Rize-ing to the Occasion

A long time ago, before the major labels got ahold of him, Dwele recorded a tune about the history of his erection.

Aptly titled "Down Jimmy," the song found the Detroit-born kid chronicling the great khaki-rising moments of his life. There was his eighth-grade English teacher in that dark black skirt; there was his first date in the ninth grade; there was seeing both of them again in college and busting out with a nostalgia-woody. The song, which is also a not-that-subtle homage to Stevie Wonder's "Too High," is on the performer's 1998 debut, the independently released, also aptly titled Rize.

Rize repackaged the former rapper Dwele (real name: Andwele Gardner) as a neo-soul singer. "I always sang, I just didn't really do it as seriously as I'm doing it now," remembers Dwele, now 24. "And back then, when I was rapping, I used to pass discs out to close friends and family. And they would have rap songs and they would also have a couple of vocal songs on it. And word would always come back that they really liked the vocal songs, so that kinda motivated me."

Rize became a cult favorite -- and five years later, it still is. Copies of the now-out-of-print album can go for 35 to 40 bucks a pop on eBay. Dwele is astounded by this development, not to mention a little chagrined. "It kinda makes me feel funny because I actually sold the album, when I originally made it, for about $10," he says. "You know, I feel like I was cheating myself a little."

Rize was more than an underground critical smash -- it also caught the ears of execs at Virgin, who signed Dwele in 2000. Initially, the plan was simply to release Rize nationally, but there were obstacles. First and foremost, the label deemed marketing Dwele's offbeat brand of mellow and jazzy R&B a hassle. Six clichéd words apply here: The label didn't hear a single. While Dwele and Virgin wrangled, 9/11 turned the world upside down, then the death of labelmate Aaliyah hit Virgin hard.

"It all kinda took its toll on Virgin, and it kinda shook things up a little bit," Dwele says. "And a lot of people got replaced," he adds, referring to people working on the release of Rize. "And the replacing -- at first, it was going on for a long time."

Two years, to be exact. And according to Dwele, far too many surgeons wound up in Rize's OR. "Every time someone new would come in, they would want something different with the project, in order for them to be happy. It just took a while -- during that time, the album just had a lot of face-lifts and a lot of tummy-tucks and things like that."

Eventually, much as Michael Jackson is quite simply not the same man he was 20 years ago, Rize morphed into a completely different album. The off-kilter songs were replaced (bye-bye, "Down Jimmy") and new, radio-friendly tunes were thrown in. Subject was the result -- Dwele's major-label debut that hit stores last May.

Dwele says he has reluctantly come to accept the label's guidance. "At first, from the jump, I really didn't agree with what they were trying to do," he says. "But then I just stepped back and I looked at it. And this is my first album. And in the first album, I really wanted to be able to attract everybody. In the second and third album, I can get more toward my vibe and I can really stretch out and do my thing a little bit more."

Fortunately, many tunes from Rize managed to make the cut, and Subject retains the playful yet soulful cheekiness of Rize. On them Dwele sports a rarity among R&B troubadours: a relatable, self-deprecating sense of humor. Take "Lady at Mahogany," which finds our singer trying to pick up a boho sista at a poetry cafe, only to find his ex there to spill hater-ade on his parade. Dwele is conscious of how unusual humor is in his field. "Yeah, I just wanted to try to do something that was a little different from the norm, something fresh," he says. "And I tried to talk about a few things that a lot of people weren't talking about but, at the same time, that everybody can relate to."

Before Subject was released, Dwele kept his name out there with help from hip-hoppers/Detroit pals Slum Village. He performed the hook on "Tainted," the breakout hit from their 2002 debut album, Trinity (Past, Present & Future). This year, the hook work continued with guest tracks on female MC T-Love's Long Way Back and on the Rewind! 2 compilation. From rapper to on-call hook guy for other rappers is a fairly unusual evolution. "I think I try to play both sides of the game a little bit," he says.

But if you're wondering why you haven't heard anything about this versatile new entry in the neo-soul talent pool until now, you have the cruel hand of fate to blame. Earlier this year, while Dwele was being driven to a New York photo shoot in a courtesy van, the driver slammed into the back of a car. Dwele suffered a knee injury, which derailed his tour plans for a while.

But now a fully rested Dwele has a new single in "Find a Way," and he's ready to show how even a car accident and a bum knee can't stop him from rising to the occasion. More important, he wants people to take in the Subject at hand. He truly believes that the album is music for all occasions. "I just wanted to make the perfect background music, something that would fit every situation," he says. "I want them to play the album whether they're making babies or having a picnic out in the park or they're driving with the top down on the highway."

Well, maybe not all occasions… Thanks to Virgin, junior high kids with embarrassing bulges will have to look elsewhere for comfort.