Memphis native Dwayne Johnson Jr., who plays under the pseudonym MonoNeon, is an otherworldly talent. A prodigious bass player, the 32-year-old musician began playing guitar at just four years old—but not exactly in the traditional sense. Despite being right-handed, MonoNeon plays left-handed on a right-handed instrument, allowing him to use heavy string bending on the upper strings. His style is so unique, it’s earned high praise from fellow bass impresarios like Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who once called him “the greatest fucking electric bass player” ever. His slapping technique proved to be in high demand and he’s worked with a laundry list of notable artists, including Mavis Staples, George Clinton, Pete Rock, Ne-Yo, Mac Miller, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Nas.
“My dad gave me my first guitar when I was 4 years old, and I naturally flipped it over, playing the guitar left-handed upside down,” he tells BandWagon. “My dad moved to Europe when I was pretty young, so I didn’t learn anything from him one-on-one, but he was around long enough for me to realize I want to be like him with this music shit. I’m self-taught but learned the most about playing bass in church from the organ and piano players. I’m not sure why I started playing left-handed upside down. I just did it. No one told me to.”
The Bassist Behind Prince
Raised on Southern soul and blues, MonoNeon gravitated toward artists such as Denise LaSalle, Tyrone Davis, ZZ Hill, Johnnie Taylor and Little Milton, which he calls “the sound of my childhood and foundation in my playing.” Following a brief stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (he admittedly left because he “didn’t want to be there anymore”), he returned to Memphis where he began playing under the PolyNeon/MonoNeon umbrella. He released his debut solo album, Polyneon, in 2010.
As his career began to take off, MonoNeon found himself playing alongside Prince and his protégé, Judith Hill, in 2015. Mere months later, Tidal released an instrumental track called “Ruff Enuff” by MonoNeon, which boasts Prince as both producer and keyboardist. The track was eventually replaced with a vocal version featuring lead vocals on vocoder by Adrian Crutchfield. When Prince wasn’t playing his solo piano shows, he was breaking in his new band at Paisley Park with MonoNeon as his bassist. The partnership continued until Prince’s untimely death in April 2016.
Working with Mac Miller
That wasn’t the only loss he’s experienced over the last few years. Six months before Mac Miller’s death in September 2018, MonoNeon received a text from Miller asking if he’d lay bass on something he was working on. MonoNeon was thrilled and quickly agreed to the collaboration. It ended up being the song “Complicated,” which appeared on Miller’s posthumous album, Circles, in 2020.
“This is super special for me mane!!!” MonoNeon shared on Instagram at the time. “Mac Miller messaged me on Instagram out of the blue March 1st of 2018 asking to record bass on a song that would be entitled, ‘Complicated.’ When he emailed the track for me to work on the next day, I didn’t think much of it ever being released. I was just excited to collab with Mac in some way. I was so excited that I ran into my mom’s room, jumping around and told her, ‘Mac Miller wants me to record bass on his song, hell yea! not knowing it would be one of his last recordings. Unfortunately, me and Mac didn’t get a chance to meet in person but Mac showed me love and I’m grateful for that!”
Keeping Hip Hop Funky
In 2020, MonoNeon won a Grammy Award for his contribution’s to the Nas album, King’s Disease. In fact, he’s lent his skills to several Hip-Hop projects, although he doesn’t approach those albums any differently than he’d approach a funk or soul album.
“I really don’t look at it as a different thing, you know, like I gotta’ play a certain way in this particular musical realm,” he explains. “I don’t like thinking that way. It’s more so listening and feeling shit. If the way I play works that’s cool and if not, that’s cool too.”
MonoNeon’s Continued Collaboration
As for MonoNeon’s more current work, he recently joined forces with Jack White’s longtime drummer Daru Jones and rapper/producer Bumpy Knuckles for the PHUNKINTRYBE project. The trio is readying their debut project, Interludes, which is expected to arrive before the end of the year. Jones and MonoNeon, who both live in Memphis, connected instantaneously.
“Maybe it’s because of the childlike character and certain level of intuitiveness in our shit,” he says of their connection. “I love playing music with Daru. His use of space is super inspiring.” Jones adds, “He was Prince’s last bassist before he departed so that should speak for itself. We’ll be here for days and hours if I’d mentioned all the established and legendary artists MonoNeon worked with in a decade. He’s my Leo and musical galaxy brother from another mother that I’ve performed and worked with since 2016.”
Catch MonoNeon Live!
MonoNeon is also working on another solo album called Quilted Stereo, with features by Mavis Staples and George Clinton. Otherwise, he says he mostly “chills at home” and “hangs with his mom, grandma n’ nem.” He’ll be performing at the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins on June 28, which he says he’s “looking forward to, especially since I get to play my own music.” Find more information on www.mononeon.com.