June 2010

Soul Mates

Nikki & Rich are a little bit R&B, a little bit Motor City—and a whole lotta fun

Leslie
Gornstein

retro-soul, music, los angeles

In the music business, descriptors like “retro soul” and “alt nostalgia” are oh so six months ago. What once was a signifier of Amy Winehouse–style verve now elicits commercial dread, the worry that yet another manufactured popster has been coached to croon improbable phrases like Can I get a witness?

Then there’s Nikki & Rich. You won’t find any retro-soul laudings on the press material for these rising stars, and yet the vivacious pair have not only championed the genre on their debut album, Everything, which debuts this summer, they’ve done it with so much skill and dash as to defy all conventional wisdom.

Well, Hollywood has taken notice, with television music directors reaching out for their bouncy tracks and showcasing them on such series as Entourage and 90210. Tastemakers find the pair magnetically adorable. Even the album’s more introspective songs—like the gospel-tinged “Yellow Brick Road”—radiate a sort of defiant strength, as if Winehouse had finally decided to sober up and peel herself off the kitchen floor.

Rich is Rich Velonski, a Queens native who has produced for Eve, Ludacris, Robin Thicke and others under the moniker Rich Skillz. Nikki is Nikki Leonti, a big-lunged, Corona-born pastor’s daughter who honed her skills in church choirs. The two began working together in 2008, writing for other artists as well as developing their own sound in Velonski’s Hollywood Hills studio-slash-home. The result: an infectious mashup of R&B, pop and classic 1960s-girl-group grooves.

“We’re generally happy people,” Nikki says. “What we love about the tracks on Everything is that, yes, we have some feel-good songs, but even on the mid-tempo and slow songs, there are a lot of positive messages.”

So how, then, do the two categorize their own sound—neo-Detroit? Millennial Motown? Just let it go, they say.

“It obviously depends on who is listening to it,” Rich muses. “We didn’t have that sort of need to be committed to touching on certain eras or a certain kind of sound. We wanted to have something a little bit old-school, with a ’60s flair, but also take it into now—we wanted to make it sound bigger.”

Amen to that.