Dexter Story’s journey through the music industry is like few others. Seemingly living multiple lifetimes in his 48 years, this renaissance man has had careers spanning from product manager for artists like Snoop Dogg, Musiq Soulchild, & LL Cool J, to booking acts for a busy LA nightclub, being signed as a rap producer by Sony, managing Meshell Ndegeocello, and ultimately finding himself as an artist. We sat down to discuss Story’s debut solo record on Kindred Spirits entitled ‘Seasons,’ but got a lot more story than we paid for. Be sure to read Pt. 1 of our interview before delving into Pt. 2 below!
So you leave Def Jam in New York and move back to LA to pursue music performance under the advice of Carlos Nino.
Yeah Carlos tells me, “I’m doing this Build An Ark tour. Come back and get back into the music, man.” I had met Carlos when I was at Priority Records in LA—Carlos was the man! I had put him on all of my mailing lists, so anytime I was mailing out records, he was on my VIP list. Carlos also knew me from when I was playing a bit with Dwight Trible. So Carlos invited me to play drums on this Build An Ark tour. Then that’s when we started Life Force Trio and I started playing with Dwight again.
I still had to pay my bills though, and I couldn’t by just playing music. So Carlos tells me that he’s booking Temple Bar, but he didn’t want to do it anymore. So from 2005-2008 I was booking Temple Bar while I was also managing Meshell Ndegeocello. Through all of this I was getting back into the scene of creating music. I’m older than Carlos, but he’s kind of like my mentor.
Back up to managing Meshell. How did you get involved with her?
When I was doing Build An Ark, we did a tour of Europe. In Europe I saw Meshell, so I grabbed her and I said, “Meshell, I would love to work with you. We should do something.” She was really open to it. When I got back to LA, she was living in Berkeley and I knew Berkeley like the back of my hand. She asked me to come up there to see her, so that was no problem at all. I drove up to Berkeley and we hung for a week. This was the period where she had stopped singing. I managed her for about a year-and-a-half and at that time she was doing The Spirit Music Jamia which was a jazz project. She had become so fed up with the industry that she stopped singing. This was right after Comfort Woman, which was basically produced by Chris Dave. People don’t realize that Comfort Woman was Meshell Ndegeocello and Chris Dave locked up in a studio in Newark recording that record. If people knew that, they’d be all over Comfort Woman like a bad habit. That’s all Chris Dave and Meshell with help from [Allen] Cato.
But the point being that when I met Meshell she had just done Comfort Woman and got dropped by Maverick, which was Madonna’s label. I remember Maverick sent me a crate of her records and all of her swag. They literally dropped her and were like, “Here, you can have it all.” So we were working Comfort Woman while she was finishing The Spirit Music Jamia. I was her road manager as well as her manager, so I went on all of her tours. We did two long European tours and two long US tours. When she started on The World Has Made Me The Man of My Dreams, I was still working at Temple Bar full-time because I wasn’t making enough money with her. So she ended up firing me. She had stopped singing, so her gigs weren’t making that much money. If she was singing they would pay her real money, but if she was doing the jazz thing, they’d pay her jazz money.
After you parted ways with Meshell, did you put more focus on your own artistic career?
Yeah, I was working at Temple Bar and I started writing more and more. I met more people there than I can count too. They had me booking everyone under the sun as you can imagine. Anthony Valadez was my staple—he deejayed all of my big shows. I also went to Jeremy Soule and Rashida who got discovered by Prince at the club. I have to take my hat off to Megan Jacobs who is now the booker at The Roxy and Cary Sullivan who is the booker for Afro Funke’ because they were the first two bookers at Temple Bar and really set up the scene. Each of us did three years there. But to sum it all up, by Carlos getting me that gig, he really reintroduced me into the LA scene. Here I am at 48-years-old and I’m kind of a late-bloomer because I spent so much time on the business side.
Did the fact that you are a musician yourself make you more successful in the music business?
Absolutely. I didn’t flaunt that I was a musician when I worked at the record labels or when I worked at Temple Bar. To this day, everybody is surprised that I have a record out. I didn’t tell people I was playing. Working at a record label is a full-time gig—I’m talking about mentally. It’s not that just your body is there 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., your mind is completely there from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. And when you’re booking a club every night of the week, it’s crazy. You don’t get Sunday or Monday off. You’re expected to have three bands in there Sunday and three bands in there Monday. It’s not just your body physically in a chair; your mind is fully occupied. People would be like, “Dex you didn’t tell me you were a musician!” I would be like, “Yeah, I didn’t have time too.”
