Seeking community and harmony, dak duBois found both in Milwaukee
mkEProject is dak duBois’ newest EP. But it’s more than that. It’s an ode of sorts to the collaborative spirit of Milwaukee’s tightly knit music scene.
Relocating from his native Oshkosh, the “jam” aficionado discovered and fell in love with the Riverwest neighborhood. He chose to put down fresh roots and immediately formed strong ties with established artists like Wave Chappelle and Klassik — connections that led to a full-fledged collaboration and this new EP.
The project is a self-proclaimed “testament” to the scene, cohesively marrying duBois’ love of jam-based sounds with Milwaukee’s top-tier R&B and rap artists, including Wave and Klassik, as well as up-and-covers like *aya.
mkEProject is out now on a variety of platforms, including Bandcamp, but I sat down with duBois ahead of the official release and before he heads to Radio Milwaukee’s stage Saturday, Feb. 3, to help us debut 88Nine’s expanded State of Sound concert series along with Sleepy Gaucho, Scam Likely and Wave Chapelle. You can learn more about the show here and pick up tickets via Eventbrite.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I first got acquainted with your music and with you through a Milwaukee Music Premiere that we did with you back in March of 2023. What's primarily been keeping you busy since we shared that song?
Oh man, a lot. I've been gigging quite a bit and then producing for some other artists as well. And then the EP that dropped — it’s a collaborative project that came out at the end of December called the mkEProject, which has a ton of amazing features on it. That's pretty much been it, I guess.
We’ll get into all that a little bit more in detail, but I would like to introduce folks to you in case they aren't familiar with you. You're originally from Oshkosh. Did you spend the majority of your life there, and is that where you started exploring playing guitar and getting into music in general?
Yeah, I grew up in Oshkosh. I think I moved to Appleton when I was like 18, 19. I bartended for a long time up there and started playing guitar at 11 years old, but I think I really started gigging out and being a little bit more active in the scene up there probably right before the pandemic happened.
I got my feet wet for a few months and then didn't play for like a year and a half, and then just kind of played in jam bands and stuff, mainly as a guitarist. I'm sure this aesthetic [points to his studio space filled with trippy lighting and artwork] gives you “jam-band guitarist” vibes [laughs].
Once I’d done that for a little while, I decided to move to Milwaukee and pursue more of the production side of things. I'd learned a bunch of other instruments, and I wanted to start playing them in the studio. That was kind of the motivation — I wanted to get into the scene here ‘cause it seemed like it was a lot more inclusive and a just “cool with everybody” kind of thing.
Not that I'm trashing Appleton's music scene by any means, but it's a lot more diverse here. And I think that within diversity is really where scenes can flourish.
Oh, absolutely. Appleton does have its own thing going on with Mile of Music and the college there, but yeah, I agree — Milwaukee is a step ahead.
From the get-go, were you always attracted to the sounds of funk, soul and psychedelia? Who were some formative artists for you?
Oh man. Yeah, for sure. I feel like I grew up a big indie kid, you know? I listened to The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys and The Killers and stuff like that. Then I also, from a young age, I had an obsession with Jimi Hendrix. I just can't get Hendrix out of my head … the Doors, Zeppelin, all that.
And once I got to my early twenties, I started listening to a lot of funk, like Parliament Funkadelic, even like that early ’70s kind of soul. That genre, I really began to get a little bit obsessed with it in my early twenties. I just have never really not loved it. So that, and I've always loved Dr. Dre and the West Coast hip-hop of the early ’90s.
All of those genres are weird when you put them together, but I feel like all the music you listen to really bleeds through what you do, and it comes through your fingertips. Our brains are just like sponges for it.
I'm sure you've gotten this question before, but how did you acquire your musical name? What's behind the “duBois” of “dak duBois”?
So my full name is Dakota Bradley Wright, and for the last decade, I've wanted to go by “dak” just ‘cause it's short for “Dakota.” It’s a native name, and if you could tell I'm not native, so my parents were really riding that appropriation train pretty hard in the early ’90s. So yeah, I like Dak.
