Q&A with Duane Powell, Custodian of the Indie Soul Movement

Duane Powell -photo by RJ Eldridge

It’s the best kept secret and no secret at all at the same time. When you want to know the latest and greatest happenings in indie soul music, there’s only one man to go to: Duane Powell.

For the better part of three decades, Powell has been involved in the ever-burgeoning Chicago music scene in a myriad of roles including street promotions, marketing, consulting, music buying, event production and more. It was his stint at the world renowned Dr. Wax record store that earned him the nickname “the Custodian of the Indie Soul Movement”, a title given to him by famed singer Eric Roberson because of his ability to maintain and intimately know so many titles all while making accurate recommendations to countless eager customers. During his 12 years at Dr. Wax, Duane solidified himself as a noted tastemaker and almost single-handedly helped a number of artists such as Jill Scott, Ledisi, N’Dambi, and Raheem Devaughn break into the Chicago market.

Since Dr, Wax closed its doors, Duane has kept busy with being an in-demand DJ, radio show host, sought after public speaker, and popular curator.

N’Digo recently sat down with him to learn more about his career beginnings, his current projects, and what he’s looking forward to doing next.

Growing up, did you always know you’d be involved in music or did you dream of doing something else at first?

Not really. Music has been with me my whole life but I guess because it was just there, I never looked at it as a talent. In high school, I took a Radio/TV class and started considering radio as a career. I ended up pursuing it at Columbia College as well but didn’t finish.

What’s your earliest memory of music?

It’s hard to say. My Mom insists that at the age of 3, she bought me a tricycle that I never rode. She says I flipped in on its side, put a 45 on the wheel and would spin it in hopes that it made sound.

Duane Powell
Duane Powell -photo by RJ Eldridge

How did you get your start in being a part of the music scene here in Chicago?

In the mid 80’s I began doing street promotions for Lil Louis and Diamond Corp. Only at the time I didn’t realize it was a gig. It was a way to be cool and get card blanche at his parties. laughs Then in 1990, I worked at The Reactor nightclub. In ’98 is when I started dealing with the business as a import music buyer at Cargo Distribution. At the end of that year, I started at Dr. Wax and the rest is history.

Tell us about your SOUNDROTATION brand?

SOUNDROTATION was the name of a weekly event DJ/Producer Anthony Nicholson, club owner Joe Bryl and myself threw at the Funky Buddha Lounge in the late 90’s until 2001 and it stuck with me. Being that I love so many genres of soulful music, it refers to rotation of those genres and the interweaving. Under this title I created a cd compilation series, then a internet radio show, a blog and it became my identity.

What are the Rear View Mirror Sessions?

The Rear View Mirror Sessions is a lecture series and listening session I created to celebrate my favorite music legends and unsung heroes shedding light on their life to show their richness and influence on generations. As more generations come in this digital, liner note-less age, it seemed to me that we are getting further away from knowing and understanding our roots so this is my attempt at bridging those gaps a bit.

Duane Powell
Duane Powell -photo by Christopher Andrew

What does it mean to you when someone like Eric Roberson refers to you as the “Custodian of the Indie Soul Movement”?

It means a lot to have someone like Erro recognize the passion that I’ve put into the music scene. So much of this can be a thankless job. Not that I was or am ever looking for accolades but there are definitely people in the bigger industry that have made what I do for passion a paid gig. I’ve also experienced having independent artists, that I helped move up the ladder, completely wipe me from their memory once they reached the top so I’m grateful for guys like Erro and Robert Glasper for being straight up cool dudes who don’t forget the little men.

Favorite album of all-time and why?

Now you KNOW this is basically impossible to answer. laughs. I have so much music in my system. I’ll attempt to name a few. Alice Coltrane “Journey Into Satchidinanda”, Stevie Wonder “Innervisions”, 4hero “Two Pages”, Minnie Riperton “Come To My Garden”, Donny Hathaway “Extension Of A Man”, Lewis Taylor self titled, Betty Carter “It’s Not About The Melody”. My God you opened up a can of worms laughs. Those seven that I mentioned definitely turned me upside down and inside out.

At this very moment, what are three albums you cant stop listening to?

There’s been quite a bit of good music that’s come out in this first half of the year. Off that top of my head I’d say “Chasing Goosebumps” by The Playlist ft. Glenn Lewis, “A Million Things” by Rohey and “Telescope” by Luca Dimoon. If we’re talking ep’s, I’d say “Love Notes” by Sam Trump, “Gumbo” by PJ Morton and “Just Cosmo” by Cosmo Pyke.

vWhat’s something people would be surprised to know about you?

After a 5 year job at McDonald’s, I ran the metals department in a scrap yard. I drove a forklift, a bobcat and sorted cast iron amongst other heavy lifting tasks.

Best advice or words of wisdom?

In regards to my overthinking that could result into me being in my own way, Leon Ware told me “you do your work and let someone else be your critic”. Serious nugget.

Favorite quote or affirmation?

From Neale Donald Walsh’s Conversations With God paraphrasing a quote by Carl Jung “what you resist persists but what you look at disappears”. Meaning the act of resistance itself gives the thing you’re trying to resist the power to exist and the power over you but if you look at it for what it really is, the illusion of that power will disappear.

What’s next for Duane Powell?

Still trying to figure this thing out. laughs I’m completely in love with The Rear View Mirror Sessions and I wanna see it grow into perhaps college lectures. As a DJ, I wanna hit the road more and I definitely have more events I wanna curate in Chicago.

For more information on Duane, please visit his website at www.duanepowell.com.

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