The singer, rapper, and multi-faceted artist plays September 21 at Robinia Courtyard. (Photo by Tehan Ketema.)
Dequadray White, who performs under his first name, immersed himself in visual art, theater, and poetry while growing up in Forest Park, Georgia, just south of Atlanta. During middle and high school he began to experiment with music, too, inspired in part by his brother, who collaborated with Gucci Mane under his MC name Jig Lo Ski. (This brother dubbed White’s first recordings, made with beats he grabbed on YouTube and SoundCloud, “cute.”) In the ensuing years, White has come to Madison to study in UW-Madison’s First Wave arts program and gradually figured out that he doesn’t want to choose one medium over another, and doesn’t have to.
White, now a junior, released his debut album, Dequadray: A Black Sitcom, this past spring. As the title implies, he approaches music with a conceptual and narrative bent that clearly has something to do with his theater background, but more importantly, Dequadray is at once playful and emotionally frank across the album’s 10 varied tracks of hip-hop and R&B. “Underestimated” pairs a bittersweet chorus with Dequadray’s sly, elastic rapping, and a choir of kids makes a charming appearance at the end. “For Whoever Brings Me Flowers” finds Dequadray somewhere close to tender piano-ballad territory, looking for the courage to move on after getting hurt: “You told me I was everything so you could use me / What a perfect illusion, I fall for it usually / Am I just made for this? Maybe I’m destined for this.” Over the chill, atmospheric funk of “Southbound,” he explores Atlanta via its not-so-great public transit system: “Wanna go downtown, mama said you better find a way / Get there in a breeze when you ridin’ M-A-R-T-A / Bus 194, picking up at Conley / Hope nobody in a hurry ’cause it usually come whenever it wants.”
Dequadray has been working on material to follow up A Black Sitcom. His recent set on the Terrace during the annual JVN Day Celebration featured a few new tracks that he began writing while on a study-abroad trip to Brazil this past summer, including the recent single “On The Regular,” and when we met up recently he was excited to begin working with his new home recording setup. He’ll also be performing on Friday, September 21 at Robinia Courtyard as part of the Hot Summer Gays series showcasing queer musicians from around Wisconsin (this was originally scheduled for late August, but was postponed due to the recent flooding in Madison). Ahead of that, Dequadray talked with me about his creative process and his ambition to make all his different artistic pursuits fit together. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Tone Madison: So on the Terrace recently you were playing a few things that were new. What’s all in the works for you?
Dequadray White: I’m really experimenting right now, because I feel like I just want to get to the root of who I am, my own sound, and things like that. But I still perform my old stuff. When I performed at the JVN Day concert, I was, like, “Let me try to use that, and let me see how the audience reacts.”
Tone Madison: On one of the tracks on Dequadray: A Black Sitcom, “Underestimated,” didn’t you have a children’s choir? How did that come about?
Dequadray White: Oh yes. I worked at a [Boys and Girls Club] in Green Bay, as a youth arts initiative intern, and basically, as I interned, I helped kids write their own songs. We made a music video, it’s actually on YouTube and everything. At the same time, I was like, OK, let me record some of my music. And I knew that for “Underestimated,” I really wanted a kids’ choir, because that’s what I heard when I heard that choir. So I would have the kids go in in small groups on my song to sing the chorus, and they loved it. Any way to be involved, they were like, “I’ll do it!” One girl, she was just like, “This song sucks!” I was like, “I’m a keep that!” So like in one part in the beginning, she’s like, “This song sucks!” And I’m like, “My bad. Am I really that bad?” Stuff like that.
Tone Madison: So this was a kid giving you feedback?
Dequadray White: It was just one of the kids. She just, like, had an attitude.
Tone Madison: They don’t always filter, kids.
Dequadray White: But what was funny was that after she said the song sucked, she came back the next day with her friends and was like, “Um, let me show you my song that I’m working on.” And then she comes to me: “Can you pull up our song so I can show my friend?” And I’m like, “That’s not your song, that’s my song!” And she was like, “I know, but just play it.” I was like, “You said it was terrible!” She was like, “I was just playin’.”
