Photography by Tone
It's a sign of the times when the next potential big rapper coming out of Atlanta is a guy who wears skinny ties and built his buzz in Tokyo. It may have taken Donnis a little longer to break through than some of his peers, but his time is certainly approaching. Complex has sat down with him before, shortly after he dropped his 10.Deep co-signed Diary of an ATL Brave mixtape, but he's it's time to get re-acquainted. The ATLien was recently featured on XXL's latest Freshman cover and earlier this year inked a deal with Atlantic Records. He dropped a dope BBGun-directed video for his single, "Gone," and just released the mixtape The Invitation in anticipation of an EP, Fashionably Late—an expanded version of the mixtape of the same name, which dropped yesterday—to be released by Atlantic next month. We got up with Donnis and chopped it up about the much-anticipated Fashionably Late, his co-signs from T.I., Clinton Sparks, and Killer Mike, passing on pre-made pop singles, and more...
Interview By Jordan Martins
Complex: Why do you feel the need to release another tape of all original music?
Donnis: For me, it's an "I-have-to-keep-going"-type situation. I can't wait until the record label feels like it's time for my album to come out, and then just disappear. I don't want to be over other people's beats just fucking rapping, because I'm not Lil Wayne. Everybody wants to hear Lil Wayne say some shit. Me rapping over other people's beats doesn't mean as much as when Lil Wayne does it—no matter how hard I'm going in. I'm not Cudi, where I can just drop one because I have 'Ye backing me. I'm not J. Cole, because I have Hov backing me. Drake, whoever. I have to come with another tape with all original music to show I can make hit records, all types of records. Off the last one, we did the single deal for "Gone." Hopefully, the build off that can carry us into the EP and album I'm looking to release.
Complex: What's the EP going to be like?
Donnis: The EP is probably going to be five, six original records, up on iTunes. Probably going to do two videos for it. To bring everything to the point of, "Hey, it's album time."
Complex: Why did you decide to go with Atlantic?
Donnis: Out the gate they make the most money as far as record labels go. They've done it, from what I'm hearing, two or three years in a row. They have my idols over there. Jay is there through distribution. Tip is over there. I really look up to Gee Roberson [Vice President of A&R]. A lot of the people I truly look up to and believe in are over there and I feel like they believe in me and my project. Craig Kallman [CEO of Atlantic Records] kind of sold me—he's a realist. He's not trying to sell me a dream. He kept it 100 percent real. I've watched what they've done with a lot of artists who released things and did well, but didn't meet their expectations. They keep pushing and keep going. I don't foresee that happening with me, but you never know. So I want to always make sure I'm in good hands.
Complex: On Diary of an ATL Brave, you mentioned label troubles...
Donnis: I had a few labels that didn't believe right out of the gate. It is what it is. That didn't really hinder me when I went back in as a totally different artist. Even Craig heard my music for the first time, and was like, "This kid needs work." It had nothing to do with that. It was just timing, I guess.
Complex: How's your Atlanta buzz?
Donnis: A lot of people know, but to be 100 percent honest at home I don't be in the streets like that, partying and shit; I do a lot of work at home. I go out and shake hands with Greg Street and other influential people in my city. Me and Killer Mike just went in together. It's an important part of being from the city. But I've always traveled, man, so I'm always out and everywhere. It's a big deal in my city to have a breath of fresh air. The people in Atlanta, they're not really up on the blogs. A few people are, but it's not super crazy. In Atlanta it's still very much radio. When they hear it on the radio, that's what it is.
Complex: There's a lot of new energy in the ATL scene with guys like you, Pill, and Cyhi Da Prince. You guys are similar because you have lyrics, but stay true to the A. Talk about how you're different from those dudes and the new ATL scene.
