Before Outkast accepted the award for Best New Rap Group amidst a sea of boo's at the '95 Source Awards, no one really knew what rap music from Atlanta was supposed to sound like. Fourteen years later, and a quick listen to the radio might convince you that the only things going down in the "A" are choreographed dances and drug dealing. Twenty two year old, Jonesboro, GA native Ladonnis "Donnis" Crump wants to help change all that. Or, at least, help bring the climate back to '95 when you could pretty much rap about whatever you wanted as long as the music was good and the lyrics were dope.
With his 10 Deep sponsored mixtape "Diary of an Atlanta Brave" causing a major buzz in the industry, Donnis came by the Complex office to talk about why he loves New York City, how he managed to snag J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League production for free and why he didn't sign with DJ A-Trak back in '07. And with New York currently in a frenzy over Jay-Z's Blueprint 3 and his Sept 11th concert at Madison Square Garden, Donnis hit us with an exclusive freestyle over Hova's "Run This Town". Read on to listen to the freestyle and read the full interview below...
EXCLUSIVE: Donnis "Run This Town Freestyle"
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Interview by Damien Scott
Complex: So, your mixtape got a pretty good response considering no one knew who you were. Did that make you nervous at all?
Donnis: I don't even take that as a bad thing. It's cool. The track "Underdog" explains everything. Kinda where I was at in my mind frame. I lived in Tokyo for two and half years so I was on streetwear before. I was in line with Japanese kids trying to buy Bape. When I came back home my whole mind frame was different. I loved the dance music they were on but when I came home it wasn't the cool thing to do. So I was like, well, what the hell to do next? So I just put myself in the closet and just wrote, wrote, wrote and built my relationships. And I was like, Alright, I'm going to do what the hell I think should be doing next.
Complex: Tokyo? Let's take it back a little bit. When did you first start rapping?
Donnis: Kriss Kross', "Jump Jump," I was like... hell yeah! I'm not going to lie to anybody. [laughs]
Donnis: It kinda just started there, man, and I just kept growing a love for it. I'm from the south so you know the bass music, then after the bass music we really just started to establish ourselves with TLC, Outkast and the entire Dungeon Family. I watched my city just really put on for itself. From there I was living like in what people would consider slums. We moved out to the 'burbs, I was a regular kid who was in love with fashion and music and it just was... you know school just wasn't the first priority. I had to make a choice so I went into the military. I went into the military did my two and a half years in Tokyo and then did my time in Denver.
Complex: You went to Tokyo with the Army?
Donnis: Yeah, through the military. The funny thing about it was everybody here was like, "Tokyo, wow!" and I was like, "Hell no!" I put Virginia and shit, I was trying to stay close to home [laughs], but I got out there and for the first few months I was just like "Yo, this is so shitty" and then I was like, You know what? Lets just make the best of it. And I just started making music out there...
Complex: How did that work? Who were you rapping with out in Tokyo?
Donnis: There were other kids in the military, so there was the older guy which is my dude D-Focus who did who did "Over Do It"?. He was doing his thing and his career and I was like, Well, there's nothing else to do, lets just go ahead and make these records. So I spent everyday making records, then on the weekends--I'm only 19 so you know I'm getting drunk as hell you know on the weekends [laughs]. Basically me and him just came together and we were working, working, working. I was doing shows around the base. I was living in an area called Fussa, which is about 30 minutes outside of Tokyo, so I would do shows around there, around the clubs around bases. And then promoters just started hearing about me just like if you were rocking out here. I got asked to an area called Reppongi which is in Tokyo, then I did a show at a spot called the Warehouse out there and from there it just kinda got stupid. I hooked up with DJ Master Key, that was my partner in crime, and he would just take me everywhere to like the biggest clubs, and I would just open for him.
Complex: So you were underground in over in Tokyo. Did you meet any other artists out there?
Donnis: Yeah, that's when other artists start coming. T.I starts coming over there and everybody else and I would open for them. Then it was like, I had to make a decision. By that time I was like, I'm in love with Tokyo, I don't really want to leave. I had to make a decision: do you want to do music for real in the states? You could only go so far if you don't speak Japanese [laughs]. You're going to be that stupid kid speaking English [laughs]. Everywhere you go around the world, once America stamps it you know everybody else is going to stamp it. I just had to make the decision, so I was like, Forget it, I'm leaving. So then I came back to the states, did my thing in Denver, finished my time and then shot out to New York. I stayed out here for about a year then just kinda grinded it out. I kinda explained it best on "Underdog," A-Track offered me the contract and I was like Nah, so he was like, Aight and kinda went with Cudi and Cudi blew up and it was like that's when I kinda went into the dungeon.
Complex: How'd you meet up with A-Trak?
