Dwele’s not exactly an emcee, but he’s as Hip Hop as they come. The Detroit soul singer got his start by working with the likes of J Dilla, Slum Village and Bahamadia, and the past couple years have seen him contribute hooks to superstars Common and Kanye West. Last year’s Grammy Awards serve as a perfect example of Dwele’s dual citizenship between Hip Hop and R&B: both his interpretation of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” and his collaboration with Kanye, “Flashing Lights,” were nominated for awards. Dwele hopes to capitalize off of his newfound exposure with Sketches of a Man—his upcoming LP that he says is more Hip Hop than his previous two releases. In an interview with MichiganHipHop, Dwele talks about smoky sound sessions with Dilla; revisits the storied Breakfast Club with Elzhi (of Slum Village), Lacks (currently known as Ta’Raach), Hodge Podge (currently known as Big Tone) and 87; and how he would organize his ideal album with no strings attached.
The new album, Sketches Of A Man, comes out [next week]. What direction did you choose to go with it?
This album is pretty much a blend of everything I’ve done so far. I’ve got a little bit of the soul from Subject, a little bit of the jazz from Some Kinda… This time around, I kind of touched on the Hip Hop a little bit, as far as the production goes. It leans a little bit more toward the Hip Hop side of things, and that’s just because I feel like with my music, I’ve always been influenced by soul, jazz and Hip Hop. I always try to touch on that; this one is just leaning a little bit more towards the Hip Hop.
What made you take more of a Hip Hop approach? You’ve done a lot of work with emcees, and a lot of soul artists get backlash from working with rappers so often.
Taking the Hip Hop approach is just something that happened. That’s just where I was when I was creating this album, and that’s what came out of it. I don’t think the backlash thing is happening too much, being that I came into the game on a Hip Hop record, working with Slum Village with “Tainted.” So I think that when I work with Hip Hop artists, that’s me going back to where I started.
How is the new album more Hip Hop? Does the production just knock more?
Yeah, as far as the production, I think the beats are a little bit harder. They’ve got the hop feel to it. Also, I grabbed production from Nottz, out of VA. He’s known for doing [production for] a lot of Hip Hop artists like Busta Rhymes, so we worked together on this one also. Of course, it still has the same soul vibe to it, but I think the drums are a little bit harder on this one.
Who are some rappers you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?
I would love to put a song together with Jay-Z and Ghostface, that’d be my ultimate song right there. But I’d have the two of them singing and I’d be rhyming [laughs].
[Laughs] So who’s making the beat? You?
Nah, I’d have The Neptunes do the beat.
It was sort of low-key, but you were nominated for your first Grammy last year. What was that like?
It was good to get out there and actually see the behind the scenes to the whole thing. I actually got nominated twice: once for the Kanye, and once for my interpretation of “That’s the Way of the World” on an album called Interpretations. I think once you go on, it puts it in you that you want to go back every year. So I’ve got to get back again next year.
How did you end up “Flashing Lights?”
From what I understand, it was just Kanye reaching out. We had already worked through Common on “The People” single, and it was real last minute. He flew me out, we cut the joint, and that was it.
Did you expect for the song to get as popular as it got?
I figured it would get its play, because it’s a Kanye joint, and Kanye always gets play. But I didn’t think it was going to hit the way it hit. But it was the same feeling with “Tainted.” I think “Tainted” did big things, and I wasn’t expecting it to do that.
Is there any reason why you weren’t in any of the videos?
From what I understand, they contacted my management about the video shoot when I was in Japan. They were talking about flying me out, but I was under contract in Japan, doing a residency at the Blue Note. So it didn’t happen.
What has it been like working with Kanye West and Common?
It was good. Me and Com have always spoke on working [together], so we finally had a chance to make it happen. Unfortunately, I was running and Common was running when we actually cut that joint. It was moreso he would cut his pieces and throw em to me, I would cut where I was and throw it back to him, and we would kind of ping pong like that. We worked through modern technology on that joint, as opposed to with Kanye, where I actually had a chance to go into the studio with him. It was good working with ‘Ye. To see him work out of seven studios at the same time was crazy, I’d never seen anything like that before. This building, he has seven studios running at the same time, getting songs mixed and different engineers, bouncing back and forth. His work ethic is crazy. He’s a busy dude, he’s got a lot going on. And he talks about fashion all the time. [laughs] We worked for about 20 minutes and talked about fashion for the rest of the time, I swear.
Does working with Kanye and Common induce pressure, whether from you or from fans, to get them to contribute to your album?
Not really pressure. I’ve always been the kind of artist that likes to just do my thing. If a guest appearance comes along, cool, I’m with that. But if it doesn’t happen, I don’t feel like it’s missing. But most definitely, I’d love to work with them on my album, and maybe we might be able to make it happen next time around, but I don’t think my album is lacking because they’re not there. I didn’t really feel any pressure to have them on the album.
