Josh Dean was asleep in his usual spot on a couch in Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland office when he heard a familiar sound.
He crept down to the basement, in Studio A, where the night before he’d duplicated a new track that an artist named Jidenna was working on, and recorded some new melodies. He didn’t intend for anyone to hear his version. An intern focusing on graphic design at the time, Dean was trying to learn the equipment. “I had some melodies I wanted to put down on the song,” he said. Now, because of his carelessness, he was convinced his internship would come to an abrupt end.
As a group gathered around him, listening to the melodies he’d added to the future hit “Classic Man” on loop, Wondaland CEO Janelle Monáe locked eyes with the frightened intern, and yelled across the room: “Josh, is that you?”
Dean fessed up, but was shocked by Monáe’s response. Instead of telling him to pack his bags, Dean says the Grammy-nominated singer complimented and encouraged him.
Now, nearly four years after “Classic Man” — featuring Dean’s background vocals — became a top 25 Hot 100 record for Jidenna, Dean is managed by the Wondaland team and signed to HitCo. When Monae’s Dirty Computer was released last year, Dean was listed as a co-writer on two songs: “Don’t Judge Me” and the Pharrell collaboration “I Got the Juice.”
Raised predominantly in the small town of Castleberry, Alabama, Dean moved back to his birthplace Pensacola, Florida at the age of 13 following the death of his mother. Attempting to blend in his with older cousins in the town, he taught himself to duplicate their senior badges. “I started making those badges for everyone in my high school,” Dean says. “My school wasn’t too happy about that. My dad thought I was dealing drugs when he found my money.”
Dean’s decision to sell badges was his entryway into graphic design, and once he moved to Atlanta to attend the HBCU Morehouse College, he’d use this skill to get into local studios. Interning for producers such as Bryan-Michael Cox, Dean would run errands for artists and work as a graphic designer. In exchange, he got an up-close look at studio life. Dean always had a love of music – he grew up playing trumpet and singing in church with his grandmother as a young child – but it was while immersing himself in Atlanta’s music scene that he fell in love with the process of creating music. Eventually, he landed on the doorsteps of Wondaland, sleeping on the team’s couch and interning before they discovered his secret talent.
On Dear BlackSheepe, the singer’s first EP (released in March), Dean refuses to be boxed in, much like the artists of the Wondaland collective who helped him find his voice. On the project, he laments soulfully (“Kind of Love”) and interpolates alt-rockers Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” (“Funny Valentine”) with an effortless youthfulness. “Classic Man” producers Jidenna and Nana Kwabena are credited on the latter, which also boosts a Backstreet Boys credit for the line “quit playing games with my heart.” (Dean says the song wasn’t actually inspired by the boy band, but they received publishing as a precautionary measure.)
The singer says he worked on the five-track EP over about three years, pulling inspiration from his grandparents 70-year-long marriage to the music he grew up listening to as a kid. “One thing that I wanted to do was take all of the influences that I’d accumulated and theoretically put all of [them] in a jar, shake it up and see what I came up with,” Dean says. For the EP’s title, he drew from his experiences of being an outcast growing up, first as a kid with big dreams in a town with less than 600 residents, then as the new kid in high school and again as the graphic design intern trying to break into the music industry. “In all of these environments, I always felt like the black sheep,” he says. “At the same time, I wanted to make an imprint for myself.”
The singer already boasts some impressive accomplishments behind the scenes, but as an artist, he’s just getting started. Dear BlackSheepe gives fans a small glimpse into the type of musician Dean aspires to be. The 30-year-old — who is quick note he prefers to think of himself as timeless — says his biggest goal as an artist is to create music that mimics the way he sees himself.
“I want to be seen as someone who actually brought substance to music and was able to give people something that was unforgettable,” Dean says. “I want to be a vanguard.”