friend was un­in­ter­ested in “love­mak­ing mu­sic.” They formed a song­writ­ing duo and pitched songs to pop and R&B stars like Jessie Ware, who in­cluded their lover­srock-style slow burner De­sire on her 2014 al­bum, Tough Love. As they re­count how dvsn came to be, it seems like ev­ery­one else knew they should start an R&B group be­fore it dawned on Jef­feries. Over the past two years, la­bels con­tin­u­ally sin­gled out their songs for praise – but passed. “The re­sponse we would al­ways get was, ‘When are you guys putting this out?’” says Jef­feries. “And we were think­ing, ‘We thought you were go­ing to put it out for your artist.’”

Their chem­istry was also ob­vi­ous to their men­tor, OVO pro­ducer Noah “40” She­bib. “40’s al­ways been like, ‘Guys, let me know when you’re go­ing to do your thing,’” says Jef­feries.

When they wrote the al­bum’s aching ti­tle track, with its me­an­der­ing open­ing guitar riff and soar­ing cho­rus, Da­ley wouldn’t let Jef­feries play it for any­one else.

“It was the most hon­est I can be,” he says. “There wasn’t any pret­ty­ing up for ra­dio.”

More­over, it didn’t con­form to the feed­back they were get­ting from la­bels: make a club song or a strip­per anthem, use this drum pat­tern or that bpm. They were also ad­vised to ad­dress women more ag­gres­sively in lyrics. “One, that’s not us, and two, a real woman is not even go­ing to re­spect that,” ex­plains Da­ley. “Or [the la­bels would] say make it so soft that it’s not real, which is an is­sue R&B had at the time.”

One ob­ser­va­tion of­ten made about dvsn is the ab­sence of “bitch” in their lyrics. It’s not there be­cause they don’t use that word to ad­dress women.

“Some­body pointed out to me the other day that we make pos­i­tive mu­sic,” says Jef­feries. “I was like, ‘Do we?’ It’s not try­ing to be. I just think a lot of mu­sic right now is re­ally an­gry.”

When you look at the news, anger is pal­pa­ble. Our in­ter­view came at the end of a week in which po­lice in the United States shot and killed two Black men, and five po­lice of­fi­cers in Dal­las were killed by a gun­man dur­ing a peace­ful Black Lives Mat­ter protest.

“Ev­ery­body needs some­thing at the end of the day to re­as­sure them the world they live in is a good world,” says Da­ley. “It’s a con­tin­u­ous bat­tle just to find a feel­ing of com­fort.”

Jef­feries ac­knowl­edges that their Chris­tian up­bring­ing prob­a­bly has some­thing to do with the gospel in­flu­ence and pos­i­tive vibes – an irony not lost on their moth­ers.

“My mom re­minds me of it all the time,” he says, laugh­ing.

As for the up­com­ing Sum­mer Six­teen tour and OVO Fest, this is the first year the hip-hop fes­ti­val has made a more con­certed ef­fort to in­te­grate with Carib­ana. A day be­fore the ACC shows, dance­hall king Bee­nie Man and soca king Machel Mon­tano co-head­line Echo Beach as part of OVO Fest.

It’s es­pe­cially fit­ting since Drake’s Views al­bum is awash in is­land rhythms and ca­dences, in­clud­ing One Dance, with its sam­ple of UK funky track Do You Mind (which Jef­feries first heard dur­ing Lon­don’s Wire­less Fes­ti­val last year).

Five years ago, reg­gae would have been deemed too niche for pop. To­day it’s ev­ery­where – Bey­oncé’s Hold Up, Justin Bieber’s Sorry, Ri­hanna’s made-in-Toronto sin­gle Work – and ev­ery­one is ask­ing Jef­feries for that sound. What does this year’s OVO Fest rep­re­sent to dvsn? “Suc­cessssssssss,” says Da­ley with rel­ish.

“We ar­gue about this all the time, but I keep telling him we still haven’t blown up,” says Jef­feries.

In the 90s, the com­mer­cial suc­cess of R&B helped pro­pel hip-hop to cul­tural ubiq­uity; now the sit­u­a­tion has re­versed. Drake and OVO Sound, which dvsn de­scribe as a tightly knit group of peo­ple con­stantly push­ing each other to up the ante, have cre­ated new plat­forms, al­low­ing dvsn and la­bel­mate Par­tyNex­tDoor to grow in­ter­na­tion­ally. This makes dvsn’s con­tin­ued ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with their sound all the more im­por­tant.

“What makes Drake Drake is the fact that he can do ev­ery­thing,” Jef­feries notes. “He’s al­ways found a great way of bal­anc­ing it all. He knows when to give you enough rap and when to give you enough R&B.

“Look at what One Dance did. Look at what Too Good is about to do,” he con­tin­ues, ref­er­enc­ing the Drake and Ri­hanna cut he pro­duced for Views. “It’s easy to say, ‘I don’t have to make an­other R&B al­bum. I can just make th­ese up­tempo feel-great records.’ Once you get a taste for one thing, you can get off of the other things, but some­times it’s those other things that make the whole pic­ture look great.”

“We know that when we love some­thing, it works,” adds Da­ley. “Let’s keep do­ing the stuff we love.” kev­inr@now­toronto.com | @kev­in­ritchie

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