“I guess we have to do this, right?” It’s been a while since Tim DeWit has given an interview. Seven years, in fact. The last one he did was back in 2007 when he was in Gang Gang Dance, the band he co-founded, produced and played drums for. Then, in 2008, just before the release of their fourth album Saint Dymphna (which he produced), DeWit parted ways with the band in a cloud of frustration. Put simply, the pressure of being the next big thing had got too much. He returned to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the darkest of spirits. A month later, on a night out drowning his sorrows, he was shot in the chest by a 16-year-old kid in a bungled bar robbery. "For me, the weird part wasn’t even being shot,” he reflects. “That sucked, and it hurt, but there was a lot of deeper pain going on in me that hurt a lot more. Being shot was a manifestation of all of this negative energy swirling inside me.”
“Getting shot sucked, and it hurt, but there was a lot of deeper pain going on in me that hurt a lot more”
With little chatter around him leaving Gang Gang Dance, DeWit slid into the shadows quite willingly. He might have stayed there if it wasn’t for long-time friend and film director Leilah Weinraub, who asked him to soundtrack Shakedown, a forthcoming documentary about a black lesbian strip club in LA. “Focusing on the Shakedown project totally saved my life during those dark days after Gang Gang and being shot,” says DeWit. “Leilah is definitely a boss. I mean, she made me do it at a time when I was trying to curl into a ball and die. She brought me back to New York and introduced me to all the beautiful and inspiring people I know now.” Those people just happened to be at the heart of New York’s most exciting emerging music, art and fashion scene: influential DJ/promoter Venus X and her game-changing GHE20 G0TH1K club night (even Rihanna took note); Kuwaiti producer and Future Brown member Fatima Al Qadiri, DeWit remixed; and fashion designer Shayne Oliver of luxe streetwear brand Hood By Air, which has been worn by everyone from A$AP Rocky to Drake. Under his Dutch E Germ name, one he’d been using on the quiet for years, DeWit was inspired to work on solo productions that, while unreleased, won the ears of these forward-thinking young talents. He became a regular DJ at GHE20 G0TH1K, scored multiple runway shows for Hood By Air and produced more film soundtracks, such as Baltimore dirt-bike drama 12 O’Clock Boys.
Then, in 2013, his track “HBA War” was sampled by Kanye on the intro of “New Slaves”, from Yeezus, although DeWit was the only one of the scores of contributors to that album who didn’t get a credit. Surprisingly, he’s not sore. “I’m cool with it. I actually like that song. It’s just another one of those phenomenal things that add to my life experience.” Perhaps it was the push he needed or maybe it was just good timing, but last March saw the release of IN.RAK.DUST, his debut solo record, on NYC label UNO. Tagged as a mixtape, it’s an album-worthy statement that circles the globe with a deep and curious sensuality. Natural and man-made textures collide with chameleonic guile. Drums sound like rattlesnakes and synths become bagpipes. Rhythmically, it leaps through fissures in time and place: from gut-stirring Balkans drama (“Black Sea”) to tender gamelan melody (“Elephant”), from the kaleidoscopic prayer-like strains of “Rani” to the intricate club-ready beats of “Hausa Riddim”, a tribute to the Bollywood-inspired music made in Hausa communities in west Africa.
Emotionally, IN.RAK.DUST moves through moods of acceptance and resistance, joy and pain, light and dark. “Tim’s music is intense, emotional and narrative,” Weinraub tells me. “It makes me think about the news, info, history, the telling of history, and if I want to participate in the world or not. It makes me feel angry enough see new possibilities.” It’s not hard to draw parallels between DeWit’s life and music. “I’m an intense person,” he says. “The way I relate to the world is very full-on. There have been a lot of intense tragedies that I’ve had to deal with first-hand.” On top of being shot, he was living just four blocks away from the Twin Towers on 9/11. “I was literally buried under the black cloud of death when the towers fell. I was sitting in an apartment that was pitch-black, like, ‘I am dead now.’” Then, in 2002, Gang Gang Dance suffered the tragic loss of 25-year-old singer Nathan Maddox. “I know it’s been talked about a lot but I had a best friend, a brother of mine, who was struck by lightning. There is a lot that I have to meditate on with things like that.”
Such heaviness would be enough to pull anyone under, but DeWit’s curiosity about the world has kept him afloat. “One reason why I haven’t released any music (until now) is because I actually don’t spend my time in the western world,” says DeWit. “When I’m on the internet I’m not paying attention to what’s popping off in London or New York, even. I’m trying to find these unexplored YouTube channels, like Somalian music. The world can feel like a really dark place but I know that there are so many amazing things out there.”
“When I’m on the internet, I’m not paying attention to what’s popping off in London or New York. I’m trying to find these unexplored YouTube channels. The world can feel like a really dark place but there are so many amazing things out there”
IN.RAK.DUST is a trip and a half made with travel in mind: “I need a gateway to interact with these worlds so I create these sounds. They’re sort of like a call to another place because I actually want to go to other places.” I can almost hear DeWit’s face light up over the phone as he talks about one of the last shows he did with Gang Gang Dance in Istanbul, a visit that would plant the seed for IN.RAK.DUST’s “Black Sea”. “On the plane, I was listening to the radio and being blown away by all this music I was hearing. I didn’t know what was what. I was even asking the stewardesses, ‘What is this?’ They were like, ‘You’re crazy, who are you?’ We spent five days in Istanbul and I asked my Turkish friends about the music I heard on the plane and they said it was probably from the Black Sea region. When I came home I just started exploring. I’d type in ‘Black Sea’ and I’d find these guys jamming on their keyboards in their bedrooms, but the most banging stuff.”
