By Rose Parfitt
Dwele’s voice made its first appearance on legitimate vinyl on Recloose’s twisted techno-soul anthem “Can’t Take It”, which delighted every fan of mashed-up genres it reached. Stashed away in his studio, says Dwele, is more evidence of this fusion of Detroit’s two unequalled contributions to world peace (techno, soul), but right now he’s concentrating on the latter. Which is fine, since he is probably the most exciting member of that broad and strong family we call “nu soul” to arrive on the scene in three years or more.
Growing up with Detroit’s open-mike sessions and The Shelter’s notorious battle-raps (as recently immortalised in the film 8-Mile), Dwele naturally started off as an MC. But it was his singing that knocked everybody out (the rhymes were good, but everyone’s an MC in Detroit). Having taken piano lessons through school, played trumpet in the marching band and armed with his first keyboard – a present from his father who died when Dwele was just ten – and later with his trademark Fender Rhodes, he was also more musical than most.
Twenty-five years old now, Dwele put out his first demo Rise in ’98, releasing only a hundred copies for reasons of modesty, financial and emotional. It sold out in a week, and soon the record companies came running. Even with the Virgin deal sorted, it took a couple of years to finish the album off, leaving him only enough time to manage a pizza chain, go to university, work for the AAA and record two tracks for Bahamadia’s album, BBQueen. And the exceptional Slum Village track, “Tainted”.
Meanwhile, and in collaboration with such soulful luminaries as Jake & the Phat Man (percussionist-turntablist for the likes of Angie Stone, TLC and Kelly Price) and Eric Robertson (vocalist with Jill Scott, Osunlade and Musiq, among others) Subject gradually emerged – an album that has the sounds of childhood (Stevie, Donnie, Roy, Miles…Carl Craig…A Tribe Called Quest…) soaked up, grown up, and wrapped up in the essentials life and love.
Dwele, the Rhodes and the band hit the road in a few weeks. They’ll be in Europe from next month, with dates including the Jazz Café in London and the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 16th. So get your pumps on, and keep an eye on www.dwele.net for more info: this is not a gig you want to miss.
Whether he is breaking the trail for a new Detroit soul-sound – descendent of Motown, nephew of the Detroit Three and brother of the forward-thinking hip hop, spanning Slum Village to Eminem, that’s currently got half the world at its feet – will depend on who and what comes next. Whatever happens, this is a man to watch.
Mundovibes caught up with Dwele at breakfast time in Detroit…
Morning. How you doing?
Everything’s good, you know, everything’s good. Everybody’s loving the album, they’re saying. I’ve done a couple of shows, but we should be hitting the road probably in a couple of weeks. We have a couple of shows coming up in New York, Philly. We really got to do the East Coast and I’m sure we got some West Coast dates coming up too. And then we’ll be overseas in July, probably. I’m not sure about the exact dates yet, but we will be coming to the UK. I can’t wait to get there!
Subject’s been some time coming, does it feel good to have it out?
Yeah, it’s been three years in the making, and it’s been the ups and downs and the frustrations and everything but I’m glad that we got to this point right here.
So where did it all start?
I guess it is started with the demo tape. It was called Rise. I put that out in 1998, only made a hundred copies, and I sold them around Detroit City. And Slum Village got ahold of one and brought it to their management, and their management got to me and said we can probably get a deal. I said okay lets do it, and from that a couple of labels came to the table and we decided to go with Virgin Records.
You knew Slum Village before that, right?
Yeah, I met Slum Village maybe a couple of years prior to that just by playing at Café Mahogany. I was playing the Rhodes for a band out there and they would come down a lot and check out the band. And that’s pretty much how we met. Because at the time I was rapping, so we used to bounce songs off of each other. We were kind of the same vein with music, at the time.
So what went on at Café Mahogany and The Shelter?
Café Mahogany was a spot for poetry, and for live jazz bands and things like that, on the weekends and stuff. The Shelter was one of the places that I promoted the tape at. I never really got into too many MC battles up there, I was kind of like the low-key MC, the MC that just played for myself!
And how were you making the demo, was it all your own work?
Yeah, I did all that pretty much myself, out of the back room of my house. That’s where I have my little studio, so that’s where I go and shut the world out and make my music, until I just finally decided to put something out and see how people would feel about it.
How did you feel about putting your music out there the first time, were you shy about that kind of thing?
I used to be really shy, at first. I wasn’t sure if people would like it, you know, or if people would hate it, I really didn’t know, so I only put out a hundred copies, I wasn’t losing too much money. And they started bootlegging it and copying it and CDRing it and everything.
Yeah, I mean that’s how I think a lot of your tracks made it over here, from being copied and bootlegged…
Yeah. I don’t know, I’m glad it happened. A lot of people don’t like bootlegs and things like that, but in this case I think it was good, I think it helped me out.
Which is your favourite track on the album, which one has the most meaning for you?
It’s a hard question because I like a lot of them. But I had to choose one, I’d probably say “Kick Out of You”. Because that was the one song, it made me stretch out a little bit, it wasn’t necessarily in my vein of music, really. It was kind of experimental almost.
And what about the title track, “Subject”?
I love “Subject” too – I love it! I think I really got my feeling across in that song, what I was really going for. It’s basically about – well actually the album and the song is about me being the artist, looking at a subject the way a painter would look at his subject or a sketch artist would look at his subject. And doing that you have to study everything about the subject, down to the curves of the subject, everything about it. And it just so happens that I’m talking about a woman.
