From the early 2010s onward, this vocally smooth Jamaican artist and pianist creatively fused dancehall and roots reggae, focusing on both socially conscious themes and lighter ruminations on relationships and music itself. He skipped from label to label, releasing multiple singles before gaining widespread recognition for "We Pray," a 2017 collaboration with fellow Jamaican Popcaan on his own Kingston Hills imprint. In 2020, under the island's Solid Agency management, he released and promoted a long-rumored debut album, Now I Rise, with the intention of fully tapping into international markets.
Born Andre Johnson, he was raised by his grandmother in Kingston's Donmair Close community. It was a modest upbringing, but his father offered to pay for his piano lessons beginning when he was three; he received his first piano at age eight. His earliest experience with reggae came from listening to artists such as Bob Marley and Dennis Brown while still at Kingston's Calabar High School. Johnson's childhood friend Kirk Thomas inspired him to learn more about how to make a career of out of music, and even came up with his Dre Island moniker. He soon went from singing at the Emmanuel Gospel Assembly to studying the ins and outs of working in a studio, ultimately becoming an established producer and engineer. Paying close attention to the works of musicians like Buju Banton and Stephen Marley, he taught himself to build beats. Next, while working as an engineer for the up-and-coming Chronixx — who was recording a composition by his father, Chronicle — the pair challenged each other to write and sing their own songs, and before long, Dre Island was performing them live at local events. Dre, however, went to such lengths to conceal his musical talent from those in his immediate community that many of his neighbors only learned about it the night he made his national TV debut.
An early Dre Island single, May 2013's "Rastafari Way," racked up high video streaming counts, creating an audience for that October's follow-up releases, "Reggae Love" and "Find Dem Flaw." When a BBC radio crew visited his workplace, Tuff Gong Studio, in January 2014, he took the opportunity to record a raw, impromptu solo rendition of his song "Uptown, Downtown" as he played the piano. The interest raised by the radio broadcast led to Dre Island touring Europe in late 2014 and early 2015 with Chronixx in support and the latter's band, Zinc Fence Redemption, backing both artists. In 2016, he issued no fewer than five singles on an array of labels, including Jam2, UIM, Maximum Sound, Gacha, and E5. However, it was the following summer's "We Pray," released on his own label, where things really started to up pick up. In the next two years, it enjoyed an estimated 22 million streams. Additional impetus was created during this period by tracks such as "My City," "Be Okay," and "Still Remain," all of which appeared on his May 2020 debut album Now I Rise. ~ James Wilkinson