Donnis: I met A-Trak in my second week out here. He heard "Party Works" on my MySpace page and he called me while I was in the military. I was in Denver and I had like a month left and he was like "Yo this is crazy!" I knew who A-Trak is but I was like, You're stupid, there's big labels, I'm not listening to you. Then we just built a relationship and I kinda saw what he was up to and what he was doing. He kinda explained everything to me and we just kept an open relationship and we were always trying to make something work.
Complex: Why didn't it work?
Donnis: It didn't work because at the time I was under a different management team than I am now and I didn't see the build that it takes. I'm still thinking, at the time, that you just go into a record label, they like you and sign you. They could think you're super talented but they don't care unless everybody else cares. So I kept doing that, and at the time I just was pushing the "Party Works" single that they wanted. At the time I was tired of the single, he was tired of the single.
Complex: How soon after you passed did he sign Cudi?
Donnis: He had already signed Cudi. He asked me in November of that year around Thanksgiving. They were still in talks with Cudi and they had just signed him or whatever. From there we just kept our relationship. I just kept going and looking and then I found nothing was happening so I ran back home. I was like, You know what? I didn't get nothing so I went home and I just started working, man. I've been working on this mixtape since last November. I just worked and worked and worked and was looking for a sound that was still me and so I could tell my story and people could quit being like, "Oh all kids who are fashionable are hipsters." It's just something that I really wanted to fight, it's not a derogatory term but you can't just put a bunch of people in one group because I don't sound anything like Cudi, who doesn't sound anything like Mickey Factz, who doesn't sound anything like Hollyweird. It was just like me kinda wanting to go in and show the people I could really rap and that I wasn't all just about dancing and partying which is what they thought. I look at me not doing the deal at the time as a blessing in disguise because there was a lot of work to do still, I would have hated to come out with the ill party song and not been able to back it up as a real MC.
Complex: So now you're back in Atlanta...
Donnis: I'm in Atlanta and I'm recording my ass off I'm rapping over every beat I could possibly rap over.
Complex: Are you making connections? Are people sending you beats?
Donnis: I'm online and I have a production crew I'm really cool with, they're still my boys called the Track-Aholics and they would send me beats. It was like I'm writing and writing and we're just really trying to develop the style really to make sure that we could compete with radio and still get that respect. So we're working on it working on it song after song. I came up with the idea to do what I call "Snack Packs." I don't want to just throw a mixtape out there and it gets over looked. So we start with snack packs which is going to be a song and a video. First one, "Blueprint", got a good response, bloggers start putting it up and stuff second one was "Watch for the Hook" and the third one was the "Claremont Lounge" one we did.
Complex: Were you meeting any big name producers?
Donnis: At this time I got a call from a girl. When people call you for shows you don't go sit down and have coffee with them you just go do it. But she was like "Yo, I'm at Starbucks you should come by." So I was like, OK. She happened to be really good friends with Kenny Bartolomei who is part of the J.U.S.T.I.C.E League. I didn't know who he was at the time, she brought him to the club that night, we was just partying, "Party Works" happened to go off in the club and everybody was just like, "Donnis, yeah!" He heard it and he was like "Yo, you should come by the studio." That's kinda how this project really started, I blew up his phone a million times, we got into the studio together, he played me stuff and then I really found my love for music again. I found the sound that I was looking for. So along with them I just sent in different songs to different people and they were like we see it, we feel like you got it. I went and sat down with Needlez I played him a bunch of stuff and Needlez was like I believe it, I think you got something. They believed in me. I went to underground producers because who am I still? I'm just a kid trying to get it poppin'. 10 Deep saw one of the Snack Packs, they saw one of the videos and then they believed. Then we started playing them a bunch of music, they were like, "We see what you're doing, we're willing to take a chance." They took a chance on me like not knowing how other people would react to a mixtape that wasn't really a mixtape it was more like an album. I didn't rap over anybody else's beats, they were beats specifically made for me or just given to me. It's just a bunch of people taking chances and I guess it's kind working out.
Complex: How was it working with the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League?
Donnis: They're good dudes. Kenny told me when he heard my stuff: "I believe it, I just want to play it for the guys." They heard it and I guess they were impressed and they were like, "Well, lets do it." They had me come over and they would just play me stuff. I'm like one of the only people to get free beats from them with the exception of Drake. So they believed in it that much that they thought that it could go. I guess so far, so good. Now I'm getting to sit down with you guys [Laughs].
Complex: You keep talking about forming this "sound." How would you describe your sound?
Donnis: I feel like I kind of got my own lane, but I think I if you mix T.I., Andre3000, Hov and Kanye you kinda get who I am. And I'm a huge fan of all of those artists, I grew up on a little bit of all them. It's kinda like when you mix that all together, man, at the end of the day I feel like that whole theme is just kind of a story for me at least this is kinda just chapter one, where I'm the underdog, and a lot of people just didn't believe and shutting doors on me. You're like, Can we get a meeting? And people cancel on him and shit like that, so now we get to be the ones like, We got something to do so we'll catch you later. This is part one of the story.
