Devyne Stephens: The Beat Of Success

Every part of the music industry is a hustle—from starting a group to managing an artist, to being put on as a hair stylist. And what about poppin’, twisting and “one-two” steppin’ to the hottest southern anthems coming out of the South? Devyne Stephens knows the all-around hustle better than most. His road to success was initially filled with huge obstacles, but as he began to learn the business, he carved and shaped his talents according to what artists needed. Devyne is responsible for the choreography in videos for various artists including Usher, Ciara, Mary J. Blige, Sean “Diddy” Combs, TLC and countless others.

Devyne grew up like most artists, with music in his blood. His first career aspiration was to become a singer/songwriter, but when that route didn’t prove to be rewarding, he opted for his own brand of storytelling. With every step comes a story - the depiction or illustration of lyrics being put into motion like an Alvin Ailey ensemble. It’s a thread that together builds emotion, takes viewers on a journey and at the end forces us say, “Damn, I wish I could do that”. Alternatives sits down with one of the most sought-after choreographers of our time to discuss the universal language of dance, the various aspects of his career, and his position as CEO of the Upfront Entertainment record label, home to R&B sensation Akon. Alternatives: You [recorded] a song called “Uh-Huh”. I believe the song was done in 2000. Are you still singing, or are you just purely focusing on choreographing?

Devyne: Well, it’s hard to completely stay away from the thing you love must. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love to dance, but singing is what I started to do from the get-go.

AHHA: In actuality you’re more than a triple threat, since you choreograph, sing, write, develop artists and mange a record label. How do you fit all that into a daily schedule?

Devyne: It’s nice having people work for you. [Laughing] No, but seriously, it took a lot of time to get to where I am. I mean each step I took was a baby one. As soon as I felt like I had one area under control, I branched out into another. Aside from all that, everything just kind of came together. I know it sounds like a cliché but it’s true. I was truly gung-ho about singing but when that didn’t really pan out the way I wanted, I was lucky enough to have people notice my other gifts and what I could do on the dance floor.

AHHA: How and when did this whole dancing thing start for you?

Devyne: It started when I was growing up in a housing project called Red Oak. I remember being dead broke at the time. The buzz back then was about a group called Outkast. Here in Atlanta word spreads fast. I was trying to get this singing thing off the ground, so I began to meet people, very important individuals who later were responsible for many of today’s superstars. I met Teddy Riley, Rodney Jerkins and LA Reid. My group and I, Devyne featuring 90 Miles Per Hour, really hit the studio hard, but we weren’t getting the exposure we needed. We had a deal and lost it.

Also at the time I would go to clubs and become the center of attention as I use to be a “circle-maker” - you know those people that create circles in the middle of the dance floor and just shake their asses off until the place shuts down. Well, people knew that I could dance so LA [Reid] introduced me to Usher, and I worked with him on one of his first videos, “Call Me the Mack”. Plus, choreographing proved to be more lucrative so I was like, “Hey, this is nice!” I ran with it.

AHHA: Whom did you work with after that gig with Usher?

Devyne: It’s weird because things snowballed from there. I worked with Boys II Men, Pebbles, Toni Braxton and TLC. Back then the music scene was all about LaFace Records.

AHHA: What do you pull from to come up with new and innovative dance moves?

Devyne: I pull from many different sources past and present. When I’m on the road with artists, I usually go to that city’s most popular club as well as that city’s most rundown ones…the hole-in-the-walls. You’ll be surprised what you can see and learn in those places. I lean against the wall and observe what people are doing. Some stuff I already know or have been exposed to, and other moves are new and fresh. Sometimes I pick up on them and combine them with routines I already have in my repertoire.

AHHA: You know what’s amazing to me, is how we call ourselves African-American but really don’t have a connection to the African part of that self-proclaimed identity, but when it comes to dancing we tap into our ancestral roots as if we’ve grown up in a tribe all of our lives. Do you see

the connection between the ways we dance here in America and the way different tribes dance in Africa? What baffles me is that most of our youths haven’t traveled beyond the walls of South Central or the Bronx, but some how, some way they come up with dances that mimic those of our African peoples. Do you notice this?

Devyne: This is one of the reasons why I like the movie Rize so much. It brilliantly made that correlation…and [dancers] weren’t even aware that we were, or are, in some way synchronizing our moves with that of our fellow Africans.

AHHA: Do you think this happens subconsciously? I remember when some of the cast members of Rize were on 106 & Park, AJ and Free asked about the similarities, and they all said that they were in awe when they saw the footage.

Devyne: It could just very well be in our DNA.

AHHA: How do you come up with a dance step or routine?

Devyne: I like to play off the lyrics. When I did Ciara’s “1, 2 Step” I used this dance we call the Smurf as the foundation. Like I said, every ghetto across the globe has creative kids that come up with different dance moves. I am lucky enough to be in a position that allows me to travel the world, so I scout and watch.

AHHA: You know what I find annoying, is that no matter how danceable a song is rappers just refuse to dance in videos. They’re just standing in the middle of a dance floor letting a chick grind up on him, or better yet, in a car riding with his peeps. I’m like, “Ok, why is 50 exercising to ‘In Da Club?”

Devyne: Rappers think it’s corny to dance. It goes back to lifestyle and how they don’t want to be perceived, because for the most part they think it’s soft to dance.

AHHA: It wasn’t like that in the ‘80s when people battled each other on cardboard.

Devyne: Sadly enough, times have changed my friend.

AHHA: Do you compete with other established choreographers for gigs?

Devyne: I’d like to think that there is more than enough to go around, so no. I respect other dance artists. When you start to compete you begin to hate, and that ain’t cool. Besides, there is no way I can even think that I can simultaneously work with every hot artists. It’s just not


AHHA: Tell us about your label, Upfront Entertainment.

Devyne: Upfront Entertainment is more than a label. It’s also a place where new artists can come for advice and assistance.

AHHA: One of your artists is Akon. How did you guys meet?

Devyne: Akon and I met at a Fugees concert. I immediately saw a spark that I rarely see in artists. I instantly knew he was going to be major.

AHHA: Who else are you working with now?

Devyne: I have a female artist by the name of Candie. Upfront Entertainment focuses on helping artists to fully develop in every aspect so the can eventually become the total package, and I think Akon and Candie can really get there. Akon is already on his way. By total package I mean someone who has finesse, high-quality production and artistry.

AHHA: Name one person who you think has the complete package right now.

Devyne: Usher.

AHHA: Who would you like to work with in the near future?

Devyne: I’d love to show Michael Jackson how to get crunk. You can include James Brown in there too.