July 16, 2019

Words by Tishanna Williams
Photos by Martei Korley

Jamaica’s Andre ‘Dre Island’ Johnson is a quiet youth with a gravel-toned voice and an interesting story. His skill as a writer and producer landed him on our Artists to Watch list in 2016, and he’s been making moves ever since. Perhaps his easy-going personality and open mind is why he’s been able to mesh easily with dancehall artists like Popcaan, with whom he recorded his biggest hit in 2018’s “We Pray.”

Even though not all his supporters were into the mixing of Rastafari music with dancehall at first, it seems Dre has found his own way to navigate through the industry and change a few minds while he’s at it.

One skill that sets Dre Island apart from his peers in reggae and dancehall is his skill at the piano, a talent he’s showcased in mediums like David Rodigan’s radio show on BBC1Xtra. He’s played since he was a small child. “Granny had me from two months,” Dre recalls. “At three, my father came and asked me what instrument I wanted to play. I don’t even know why I chose the piano. Maybe it was the only word I knew at the time. Or the only instrument I knew. I just said ‘Piana’ and he asked if I was serious and I said, ‘Yes.’”

His background as a musician informs his outlook as an artist. “I always considered my involvement in music from a more free, spiritual point of view, more than approaching it as business,” he says. “I was never preeing music as a way of living. It was something I knew I loved. I did piano lessons when I was younger, and I was attached to music. I was born in Jamaica and this is an island of the arts. It was always a part of me.”

Just one year after graduating Calabar High School, he joined up with family friend, Kirk Thomas, and began knocking at the doors of the Jamaican music industry. It was Thomas who dubbed him Dre Island, while they worked hard to up their game. Dre starting producing beats. Without links in the industry however, the boys found their dreams were more challenging than expected. “At that time, nobody wanted to voice us,” he says.“We had no background or parents in music. Just two little youths. No one knew us from nowhere.”

Dre Island

Growing up at Red Hills Road at Kingston’s Donmair Close, Dre kept his musical affairs top secret. his community didn’t even know he sang in the church choir at Emmanuel Gospel Assembly, or took piano lessons. It wasn’t until seeing him playing and performing as Dre Island on national television that the secret was out. It was such a shock to everyone who knew him that they refused to believe he was actually playing the piano, even when they saw it with their two eyes!

I always know I coulda sing cause I used to sing on the choir…. but to write a song fi stand up in front of people inna real life? Out of the church? Out of school choir? Nah.” 

Being an artist, recording, touring and everything else, can make it tough to keep any kind of steady, healthy regimen. Dre tries his best although he has to be constantly reminded to eat. He isn’t a fan of the gym, preferring to play football and only work out closer to tour period. Marijuana, meditation, spending time around nature and a very small family of bredrins are some of the things he credits for maintaining his balanced lifestyle.

“I feel like I was almost 30 when I was 12, 13, with the amount of responsibilities I had. And now that I’m 30, I feel way younger.”

Early in his career, years before either had built their name, Dre Island came across Chronixx while doing work as an engineer. “When I met Chronixx and Teflon [Zincfence ], none of us had locs,” he recalls. “They brought a song for me to mix as an engineer, ‘cause [Chronixx] voiced his father [the artist Chronicle]. Along the way, we heard a few songs from each other and we started telling each other, ‘You have to sing your own songs if you want me to keep working for you.’ From there, we keep charging each other and I got the energy to keep voicing…

“So now I’m sitting around a console making my own beats and voicing myself, and then in 2013 one of my songs, ‘Rastafari Way,’ leaked. I realised this was way bigger than me. Is not me [who] choose music. Music chose I for a purpose.”

His 2017 release, “We Pray,” was his first project with Popcaan. However, they had been friends for years. and Dre sees him as a Rasta, “even more than some of the Rasta I-drens that I should be seeing as a Rasta brother,” he adds. He considers the song’s breakaway success as testament to the spirituality of the man he calls his brother and admits that although when he first produced the beat, Popcaan was his first option, his other bredrins may not have been so sure.

He recalls: “As I finished voicing, I was like, ‘Popcaan should sing it.’ And someone said, ‘Popcaan? That song ya too big.’And I say, ‘but Popcaan big.’ The man was talking about him being outside of Rasta. I told him, ‘Don’t judge the man cause you don’t know him.’”

The spiritual vibe of “We Pray” came about naturally. “And that’s why I speak of Popcaan like that. He’s spiritual. Look at the song that came out of him. I have done songs with so many people and it was never on that meditation.”

Dre can still remember the date that “We Pray” was recorded. It was the 30th of December, 2016. The night before Popcaan had called him to come to Buju Banton’s studio at 6 a.m. “He called me at around 8 a.m. [the next day] and said he was back at the studio,” Dre recalls, noting Popcaan’s work ethic. “He voiced four songs that day including a collaboration with Quada and JaFrass and some international collabs. That’s ten songs in two days.”

That evening when they tried to leave the studio, Dre Island’s car didn’t start. “I looked at him and said, Bredda… We Pray.’ And he said, ‘Jah know Dre Island, me tired mi bredda. Mi tired.’ Then he asked if that track was in the studio. I told him yes. He walked in, listened to the song one time and it took him thirty minutes to voice it. I decided then to put it out like my first song…. leak it. Then I shot the video on my birthday and dropped it 17th of August, 2017.”

So far this year, he has featured on Bugle’s “Day By Day” and Govana’s “The Light,” which will appear on the dancehall artist’s upcoming debut album. At the same time, Dre is currently working on his own debut album project, Now I Rise. Already, “My City,” a story of growing up in his community in Donmair, has gained traction. Next up is “Crazy,” which he says, “has a magic feel and is one for the ladies.”

As to whether or not he has a lady of his own.. we didn’t get that far in this interview. Maybe next time.

All shirts worn by Dre Island are from the LargeUp Collection.

The LargeUp script logo tee is available here.

The LargeUp x Sister Nancy collab tee is available here.

The LargeUp ‘Western Union’ tee will be available soon.