Californian born rapper Donnis sat down with us at GlobalGrind to talk about his journey to fame. Journey is the best way to describe it. After being born in Montclair, Donnis moved to Atlanta where he finished high-school before joining the Air Force and being shipped out to Tokyo where he first started breaking into hip-hop, opening for acts like T.I., Chingy and 112.
The hard work definitely paid off when in early 2010, Donnis was the subject in a bidding war between Def Jam, Jive, Asylum and Downtown Records.
Check out this exclusive interview with Donnis and to read how he made it from an Air Force cadet to being wanted by four different labels at once.
GG: What’s your story, how did this all come together?
I used to live out in Tokyo. I lived in Tokyo for two and half years. While I was out there I was making music constantly, using my military checks to fund a budding rap career, I guess (laughs). I was just really excited about everything that was going on in music at the time. I was just like on Myspace always searching new music, new music. I knew Kid Cudi before like anybody else. Me and him used to be mad cool.
I was always posting new music on there. From there that’s how you’d sort of get a form of Internet platform. I was also burning CDs constantly throughout Tokyo and handing them out and going to different shows and just performing anywhere I could. Anywhere there was a stage I was doing that. It got to the point where I was opening for major artists as they would come out, like T.I. Anybody who would come to Japan I would open for them. Then I made my way back to the States, so I moved to New York where I started doing a little bit of recording stuff, nothing really panned out. I left and went back to Atlanta and recorded two little viral videos called the “Snack Packs” and it got the attention of Ten Deep. Ten Deep asked me to be on their next mixtape for their series after Cudi and Kwali. Mixtape got released and … we’re here.
You’re kind of a marketing wiz. Would you say that’s something that really factors in these days? That you can’t just be the best at your craft, you also have to be a good marketer?
Yeah, man and it’s something that everyday I’m learning more and more about. Just figuring out the direction I want to go brand wise. It’s a big game.
What it is about Atlanta that puts out so many huge hip-hop artists?
I think Atlanta has just always had a history of music. The people who have been born there, starting record labels. It’s just a lot of people hustling extra hard to get their music heard and their dream out. I think a lot of people move there because it’s cheap, it’s good people out there, everyone lets you do your thing. It’s not that big a city that it gets out of hand, that it gets too crazy. We’re all about our work ethic and I think you can compare that with anybody. People might not move as fast but we work as hard.
Would you say that Tokyo and being in the Air Force was more of a factor in your music and success?
That’s the thing, Atlanta is home and always will be home. I left Atlanta when I was 19 so when I bounced from Atlanta, it was a whole new world for me. Like get disciplined and what not. I was in the Air Force. Everybody knows what comes from a job like that. So they moved me to Tokyo which was a culture shock for me. My family travelled around the states but I’d never been outside of the U.S. or Canada. So to get to Tokyo, it instantly changed my lifestyle and situation. The first two months I didn’t even do anything out there, I was just like, man this shit is mad weird. But once I stepped out it was like I was never the same again. It’s so innovative out there and the people are so passionate about everything they do, from music to coming in there and just working a desk job, anything they do they do it 100%.
Is the hip-hop community big in Tokyo?
Yeah, it’s a big community, man. It’s something you could equate to like, if you took everybody who lived in New York and were like yo, you love hip-hop. It’s like you put all of them in one small area and that’s what it would be. A lot of people think it’s bigger than it is, but it’s big enough where you can go out there and rock for a lot of kids.
Would you say that if someone was trying to get into the hip-hop game go to Tokyo?
I would not say that to you. Because, right now, in Tokyo, while there is still a huge core of hip-hop fans out there a lot of kids are really fuckin’ with the K-Pop scene and the electro. Everything is progressing and moving forward over there and I think that they’re becoming a little more proud of their own culture. They’ve got their own hip-hop artists as well, that they can relate to a little bit better than what’s going on over here.
Going back to Kid Cudi, where did you know him from?
Just from Myspace and from there we just used to back and forth with messages and we became really close, we talked on the phone everyday. So to see his success and where he’s at now is awesome.
Being able to share music through Myspace and the Internet makes it a whole other game. How did that change this generation of hip-hop?