What has working with them done for your visibility?
I think it was good. I think most definitely working with Kanye really opened up peoples’ ears to my music that otherwise hadn’t heard my music. It’s something I figured would happen, and I hoped would have happened with that single. It also got me a [Grammy] nomination, which is a beautiful thing, always. Hopefully, it’s opening a new chapter in my musical career.
You worked with J Dilla a lot. What are some memories you’ve had with him, musically or otherwise, that really stick out to you?
Dilla was just a great person all around. I guess one of my favorite memories was working with him on the Welcome 2 Detroit album for the song “Think Twice.” I did the music on that joint—the keys, the bass and the horns. Dilla actually sang on that joint, and it was the first time I saw somebody in the sound booth with a mic and a blunt. [laughs] He was singing, and he was pulling from the blunt in between his words. It was unbelievable; I had never seen anything like that before. He took the art of weed smoking and took it to the next level, and combined it with music. It was crazy.
How has working with him helped your artistry, both as a vocalist and as a producer?
I think he’s helped a lot. I’m most definitely inspired by Dilla. I think Dilla has inspired a lot of artists, a lot of producers. It’s just the feel that he had. Detroit has kind of adopted it as the Detroit sound, and most definitely Dilla played a part. As far as Hip Hop goes, I came up listening to Tribe [Called Quest], and I know that even before Dilla was “Dilla,” he had a lot to do with the sound of Tribe. I grew up as a fan, so most definitely getting to work with him [and see him] operate in person and in the flesh had a profound effect on my artistry, as far as my singing and my production goes.
Along with Sketches of a Man, you’ve had unreleased projects. You had the Breakfast Club project, with Elzhi and Lacks. Why didn’t that see a proper release?
I think it was what it was back in the day. I think we were happy just to put it out and let it circulate around Detroit city, and to get a little exposure off of it. I don’t think our goal back in the day was to travel the world or let it see the light of day in Cali or New York. That’s not really what we were checking for back then. We just wanted to see it circulate in the city, so that’s as far as we took it.
Would you ever revisit it?
I would love to. That’d be dope. We actually talked about that. It’s kind of complicated now, ‘cause we’re all under different contracts. It takes a little bit more to get everybody together than it did back in the day when we were just doing this for fun.
You also had another project, Johnismyname.
[Pauses] Ah, yeah. That’s a project, man, I think I leaked it a little prematurely. That’s a project that I really want to put my all into, and it’s really creative. I have to be in the right situation as far as a label goes, I have to be in the right situation to put that out. That’s why that project hasn’t fully seen the light of day yet.
You’re known for playing both keys and the horn. What’s your first love?
I would have to say the keys. I’m more comfortable with the keys, but when it comes to actually recording, I enjoy the horn. When I cut my horn parts, I like to think of them as my second voice. I try to do harmonies with the horns, I try to almost make choruses with the horns. So both of them are my loves, it’s kind of impossible to pick. I like them all for different reasons.
I’ve talked to some music heads about what I should ask, and a lot of people said, “Dwele is really dope, but too much of his material sounds the same.” They said Some Kinda… sounds too much like Subject.
I’ve heard that before, and I can respect that. All I can do is try to change up things. I think I was using pretty much the same sounds with Subject and Some Kinda… With this album, I tried to change it up a little bit. That’s where having different producers comes in and kind of plays their part. I tried to stretch it a little bit, but without straying too far from my original style, from what I‘m known for doing. Because I know personally, I’ve seen my favorite artists; you know you get used to hearing one thing from them, and you love it, and then all of a sudden they switch up, it’s something totally different, and you can’t really dig it. It’s cool; change is good, but I think it should happen gradually. I do way wild out there shit on top of my more mainstream stuff I’m known for. Eventually I do want to get into all of that, but I think it’s sort of a pattern you have to take. You have to soften people up to that; you can’t really just hit ‘em with it. So that’s kind of the approach I’m taking. I’m trying to change it up slowly but surely. I’m trying to do a few different things with this album.
How would you describe your music that’s really out there? If you could make whatever project you wanted—no sales, fans, or anything else involved—what would it sound like?
Man, the project would just be everything from the soul that you know, to some space shit. [laughs] I wouldn’t even really know what to say. It would be like a 2008 Songs In the Keys of Life. I think Stevie Wonder, with that album, he hit on every spectrum of music that is out there, and I would try to do that with that project. I would just try to put out an album that couldn’t really be categorized. Something that can’t just be called “soul,”’ that just can’t be called “rock.” I just try to come with some other shit, and after this one it’ll be some other shit.
Dwele’s album Sketches of a Man hits stores June 24, 2008