I waved hello across the darkness, and he gestured for me to join him up in the booth where he immediately leaned in with a proposition, half-shouting over the music in a tone that still felt hush-hush: “Yo, you want some Tiny Toast? I got blueberry.”
I thought this was some new club drug variant I hadn’t heard of — and when my face clearly communicated my confusion, he reached down and grabbed a 11.1-oz box of Blueberry Tiny Toast, a breakfast cereal made by the General Mills corporation. Not all grocery stores stock it, but the Safeway opposite the club on Georgia Avenue NW had it on sale, so he snagged a box. Now he was behind the turntables, singing sweet nothings into the night, shoveling sugarcoated squares into his mouth on the low. “For real, do you want some?”
A moment later, I was back out on the dance floor, two-stepping to a Luther Vandross song, a slug of cereal clenched in my fist, feeling weird and alive.
2. The first time I ever talked to Dreamcast was over hot ramen in January of last year. The singer had recently released “Liquid Deep” — a luxuriant funk ballad about the mysterious, oceanic sensation of falling in love. It was beginning to generate little sparks of attention in taste-making corners of the Internet, and I wanted to know everything about it.
Instead, I ended up learning everything about him. He told me he was born Davon Bryant at Providence Hospital in the summer of 1992. He grew up loving soul and house music — “the vulnerable stuff,” in his words — through his mother, who used to work the door at Tracks, one of Washington’s most legendary dance clubs. He told me how he learned to play conga drums from his father, who loved go-go music. And while Bryant never played in a proper go-go band, he did spend his teenage years producing house tracks on a desktop at home while rapping little freestyles in the hallways of School Without Walls, the magnet high school in Foggy Bottom.
Becoming a singer hadn’t crossed his mind until one of his classmates caught him cooing a Maroon 5 tune to himself and told him that he sounded good. (“People clown me about it now, but ‘Songs About Jane’? I liked that album,” Bryant would tell me later. “The cheesy [stuff] opened my mind to listening to other music.”)
He also told me that by the time he began making music as Dreamcast, Marvin Gaye had moved to the center of his influences, mostly thanks to a clip on YouTube in which Gaye goes horizontal on a studio sofa while cutting some leisurely virtuosic vocals for his 1976 album, “I Want You.” After seeing that, Bryant decided that he would never write a song that he couldn’t sing while lying down on the couch.
3. Over the next 20-odd months, I felt as though I was running into Bryant every time I got off my couch. I saw him playing it extra cool at a house show on Florida Avenue NW, where the District rapper Nappy Nappa had turned the living room into a mosh pit. I saw Bryant at this year’s Trillectro festival, sipping a preposterously large frozen margarita, watching a set from Young Thug as though he were taking in a Hawaiian sunset. I ran into him one Saturday afternoon at a record store, taking bets on who could spell the last name of former Phoenix Suns forward Dan Majerle without googling it.
One autumn day, I ran into him at a Silver Spring grocery store — the first time I had unexpectedly stumbled into an admired musician in the produce aisle since spotting Foxy Brown at a Key Food in Brooklyn in 2008. For some reason, this brush felt stranger than the others I’d previously had with Bryant. Why? I guess because when someone sings a song that you truly love, it becomes easy to forget that they, too, need groceries. It’s nearly impossible to imagine them shopping for them.
But here was Bryant, sporting sweatpants and sandals, laid-back as ever, his cart overflowing with greens. He told me was learning to cook. Curries and stews, to start. Whole Foods does not sell Blueberry Tiny Toast.
4. Remember those sci-fi mornings back in May when the tree pollen suddenly went gonzo, coating the roofs of our cars with powdery streaks of yellow so beautiful, they looked like little Pat Steir paintings? I took a photo of my dusted Hyundai to post on Instagram, and that’s where I saw Bryant speaking into the camera in a way that felt unequivocally seductive: “If you’re in D.C.? And you need your car washed? Holler at me today.”
He sounded more like a disc jockey from the golden age of quiet storm radio than an anxious millennial who needed to find a way to pay down the overdraft fees on his ATM card. Most of his friends thought he was joking, except for a few, who drove over for power-washes later that afternoon. Bryant made $60.
5. Now it’s a dreary Tuesday afternoon in December and we’re in the Petworth group house that Bryant just moved into, talking about “The Lost Tape Vol. 2,” a new album he’s dropping next month. Over an array of rhythms that sound both linty and plush, the album finds him fixating on certain lyrics, repeating them over and over, as if looking at himself from different angles in a dressing room mirror.
This music feels unpolished, or maybe even unfinished, but it still exudes a cool air of intentionality — and talking about that with him now, I realize that I had misunderstood what Bryant loved about that old Marvin clip. He isn’t trying to make a hard thing look easy. He’s trying to make an easy thing feel honest.
“I’ve been in enough studios to see people outthink themselves, y’know?” he says. “My best vocals come when it’s raw and I’m just freestyling. Relaxed. I don’t overthink it, and I think that’s what people have come to like about it.” Sure. Relaxation allows for spontaneity, and spontaneity allows him to expose the truth of who he really is. Bryant says that he ultimately thinks of singing as achieving “a very calm version of myself.”
It’s working. Having just returned home from a short European tour with $100 in his pocket, he still has to figure out how to whip up the rest of his rent money in the approaching days. The only reason he isn’t panicking is because he chooses not to. Worrying has never helped him “hustle his way out of that situation,” he says. And you can hear that nonchalance on the new album during “Cost of Living,” a hazy lullaby about the vivid stress of making ends meet. The track literally starts with a yawn.
So without really even trying, these new Dreamcast songs bend at least two cultural myths about how real-world people make otherworldly music. That one about how true art requires suffering? Even if it does, the suffering doesn’t have to feel like suffering.
And if you still think that artists aren’t special — that they’re just ordinary people like you and me — you still might be right. The thing to remember is that ordinary people can be deeply imaginative, profoundly empathetic and infinitely special. They’re the ones who make the real world and the otherworld feel like one and the same. Next time you see Dreamcast at the grocery store, ask him all about it.
Correction: This story originally referred to a Giant Food on Georgia Avenue. The store is actually a Safeway.