And then the “duBois” part came from … I had some friends that have passed away in the last few years of varying things like addiction and mental-health problems and stuff, and the name is kind of to pay homage to the people that I've lost. In French, it means “of wood,” and that's kind of the resting place of all things — the rebirth of new carbon atoms essentially comes from that.
Wow, that is really a lot deeper than I thought. I love that. Very thoughtful.
I asked you earlier what had brought you to Milwaukee and Riverwest already. What keeps you in the Riverwest neighborhood in particular as a musician?
I mean, I have this space here, and it's an awesome space. I don't think I'll ever be able to buy a house, but that's a different conversation for a different time. But I really like just how supportive and collaborative all the artists are in Riverwest. And it's cool just being, like, a block away from so many other amazing artists and just having this space to be like, “Hey, come through, let's jam, man.” Just getting together random people for jams is one of my favorite things to do because I love jamming. I just can't get it out of me.
There's so many venues over there that are kinda in that same set of thought, like Linneman's. They have the open-mic night, they've always been open to musicians just kind of being a family base kind of, especially for the Riverwest neighborhood musicians.
Yeah, for sure. I love Linneman’s, too, man. What they do for the community is just … it's amazing. Jim’s such a nice guy, and he really knows what he's doing with that space. The money and the time he's dumped into soundproofing in there, plus how thoughtfully he put together all of the speakers, the lighting, everything. I like working with Jim; he's an engineer's dream, especially live. I'm not going to question him at all. Anybody that's that seamless to work with is just awesome.
Yeah. It's so cool having a neighborhood place like that, where you can just work with someone like Jim with ease, not only when you're at the space, but collaborating and booking and all that good stuff.
When you perform live, it's often with a rotating cast of local musicians called “Dak duBois and Co.” Is it challenging rehearsing with a rotating cast? ‘Cause I can imagine it'd be tricky with all the moving parts.
Yeah, I really only rehearse with my bassist, Michael Sambar. He’s super consistent with me, and we're like really good friends, but what's crazy is he plays drums in another band. He's a drummer first, and then he plays bass, so he's super easy to work with. We will hang out for, like, two hours and just jam out and be like, “Oh, what kind of weird stuff might we throw ourselves into for this gig?”
And usually we don't really rehearse with a drummer or anything. We just kind of play it out live, and that improvisational feel is so important to live music. I feel like, if I'm bringing in other musicians, I'd feel like such a hard-nose if I was like, “Oh no, you gotta play it like how I wrote it.” If people want to hear that, they can listen to the records over and over again.
I think that offering every show to feel a little bit different is the most important part. Everybody’s an amazing musician that I get to play with, and I'm really stoked about that, so I love it when their personalities come through. And sometimes the best way to do that is to just throw yourself out there. So we don't really rehearse a lot, which is cool. If we did rehearse, I feel like it would be really hard to get together on that level.
That’s the nature of jamming and jam music in general: There isn’t as much “rehearsal” as with other genres. I think that's something where a lot of musicians fall into a trap. They aren't used to jamming. They aren't used to being free or improv-ing. So maybe that's just a better way to be, Dak.
For me, at least. I'm an ADHD kid. I cannot stay sitting in one place for too long. I know all my parts, but when it comes to the moment, you got a bunch of people that are really enjoying themselves. Sometimes it's good to lean into the crowd a little bit, lean into each other.
For this new EP of yours, you turned to collaboration and worked with a lot of local artists like Casey U, Brother Malik, *aya, Klassik. Briefly, how did each of these artists that you collaborated with speak to you, individually?
So I’d just become homies with all of them over the last year and a half that I've lived here. I've been producing some stuff for Casey and for Brother Malik. Brother Malik is really good friends with Klassik, so I've become good friends with Klassik, too.
For the song I had, “Devious,” I’d cooked it up over a few hours one day, and I was like, “I don't know, this really reminds me of like the Dr. Dre, kind of like that G-funk feel.” But I did all the instruments and stuff, so it’s not like I’m playing to a drum machine or anything, and I wanted to really get some hip-hop artists on that.
I've been doing a bunch of work with Wave Chappelle. I thought that having Klassik and Wave on the same song would be really cool because I don't think they've ever done that before. And then Brother Malik helped out with the hook, too, and we all kind of just like threw in at the hook — just kept throwing stuff at the wall over, like, 20 minutes, and we were like, “Okay, that's our hook,” and then we got it. That one was awesome.