DeWit’s desire to explore goes way back. Grand Rapids, where he grew up, is three hours from Chicago and three hours from Detroit, but too out of the way for most touring schedules. The atmosphere there was “very conservative and very Christian”, and neither element spoke to him. DeWit believes his desire for cultural exploration is rooted in the fact he was adopted at birth. He’s never been entirely convinced about his heritage. “My parents always told me, ‘Oh you’re just like us: you’re Dutch, English and German.’ I was just like, ‘I bet I’m not. I bet there’s something off there.’ That’s the wishful thing, that I’m something completely different. Who knows?” Calling himself Dutch E Germ was a way of “being cute” about it, he says. Like, “this isn’t really me”. Hiding inside one identity to explore another is an age-old survival tactic. “It’s a weird feeling to have about your life,” says DeWit on his adoption. “I don’t dwell on it - it doesn’t bother me - but it definitely has some kind of influence on me.”
Bizarrely, DeWit’s first music gig was as a frontman for a Stone Roses cover band when he was in high school: “It was ridiculous. I wasn’t a party guy; I was a huge Cure fan. I was fronting this band acting more like Robert Smith – standing still and gazing off into the distance.” He quickly took over as songwriter, drawing influence from noise-rock acts like Fugazi and shoegaze bands like Ride. After graduating high school he delivered pizzas for a year and managed to save $2,000 with which to move to the home of Fugazi: Washington DC. “There was a culture happening there that I was aware of, but I’d never been there and I didn’t know anyone.” He may have gone to DC with indie rock aspirations, but the first thing he did was land a job at Tower Records and an introduction to hip hop. It was the “golden era of Wu-Tang and Nas and Biggie”, and in his first week there he saw A Tribe Called Quest, whom he’d never even heard of, play live at the university next door to 30 people. “I was just sitting there, watching them, like, ‘What the heck is this? This is so amazing.’ I could go on and on forever about DC. The whole experience was so enriching. It is who I am.”
It was in DC that DeWit first met Brian DeGraw, with whom he would form Gang Gang Dance after experimenting together in various bands. “I met Tim in DC not too long after I first moved there to go to art school,” DeGraw says. “We met at Tower Records where he was working at the time. Our mutual friend Douglas Armour introduced us. I was shoplifting there that day and had all these CDs stuffed up my sleeve, and Tim was stocking the shelves with New Order VHS tapes. Somewhere within that scenario lies a metaphor for our relationship, but I don’t know exactly what it is.”
DeGraw is a fan of “every piece of music” DeWit has made as Dutch E Germ. “The new release is definitely no exception,” he continues. “IN.RAK.DUST is completely moving, and extremely special in that it possesses the feel and emotion of something made completely organically. I’m aware that it was crafted inside the guts of a computer but I don’t feel that as a listener. The passion transcends the medium.”
“IN.RAK.DUST is completely moving, and extremely special in that it possesses the feel and emotion of something made completely organically” – Gang Gang Dance's Brian de Graw
Transcending medium is essential to DeWit’s art. He credits his idiosyncratic drumming style to Timbaland: “I never even once thought, ‘Oh, he’s using samplers.’ I would sit at my drum kit and try and play like Timbaland programmes his drums.” Rather than simply keeping time, DeWit wanted to tell stories with his drumming. “People are always shocked because everyone thinks that I’m just a drummer or something, but I’m actually this really repressed songwriter. That definitely has something to do with how I play drums. I’m trying to be a songwriter in the background.”
These days, DeWit makes beats that sound like they’ve been made by a band of worldly musicians. Yet his relationship with his computer is a complicated one. Although it does serve a window to music from faraway places, he finds writing on it an isolating process that’s “kind of like torture” compared with the catharsis of being onstage. That said, collaborations have eased his path. “It sounds corny but I just have a lot of love for all the talent that’s around me. With Shayne (Oliver of Hood By Air), for example, it blows my mind that he would call me up and ask me to do music. I feel so humbled that I’m going to go to work. He always comes at me really late, like, a week before the show, and I don’t leave the house. I’m just there, grinding. I basically imagine we have a band together and Shayne’s the lead singer."
“I’m just there, grinding. I basically imagine we have a band together and Shayne’s the lead singer” – DeWit on working with Hood By Air
Oliver is equally enthusiastic about their collaboration. “I usually send him a verbal explanation for the vibe of the show,” the designer says. “He always comes back with magic – unparalleled magic. He’s shy about what he has to bring to the table, but it always blows me away.” DeWit: “Every day, all I do is make music. I don’t know what I’m trying to accomplish exactly. I just have this endless need to get better and better at it." It’s exactly that drive that has put DeWit – perhaps unwittingly – at the centre of three cultural movements to date: 90s DC indie rock; 00s experimental electronic pop with Gang Gang Dance; and now, in 2014, the post-internet erosion of borders and boundaries that’s merging music, art and fashion into one on a global scale.
The only way DeWit is looking, however, is forward. “I have to start out doing this alone, but if it somehow manages to catch fire, I'd love to build my own Sun Ra Arkestra for the 21st century. One of the biggest inspirations in my life is the composer AR Rahman (who won two Oscars for his work on Slumdog Millionaire). He’s just put together this mega show of global performers. I mean, it could be really cheesy, but he's striving to create this feeling of universal love. I kind of imagine an underground version of the same thing with a noise band like Sightings, a Sudanese singer like Alsarah, rappers like Haleek Maul and Shayne HBA, experimental guitarists like Mick Barr, DC go-go drummers, Cory Henry on keys...” he says. “Who knows, maybe that’s what I want everything I do to sound like – even if it's all coming from my own head.”