THE SULTANS OF SWAG - How a trip around the world turned an ordinary couple into something else.
By Michael Stratford
They've been referred to as 'Pop culture at its best' by Kevin Black, the Interscope executive behind Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani, Prince and others. They won the Akademia Music Award for best dance song for their first single. They're on the airwaves, in the clubs and in the press, receiving hundreds of write-ups to date. Yet, because of their authentic, non-commercial approach to making music, it's quite possible that you've never heard of Millennium. Here's the inside story.
Opposites do attract on so many levels. Growing up, she was the shiest Asian-American in metropolitan Los Angeles and he was a rebel-rouser in small town Peoria, Illinois. If they went to the same high school, they would have hung out in very different circles. They probably wouldn’t have said two words to each other. Ironically, they were both very studious. She went to college to study Chemistry and he studied Biochemistry. Both got their Masters in Business Administration. But she was the nerd who sat in the front row taking notes, and he was the rebel who loved challenging the teachers and making the other students laugh. They also had an affinity for music. She took private piano lessons for ten years and joined the church choir. He trained in piano, cello and bass guitar, and composed and produced his own songs. His home town evidently became too small for him because at twenty-one years old, he packed his bags into a rickety old Dodge and drove to Los Angeles in search of something.
A few years later, she graduated from college and joined the workforce. Their paths crossed for the first time at a large nutrition company, both having landed jobs in the same department. She was still the good girl, attentive and respectful during meetings, and he still had the rebellious streak, constantly challenging protocols and procedures. But they were intrigued by each other and began spending time outside of the office. They loved being with someone who was so different from themselves. At the time, Stryker was deep in his solo project recording his fourth album and still searching for his voice. He's since retained copies of those albums in an impenetrable safe, utterly refusing to let them see the light of day. That's just the kind of obsessive perfectionist he is. Stryker began playing her more of his songs and she was increasingly struck by his songwriting and melodic instincts. She helped him to smooth out his rough edges one bar and lyric at a time bringing a carefree, whimsical attitude to his musical world, as well as much-needed female intuition. Of course there were clashes. She would tell him to slow down and try to follow the rules for once. He would tell her to stop holding herself back and be a little more crazy. This tug of war only accelerated their evolution as people and developed into a bond that was unshakeable. They knew each other's strengths and weaknesses and helped to foster each other's talents.
Life grew stable and he again began searching for meaning in what had become a predictable professional path. They took trips to Brazil, Philippines, Italy, France and Turkey, but it only intensified their desire to experience new frontiers. At the time, the Middle East was constantly in the news, its people and their religious beliefs largely enigmatic or misunderstood by the western world. Perhaps the adventure they were searching for lay there. After much deliberation, they jumped the corporate ship and moved to Turkey, a land completely different from anything they’d known. Living overseas was everything they had imagined and more. Their time there provided the opportunity to reflect and also brought them into close contact with causes that became dear to their hearts. During this time, they also faced countless challenges, including tacit accusations of being CIA agents (why else would a couple with their education and martial arts training settle there?) After two years living abroad, they just woke up one day, gazed across the splendid vista of the Mediterranean and knew it was time to return. But the life they would return to was destined to be different this time. Their time in the volatile Middle East had somehow given them clarity of purpose and the confidence to enter a different type of war zone - the music industry. They moved back to Los Angeles, not to reclaim their old lives, but to focus solely on creating music together.
Like most creative works, the process was a bit like alchemy. Melodies would come to him during the night and he would record a rough vocal take on his Android phone in the darkness, half asleep with eyes squinting. They'd write lyrics over the breakfast table or in a cafe and took their time cultivating each song. Then they would record their voices, hers a soft soprano and his, a steady tenor. They would both smile at each other when it sounded and felt right, and laugh hysterically when it didn't. Composing, producing and mastering were all done by him. Their sound came more easily now, given their travels and the intensity of their experiences together. They had been back in Los Angeles about a year and were performing at The Roxy on Sunset Boulevard. That's when things began to happen. One of the audience members turned out to be Ken Wilson, the Arista and Warner Brothers executive behind Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and K-Ci & JoJo among others. Ken had enjoyed their set and invited them over to his table afterwards. He then said something that would change their view forever and open up a new window. He pointed to the crowd and said, “Look at all of those people in their shirts and jeans with a drink in hand after a long day at work. You talk like them and you dress like them, but you’re not like them. You need to let the freak out.”
And with that simple bit of advice, the last vestiges of doubt fell away and Millennium was borne. Thenceforth, they continued to consult with Ken, whose sage advice proved invaluable. They also began working closely with Kevin Black, the Interscope executive behind Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani & Prince and BJ Lobermann of Virgin Music. While a number of multi-platinum producers were drawn to their project to help refine their sound, collaborations occurred sparingly in order to preserve the creative integrity of their music. According to Stryker, "When I was growing up, there was no term singer-songwriter. That's because the artist was the songwriter, singer and producer." The duo adopted a lifestyle of long hours in the studio, occasional trips to the gym to relieve stress, and countless cappuccinos as they worked on their first album together.
That was two years ago. Now, she is Sapphire and he is Stryker. The origin of their names is not known. Their debut album Fusion is a collection of songs in a range of genres, such as pop rock, dance, funk and reggae, inspired by their life-changing journey together. It is a story of opposites- a record of the fusion of two lives into one and the exultant and difficult times shared throughout the years. Having been among the first to hear the album (which is due to land in stores in the near future), I can say that it is rare for such a combination of songwriting ability, musicianship and artistic identity to occupy the same space and time. Millennium's first single ‘When We Walk In The Place’ is a bold dance song about embracing one’s own personal style. From a couple that has walked all around the world and back, this song carries added weight. Perhaps it's a healthy sign that the duo does not wish to come out of the gates with a song that is too serious or dark. However, it proves to be a thin veil for the uncompromising quality of their more serious songs such as 'Roll', 'All Grown Up' and 'Goodbye', as well as songs that just need to be jammed at high volume, such as "Sunset To Sunrise', 'Jealousy' and 'You Can't Stop Us'.
And so the opposites that we invite into our lives, be them our choice of relationships, new living environment or career, wind up serving the vital role of testing and defining us. If we live our lives in the safe lane, we never acquire that self-knowledge. And without that, other knowledge we acquire really doesn't add up to much. Such has been the journey of Millennium. Back from a soul-searching stay in the Middle East, one thing is clear: Personal style and musical integrity is definitely something that these Sultans of Swag have got locked down. The next step is up to them.