We couldn’t get enough of them. Their songs were our soundtrack, and we laughed, danced, cried and loved along with them. They flashed across our radio and TV burning brightly — but where have they been lately? As you’ll find out in this regular feature, sometimes the stories behind your favorite songs are more interesting than the hits themselves.
Who?: City High
Biggest hit: “What Would You Do” (2001)
Why do I know that name?: If you watched the 11th season of “The Real World” from Chicago or remember the mama-drama smash “What Would You Do,” you’ll recall that the tune was sung by a Fugees-like trio called City High who quickly blew up and then disappeared almost as fast. The group, comprised of singer/rappers Ryan Toby, Robby Pardlo and Claudette Ortiz, originally came together as a duo featuring solo singers/songwriters Toby and Pardlo, who were signed to Fugees member Wyclef Jean’s Booga Basement imprint. “It was sort of like ‘Making the Band,’ ” said Toby of the duo’s origin. “Wyclef put us together. We all went to the same high school, but not at the same time. I met Robby when I was a senior and he was coming in as a sophomore, and when he was a senior, Claudette came in as a freshman. We didn’t meet until after high school and we started working together through a mutual friend who was managing Robby.”
After Pardlo signed a solo deal with Jean, Toby was brought in to write songs for the album, and because Jean knew he could sing from his small supporting role in Sister Act II, he suggested the two form a K-Ci & JoJo-like group. By chance, Ortiz was brought in to sing the hook on “What Would You Do,” and the rest is history.
The “new Fugees”: “I was like, why is she singing the hook? But when ‘Clef heard her, he was like, ‘Who’s that girl?’ And when he saw her he fell in love and they were like, ‘You could be the next Fugees!’ ” Toby recalled. “What Would You Do” first popped up on the soundtrack to the 1999 Eddie Murphy movie “Life,” and then was included on the band’s eponymous 2001 debut with a new mix that interpolated bits of Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode.” The unlikely hit about a woman who becomes a stripper to make money to feed her kid was a top-10 smash and was quickly followed by another top-20 single, “Caramel,” on which Ortiz sang lead. A third single, “City High Anthem,” didn’t hit as big. “We were blowing up pretty fast,” Toby said. “But we were three solo artists that were put into a group situation. It was successful and rolling along, but there was still that thing where everyone wanted their solo careers. It started to take a toll on us, and with the rigorous schedule and being with each other 24 hours a day we decided we had to go our separate ways before we wanted to knock each other’s heads off.”
An end … and a new beginning: The band appeared in a series of mini commercials/ music videos promoting 2002′s “The Real World: Chicago” and then quietly disbanded a year later. But that wasn’t the end for Toby and Ortiz, who got married and started a family shortly after. Toby — who co-wrote the hits “Miami” for Will Smith and “Caught Up” for Usher, as well as two songs on Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough — has completed work on his solo album, Soul of a Songwriter, which he plans to release later this year on his own label. Ortiz has finished work on her self-titled solo debut, due this spring on Interscope, which features tracks co-written by Toby and such hitmakers as Bryan-Michael Cox, Dre & Vidal and the Trackmasters, with guest spots from Fabolous and the Game. Though he hasn’t spoken to Pardlo since the group broke up, Toby said his old bandmate is back in New Jersey working on music and producing.
The moral: “Success isn’t worth risking a friendship and peace of mind,” said Toby. “We got lucky because we got the exposure and we got to travel and sell records and make money and then part ways and go back to our solo careers.”
Who?: Crazy Town
Biggest hit: “Butterfly” (2001)
Why do I know that name?: Fewer acts in recent memory looked like less likely pop-pin-up material than the tattooed and pierced club kids that made up Hollywood’s Crazy Town. Formed by rapper/producers Seth “Shifty Shellshock” Binzer and Bret “Epic” Mazur in 1995 out of an earlier group called Brimstone Sluggers, the band eventually morphed into a collective that was equally influenced by punk rock, hip-hop, pop and old-school metal. Mazur, whose father was once Billy Joel’s manager, went to high school with Ice Cube and House of Pain’s Everlast and Danny Boy, and began making beats at a young age, working on records by Eazy-E, Bell Biv DeVoe, Prince and MC Lyte, briefly serving as House of Pain’s DJ and helping put together and produce the first album by the Black Eyed Peas. As nü-metal bands like Limp Bizkit were ruling the charts, the duo hatched their idea for a group that blended rock and hip-hop in a different way, bringing in a group of backing musicians that included Doug “Faydoedeelay” Miller on bass, guitarists Rust Epique and Anthony “Trouble” Valli, turntablist DJ AM and James “JBJ” Bradley J. on drums.