Then, the joint with *aya and Casey was really interesting because I had *aya hit me up on Instagram, and *aya was like, “Dude, I love what you do. Would you produce something for me?” And I was just like, “You know, I kind of put this EP together in like a week. I think I have an idea for something.” I spent like an hour working on the song for *aya and sent it to her, and *aya was like, “Yeah, this is awesome. I don't usually play four-and-a-half-minute songs, though.”
So I had Casey in to work on some other stuff, and I was like, “Hey, do you have any interest in being on this?” And Casey just came through and freestyled both of the verses, and it took 10 minutes to record Casey's parts. Then I sent that back to *aya and said, “Just worry about these hooks.” And when *aya came through to record, it was like a breeze.
Everybody that I got to work with on this EP, everybody's just so quick about what they do. And I'm quick, too, in the studio. It's in my house, so I'm used to being in this space all the time that I'm like, “Okay, this here, this there.” Mixing is really easy because I'm so used to the room and the way it sounds, and then how it monitors on other stuff, too.
So getting all the other people together for it, I feel like the longest recording session maybe took an hour or two between everybody on the EP. Everybody’s top-tier talent, so they’re just easy to work with.
All these artists are probably constantly writing, recording, producing their own stuff, so they already have that part of their brain turned on, so when they go into the studio, it's just, you know, [snaps] like that. Everything kind of flows. They have a vision already of what they want to contribute.
And everybody playing with the band, everybody's gonna do it however they want to, and I think that’s the most important part of recording people is to support them in that. I've been in a lot of different sessions in my life, and sometimes it can be not the greatest environment. So when I have people through here or I'm even working on stuff myself, I think it's so important to just support creativity in any way. Who knows where it's going to lead to?
I think this EP is a testament to it. I think it's like the coolest thing I've ever done at the moment, and it's all props to the artists that came through on it, too.
Speaking collaboratively vs. independently, you do work predominantly collaboratively. But what has the experience been for you writing collaboratively vs. independently, maybe when you started out? And do you plan to expressly write collaboratively in the future, or do you think you might backtrack and do a little more solo, soul-searching in the near future after this?
I'm looking at doing a second album where it's not going to be any features; it'll just probably be like another eight, nine songs straight. It'll be just my self-titled second album.
I want to do another volume of the mkEProject, too, and bring on other artists as well. And then also just working on stuff with Brother Malik and Casey ‘cause I don't know if they are looking at doing EPs or full albums, but I'm here for it either way. They’re super fun to work with, and they're homies, man. So if we're already hanging out and we're just like, “Ah, screw it, let's record some music,” I'm down.
So, definitely, I want to do some more collaborative pieces, but I think another album is kind of on the horizon, too, from like the solo approach.
Before we went on the record here, we were talking a little bit about plans for the new year, and you're still figuring all that out. Do you have anything to share regarding the early months of 2024? What should fans look out for?
I know I have a few shows, and I think the way I want to go with some of these shows coming up with the “and Co.” shows is I'd love to just get more artists that I'm working with on board. It'd be great to have these collaborative shows where there's like four or five different artists on the bill, and me and my band are supporting them and giving them full band support because it's hard to have full band support. It’s a huge pain in the ass to kind of sew through all those lines and stuff, so I’d love to help people get that support if they're looking for it.
And I’m working on production and co-writing stuff with people, too. I think that that's kind of my take on it for 2024. But, yeah, like I said, I know for sure I'll drop another solo album this year, and it'd be great to do another collaborative EP or two as well. We'll see how much time I have [laughs].
All that stuff takes a lot of work. It's gratifying, but it's a lot of work and time.
So, wrapping up, can you tell fans and folks who are just new to you where they can find this EP we've been talking about. What are all the details of your brand-new, collaborative work?
You can find it on all the streaming platforms. I'm not trying to actively push those things at all, but definitely check them out on there if you have access to it and it's easy. If it’s something you're into, come through to a show. I love getting to work some amazing rooms. I love seeing the diversity of the crowd. I love just getting to B.S. with people.