Complex: Over the past couple years, the most popular music coming out of Atlanta has been snap or trap rap. Was it hard for you to break through that?
Donnis: I'm trying to open the door for Atlanta right now. Because in Atlanta it's really hard to get on the radio unless you're in the trap or you got a dance, it's just really hard. Unless you combine the two then you run radio, "I'm slangin, I'm slangin!" [laughs]
Donnis: It's really hard, I love my city, man. There are so many people doing something different in Atlanta that's not that. But you don't get a chance to see them. I had to leave home to be able to shine a little bit, I still got to go home and have my spokespeople such as DJ Jelly and all those cats down there be like "Yo, you need to listen to this because this is what's good" or whatever. Because Jelly heard "Party Works" and "Dope Girl", some old records of mine and he was like "Yo this is hot, what's going on?" and I was like "I'm on the next plane home." Because Jelly broke Outkast and like he's that guy. For him to tell me it's hot it's like, OK something can happen with this here. I really just had to leave home for to make it happen. I'm putting it on my back so I can put on EMB and Hollyweird who don't have a dance, they're not in the trap. They just got a story to tell. Just take it back to what Atlanta use to be. With Outkast and Ghetto Mafia and these other people who wanted to just really spit because they had to keep up with Wu Tang and all them other people. It's like Atlanta got so big that Atlanta stopped caring about competing with everybody else and was just like, You know what? We gonna do what we want to do. And you know what? We want to dance, we want to sell drugs [ laughs]. It's like we can still have hip-hop down south. There are some people who do the trap thing that I'm not even mad at. I'm a huge Jeezy fan, I'm a huge T.I. fan, I'm a fan of Pill who is up and coming. Pill is the official spokesperson for the trap if you want to ask me. When's the last time you seen someone in a video really cooking crack? It's just amazing to me. He got like a regular girls pussy poppin in the video, [laughs]. I mean there's people who are really doing it then there's people who are just imitations and people playing games and people who don't need to be rapping they're just rapping because it looks fun on TV.
Complex: I heard you say earlier that you want to move up here from Atlanta. What's good? Why leave Atlanta?
Donnis: I know Atlanta, I love my city. I love it up here. I'm a huge fan of restaurants and... don't get it messed up, ain't nothing up here messing with Waffle House [laughs], but I'm just a huge fan of culture and I just want to expand. There just so much going on out here as far as different communities. Y'all going to think I'm crazy. But being down in Atlanta I didn't know about Orthodox Judaism. I came up here and I was like, What is this? What's going on? I'm serious, man, I'm from Atlanta. Check out the Snack Pack video and y'all will see where I'm from. I got the one lane bridge [laughs] I didn't know. I didn't know how to use a Metro Card and all that. For me it was just crazy dude. It's like I need to expand some more. I'm learning everyday. The more I'm up here, the more I travel, the more I learn, the more I get to talk about.
Complex: Makes sense.
Donnis: I just got to get away from home. I've been in Atlanta my whole life so why not try something different? After New York, you may catch me in Paris or something. It's all about learning, traveling and experiencing. If you watch the Snack Pack, and you watch the first one I did over "The Blueprint" that's literally two minutes from my house. I live where there's fucking train tracks, cows and a one lane bridge. Anywhere we want to go it's 15 minutes down the road. That's where I'm from. For me I kind of have to travel and bring it back home and put everybody on and so on and so on. I think I'm up on shit enough to be able to do that.
Complex: You spoke about Cudi earlier. Do you have a relationship with any of the "new generation" of rappers?
Donnis: I feel like our new movement is just a bunch of crabs in a barrel and everybody is just looking out for themselves. For the sake of hip-hop, dude, I'm down. I don't know Drake individually, me and Cudi had a really good relationship before everything popped off. I just seen him in the street the other day and he congratulated me, so it's all love if we can take hip-hop to the next generation and make them want to do it and do it properly then lets go.
Complex: You're currently unsigned, what would your ideal label situation be?
Donnis: I have no problems with majors. It's just that the right situation has to be the right situation. Real talk, I've been broke this long so I think I could wait a few more months. I'm not bugging out. My whole plan was to make them call me and not me call them. Because when you call them they don't want to answer. So you got to give them a hard time. It's just a fucked up game the way it is right now. I'm so blessed to be breaking through right now because, how do you break through now? It took a clothing line to make people recognize me, you know what I mean? So the next kid that doesn't have that opportunity what is he suppose to do? It's really hard to break through right now. You just have to keep dreaming and keep pushing and take those right opportunities. I can't express that enough. It's crazy. A clothing line has broken like the last two or three rappers. The one rapper who didn't break through the clothing line was already rich! [laughs] So I don't know how they do this any more. shit is crazy, it's real crazy.
RELATED: Download Donnis' "Diary of an Atlanta Brave" Mixtape!