Sitting beside his friend Josh at the renowned Berklee School of Music in
Boston, MA, 19-year-old Dylan Dunlap is staring nervously at a TV screen trying to keep cool. He stares hard into the screen as the national premier broadcast of NBC's The Voice rolls out a special two hour season opening episode. You see he's gotten a call from the show producer that some piece of the taping of his audition (and rejection) as a hopeful contender on the show will air. How much of a piece, he didn't know. "It could be anywhere from a quick one second flash to a full segment", explains carefully.
Either way he was tuned way in, just like the other 13.9 million viewers across the country -- it was just a little more personal for Dylan than the others. Even a one second flash would be a one second flash in front of millions, and not even a grounded kid like him can ignore the magnitude of that.
I first met Dylan in North Hollywood about half a year ago. I had just left a meeting at a network and as a colleague and I debriefed over Starbucks, I kept having to work extra hard to stay focused. There was this sound from afar...
It was the late afternoon and the infamous L.A. traffic was already building on the avenue the Starbucks patio was cornered on. From across the street and over the cars I could hear this soulful acoustic guitar riff partnered with a well-managed howling. Singing. Gutful, wild singing that sounded right.
When my colleague got up to grab napkins, I used the momentary break from business to stand on my chair and try to see where it was coming from. A small crowd had built up to watch the source of the sound, which probably was great for the source of the sound, but bad for my view!
Defeated, I sat back down and figured the source of the sound would be gone by the time my meeting wrapped up. To my pleasant surprise, as we parted ways, I could still hear the sound. I J-walked my way through what now had become bonafide L.A. rush hour street traffic to get a good look at the source of the sound, and there was Dylan. Dylan Dunlap -- a tall skinny white kid, with his body contorted around some exotic looking guitar, plugged into a small speaker.
There were about a dozen people watching him, but his commitment to his song and every note of it was like he was playing for an arena. He's an undeniable talent, and what stood out to me even more was how unique he was. I took note of the contact information he responsibly had visible for passers by, passed him a donation, and left to join the Royal Traffic Rumble myself.
Once in my car I turned up the radio and an Iggy Azalea song was playing. I turned the volume knob back to the left real fast and started thumbing through my phone to connect the self-selected music in my phone to the stereo.
Thing is, to me, as is the opinion of most hip-hop fans cut from the cloth that I am, Iggy's entire existence as and categorization as a hip-hop artist is putrid and offensive. An undeniable mimic and bad impersonation of black artists, her music and the audience for it is a slap in the face to people who, for decades, have rejoiced in hip-hop as the last cultural fortress for the marginalized mass.
Detached white youth have gone from being observers of the culture to, after holding the business aspect of the industry by exploitive reigns since its inception, being hailed at the pinnacle of the awarded heights of music for expressions of the culture that are subpar in most cases. American Music Awards, Grammys and the like are supposed to go to those who are excellent in their field. Not only for being excellent in their field, but for being more excellent than others who are also excellent. So by that measure an artist like Iggy Azalea winning an American Music Award or being nominated for a Grammy is preposterous. If an artist like J. Cole just breathed on the microphone for six seconds that would amount to more excellence than a fully-produced, million-dollar album by Iggy Azalea or Macklemore (worse rap name ever).
So after turning off the radio in personal protest, I thought about Dylan and his original sound. He wasn't a rapper or an imitation of one. He wasn't some cliché cat with an acoustic guitar in jeans made to look old from Urban Outfitters. He was just an honest, instinctual, kinda dorky, kinda cool, soulful cat doing his thing. Most notably, his thing.
I thought of his boldness and openness to being unique; standing in the middle of a heavily-trafficked area of scrutinizing Hollywood, singing his songs for the world.
He's an original in a world of conformity. That actually isn't that impressive until you consider the context of his age and generation.
Regardless of race or economic background, millennials now coming of age are twirling through a dynamic popular culture that both encourages individuality while simultaneously threatening a startled, overly-medicated and marketed-to generation with banishment from success and security if they do not fall in line, pick a side, vote, take out and repay a student loan.
I wanted to know Dylan Dunlap's story as he saw it. After meeting with him, I offered to interview him and he agreed without hesitation.
The son of a songwriter for the insanely successful South Park franchise, Dylan began writing and playing the piano and guitar in his youth alongside his father. His mother is a business developer in media, and also dabbles in voice over work -- so music seems poured into him as much as it was trained into him.
