Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2018

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Lots of rhythm, no blues

There really is no place like home.

That's something sisters Lemisha and Irish Grinstead and their friend Kameelah Williams realized again and again this past year.

The Las Vegas teens, who comprise the up-and-coming R&B group 702, spent much of it away from home.

Former students at the Las Vegas Academy and Las Vegas High School, the girls would board planes after class and head to Los Angeles, where they'd record through the night, taking catnaps and finishing homework assignments between songs.

Then they'd hop on another flight and be back in time for school the next morning. "It was really hectic," recalls Irish, 16.

Their travel schedule included stops in several cities each week. In Washington, D.C., they made an appearance on Black Entertainment Television's "Teen Summit" program alongside Hillary Clinton.

In New York, they tackled the world-famous Apollo Theater. And their "Soul Train" debut airs Saturday (9 a.m., WGN, cable Channel 11).

The girls' hard work is paying off, though. Their first album, "No Doubt" on Biv10/Motown Records, hit store shelves earlier this month; their single, "Steelo" (slang for style), reached No. 18 on last week's Billboard R&B chart.

The hip-hop song is on KCEP 88.1-FM's "power rotation" list, meaning it's played at least once an hour.

"They're one of the hottest requested artists that we have," says the station's morning man, Galaxy Glenn. "I'll play their song and somebody will call me and say, 'Can you play 'Steelo' again?'"

"I see them really climbing the charts," Glenn says. "These ladies have the look and they actually have the talent. These girls can bring it home."

Credit their success to music man Michael Bivins, member of '80s hip-hop groups New Edition and Bel Biv Devoe, who discovered the girls at a music industry convention in Atlanta four years ago.

In a last-ditch effort to snag a recording contract, the trio gave Bivins an impromptu performance -- the same way superstar R&B group Boyz II Men earned their shot at stardom from Bivins several years ago.

"We were begging to sing for him," Lemisha recalls. "At first he was kind of skeptical. He had a big crowd around him.

"So after we finished singing, he asked the crowd, 'How does everybody like 'em?' and the crowd was like, 'Sign those girls! Give those girls a chance!' That's basically how we got our break."

"When I heard them sing," Bevins said later, "I knew that I had found my Supremes."

Despite their chaotic schedule, the trio couldn't be more pleased with their newfound success.

But they also couldn't be more homesick.

"I guess when you go to places like New York, where it's so busy and there's so much traffic ... we got spoiled by Vegas," 18-year-old Kameelah says.

"I miss the sun. I miss the heat," Lemisha, also 18, exclaimed during the group's recent -- albeit brief -- visit to Las Vegas on a promotional tour.

They did manage to make a pit stop at their favorite restaurant, Andrea's Eatery on North Decatur Boulevard, between appearances at KCEP and an album-signing event at a record store.

The home-cookin' diner, tucked in the corner of a strip mall, is owned by the Grinsteads' older sister, Andrea, and her husband, Lovell Randolph, who is also 702's manager. It's sprinkled with promotional posters and postcards.

Before they were rising stars, it was the girls' after-school hangout and part-time job. Kameelah set tables, Lemisha ran the register, and Irish was a short-order cook.

Her specialities: "Smothered pork chops and smothered chicken. Well, I cooked that only once, and the chef had to help me because I probably would have killed the kitchen," she says.

"They come here and help me out sometimes," says Randolph, who's been traveling with the girls.

"We always enforce, 'Don't forget where you come from,' because ... you've still got to know how to communicate with other people and basically be yourselves."

But with a name like 702, it'd be hard to forget their home.

Formerly called Sweeter Than Sugar, the area-code moniker was Bivin's idea, chosen while "he was calling one of us," Kameelah says. "We put all of our trust in him and everything he does."

Also, "We're the only (R&B) group from Las Vegas, and we want to pave the way for people, to let them know that there's a lot of talent in Vegas," Lemisha says.

The girls are quick, however, to downplay Bivins' comparison to the Supremes. For starters, they take turns singing lead on their tunes.

"He doesn't necessarily want us to be like them," Irish explains. "He just wants us to be as successful as they were and for people to remember us 10, 15 years later, like they remember them."

In fact, 702 would rather not be held up to any of the chart-topping female groups of the past -- or present. Especially not their own own idols, Sisters With Voices (SWV) and TLC.

"I think there's something different and unique about every group," Lemisha says. "There's room for a lot more artists in the music industry. We just want to make our own place."

They've apparently made an impression on at least a few fans already.

"We're not realizing that people know us," she says. "Some people ask us for our autographs, and we're like, 'You really want my autograph? Are you sure? You must be mistaking us for SWV.'"

But there's no mistaking 702's sound: a mix of jazz, gospel and hip-hop. The girls' personal music preferences have been woven together with the musical training they received at the Academy.

"We're happy to have been able to give them a little background in music," says the school's vocal department chairwoman, Elizabeth Kamerin, who taught Kameelah for two years and Irish and Lemisha for a semester, before they transferred to Las Vegas High.

"Kameelah is a fine classical musician as well as a popular musician. We're very proud of her."

"We have a lot of very talented students here, but it's nice to see that we have students who are so persistent. They were willing to do a whole lot of extra work."

And make some sacrifices. Kameelah and Lemisha, friends since grade school, spent their senior prom nights together in a recording studio.

Irish, a junior, is still working toward graduation. On the road, she keeps in contact with her tutor via a laptop computer.

She also e-mails her fraternal twin sister, Orish, a junior at Las Vegas High.

"We are the exact opposite," she says. "We have totally different lives. ... I talk to her all the time about everything."

Including what it's like to be an average teen.

"I do miss out on a lot of things," Irish says. "When I come home, she'll go out with her boyfriend and have fun, but I can't."

(Hard to believe none of these beauties have boyfriends, huh? "We're staying focused on what's most important to us," Lemisha says. "Maybe when we turn, like, 20 or 21 we can start thinking about dating again.")

"But," Irish continues, "I also look at it like a lot of teenagers my age wish they could do what I'm doing, so I'm really blessed and I'm grateful."

Still basking in their recent high school graduate status, the older girls say they plan to enroll in college -- "probably UNLV" -- next year and major in business.

Education, Lemisha says, "Should be the most important thing in your life. One thing we've learned is that even though we have this singing career today, tomorrow we may not."

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