“I don’t find fear in stepping outside of my comfort zone”: A Conversation with Dot Cromwell on Code-switching, Milllion Watts & Black Empowerment

Dot Cromwell

Dot Cromwell is the change agent that hip-hop so desperately needs, he just has to surpass the infancy stage of mainstream notoriety —  but he’s in no rush to grow up, musically speaking that is. 

For me, I’m not even one yet, I’m still emerging. I’m still identifying those folks who are like me.” Finding a commonality amongst your intended target audience is like the crème de la crème of Music 101 for any aspiring talent. It’s not easy by any means, but if it was easy — well, you know the rest. When it comes to the lyrically-astute, Dot’s emotive rhyme scheme is suffused with a sense of introspection that’s often misunderstood and overlooked. At least that was the case until about a month ago, back when Dot caught the eye of Pharell Williams for his plainspoken truth overtop feel-good accompaniment — “God Bless” — citing placement on the i am OTHER, Vol. 1 compilation. 

Growing up in South Philly, life was the furthest thing from normal for the former Catholic school attendee. From split life living, to mastering the art of code-switching, Dot Cromwell’s upbringing was an ongoing learning experience. In retrospect, this concept of being different and not “fitting in” only amplified Dot’s ambition for success early on. 

Instead of shying away from the unwanted pressures of being socially compatible, he owned his eccentricities and came out a bit more well-rounded than the rest. “…because I was able to jump in between those different worlds, I’m more open and receptive to different things,” Dot shares. “It’s easy for me to be like, let me try this out and see what happens,” he continues. 

As time passed, Dot would eventually broaden his horizon and leave The City of Brotherly Love. With an unwavering infatuation for bringing out the best in others — and with some assistance from Panamanian-American songstress, DioMaraMilllion Watts was born. “We wanted to create a space that protects, exalts and preserves black contemporary artists.” The inception of Milllion Watts would subsequently lead to a series of efforts centered around spotlighting the Black economy and the Black dollar. Naturally, Dot has always had a desire to empower others. “I see my success based off of the success I can create for those around me.”

With releasing his new single “Me Ova You” — an inward-looking ballad about self-worth and relationship woes — Dot Cromwell is primed to finish out 2020 on a high note. He fell in-love with music through discovering adlibs, and is hellbent on ensuring that Black people have a seat at the table in the foreseeable future. Get to know Dot, rap’s hidden gem. 

Our conversation, edited for clarity and context, follows below. 

Dot Cromwell
Dot Cromwell |Photo Credit – Mike McKay

In terms of creative insight, what motivated you to pursue a career in music?

Honestly, I think it all started when I was younger. I just remember being really attracted to music. One of the first projects I probably ever heard was Puff Daddy’s No Way Out

Just hearing the music, I was curious more than anything else. It sounds crazy now, but I would listen to it and be like, how is his voice going on here twice. At that time, I didn’t know it was an adlib. 

I had a karaoke machine and two tapes trying to record myself on one and then overlap and record again. I think that kind of put me in that space where I was recreating what I had heard. 

I just got a knack for music in general, just loving the idea of being able to create it. 

It took on other forms and became something therapeutic for me. 

I see that you’re originally from Philadelphia, what was that environment like growing up?

It was different for me. I was born in Southwest Philly, down around 57th street – that’s actually one of the rougher parts of the Southwest. We would always go chill with my father’s side of the family, and they’re from South Philly. 

South Philly is a whole different beast. 

Every other weekend, I’m down in South Philly chillin’ with my cousins and what not, but during the week, I’m up in Southwest. My parents hustled as hard as they could to try and give me a different life, so they set it up to where I was able to go to Catholic school. 

I had this weird dynamic where I was in Catholic school, in a predominantly white school, then I go home and I’m around hood niggas. Then I go down South Philly and I’m with my side of the family that’s way rougher. 

It’s like I was dancing between these different worlds on a weekly basis. 

Is it fair to say that you’ve mastered the art of code-switching?

