Building Success With An International Buzz – Donnis Interview

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The Industry Bidding War is over as Donnis decides that Atlantic floats his boat

There are times when art imitates life, and then there is Donnis – when the actualization of the fly-concept urban-outcast lifestyle manifests itself in Hip-Hop art form. His music follows no format. There is no formula. He’s more just-go-off instinct than just-add-water instant.

With influences as wide ranging as Jay-Z and Goth culture to South Atlanta club scenes and Sunset Boulevard; oh, and don’t forget Tokyo, where a then 19-year-old Donnis moved homemade mixtapes like water for chocolate (or homemade lemonade for cash) on the streets of Japan. Donnis is everywhere. Always has been. Imagined it before he acted it out. Way before the deal. And he’s generally flyer than a piece of paper baring his name (or shopping for Japanese denim as we speak).
Now signed to Atlantic Records, joining a roster of Grand Hustlers who cash checks on the 1st & 15th while Rockin’ the Nation before riding out to those Trey Songz. But the deal didn’t come easily, at least not for the executives at Atlantic. Due to Donnis’ international buzz, strong industry ties and clever business acumen (that marketing plan was He) a 36 month bidding war ensued as record labels thirsty for the Next New Fresh Face of Hip Hop flirted with homie like an alcoholic hitting on the bartender: Donnis serves hits that read like scripts, but how much would it cost for that shit to exist? Interscope, Jive, Asylum, Def Jam… and so on. Dude has been opening love letters like Valentine’s Day on replay… for years.

So the deal with Atlantic Records was signed back in November. The honeymoon is over and the marriage begins. It’s official. He has issues. I bumped into Donnis in Atlanta during Super Bowl weekend, fresh off the XXL “Show & Prove” shoot and a day before he heads off to LA to “Record. Work. Record. Then maybe the beach,” as he says.  Read the ToneSwep Exclusive for Parlé Magazine!

Parlé: My dude, for the last 3 years solid every label from Jive to Interscope to Def Jam has placed deals on the table for Donnis and the team at The Academy to sign. You never did. Not until now. What’s the deal?
Donnis: Ummm (affluent pause)… With Atlantic, the fact that I got to be ME was the important thing. And Atlantic delivered that. And I definitely didn’t want to be the big fish in a small pond. I wanted to compete with my idols. I didn’t want to be in a position where there was favoritism for certain artist’s projects being preferred over others. I wanted to be in a winning position. Atlantic is all about show and prove. You get what you earn. They stick by their artists.

Parlé: Competing with your idols is an interesting perspective; a different way to embrace the challenge of success. Which idols specifically?
Donnis: Jay-Z and T.I. And Lupe definitely opened the door for my style and brand of music. But I mean, Plies is here. Trey Songz is here. Friendly competition man and I look forward to building with all of them.

Parlé: When I first worked with you, back in ’06, you were rocking skinny jeans, stomping in Vans kicks and riding to Portis Head. I was like, What The Phuck is this kid????… Now the entire industry, specifically the 30-and-under set – your demo – has adopted that style. We were late. You were early. Was your pocket picked though? Do you have to flip your style now, D? Change the channel since everyone is watching the one you’ve been on for years?
Donnis: The one thing you can always expect from me is ME. I’m not a street kid. I never sold dope or shot anyone. I’m not a pimp (his homegirl slash photographer Sydney giggles just a little). What you CAN expect from me are stories of trying to overcome. I know pain. But at the same time you can expect a good time. The good, the bad and the club (laughs). I like people, love music, love to travel and meet people. I love to discover new sounds, new places. I love fresh ideas. My sound and image are a reflection of my interests.

Parlé: The Academy. Your imprint. Your company. How steep are the admission requirements over at The Academy? Cuz blood I got like a C- average.
Donnis: (laughs). Naw, Tone. We’re good. You’re good. You’re in. But yea, The Academy! I’m building the name. Establishing my crew. I’m bringing in guys that deserve a shot. The game right now, unless you’re backed by Pepsi or some huge corporation, or unless you have some crazy street buzz that is backed by an established artist, people don’t get to hear about you. So we’re traveling, doing shows, working with major producers, and making the most of each appearance and PR opportunity. Getting The Academy known beyond just me.

Parlé: Street Cred used to be the yard stick used to measure the plausibility of an artist’s projected success. 50 Cent had the most, and thus sold the most. How accurate is street cred today, in this market? The new market. How relevant is street cred to Donnis?
Donnis: If The Love Below dropped today the streets probably wouldn’t think it’s hot. I don’t care what anyone else says about the streets, but I’m not looking to the streets for validation. I’m into Vampire Weekend and Avatar and shit that the streets may not think is hot. Or they might, who knows. But I don’t concern myself with that. I don’t really make music FOR the streets but more so for everyone. Some of everyone is going to like it. Some of everyone won’t.

Parlé: You’ve been working with everyone since day one, especially producers. Who are you in the lab with right now? I know you were working with Ryan Leslie for a while.
Donnis: Ryan Leslie and I are trying to get back in the studio right now. Whenever he’s in LA again that’s going to happen. I’m due to go in with Kanye soon. Eric Hudson. And a lot lot of underground people.

Parlé: BASIC TRAINING is the title of your debut. Since we creatives Hear colors and See sounds; feel by seeing and see by touching, what can we expect BASIC TRAINING to look like when we hear it?
Donnis: It would start off as a maroon then sort of veer into a deep undertone of light brown. It will then get into your blues and your reds before bleeding into something that is brighter. Like I said, I know pain and I know good times. It all balances out. When I was in Toyko handing out CD’s, my light bills were behind. I had eviction notices. The repo man was looking for me. I failed in school. I was in the military. My life has been a rollercoaster, but I learned and grew at every stage. Now, I get to take my parents on vacation and enjoy life. You’ll hear and see and feel all of this on BASIC TRAINING believe me.

Parlé: Has the game changed you?
Donnis: Yes it has… when you’re constantly around certain things: People that do drugs. People who don’t care about other people. People that transform every day, it changes you. But I don’t imitate people. I constantly care about the music. And I’m finding out more about myself with every new experience. When you’re placed in certain situations you find out how you’ll react. You gain a strong sense of self-respect. If Arrested Development walked into the studio today, maybe some producers wouldn’t think that they’re marketable or whatever. I’d sign them in a heartbeat, just because they know who they are and because their sound IS who they are. So the game has most definitely changed me in a positive light. I’m more aware of how awesome I am.

Images by Chris Phelps

Written by ToneSwep for Parlé Magazine

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