But to answer your question, what allowed me to be effective was the fact that I was a musician. I was using it, but I didn’t talk about it.
At what point did you find the time to start thinking about the record that would become Seasons?
Temple Bar closed in 2008 and at that point I committed to doing music again. In 2009 and 2010 I got back into composing and scoring for film. I knew it would be a good way to build my chops back up. I was also doing some Life Force Trio stuff and a lot of playing with Dwight. In 2010, I broke up with my girlfriend I was living with and figured that I really needed a kick in the ass. I was reading Topdog/Underdog and I read about how Suzan-Lori Parks wrote a play a day back in 2002—she called it “A Different Play A Different Day.” She did that for a year. Could you imagine a playwright writing a play a day for a year? Wow!
So I did the same thing with songwriting. In late 2010 I started writing a song a day and I did that for a year. I had some money stashed and was able to support myself for a year. I knew that to get through the entire year and project, I needed to have a partner that would keep me on the playing field or a coach or something. So as I wrote a song a day, I would send it to Carlos. Carlos got all 365 songs and he was the one who told me to do a record. So I said, “Well why don’t you take 15 songs of the ones I wrote and send them to me.” So he put together a CD and I still have it to this day. It’s interesting to listen to because it’s sort of the precursor to Seasons. So I pulled back up those songs or transcribed them and put together the record. It wasn’t called “seasons” at first, but Carlos came up with that and I liked it. Whatever Carlos says goes in my book.
I told Carlos I wanted him to produce it, but it was interesting because he wanted me to actually produce the music. I put all of the musicians on it and I hired everybody. I got Miguel Atwood-Ferguson doing strings, Mark de Clive-Lowe and all of these folks on the record and then I re-delivered it to Carlos. He took the record and sequenced it, mixed it, suggested some changes, packaged it, and said it’s finished.
Back when you were doing a song a day, what was your process? There are a lot of different influences on the record; were you listening to them for inspiration those days?
Yes, that’s a good question. The first two months are kind of fun. The remaining ten months are work. I listen to a lot of new music anyway, but what I found myself doing was having to be inspired by whatever I was listening to. I needed as much inspiration as I could get. What happened was I actually rediscovered vinyl. At that point I knew that I wanted to be inspired, but I didn’t want to write anything current. It was rediscovering vinyl that woke something up in me, so I started collecting vinyl again in that year. I started getting into sub-projects. I got into Stevie Wonder of course, I started collecting jazz records, I got a lot of obscure stuff, I got into Steely Dan and the Beatles, I got into some world music.
But the most potent period during that year of writing was when I discovered Maurice White as the drummer for Ramsey Lewis. And you can hear that on the record. I started listening to Ramsey religiously—especially those nine records that he recorded with Maurice White on drums. People really don’t know a lot about Maurice before Earth, Wind, & Fire. They know Sun Goddess, but very few people even know that Sun Goddess was Maurice White’s homecoming back to his former bandleader. They did nine albums from ’66-69 or something like that. The last record he recorded with Ramsey, was the first time he recorded kalimba—on a song called “Uhura.” So that was the period that really fueled a lot of Seasons. It just so happened that most of the songs that Carlos sent me back for the record were from that potent Maurice White period.
Now that Seasons is out there, do you have plans for your next project?
Yeah, I have two records that I’m finishing right now—they’re neck and neck. Kindred Spirits is interested in releasing either one or both of them. The first one is the answer to Seasons. Whereas Seasons is very sunlight and daytime, this one is more of a nighttime record and is a little darker. The second record I named Wondem and it will be an Ethiopian grooves record. “Wondom” means brother in Ethiopian. This one is co-produced by Todd Simon who I play with in Ethio Cali. We’ve got Alan Lightner on steel pans, and it’s a whole other side of Dexter that people don’t really know about. It’s not unlike the Quantic type of vibe. Mine is a little less dub—I want them to be grooves, but also compositions. So I’m really excited about those two records. I’m so happy to be working with so many amazing people in LA. I feel real lucky.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)