The Newest Kids on the Block
Back in 2004, the four teenage members of DMG spent every waking moment writing and recording songs. The plan was simple: to come up with a mainstream hit in the same vein as Top 40 acts such as Jay-Z and Outkast. But there was a rather obvious problem: copying a bunch of hip-hop stars made them sound derivative.
That predicament changed in 2005 when their producer, Adrian "Drop" Santalla, offered the hopefuls some valuable advice. "He asked us to think of what made us different from everybody else out there," says group member Q (a.k.a. Gabriel Pelaez, age nineteen). "So we started experimenting with a lot of harmonies. In the end we came up with a new sound that no one else had yet."
Two years later, DMG's vibrant neo-soul has begun to pay off. With the studio help of Drop, the Miami-based quartet consisting of singers/songwriters Kalli, Phenom, Eqwote, and Q has been turning heads. A high-octane performance at March's Calle Ocho festival lit up the crowd. The group's Myspace page (www.myspace.com/dmgmyspace) boasts more than 15,000 devoted fans. Strong word of mouth led the international trend-spotting Latino website elhood.com which normally showcases supergroups such as Maná and Calle 13 to add DMG to its coveted featured artists section.
But the band's most remarkable feat may be in converting Miami's top Latin hip-hop luminary, the infamous Pitbull, into a fan. "I heard a couple of their records and not only are they good, but they got a new vibe," says the MC, who was introduced to their work by Santalla. "I think they'll have a couple of hit records and success in the near future."
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And yet, for all its current acclaim, the self-professed boy band has yet to release an album. That may change soon enough. The group has recorded enough songs for at least two full-length albums. And according to their manager Orlando Leyba, DMG is currently negotiating with major labels.
For now at least, DMG is making do playing local clubs while recording tracks under the tutelage of Drop, a well-known local hip-hop engineer and producer who has also worked with the likes of Fat Joe and Diddy. For the past two years, the quartet has been cutting its tracks at a small downtown Miami recording studio owned by Drop.
At first glance the bandmates come off as your average South Florida teenagers, decked out in loose-fitting designer threads and the latest retro Air Jordan kicks. But once they start talking, it becomes clear that music, not fashion, is their top priority.
"I sacrifice time with my friends and family," says 22-year-old Phenom (a.k.a. Andres Garcia), who put on hold his studies in sound engineering to concentrate on the band. "Right now it's all about the music."
DMG was born in 2002 when Kalli (a.k.a. Jesse Michael Nieves) met Q while they were attending La Salle Academy, a private school in Coconut Grove. The pair shared a passion for music and a working-class background. "A lot of the kids were well off, but our parents had to work really hard to put us there, so we stood out from the other students," Q says.
The two friends spent hours writing up original rhymes. Soon they began attending the all-ages Saturday hip-hop night known as Catalyst, in Pembroke Pines. The weekly event is known for providing a safe environment for young kids who want to practice the four elements of hip-hop culture: graffiti, breakdancing, DJing, and rhyming.
It was during one of their weekly treks to the aptly named party that Q and Kalli came up with the concept of DMG. "The original name of the group was Demographics," Kalli explains. "We wanted to hit every area and every race with our music." Which made sense, since the Miami-born friends shared a multicultural heritage: Kalli is half Cuban, half Puerto Rican; Q is half Colombian and half Cuban. Using hip-hop as their musical template, the duo concentrated on writing rhymes, while creating rudimentary musical rhythms with their home computers.
Their ranks expanded when Kalli came across Eqwote (a.k.a. Arthur Morera, age nineteen) a talented South Miami rapper who also frequented Catalyst. Impressed by Eqwote's skills as a battle-ready MC, Kalli and Q asked him to join their group. They also decided to shorten the name of the group to DMG.
All the boys needed now was a skilled DJ/producer to translate their compositions into fully crafted musical arrangements. After asking around they came across 22-year-old Phenom, a North Miami soundscaper with a solid reputation for assembling bombastic collages of modern hip-hop.
Phenom was content to sell the trio his beats until one day, intrigued by their work ethic, he asked the boys if he could listen to one of their tracks. Amazed by the quality of their vocal work, he agreed to sign on full time. "I wasn't looking to be a singer," Phenom says. "But once the opportunity came along, I ran with it."
The boys had been renting time at Miami recording studios like Circle House, but the vibe wasn't right. "We were going in and out of studios," Kalli recalls. "But [the studio owners] were constantly looking at the time, to see if we went over an extra fifteen minutes; and if you are not comfortable in a place, it all shows up in your music." To make matters worse, the boys were unsure of their musical direction. "We just looked at what sold, and said, öLet's go for that!'" Q admits.
It was then when DMG crossed paths with Drop, a 28-year-old hip-hop beatmaker, best known locally for producing Pitbull's notorious 2006 anti-Fidel Castro single, "Ya Se Acabó" ("It's Now Over"). Drop rented his studio to the boys, but when their money ran out, he offered them a slot on his nascent indie label, Up Side Down Entertainment provided that they would cultivate their sound.
"He told us, 'You guys have talent, but you need to find yourselves in your music,'" Q recalls. With the help of Drop, the group's direction started to change. Gone was the 50 Cent-inspired hustler posturing. The new sound blended Seventies soul music harmonies with hip-hop beats. The group even found ways to incorporate its Latin heritage into some of the new tracks, such as "What If," a ballad replete with Latin horns and gentle Spanish guitars.
The revitalized quartet started writing lyrics and harmonies that reflected the members' real musical tastes not what was hot on MTV. Phenom brought his love for Seventies-era Stevie Wonder and vintage Fania records, while Eqwote showed his appreciation for his childhood favorites, the Beatles. To lay down the intrumental tracks, Phenom and Drop sought the help of multi-instrumentalist and producer Leo Delao.
The members of DMG also began writing more upbeat lyrics. Their song "Never Change" became the model for this new, sunnier vibe. The propulsive chorus sounds like a long-lost classic from the legendary R&B label Stax Records that is, until the boys start rapping. Call it hip-pop. The song opens with a delicious four-way harmony, in which the boys pledge to keep making music, despite the doubters who tell them to "stop wasting your time chasing those dreams."
Q says the song was meant to help them maintain their focus: "A lot of people tell you that there's no future in music. I don't blame them, but they have to understand that sometimes you got to make sacrifices, and we have a dream, and we want to push it, and that's what the song is about."
DMG's look was the last step in their evolution. Kalli, who loves electronic music, sports a faux-hawk and rocks a retro skinny white tie with his laceless Vans sneakers. Q is the complete opposite with his relaxed, long surfer-style mane and loose-fitting jeans. In concert the band performs simple, synchronized dance steps. Which sort of begs the question: Is DMG a boy band? And if so, is that a bad thing?
"There's a stigma that boy bands are a cookie-cutter creation," Phenom says. "But we're not the type of act that fits that stereotype; we write our own music."
Even with their catchy melodies, the four boys are well aware that the music business is a hard industry to crack. "Every local person that makes it is an inspiration to us, from Pretty Ricky to Pitbull to Gloria Estefan," Q says. "We are told that Miami is a tough city to make it in the music business. I guess we're gonna find out."
Either way with or without support from a major label the group's manager, Orlando Leiba, and Drop plan on releasing DMG's debut by the beginning of next year. For Phenom, that moment can't come soon enough. He's utterly confident the band will be hitting the road in the near future. "I'm looking forward to interacting with all our fans that we made through Myspace," he says. "It would be great to finally meet them face to face."
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