Columbus rapper D.U.E.C.E. steps into his own

On the three-track ‘Steel Bill’ EP, the MC explores issues of identity and self, finally establishing a sense of footing following a challenging couple of years

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
The cover of "Steel Bill" by D.U.E.C.E.

Prior to the March 2021 release of 2outh City, rapper D.U.E.C.E. hadn’t recorded anything in more than 18 months, and in retrospect he compares the album to a professional athlete working their way back from a career-threatening injury.

“When they come back the next season, it’s like they didn’t actually get any better, and they’re just trying to get back on track,” said D.U.E.C.E. (Dream Under Every Circumstance Existing), speaking by phone in mid-April, a couple of weeks after the release of his new, three-track Steel Bill EP. “Dropping that project, I was just getting back into it, getting my feet wet.”

With Steel Bill, named for his late grandfather, William, the rapper has shaken loose any accumulated rust, delivering his words with a revitalized sense of purpose that he traced in part to an intense October conversation with a longtime friend. “We were sitting down and she was like, ‘Who are you and what are you doing with your life?’” D.U.E.C.E. said. “And something clicked in me. … Then from there it was like, OK, how do I get better? I’m doing this, and it’s cool, and I feel like I’m back in the game, but how do I improve? How do I hone my skills? How do I write better verses? How do I come up with better hooks? How do I make better songs?”

In January, D.U.E.C.E. started collecting beats from his production team, Jess So Icey and Colt G., writing nine new songs over a stretch of weeks and then setting six aside, homing in on the three tracks that felt of a piece: “That’s Real,” “Boom Baptist” and “Wrong or Right,” a trio that collectively captures the feel of the rapper starting to step comfortably out on his own.

“My last project was all about neighborhood and community, and it’s not that those things don’t still resonate with me, but it was more about asking, ‘Who is D.U.E.C.E.?’” the rapper said, drawing a line to his late grandfather, who remained a steady voice at times when that was most needed in his life. “With him being gone, it made me really have to be like, OK, grandpa’s not here to give you the thumbs up or thumbs down anymore, so now you have to figure out on your own what type of man you’re going to be. And I think that happens to everyone. You get to a point where the people in front of you kind of move to the side so you can step into your spot.”

The pandemic also fueled the more solitary leanings of Steel Bill, but not in the way one might expect. Rather than reflecting a sense of pandemic isolation, the songs actually capture the rapper’s efforts to reclaim his time following a stretch in which he constantly surrounded himself with friends and family. D.U.E.C.E. said this more immersive stretch landed in the wake of his grandfather’s funeral, where he often stretched himself thin in an effort to be there for everyone, because he didn’t want to risk losing anyone else.

“And I got burned out again, and I reached a point where I didn’t really have much of anything to my name because I had been doing things for everybody else,” he said. “So, it was like, what do I want to do? What makes me happy? … If I’m moving into this next chapter of my life, how is that chapter going to be written? … It wasn’t that the pandemic illuminated that by leaving me by myself. It was actually being around so many people that it felt like I was getting lost in the sauce.”

While D.U.E.C.E. might have been weighing his own existence more heavily while working toward Steel Bill, he described himself as more of a conduit in the writing process, the words arriving as if gifted by God rather than through any efforts of his own.

“I’ve always been able to rap, and I’ve always been able to write, but I was having a conversation with my sister, and [she told me] my pen, with the things I write, it’s almost like I’m not writing them, and I’m just letting loose and God takes over,” said D.U.E.C.E., who leaned more heavily into “first thought, best thought” for these recordings, hoping to keep the tracks closer to these initial inspirations. “When I write, I have to have the beat, because the beat is the landscape that I paint on, but from that point my mind just goes on autopilot. A lot of times, it’s almost like these aren’t even my words, like I’m tapping into a higher source, where it comes from Him. … I was watching the Kanye documentary, and he said that God wrote the words, and I’m just quoting them, and that’s how I feel. When everything is aligned, it’s almost a spiritual process."