Dwelling on the positive

Aug 17, 2005 at 12:00 am

Andwele Gardner, 27, better known to the music world as Dwele, makes the kind of soul music that suggests he’s more a lover than a fighter. And that may be true. But when you grow up in the neighborhoods that line legendarily tough Joy Road on Detroit’s West Side, you learn quickly when to love, and when to shove.

Sitting inside Pizza Papalis on East Jefferson Avenue, near Detroit’s riverfront, Dwele (pronounced DWELL-ee) talks about one such time. It involves a 2004 tour stop in Austin, Texas. While chatting with his bandmates outside their tour bus, a man approaches his backup singer, a woman, says something in her ear, “and then smacks her on the ass.”

“She looked at me like, ‘Did that just happen?’ And then he came back and said something crazy like, ‘Yeah, bitch, lalalalala.’ It was a done deal. My manager came out of the woodwork with the haymaker. The whole band rushed him. Vern [Vernon Hill, band member] tried to hit him with a trumpet. I tried to stomp him. Then the cops came out of nowhere, and the whole band got pepper sprayed.”

Dwele, whose name means “God has brought me” in Swahili, says the most important thing to come out of the fracas is a bond between him and the band. They know that they have each other’s back.

In Dwele’s case, unity makes perfect sense. Dude is a typical Aquarius, and he admits it. He’s a water sign, a fluid thinker. He’s about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Throw in some people-oriented mental energy, and you may have this guy figured out.

He’s not solely lover or fighter. He’s whatever works for him and his people.

This temperament fueled Dwele’s 2003 Virgin Records debut CD, Subject. The company paid for the video for the lead single, “Find a Way.” A couple other cuts, “Hold On” and “Sho Ya Right,” found more radio love. But that was it. Virgin opted not to spend a lot on a new artist.

The album still pushed more than 250,000 units. The company opened its eyes. It’s rare in today’s music industry that a project sells well on its own. When it happens, it heightens expectations for the follow-up. Subject’s showing made a lot of people, at the label and in the streets, take notice of Dwele’s voice and writing.

“To me, it’s the way he does his vocals,” Slum Village’s T3 says of Dwele, whose baritone recalls Donny Hathaway’s. “His melodic tone is what makes Dwele one of the most unique singers.”

His sophomore project, Some Kinda, is due Oct. 4, and Virgin is putting more energy behind this one. “I Think I Love You,” the lead single, is already getting airplay. And Dwele is looking forward to seeing the promotional loot placed behind him this time: a second video, an official second single, second tour.

These might seem like pipe dreams to the average kid from the ’hood. But Dwele’s folks positioned him early to see that a world existed beyond his block.

“I was raised in the ’hood, but went to predominantly white schools,” he says. In a chocolate city like Detroit, the private schooling broadened Dwele’s perspective. He encountered two different environments daily for years. They were like night and day. “When you’re in that kind of zone, you get the best of both worlds. In the ’hood, I had hip-hop. In school, I was listening to AC/DC. So I love hip hop and hard rock.”

He attended institutions like St. Mary’s of Redford and Bishop Borgess High School. He spent his senior year at Cody, a Detroit public school. It’s where he says he had the most fun musically. But he’d sharpened his skills at Borgess where, after the school fired its music director, Dwele says he and two friends became the school’s marching band and house band.

By the time he got to Cody, he’d learned to play trumpet and piano. He’s since added guitar and bass guitar to his repertoire.

A longtime associate of kindred spirits like Slum Village, rapper-producer Lacksadaisical (Lacks) and Jay Dilla, Dwele eventually began working with the Barak Records camp. His appearance on Slum’s 2002 hit “Tainted” paved the way for his own debut — and success.

At this point, Dwele typically makes two or more promotional trips to Europe each year. Like his stablemates, his music does well abroad, and reaches a broader audience.

“I would have to say London is my favorite place,” he says. “You ever been somewhere before and been like, ‘I should move here’? That’s what I felt. The people are real cool. And I love the music scene. Plus, I love chicks with English accents.

“It’s like, here, soul music attracts people 20 to 40 years of age. Neo-soul people. There, it can be a 20-year-old African next to a 55-year-old Irish guy, and they both know the words to the songs. They have a wider appreciation for music. It’s dope.”

He stresses his love for his hometown, but acknowledges that there’s a lack of support for artists and a lack of unity among them.

In London, he gets superstar attention and can sell out the famed Jazz Café five nights in a row. Here, he’s just another D-boy ordering a Lil’ Bambino pizza. People hardly notice him. They definitely don’t realize that they might have shaken their ass to his song.

Not to say he is completely invisible in Detroit. He can walk the street unmolested, yes. On the other hand, he had to move out of his mom’s house to his own place downtown because, as he says, “People started showin’ up at my door. The final straw was when this guy came over. We were in the back yard barbecuing. It was me, my moms, my little brother. He went to answer the front door, and came around the back sayin’, ‘It’s some guy there askin’ for you.’ So I walk around to the front and [the guy says], ‘Man, I remember I came over to your house 10 years ago with such-and-such! And you were doin’ music. And I saw your video. Yo, man, I just got out of jail, and I was hopin’ I could come down to your basement and cut a song so you could hear me rhyme. And I dance! You don’t want to miss this chance, man!’”

Dwele says, the eager parolee got to rap-a-dancin’ right in the driveway. That was it. Dwele moved to a loft near the water, his own space with his own studio. He writes to whatever mood shines through the window, he says.

He talks, too, about how he’s channeled the highs of the last couple of years into Some Kinda. Highs like the Jazz Café gigs and the performance in Switzerland when bandleader Roy Ayers joined him onstage, and then drank Hennessy backstage with Dwele and Jamiroquai frontman JK.

“Just talkin’ shit for, like, hours,” Dwele says.

Dwele says the title Some Kinda is a dedication to what motivates people to get the best out of life. Everybody has “some kinda” love, or passion. That umph. His “some kinda” is music, and the encouragement of his father, who died when he was 10. They give him his purpose, which is to help you find yours.

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]