There’s a lot about love…
I was really going for that with this album, because with it being my first album I wanted everybody to be able to relate to it. I feel that that’s one thing that everybody can relate on, is relationships. So that’s what I talked about, because I wanted everybody to be able to get something out of the album. And I think by making the album like this, it kind of opens it up so it can be listened to almost everywhere, whether you’re doing a barbecue or trying to make a baby you know, you can put the album on and listen to it.
You’ve used quite a lot of aliases in some of the stuff you’ve done, I hear. Are you also Platinum Pied Pipers?
Um, I don’t know anything about that…
What about the one with your name spelled backwards, Elleud?
Um, I don’t know anything about that either!
But your birthday is on Valentines Day?
Yeah, it is.
God love the Internet. And Detroit – you’re there now, do you think you’re going to stay there?
Yeah, I’m going to try to stay here as long as I can. As of right now I really don’t see a reason to have to leave Detroit. Because most people leave out of their city and go to New York or LA because that’s where all the producers are or that’s where the labels are and that’s where they go to try to get a deal. But, since I already have a deal and since I do most of my production I think I can pretty much stay rooted in Detroit. And I can bring the work to Detroit, that’s what I’m going to try to do.
What was it like growing up in Detroit? Were you always involved in music?
Growing up in Detroit I wasn’t in the best neighbourhood but I wasn’t in the worst, you know, I grew up pretty much middle class. And as far as music, I always did music. I’ve been doing ever since fourth of fifth grade. I don’t think I really started creating my own music until maybe seventh or eighth grade. But I’ve always done it. I never really shared my music with anybody, I pretty much just kept it to myself until after high school, and that’s when I got a little bit more confident with my music and started letting people hear it a little bit.
Do you come from a musical family?
My mother used to sing but she was a teacher by trade. And my father, he used to play organ every other Sunday if he had time but he was a doctor by trade. And actually before he passed he had bought me my first keyboard, and he taught me a few things about the keyboard. And I think after he passed, by continuing on with it that was my way of honouring him, in a way, by continuing with music. And I think after a while, after I learned a little bit, I learned how to turn my frustrations and my emotions into music.
When you write a song does the music come first or the lyrics?
Most of the time the actual music comes first and I let the music dictate what I write about. But then sometimes it is a lyric that comes first and I do the music around the lyric. It works both ways, but most of the time it’s the music that comes first.
What’s the best thing about performing live?
I like performing live. I think the best thing about performing live is once you get real comfortable with your band and you’re not really worrying about what the band is doing, if they’re hitting the right notes or hitting the wrong notes, you can play around a little bit more on stage. And I love the crowd feedback, it can just make you do everything, they can make you do anything! I haven’t really performed overseas yet, but just from the love that they showed me when I came over to Europe I can’t wait, you know, I can’t wait to perform with the band.
You did the track “Can’t Take It” with Recloose – is there a lot of collaboration between the techno side of Detroit and the soul, hip-hop side of it?
That was actually the only song that I made as far as the techno goes, you know, collaborating with the techno side in Detroit. But I do play around with it myself; I play around with techno and house music and broken beat music. None of it has actually come out, I still haven’t let anybody hear anything. But, I don’t know, maybe I’ll let a few people hear it and if I get the okay on it then maybe I’ll put some of it on the next album, you never know, we’ll see.
Detroit is just amazingly full of talent; all this incredible music has been coming out of there for years – why do you think that is?
I don’t know, I really don’t know. I think by it being the birth place of Motown, our parents grew up watching this great city and this great sound come out of the city, and I think everybody just wanted to be a part of it. And that just trickled down through the generations, and I think everybody else is coming up like that too. Everybody grows up wanting to learn how to play an instrument, or wanting to learn how to sing or rap or something like that. And I think that just promotes good music out of Detroit.
Are there literally people singing and rapping in the street all the time? Because that really doesn’t happen that much over here…
Yeah, yeah. Always. It happens all over the place in Detroit. You can always find an open mike or you can always find a jam session or something going on.
Do you feel, you and Slum Village and the rest of you, like you’re on the crest of a new wave?
Hopefully, hopefully. I’d love to be part of a new wave, the new wave of soul music or hip hop. I’d like to be known as the start of the new Detroit – I would love it!
Philadelphia’s the other city with a long musical history that has the same kind of creativity today – different, but prolific in the same way. Is there a connection or a rivalry between the two cities? What kind of a relationship do they have?
I wouldn’t call it a rivalry, you know, Philly’s doing her thing and I love what they’re doing. And Detroit is doing their thing as well. If anything it’s a collaboration. From Jay and the Roots and James Poyser – Jay Dee [Slum Village] and James Poyser they’re working together – to me working with A Touch of Jazz, we’re trying to connect it. I think they see good music coming out of Detroit, we see good music coming out of Philadelphia and we’re just trying to make it happen. We’re trying to put the world on it.
So what happens next?
As of right now I’m just ready to get out there and get my skills up with performing, get my confidence level up. And I don’t know, make more music, put more out there – go platinum, I’m ready to go platinum! As far as working with different types of music, I’m always trying new things with music, every day. It’s just a matter of time, it’s just a matter of hearing the music a little bit more and finding out whose doing what in the business.
Do you feel excited when you wake up in the morning? Have things changed quite suddenly?
Yeah, it does feel like it’s changed all of a sudden. I always wake up with about seven or eight calls on my cellphone, you know it’s like last week it wasn’t really like that. It’s crazy. My phone just doesn’t stop ringing now…