Tone Madison: But you do experiment with a lot of sounds and songwriting approaches on that record, and a lot of collaborators. For your next project, are you hoping to do something that’s more cohesive or that you have more control over?
Dequadray White: For me, I feel like my first project, I really wanted to give you a season of this show, which is my life. And I feel like it organically fell into place, because those were songs that I kept to myself and I was just like, OK, “blah! Here you go.” But now I’m like, OK, let me come up with an idea that I want to convey through stories. Because I feel like for me, with my friends and anybody that I’m with, every time I tell stories I’m very animated. I’m changing voices and different things like that And I’m like, why am I not incorporating this within my music? So now I’m like, what do I do as an artist, as a person, every day that I want to incorporate within my music to make it more personal, to make it more authentic, more realistic. Not to say that what I did put out wasn’t realistic or authentic, but I do feel like I’ve grown exponentially. [Dequadray: A Black Sitcom] was songs that I wrote my first year and now I’m a junior.
Tone Madison: Do those songs reflect a certain period of your life or a certain series of events?
Dequadray White: When I was in Green Bay, I was sitting with myself, and I was just like, “OK. If I’m making a project, I want it to organically come together,” because the year before, the summer before this one, that whole year I was just creating, creating. And I was just like, “I feel like I’m trying to meet a quota. That’s stifling me. So let me just create, and then I’ll pull it together and make what is what.” But then I noticed that my life is like a show. This is goofy. For me, it was also to show the growing pains of me leaving Georgia and coming here, and a lot of things that I did not know, and coming to know what they are. Putting whole terms into experiences that I’ve had. That whole album is me just fumbling and putting words to different things, but also making sure that I know that everything was a learning process, it was a part of me growing, and not resenting it but trying to find happiness in knowing that, “Oh, I was put through these things, or experienced these things, for my own growth. I went through all that but it was the best for me, I needed it, and here I am.”
Tone Madison: So when you first started trying to make music, were you just doing vocals or did you also get into production right away?
Dequadray White: I was putting loops together. I made a beat where I sampled Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, like, “you’re trying my patience” and it was a beat with some congos and different things. I think for me, when it comes to anything artistic, I’m gonna give it 100 percent. [My Boys and Girls Club in Georgia] gave me GarageBand and I was just trying to learn everything. What was easier for me was getting a beat off of YouTube and writing. My first song was called “Incoming Call.” I took [the beat] off of SoundCloud. But it’s basically me talking to myself, because I was in a situation-ship and I was just, like, “For me not to go through this again, what would I tell myself?” So it’s like, “Hey, Dequadray, hey, how you doin’? / I really want to know what have you been pursuing? / Oh, yeah, yeah that’s great, see, I really don’t care / I was callin’ you to see if you were even aware.” It was a 9th Wonder beat.
Tone Madison: At that point you had already done theater stuff, so did you come into music wanting to have narrative elements in it?
Dequadray White: I think it’s interesting for me that I feel like I had to bend to the medium. Every art medium that I’ve worked with, I was like, “I have to bend to it somehow. I have to be extra technical and critical first.” I was a visual artist at my high school, and was painting like 24 pieces on a large scale, and then my teacher was like, “OK, last two years of high school, you have free rein to do whatever you want.” So then I created these big elaborate things. With music, it was like, “OK, what story do I want to tell in this song, what message do I want to get across in this song?”
Now I’m just like, “How can I bring my visual art, how can I bring my drama background, how can I bring my acting, my poetry background, all into everything that I do now?” Anything, graphic design—how can I pull that all into music? That’s where I’m at now.
Tone Madison: What do you think that process will look like?
