Four Shai Guys Alchemize

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THEY MAY SOUND LIKE CHOIRBOYS ON the radio, but right now the four members of Shai are acting more like the frat boys three of them once were. Housebound with Schlitz Malts and junk food on this rainy L.A. afternoon, they've set aside their a cappella harmonies for horseplay: roughhouse nipple-pinching and a gas-emissions contest—the bodily kind.

Of course, it has only been about 10 months since the foursome left Howard University in Washington, and they haven't had much time to polish their manners. Their debut single—a gentle ballad titled "If I Ever Fall in Love" that they recorded for $100—has sold more than a million copies and lifted their first-ever album into pop's Top 10. Since the single's release last October, the group has toured Europe, schmoozed with Jay and Arsenio and even performed at the Inauguration. "There are times we sit back and say, 'Dang, look where we're at!' " says Darnell Van Rensalier, 22, one fourth of the quartet, along with Carl "Groove" Martin, 22, Marc Gay, 24, and Garfield Bright Jr., 23.

Despite the quick ascent, the four insist they are living up to the name Shai (pronounced "shy"), which Gay discovered while thumbing through the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It means "personification of destiny," says Gay, who had been looking for a nickname for an insecure pledge at Alpha Phi Alpha, where Martin, Van Rensalier and he were members. "I gave him the name because no one expected him to do the kind of things that I thought he was capable of, and now that applies to us as a group."

Shai became a group when Martin, an English major from Lafayette, La., and Van Rensalier, a music major from Paterson, N.J., met in 1990 as pledges. Instant friends, they began singing a cappella covers at campus talent shows but quickly recruited fellow frat brother Gay, a zoology major from Miami, and Bright, a political science major from Brockton, Mass., who was a former roommate of Van Rensalier's.

Early last year, with $100 borrowed from Martin's brother, the four cut a demo tape featuring a song that Martin had written after breaking up with his girlfriend in Houston. He was driving back to Washington after the split when, he says, "I swear, that song came to me. Here's verse one; here's the chorus; here's verse two; the chorus; here's the bridge. I didn't think about it. I didn't write it down. I didn't do anything. I think God sent it, I really do."

Failing to interest any record companies, the group slipped their tape to a Washington radio deejay after a charity Softball game and talked him into playing it on the air. Within minutes, callers jammed the phone lines to the station—the guys have since admit led placing some of those calls themselves—and the single went to No. 1 in D.C. Soon afterward, the station's affiliates in Houston and Phoenix added the demo tape to their playlists as well. Within a month the foursome had inked a seven-record deal with Gasoline Alley, a division of MCA. "The album was done in three weeks, and that worked to the group's advantage," says Gasoline Alley president Randy Phillips. "It didn't give us time to screw around with the music."

It also didn't leave the group much time to prepare for fame. At one appearance in a Detroit record store, the four were so mobbed by fans, police had to escort them out a back entrance. "Sometimes girls scream and run in the opposite direction, or else they'll freeze with their mouths hanging open," marvels Bright.

Putting their college careers on hold for now, the group has moved out of student housing (where Van Rensalier's room was so rodent-ridden that Gay jokingly called it the Mickey Mouse Club) and touched down in L.A. Van Rensalier, Bright and Gay (who graduated last June) now share a rented three-bedroom home in L.A.'s Baldwin Hills, while Martin is leasing a one-bedroom apartment in Marina del Rey.

Still, none of the Shai-men are settling in for a long stay. With their second single, "Comforter," now climbing the pop and R&B charts, the foursome are preparing for their first U.S. tour this spring and coming to terms with their sudden fame. So far, they say, so good. Adds Bright: "For 23 years I've never perceived myself as a superstar, so I still walk through the mall by myself and give off a good vibe."

JULIE KLEIN in Los Angeles

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