Upon graduation he was accepted and attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music where he and Joshua first met freshman year. He would eventually drop out of that school, a decision that has famed success stories like that of John Mayer who dropped out of the school and landed a mega career. Excitedly finding hope in another example, Dylan educates me while secretly encouraging himself:
"I mean have you heard of Imagine Dragons?! They went to Berklee and after they graduated they were like still nothing. They're so good, though! Then they randomly get discovered in Vegas, and boom! They're the Imagine Dragons, man!"
Of course there are also stories of others who've opted out of Berklee to have a go at it independent of collegiate training and subsequently fell to peril.
It has to be added that Berklee has graduated over 100 students that have gone onto win Grammys across genres and categories. Dylan Dunlap also understood and appreciated the value of such an opportunity.
"Don't get me wrong, I loved Berklee, and didn't want to leave. But, my dad was paying for it. A family issue ended in him not paying for it anymore, so I had to come home."
Once back home at his mothers house in California, he compiled a small studio setup in his bedroom and continued composing his songs. Dylan seems to be more fueled by anguish than hindered by it -- and his self recorded YouTube videos of his original songs and covers resonate with the thousands of viewers that watch and comment with encouraging words and praises.
His initiative transcended his bedroom and video camera. He took to the street with his guitar and a sign to fundraise for his next semester of college. Between shifts working at a local movie theater, Dylan was on the avenue singing and accepting donations. It was there that he was discovered by a producer from The Voice and invited to audition.
"Ironically the audition for The Voice was in the exact same place I auditioned for Berklee," Dylan reflects.
In eerie alignment with my Iggy Azalea frustration that caused me to reach out to Dylan in the first place, the producers asked Dylan to redo a song by a here-today-gone-tomorrow kind of a singer, I guess, Jason Derulo, titled -- "Talk Dirty to Me."
Poetic lines like:
Been all around the world don't speak the language
But that booty don't need explaining
...were assigned to this soulful, then 18-year-old boy that is so skilled he was accepted to the top music school in the country. Dylan in his positive nature made the best of it. In an upbeat tone he gave me his take:
"Yeah, it's a song about getting laid on a plane, but you know what--- I decided I was going to put my spin on it and make it the most musically original song about getting laid on a plane ever heard!"
In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lady Macbeth tells her doubtful husband "... screw your courage to the sticking place, and we'll not fail."
That epitomizes Dylan Dunlap's approach, and how this young musician has accomplished what he has thus far.
Remember when this story opened up and Dylan was sitting next to his friend at Berklee School of Music? Then came the part where he was back in L.A. fundraising to pay for his tuition when he was discovered by a network producer. Which took us to him getting to audition on the show and it being screened, which brings us back to Dylan and Josh back at Berklee watching The Voice and Dylan not sure how much of his recording will be shown -- but hopeful and grateful nonetheless...
Turns out Dylan got more than a cutaway or quick flash. His whole segment aired including a backstory piece and his full audition in front of Christina Aguilera, Pharrell Williams, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine. Though none of them turned their chairs around for him, he was well-received by the panel and audience. They gave some positive feedback and suggestions, and in what I imagine was extra vindicating for Dylan, Pharrell took notice to the extra effort he had put into arranging a unique rendition of "Talk Dirty to Me."
"Great arrangement", Pharrell complimented, giving a sincere thumbs up in his now signature big hat. His direct advice and nod of confidence to Dylan followed. "Focus, train your voice, come back in a year, and bring it!"
So Dylan Dunlap was not chosen to be on this year's season of The Voice. He wasn't back in Boston at Berklee because he was able to raise the tuition either. He was just visiting. He never made it back to his dream school and he is still working on songs at his home studio. The last time I talked to Dylan he was on his way to see a movie at the theater he works at. A week or so prior he had just packed out the indie juggernaut Whiskey A Go Go venue in Hollywood, and he was upbeat as ever. He's a contender to be selected to audition for the next season of The Voice, and if granted another shot plans on making a prophet out of Pharrell and bring it just like he said.
But that's why young people like Dylan Dunlap will undoubtedly find greatness. In fact if his generation catches on to his tune, pun intended -- a generation with their faces (as most of their parents faces are, too) buried in cellphone and tablet screens, a generation mass marketed-to more than any generation in history -- if his generation catches onto self definition and the courage to try their way, their way, that whole mass may find greatness.
Dylan represents the unselected who elect themselves -- the people who are stopped, but unstopped. He's the promise of originality in the face of predetermined sounds and ideas.
When I expressed my condolences of sorts to Dylan for not being selected on The Voice, he taught me, a man 10 years his senior, something great:
"You know what, man? No matter how it goes, I have a solid base of people and fans who love me no matter what I do. I'm just going to keep doing it for them."
Here's to all of that...
Connect with Dylan on Twitter @DylanJDunlap.