Dequadray White: One of [my new songs], “Icky Vicky,” I was sitting in my room in Brazil, because I was in Brazil this summer for four weeks. I was just like, “I want to write a song about Icky Vicky. I don’t know why.” Then I just got on my earphones mic and was freestyling, and the whole song is me basically freestyling. And then I was like, “OK, now how do I sharpen this—if I’m freestyling, but I’m talking in a voice and characterizing somebody.” And so [another new song] “On The Regular” was me focusing on, “Let me get into character, and visually let you see this scene, as if it was a painting.” And when I’m painting I’m trying to give you a tone and a mood. That’s also what I learned from poetry. So I’m like, “OK, how can I give this tone and mood off and also give this character, sonically?” So I layer my vocals with different sounds and play with my inflections and different things. I want you to be there. I want you to hear this in my voice. Kind of like the “black sitcom” idea, but actually actualizing it. I want you to be in the film, sonically. I want you to feel it and see it.
Tone Madison: Do you want to make tracks that kind of sit together and form pieces of a narrative?
Dequadray White: Right now, I have a narrative in my head, but I don’t want to say exactly what. In my first project, I was coming from an idea, I was coming from a situation, and I was like, “How can I broaden it?” But now I’m like, “I’m a put you right there. I’m a tell the story like it was and see how people react.”
“On The Regular,” my friend was in a summer hookup with a guy that had a girlfriend. And I was just like, “Hmm. I couldn’t do it. But, if I could…if I would go that far, what would be my position?”
Tone Madison: So you’ve gone from doing some autobiographical things to maybe projecting yourself more into other situations.
Dequadray White: Mm hmm. Yeah. And also not filtering myself. Because to be honest, with my first project—I have 10 nieces and nephews now, and I’m very family-oriented, so on my first project I didn’t want to cuss, I want to make sure this is good for my family. Then I was just like, “I really don’t care.” And it’s funny—when I said I didn’t care, my family loved it even more. I was kind of scared of a backlash—”Oh, all of a sudden you changed because you went to college?” I mean, everybody was surprised when I started dropping music because they were like, “This boy, all he did was paint! He’s making music? What else can he do?”
It’s funny, because people when they hear “On The Regular” and “Icky Vicky,” are like “Is this true?” And I’m like, “sure!” Even though it’s not. But it’s more, “If I was in that situation, this is what I’d do, or how I would feel.”
Tone Madison: Your stage presence definitely has a playful element to it. Is that something that came from theater?
Dequadray White: I think it’s because of theater. It’s like a switch. When I get onstage, I am Dequadray, but I am Dequadray without hesitation. I can mess up and I’m still like, “It does not matter. Right now I’m just doing, I’m being.” And who I am is very goofy and very playful, but I also have depth. That’s the Scorpio in me, and that’s what I’m also trying to play with in my music. I come off as very happy and goofy, but I also have depth…it’s like I’m exposing a piece of myself but also being my true self. Because even in those situations, I’m kind of playful. I’m just trying to be as honest as I can be. When I’m performing, I’m here, I’m nowhere else, and I’m gonna just do what I came to do and perform these songs, and perform them from me.
Say if I was in a relationship—that’s something that a lot of people won’t see. But if I wrote a song from it, I’m gonna show you how I was feeling onstage when I wrote that song.
Tone Madison: Where do you see things going next?
Dequadray White: I want to continue making music. I’m a multi-faceted artist. I always had this fear that I would be a jack of all trades but a master of none. But I feel like, if I master myself, I can be 100 percent in anything that I choose…. [I’m going to] just work on how to incorporate everything together, give you a whole package. That’s at the core of who I am. I always am a person that likes continuously creating, and creating for the healing of others. Because I know this world is a dark place, but at the same time, we all share something. My audience, everybody can listen to my music and get something out of it, and let you know that you’re not the only one going through this. [Late First Waver John “Vietnam” Nguyen said something like] “After you suffer, and after you learn from your suffering, now you have to teach.” I think that’s a follow-through in a lot of my stuff: “OK, I went through this. I’m out of the dryer, I done tumbled around a few times now. What have I learned, and how can I convey that to other people?”