I remember one time, being around my cousin, I was talkin’ to em’ – and I was like, yeah I heard of that. And he was like, “THAT!? – it’s DAT”.But on the flip side, I’d be in school, I’m still a black kid to them, so it’s like, you don’t really fit in in any type of space, it just all molds together – it’s just me. 

The way it’s put together, I could be in one area and everyone looks at me now, then I can switch and be in another room and have this executive presence with a different circle of people. 

I feel like I’m well-versed in that, almost like it’s embedded in my DNA. 

Most importantly, that experience growing up kept me open-minded to things. I could be on my block with a couple of people that I came up with and be like, alright – we should actually start making music with these people over here because they have different experiences, they got producers, they got singers, they doing it on a different level than us. 

Around my way, I had a recording set up in my basement. They called it The Basement, we would just all record there. 

At some point, we met producers, they were  from a different background than us, from different parts of Philly, they were just really really talented. And I’m like, yo, we need to start working with them.

Some people that I was running with during that time period, they didn’t necessarily get it. I think that’s what I’m speaking to, because I was able to jump in between those different worlds, I’m more open and receptive to different things. 

It’s easy for me to be like let me try this out and see what happens. I don’t find fear in stepping outside of my comfort zone. 

What is the ‘why factor’ behind your collaborative project Milllion Watts?

Milllion Watts is a company co-created with another performing artist who’s a collaborator of mine, DioMara. I took the long way with everything in music. I wasn’t fortunate enough to get plugged into situations. I had to get everything on my own. And because of that, I’ve mashed a lot of different relationships and the actual time started shifting into it [Milllion Watts] being more about independent artists being celebrated. 

You even look at things like being on Empire. 10 years ago, that was considered a taboo thing, when really, people were behind the curve with thinking back then. Right now, that’s actually a move for people. 

What I’ve realized is that because we have so many different tools, we wanna be able to share those with people in real time. We wished that we had certain mentors or whatever to cut the time in half when we were coming up. 

We wanted to create a space that protects, exalts and preserves black contemporary artists. Well actually, let’s say creatives, because you can be an activist, an entrepreneur, we find the art in everything. We want to create a safe space for those folks and cut that time in half. 

We’ve been working on our own musically and we’ve been working on our own in different entertainment endeavors, we just decided to bring it all together. It just so happens that like — it wasn’t so much that we were gearing up to line up with the current time that we are in, in 2020, 2020 lined up with us, it’s coming full play. 

Even right now, we just launched a campaign at the beginning of this month for Black Business Month where we’re powering 20 black-owned food and beverage establishments throughout the five boroughs of New York City. We partnered with LinkNYC, Official Black Wall Street and EatOkra.

People will be able to walk down the street and see the Link NYC machines and you’ll see a Million Watts ad come up that will show black-owned businesses in the area. A QR code that you can scan will take you to their location. We’re going to be promoting them on social media as well. 

We know that this is something that we’re doing overall in our life right now because of what’s going on, but what’s the angle that we want to focus on, we decided to shift our direction towards the Black economy and the Black dollar. 

Since your upcoming single is titled “Me Ova You”, I wanted to ask: In retrospect, has there even been an instance where you’ve had regrets about not putting yourself first in a situation? 

It’s hard to pinpoint and say a specific one, because I feel like there’s been a time period. Perfect example, right now, while I’m here in Atlanta, this is the first time where the world has been quiet around me. 

I’ve been a host my entire life. 

I have groups of friends where I’ve never been to their house, but everyone’s been to mine because my house has always been the spot that we do things at. Since I was younger, I had the house in Philly where we would record at, The Basement. Then when I moved to  Harlem we had the helipad, and that was the place we would pregame and record at. Then it was the parlor in Brooklyn, which was like a hub for creatives. 

I think that what I’ve done is that I’ve extended myself a lot in those situations because I genuinely love people. I see my success based off of the success I can create for those around me. 

