Toronto’s R&B Princes: Clash Meets dvsn
“It’s almost like shooting and there’s not even a target, because you can’t even see the chance of success.”
It’s hard to imagine a time before Drake put ‘the 6’ firmly on the map. But any Toronto artist pre 2009, let alone R&B ones, were destined to be the underdog. However, dvsn (pronounced ‘division’) are part of the “second generation” Toronto artists, after Drake, The Weeknd and PARTYNEXTDOOR. Made up of singer/songwriter Daniel Daley, and super producer Nineteen85 (Paul Jeffries), dvsn are highly respected stalwarts of the R&B scene.
The duo are in the middle of their Working On My Karma tour, in support of their fourth studio album. Speaking to Daley while in Dallas, he explains why the OVO family, of which they’ve been a member of since 2016, is such a tight knit unit. “Being with OVO is a bunch of guys that all understood what it was like when there was nothing. So I think that creates a certain level of character in everybody, where we know that 10 years ago there was no chance for any of us.”
There’s a real ‘pay it forward’ mentality, which has been put into practice on this tour. One of their outstanding backing singers, Kim Davis, was a successful artist when dvsn were coming up, “She was like Toronto’s young Mary J. Blige to us.” The untapped potential of many Toronto creators is a constant reminder of what could have been.
All the more reason then, for Daley and Jeffries to hold onto the chemistry that’s got them this far. Daley’s early years were in rap, before becoming a solo R&B singer, whereas Jeffries started out as a self-taught guitarist in a rock band. He steadily expanded into production, where as well as joining dvsn, he also produced some of Drake’s biggest hits, such as ‘One Dance’, ‘Hotline Bling’ and ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home‘.
This foundational interloper mindset now functions as the compass for dvsn. As the name suggests, their music is for people who don’t wish to be subsumed into the mainstream, “We’re completely cool just seeing this one thing that no one else sees, and standing by it regardless.” This is where OVO comes into its own, as both a solid support system, and a hands-off creative director, “We’ve never had an issue with creative control, or someone telling us we have to make music like this or like that.” Not to mention having an unobstructed view of Drake’s moves, “Just being able to look and see the biggest artist in the game [who] is laying his blueprint right in front of you.”
Daley doesn’t mince his words; he and Jeffries are “very different”, but that’s what makes it work, “He’s the kind of guy that would be skipping grades in school, I was the kind of guy getting kicked out of school.” This can lead to artistic tensions, but the outcome is always in harmony, “We can fight about 30 things, but the one thing we agree on, me and him will fight the world for it.” There is certainly a pattern of opposites attracting within OVO, from Daley and Jeffries, to Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman of Majid Jordan, to Drake and 40. “They [Drake and 40] remind me a lot of me and 85…Whether they agree on everything or don’t… there’s a certain level of trust with the thing that they’re most passionate about, which is music.”
Daley describes having “R&B embedded in my soul”, so despite his wide-ranging musical inspirations, from country to rap to rock, and Jeffries’ extensive knowledge and skill set, R&B is their only landing spot, “He [Jeffries] always pushes things sonically and sound wise, and tries to create these interesting environments to put me in vocally, because he knows no matter what, the R&B parts are going to leak out still.”
Commercial success is important to most artists, and in Daley’s words, “You want to feel as though anyone who should listen to this music, knows about it and is hearing it and is relating to it.” But when tracks are break out hits, or go viral, such as ‘Touch It’ has on TikTok, you’re balancing a fine line between mass inclusion and alternative adoption. “Why on earth would you care or want the mainstream to acknowledge you because it’s almost less ‘the thing’ that everybody loves you for?” Herein lies the question many ‘outsider’ artists come to face when success catches up with them.
As the title indicates, ‘Working On My Karma‘ is a 12-track album dedicated to the messy, often hidden parts of ourselves. Legendary producer Jermaine Dupri co-produced half of the project, and although this was a very welcome outcome, it wasn’t planned. Talking of their first meeting, Daley explains how the collaboration almost never happened, “It was very ‘hi and bye’ and cut and dry initially. Then we actually got to sit down one more time, and we ended up talking the whole time.” Daley describes it as “an album based on the chemistry”, and considers Dupri family, also crediting him for opening the doors to Atlanta, the musical trajectory of which he likens to Toronto.
One track from the album made the most noise by far. ‘If I Get Caught‘ is co-produced by Dupri and samples Jay-Z’s line, “I was just f***ing them girls, I was gonna get right back” from ‘Song Cry’, alternating with, “If I get caught cheating, that don’t mean I don’t love you.” It’s not hard to imagine how these words sparked debates all over the internet. Daley explains they always show the multifaceted nature of relationships, which usually women are “100% in agreement on”, but that this time, “a lot of women were triggered by [this topic]”, hence the outcry. Although the duo hoped a conversation would be had, the initial debates felt stacked against them. But as more people understood the song as part of the wider album narrative, their perspectives shifted, “The whole album is supposed to be a mirror, a mirror that a lot of people don’t want to look at.” As a mini payback for the dragging, and something I experienced in London, Daley cuts the track short on stage, “You’re jumping up and down screaming at the top of your lungs… Remember when you guys were mad?”
Although Daley loves the unpredictability and energy of the crowds, he admits that touring and recording schedules make it tricky to maintain deep, romantic relationships. “It’s hard finding somebody that actually has the patience for this, and what your life entails, and how it moves in cycles.” Whilst in downtime he can be “the best domesticated man that a girl could ever want”, during tour, he’s almost unreachable, “I can’t even hold up a text conversation because I’m doing 30 million things.” Especially on this tour, which includes fan tattoos of the DVSN symbol personally inked by Daley, there is little time for anything else. Although the changes in routine give Daley writing material, it seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy that fuels artistic success but limits personal attachments.
The higher the DVSN star rises, the harder their compass will have to work. But they don’t seem easily diverted, “When everyone was making trap music, we came in with a song saying, ‘I’m in too deep and don’t want to pull out’ over some slow jam stuff with a choir singing that.” ‘Too Deep‘ (2016) currently has almost 67 million plays on Spotify.
The entire time we are speaking, Daley is getting ready to leave his hotel room and catch another flight. This is as much a path out of Toronto, as it is one that will always lead back there.
Words: Nicola Davies
Photography: Nate Shuls