“Butterfly” to the top: The group’s 1999 debut, The Gift of Game, was produced by friend and nü-metal go-to guy Josh Abraham (Orgy, Limp Bizkit) and featured special guests KRS-One and dancehall toaster Mad Lion. While the first two singles, “Toxic” and “Darkside,” failed to connect, the third, the smooth pop-rap hybrid “Butterfly,” along with its cartoony punk-girl-nymph video, became one of the biggest-selling singles of the year. “We were on the road for a year and a half at the point that ‘Butterfly’ hit,” said Mazur while driving to a recording session in Los Angeles recently. “When it went #1 in 15 countries we were in Germany, and pretty much everywhere else in the world we were known for more than that song, but in the U.S. it was ‘Butterfly’ except for some kids who knew us from the second stage at Ozzfest.” While they had worked hard to earn their success, several of the group’s members had debilitating drug habits and the pressure to follow up “Butterfly” marked the beginning of the end.
Darkhorse loses the race: “We were more than ‘Butterfly,’ and when the second record came out and it wasn’t hip-hop crossover like that song the label didn’t know what to do with it,” said Mazur of 2002′s more rock-oriented Darkhorse, which found Kraig “Squirrel” Tyler replacing Epique on guitar (Epique would die of a heart attack at the age of 35 in 2004) and former Shuvel drummer Kyle Hollinger taking over for Bradley. Despite a guest guitar solo from Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo on the single “Hurt You So Bad,” the group had trouble regaining whatever street cred they had left. “Everyone seemed to love the album, and then our management signed Shania Twain, we came back from Europe and it was almost like the record was dead before it started.” Because “Butterfly” had gotten so big, the group’s fears that it would define its career came true. Though they were really tight before, success began pulling them apart and Mazur said they realized they were not what they had set out to be. “It’s a lot easier to manage working on your own than as part of a band with six people,” Mazur said of the group’s acrimonious dissolution in 2003. “It’s like having six ex-wives.”
What now?: Mazur and Tyler have gone back to producing under the name the Pharmacy, with two songs on the recent Plain White T’s album and an upcoming debut they wrote and produced for a singer named Rama Duke. Binzer, whose poppy 2004 solo debut, Happy Love Sick, was a flop, scored a dance hit with his vocals on the 2002 Paul Oakenfold tune “Starry Eyed Surprise,” has completed an album under the name Cherry Lane and has been performing around Los Angeles in his new band, Porno Punks. DJ AM has become a staple of the tabloids, getting more attention for his exploits dating Nicole Richie and Mandy Moore than his turntable skills, though he has several residencies and reportedly commands more than $20,000 for a three-hour set.
The moral: “It’s not like we live in the past and think about what could have been,” Mazur said. “We were lucky to have the success we had and we got to see the entire world and had a #1 hit. If it had been handled right, maybe we’d still be together. But after going through that experience, I’m happy with where I am in my life.”
Ever wonder what happened to Semisonic? How about Snow? Ace of Base? Tell us which faded stars you’d like us to check up on, and you just might find them in a future edition of “Where Ya Been?” Send us your suggestions and we’ll get digging …
Past “Where Ya Been?” artist profiles:
“Where Ya Been? Lilith Fair Edition: Sarah McLachlan, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb”
“Where Ya Been? ’90s Hip-Hop Edition: Onyx, MC Lyte, Rob Base, Young Black Teenagers”
“Where Ya Been? Grunge Edition: Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney”
“Marvelous 3 Now Down To One, SWV End 10 Years Of Resting Their Voices”
“Sammie Graduating To Comeback, Third Eye Blind Can See Clearly Now”
“Vitamin C Juicing Up A Comeback, Fastball Heading Back To The Mound”
“Dream Wake Up, ‘Sex’ Burns Marcy Playground”
“Willa Ford Strips Down, Jesse Camp Drops Out”