Because of that, I would say that now I’ve reached a point where I felt as though — sometimes when you extend yourself to so many folks, you might not do the greatest job at filtering everyone who you’re giving magic to. 

Sometimes, some other folks are going to slip in through the cracks and you’re gonna pour into people who have no intention of pouring back into you – and when you realize that, you realize that you’re  disrespecting yourself. I think that the culmination of little moments adding up like that put me into a place of understanding of how it’s possible to fall into toxic relationships. 

You’re pouring into someone else and there’s these toxic behaviors happening back and forth and then you realize, you’re learning bad habits from someone and doing the same thing. 

I think that’s where the idea of ‘Me Ova You’ comes from, really being pushed to that limit and having to put yourself first – it’s just self-respect.

 

Congratulations on securing a placement on Pharrell’s i am OTHER compilation for your single ‘God Bless’. What was your headspace like with creating this record? It seems like you were in such a vulnerable, yet optimistic state. 

I covered a couple of different things in that record. The most initial thing, like I said, I was living at a spot in Brooklyn we called the parlor, I got there in 2015. So, I wanna say, it feels like within a 5 year cycle, you could see a neighborhood change. 

Neighborhood’s change from bad to good or from good to worse. One thing that I noticed is that in that 5 year cycle, I was able to see the neighborhood change because of gentrification. It went from being a completely black block, like the residents bought those houses back in the 70s, to seeing different people pop up. 

I remember walking with a couple of producers to the train stop and we saw so many different white people coming off the train this day — and we’re like off the Beverly road stop — and I remember seeing these people, and we were joking, saying things like ah, we’re probably going to get a Starbucks now. That’s kind of what initiated that record, wanting to speak from a perspective of connecting with people who are from an area and seeing their home get changed right in front of them. Folks are actually being displaced and pushed out of their neighborhoods. 

A second part to it is that, unfortunately, I haven’t had the greatest interaction with law enforcement in my life. I had one scenario, back when I was in Philadelphia, of a mistaken identity situation. I was picked up and charged with four felonies and six misdemeanors. They were trying to throw me a lot of time for something that I literally just fit a description of. By the grace of God, I was able to get out of that situation. But because of stuff like that, speaking about those kinds of scenarios is not a trend for me, it’s in my DNA. 

There’s elements of that within the music too. In the first verse [of God Bless], speaking to the aspect of cops shooting niggas, when that record was released, with everything shifting and happening in the world, when Pharell’s team heard it, they were like yo, this is right now.  Unfortunately, I made that record last year and that’s an eye opening thing. It’s like damn, that’s crazy, that’s just life. 

For them [i am OTHER] to be like this fits with the time period for right now, that’s deep. A lot of my music will have elements of those things in it, but it just so happened that this just resonated with what’s happening right here in the United States. 

When you’re alone, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? 

Ah man, I don’t know, it’s a lot. Sometimes, I start thinking about the state of things and the future of things. I’m really big on the future existence of the human race in general. 

When I think about the future, I just wanna make sure that I’m playing my part to make sure that we as Black people have a place in the future. 

Sometimes you watch SyFy movies and futuristic movies and there’s no Black people in it, and it’s like, is this a subtle sign they’re trying to give us (haha). I think a lot about the future and how things are rapidly changing. What role can I play to make sure that we are actively there. Not just there, but we’re thriving. 

You see things like the industrial revolution or certain kind of things that have happened, like the dotcom boom and the rush to the internet, and unfortunately, Black people were not in position to lead the charge in any of those revolutions, so that’s why we don’t end up in a place where there’s generational wealth and things of that nature. 

Not saying that we’re in an equal space right now, but there’s a lot more things that we have access to. When I think about the future, I think about how we can put ourselves in position to lead the next wave so we’re not on retainer. So that we’re actually ambassadors of things, ushering in things, the pioneers of things in a new industry. 