It’s a huge difference, it changed everything. I remember being young and the first time I saw Shyne’s video for “Bad Boy’s” I was like an instant fan and I just wanted to know everything about Shyne. Where he was from, everything about him. That wasn’t something I could just find instantly. Now, kid turns on the TV and he sees my video and wants to know everything about me, now he can follow me, talk to me, download the music, download the video, watch me on Youstream, see me everyday on a blog. It wasn’t like that when I was young. You had to just sit around and hope that whoever you liked was going to be on T.V.
The game has changed in a tremendous way and if you’re not active on that Internet and pursuing your fans like they’re pursuing you and giving them visuals and doing these things, you’re not gonna last because things are happening so fast out here that you have to be on top of every beat to keep up. Tomorrow there’ll be a new social network that everyone feels they need to be a part of. You have to know and learn how to navigate that and have the latest fan pages so these kids know you’re going to be in their city. It’s a lot but if you sign up for music, this is what you sign up for now. It’s not just, ‘I’m a famous rapper and I’m not gonna do any interviews and I’m not gonna use Twitter’ (laughs). No, you’re going to use all of that if you really want to go out there and reach your high mark. But man, I fought it as an artist for as long as I could. I was like, ‘Oh man, you’re telling me I have to tell them everything I’m doing?’
I’m so used to it by now. I’ve seen fans like over and over again now. I’ll be doing a show at Philly and I normally see a lot of the same kids. At this point it’s not even a fan situation, it’s just my friends. Because they’re following me on Twitter, they know everything that’s going on. I’m having conversations with them. It’s real, you’re just communicating with them straight up. Moral of the story is I could never do that with Shyne. I just had to hope Shyne was coming to town and that my mom would give me a ride. You’d hear about shows on the radio and that was it.
In addition to Shyne, who were some of your other influences?
Huge Biggie fan. Huge fan of Outkast, Pretty Mob, Kilo Ali, Witch Doctor, Eight Ball and MJG. Up north wise, I’m trying to think … Jay-Z. When I first heard Jay-Z was crazy. I’m like a pop kid so I never was into too much heavy street music unless it was just down south driven. But the first shit I heard from Jay-Z was “Sunshine” and I was like, ‘Yo, this is ridiculous, who is this?’ And then “Hard knock Life” was on its way and “Hard Knock Life” was popping on the radio the same time as “Cash Money” stuff was popping. Being from the South, we got that mad early. “Hard Knock Life” was one of my favorite albums because it just had something for everybody and I think subconsciously that’s what I try to base my music on because that whole CD was just back to back something for everybody.
That’s why, for me, that sold 10 million copies, because when you make something that just crosses all boundaries, that’s real man. That’s unreal! So you gotta put cash money in there. I’ve been forgetting that, because when I was in Mississippi they used to play that shit in the clubs – I used to go to those teen clubs when I was young – and they’d be playing that shit in the clubs when I was 13. Like Young Wayne, when Wayne was 15 on the Hotboards cover and the bandana with the grill and shit. It was just crazy seeing him be so young.
We’ve heard you say before that you’re kind of going for a specific sound. What is the sound you’re going for and what are you trying to bring to the table?
Me personally, I’m a huge fan of a lot of the old Southern music. Because our cats always just push the envelope. The sound I’m going for is always going to embody who I am as a Southerner but it also doesn’t sound like everything else on the radio in the South. I feel like the South has so much to offer, you got Jay Electronica who doesn’t sound like anything from the South, but at the end of the day he still represents where he’s from and he puts it down. That’s all I’m really trying to do, I’m just trying to polish out a sound that no one can copy or emulate. Drake has that. Anytime you hear some minimal beat you’re like, ‘That’s a Drake song.’ Or anytime those big strings in I’m just thinking, ‘This is some shit I want to hear Ross on.’ It’s about just having your own sound because it’s so easy to get caught up in one producer’s sound, so if you go to, let’s say Kane Beatz, and you’re like, ‘I want a song that sounds just like Wayne and Drake.’ That’s not what you came here for, man. They did that already, that was their sound, let them have those sounds and what they did. We need to keep trying to create and make music go forward instead of trying to stick with those same formulas.
Follow me on Twitter at DonnisXDonnis and like my Facebook page. I think I’m a good person to follow and I think I’m pretty interesting. I make good music and I release good music on those formats. My Myspace at Donnis Music. Somebody’s using Myspace somewhere. And my website!