As the music changes throughout the years and our choices become increasingly slim on mainstream radio formats — the task of working DJs are pressured to comply. Growing up in a city that has painted some serious masterpieces on the musical canvas, music lovers turn to those that can give them alternative choices.
Duane Powell is a breath of fresh air becoming a familiar name among a small set of Soul music DJs. His love for class and indie soul music exceeds well beyond being a nostalgia DJ — he has been responsible for breaking some unheard indie artists from Fertile Ground to Grammy-award winning Ledisi.
Powell entered the arena as a DJ six years ago, becoming a major influence over the years working with House music greats — Lil Louis and DJ Rush and later working on retail and distribution side.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, his love for music began in the center of his home.
As a youngster, he remembers buying his first record. “The record I bought with my money in 1980 was TS Monk’s ‘Bon Bon Vie’,” he said. That was just the start of what would grow into an eclectic taste of B-sides and various genres.
“I learned from my uncles and aunts. I had one uncle in particular who was a DJ that I was glued to his leg. He loved funk music. So, every album cover they would have a big afro, or some big boots or some crazy costumes, even one-hit wonders — he had it all. I remember seeing Led Zeppelin records and things of that nature.”
Powell attended Corliss High School, where the music teacher, Mr. Twilley, played an instrumental part of his experience in school.
“My music school teacher was Mr. Twilley—he was just genius.” He says Twilley would recruit both the hardest gang members and the football jocks, placing them in the choir as a way to encourage others to join.
“He did this whether they could sing or not because if others saw this, it would not be considered a weakness. It made it easier for other males to not have to deal with the hyper masculinity thing. He helped me grow in music.”
One of his first entries into the business was joining the promotional team for Lil Louis, a popular House DJ who went on to produce classic international dance hits “French Kiss” and “Club Lonely.” In the mid-1980s Louis had created the Diamond Corporation, which held some of the largest attended House music parties drawing hundreds of high school students from across the city. Duane cut his teeth early on, passing out fliers and putting up poster boards.
“I was in the business when I didn’t know I was in the business. It’s funny how we didn’t think about titles and branding. Technically, when I looked at it, I started doing street promotions in 1985. But at the time, we weren’t being paid but got in to party for free.
He joined Cargo Distribution in the late 1990s, becoming the company’s international buyer. At Cargo, Powell was responsible for checking out the latest hot imports in acid jazz, funk, soul and dance music on behalf of independent retailers to buy from the company.
First to Get Coveted Record
Later, he would join Dr. Wax Records in Hyde Park as one of the main buyers.
“When it came down to Dr. Wax, I was the first person in Chicago that had the 4hero record. They sent me the promo before everyone else. I broke the Ledisi and was responsible for booking her first Chicago show at the Buddha Lounge,” he said.
During this time, traditional R&B artists were being pushed back to catalog status as a new wave of soul music was making its way onto the scene through the new term Neo Soul.
“When I started selling music at Dr. Wax on these indie artists, it was something, customers didn’t know had exist. Once they found out about more indie artists, they became really hungry for it. We avoided creating a ‘Neo Soul’ section — I didn’t like the term. It got to the point where we couldn’t get around it because there were people who would come into the store looking for it.”
The new era of the Philadelphia Soul music scene brought attention to The Roots’ hosted open mic series called Black Lilly. It launched major label deals for Jill Scott, Bilal, Jaguar Wright, Jasmine Sullivan and others. “We really didn’t birth an artist during that time here but our loyal consumers were so great to a lot of those artists,” Powell explains. “Chicago was their biggest market. They would get a gig booked here if they weren’t getting booked nowhere else.”
Currently, he is co-producing a documentary about the independent Soul music scene from the early 1990s up until now. Artists such as N’Dambi, Ledisi and Fertile Ground broke the mold for laying the groundwork for independent artists being recognized.
“It’s not just a check for me. I can’t play music that I don’t like. There have been a lot of times that people will lump DJs into this one thing. I’ve never understood that because I come from a progressive time,” said Powell. “People don’t understand that if you want to build a brand, you do have to cultivate it first.”