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You Need To Know: Dwynell Roland, energetic rapper and essential live artist

Photo by Samantha Petersen
Photo by Samantha Petersen

by Cecilia Johnson

April 27, 2017

Some people had no idea who Dwynell Roland was when they bought tickets for Rock the Garden 2017. Some people may have heard his name in passing. But those who follow local hip-hop would've inched their cursor that much closer to the "Buy Tickets" button, and with good reason; Roland's shows are pure energy.

Born Jamari Dwynell Roland, the rapper grew up in North Minneapolis, going to middle and high school in suburban St. Anthony. Now, he lives in Brooklyn Park with an eye on moving to Northeast. He still goes by Jamari in real life.

Roland, 24, has been working on music for years on end. His childhood passion for reading turned into a knack for freestyling. When he got serious about music at 19, he worked to write memorable verses. Now, he presents a mix of themes and subgenres on his album The Popular Nobody.

"I'm in a weird generation where you have to make these uptempo trap songs," he says, "which I have no problem doing." His song "Dude," featuring Finding Novyon and produced by Topper Atwood, is textbook trap — and it has the highest spin counts of anything off The Popular Nobody on SoundCloud and Spotify. But he ends up happier with his work when it's more personal. Producer/co-Rotation member Travis Gorman pushes him toward boom-bap beats, like the one by P.SOUL Roland used for "Devils."

Roland doesn't make beats, but not because he was never interested — it just makes more sense for him to focus on bars. "I was too busy playing The Sims when I was younger instead of trying to make beats," he says, shaking his head. "A lot of people who make beats made beats when they were young, but you know, I was trying to take care of a family."

In the last three months, he's traveled miles from home, going on tour with P.O.S, Sims, and DJ Fundo. "If I ever had to do a right first tour for my career, it was with them," he says, saying how thankful he was for the trio. "Stef and Fundo would just look in the crowd — and the crowds would be huge already — and they'd be like, 'Ah, let's push it back ten more minutes for Rolly.' It was like that every night."

At first glance, it seems strange he tours with members of Doomtree. "The music they make and the music I make is totally different," he points out. "But they are so acceptive." He may not sound like P.O.S or Sims, but both rappers are invested in getting him as much exposure as possible.

When opening for P.O.S, he tends to sub for Mike Mictlan in "nihilist anthem" "Get Down," freestyling the 16 bars every time. At The Lowertown Line in November, he didn't even know he'd end up on stage; he says, "I was getting off work and texted Stef, 'Yo. I'm sliding through.' So he put me on the list and I went." He got a text that said, "All right, man. Be ready when "Get Down" goes on. You're rapping 16." But he didn't see it until minutes into the show. "So it just happened," he says. "I ran up on stage and we switched mics, because there was no other mic. Freestyled that."

He'll headline his first show at the Entry tonight, sharing the stage with Sims, DJ Fundo, Juice Lord, and his Rotation crew members Devon Reason and Travis Gorman. He's nervous: "All those people are coming for me." But somehow I think he'll pull it off.

In real life, Roland nails impersonations. With me, he mimics his parents (both of whom support his music — his mom keeps tabs on Sims and P.O.S even when Roland doesn't join them on the road). He does a killer Stef (P.O.S's real name), projecting the easygoing, "don't give a f***" attitude the rapper has become known for.

But on the beat, it's Roland doing Roland. "I'm weird," he says several times, like he's claiming it for himself. When he started writing, he "wanted to be Jamari Dwynell Roland, not Future or Drake," he told Andrea Swensson. To me, he says, "Everybody wants to rap like Migos. Everybody wants to rap like Lil Uzi Vert." Then, he starts imitating Uzi's staccato patterns, interjecting, "Hold up! Go!" on beat. I gasp for breath from laughter.

His sense of humor is one reason he has over 15,000 followers on Twitter. "A lot of people think I pay for those," he says, but he'd rather have gas in his tank than social media stats. He's been on Twitter since he was 15, and "back then," he says, "Twitter was nothing but jokes."

Eventually, local rapper MaLLy urged him to focus his social media on music, and he's changed to treating it more like a marketing tool — but he hesitates to put himself out there in today's internet age. "In 2017," he says, "Everybody's so sensitive." And when users start public beef, it's easy to wonder if it's worth it.

It's more rewarding to spend time with people in real life, and that Roland can do. He's opinionated and enthusiastic; it's easy to see why friends like hanging out with him. At the same time, he gets up before 6 a.m. every day for his HVAC technician job, and he sounds world-weary at times. He doesn't hold much patience for people who don't put in work.

"Music is hard," Roland says. "You barely make anything." Even though he has a full-time job, "if something goes wrong," he says, there's no safety net. He tells himself, "You're playing with fire [...] You ain't got no college degree. This has to work for you."

He compares the music game to Double Dutch, saying, "I was just hesitating to get in. Then, I jumped a little bit. And I'm still jumping until I get caught on the rope."

Dwynell Roland performed his songs "Whirlwind," "Eva Change," and "Real Love" in The Current's studios this month.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.