With Milllion Watts, a huge, important part of it was the fact that it’s a black woman and a black man together, and that’s actually something that she [DioMara] brought to my attention. Obviously, it’s a pairing, and none of this works without both of us, but as a man, with male privilege, I can say that this doesn’t work without her. She brought to my attention the importance behind displaying the unity of a black man and a black woman, ushering something together as equal partners. 

I think that’s also an important layer to it. 

Since the release of your first EP, Full of Sin – how much have you grown as an artist, what’s changed? 

Full of Sin, to me, it was like a collection of songs. I wanted to put range out there into the world. I have records like ‘Mood’ which is kind of like that dark energy that emits from where I come from. Whereas, songs like ‘Call’n Again’ feel more tropical, melodic, and  worldly – which is actually the kind of music I find myself listening to now. ‘Saint Jameson’ is completely tied into that space we just talked about, of introspection.

In naming those three different ranges, I see them as roads and paths. I feel like since that time has passed, I’ve journeyed further down each of those roads. Records like ‘Saint Jameson’ and ‘Sunset in New York’ are time stamps to me. I had to live a certain amount of life that I can share with that record. Since then, I feel like I’ve traveled further down that road of introspection and some of the newer things that I have coming up, kind of tie into that more. 

Where I am right now, I’m at a place of making all those roads merge. On the record ‘Me Ova You’, musically, it has a lot of worldly vibes in it that you wouldn’t  specifically just get from the rap world. Conceptually, the storyline that I’m talking about ties back into that road of ‘Saint Jameson’, with introspection. 

I feel like I’m merging all of these roads into a highway now. 

Do you ever struggle with identifying your audience or making sure that listeners connect with the message in your music?

One of my friends, an artist in the industry, was telling me one time — I guess it was after his first national release came out, once that happens in the industry, you’re one, like one years old. I saw that and it was such an interesting perspective for me. It put me in a place of realizing that art is on a whole different scale. 

For me, I’m not even one yet, I’m still emerging. I’m still identifying those folks who are like me. They’re all out there, they all exist, but it’s just about it all hitting a large amount of them each time. 

In terms of my art, that doesn’t affect me, because I don’t view it like I’m a work for hire. I’m looking at the people who identify with some of the morals that I have, the way I decide to put paint on the canvas, the story, the narrative that I tell. 

The moment you start thinking too much into those angles, it’s possible to start doing things for money. I remember hearing Quincey Jones say that when you start doing things for money, God walks out of the room, and that was the craziest thing to hear. 

I think for right now, I’m just continuing to say what I feel and paint the world how I see it. For those who share the vision, let’s look at the painting together. 

What is your stance on the music industry and mental health?

Man, well that’s a loaded question. Let’s just speak on the genre I’ve built my foundation in, hip-hop. I think the mental health of our artists is super critical. 

Since hip-hop’s inception, artists have been giving vivid depictions of what’s happening in our communities. While we may be putting these stories over musical compositions, and everyone’s having a great time partying to it, the lyrics come from real experiences. 

I think in recent years, seeing all the people we’ve lost to drug addictions or what have you, we can clearly see that our mental health is an issue. Million Watts has actually partnered with The Recording Academy’s MusiCares division on previous initiatives  and hopes to do more in the future. 

I name them because they are an extension in the industry that has some resources and wants to help, but we need way more initiatives like this stepping up.

What has quarantine looked like for Dot Cromwell and has COVID impacted Milllion Watts to any capacity? 

Well, quarantine has been a moment of recentering for me. My year was starting off with a lot of plans, some great opportunities, and a ton of uncertainty of how I would actually pull it all off. 

Quarantine, personally, felt like God or the universe telling me to sit down, regroup, and focus. Spiritually, I’ve just been able to learn so much about myself. It’s bittersweet because the world around me is just burning down smh. 

Me and Dio Mara weren’t super concerned as to how Million Watts would be affected by Covid. 

We took about a month or two early on, to just sit back and observe the landscape. Actually, between Covid, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and everything else, we found our first focus, the Black economy — so it really all worked out for the better. 

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