Dvsn usher in Toronto’s R&B renaissance

Thanks to a little help from Drake, the music industry wants a piece of this 6ix sound


DVSN with DRAKE, FUTURE and ROY WOODS as part of OVO Fest at Air Canada Centre (40 Bay), Sunday and Monday (July 31 & August 1), 7 pm. $49.50-$179.50. ticketmaster.ca. See listings.


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 12-date 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.

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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 lovers-rock-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.”

Want more Toronto R&B? Check out Toronto’s ones to watch: R&B edition.

kevinr@nowtoronto.com | @kevinritchie

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