Donnis: Atlanta is not like New York, where everybody piles into one place. I'm different because I'm from a different area of Atlanta. I stay in East Atlanta now. Nothing is that far—maybe 10, 15 minutes away—but I have a different story. Pill has a story of struggle and trap. I'm not really familiar with Cyhi's story. For me, my story is nothing like that. I was a Air Force kid. I got out of high school and I decided to join the military. I traveled and I was international before I got home. I did my thing in Japan, and I did it on big stages. I was out there for two and a half years. Opening for T.I., Chingy, 112, Erykah Badu, whoever was out there killing at the time. I was working on base. After work I would be in the studio, or rehearsing for the show that night. I used to pass out CDs around the base. I had a dope buzz on the underground hip-hop scene in Tokyo. That's where my grind took place. I didn't turn 21 in Atlanta. So I didn't party in the the Velvet Room, Magic City. I was in Tokyo in Club Yellow and Club AgeHa. That's where I did all my partying and stuff. My Atlanta stories will definitely be different than theirs. My Atlanta stories is me in high school and shit. [Laughs.]
Complex: Japan still holds you down?
Donnis: I love it over there. My boy DJ Jelly went over there. He said, "Motherfuckers is asking about you, like when you coming back." That's a second home.
Complex: Did you get into any Japanese music?
Donnis: Japanese music was so crazy! The J-pop and everything. I never scooped up an album or anything. But Zebra, he's like the Hov of Japan. I'm always looking for good music.
Complex: You recently shot a video in Tokyo, right?
Donnis: The video is for the record "Tonight." It's not really out right now, but people have been loving the radio rip. I shot the video with my boy BBGun again. It was his first time out there, and shooting overseas. We just ran rampant through Tokyo. I showed them all the sites that I loved when I was there before. There's things that are really going to catch people's eye. This one is like me traveling through Tokyo. I did everything I could possibly do to to make it a dope-ass Tokyo video, not just a, "It's cool because he's in Japan." I could have shot the same video in LA with the same concept.
Complex: When did you create "Gone?"
Donnis: It was probably one of the last songs I did for the mixtape. I did it around July, and we were like, "Yo, it's got to go on the mixtape." Needlz sent me the beat and we got it cooking. I was in Brooklyn at the time when I wrote that record.
Complex: And you knew boom, that's the single?
Donnis: Not for me. I'm different. I just went off what my homegirls were saying and a lot of my friends. They were like, "Yo, we love this record, it's so catchy." I was like, "well, this should be the record that we go with."
Complex: I feel like fans and industry heads like "Gone," but it hasn't taken off with the general public as much.
Donnis: No shots at nobody, but if I was in certain positions a lot of these other new artists are in, I would be there. I don't want to say no names, but I would be standing right there next to them. The reason I really idolize Tip, he's not in the circle of people who... . he's doing his own thing. That's what I'm doing; I just continue to grind on my own. You can't deny good music at the end of the day. That's just one song of many. I know I'm going to have another bigger song. I'm not sour, it's just not doing what I know it can do. I'm going to keep proving people wrong, whether it's my record label, other artists. In my heart, I know I'm just as talented as some of my idols. I came here with a purpose. We don't cry over spilled milk. The video did super-well on MTV. The fans responded to it, went and purchased it. Fans are coming out to the shows. That's just another record for them to sing along to. I'm just happy to have that, not a lot of artists can say that.
Complex: Was it the label not supporting the record?
Donnis: I don't know what it was, man. Who knows? I could wake up tomorrow and it's the biggest record in the country. The way the industry is nowadays, there's a lot of backdoor shit that goes down—if you're not strong, you drown. For a lack of a better term, I use all of my bullets and my guns like I'm supposed to use them. Some people got more ammunition because... for whatever reason. I'm just a kid from Atlanta who took a shot in the dark, came up to New York, and people fucked with me. I still keep the circle small. I don't need no extra hands in my pocket. At the end of the day, it's all about records; if these other niggas can't make records, they're not going to last. I make good records. That record might not have done what it was supposed to do, but I got another one coming.
Complex: In the industry, there's a lot of packaged singles with songs coming delivered with hooks already on them.
Donnis: I watched people do that, I had the opportunity to do that with one of the biggest records of the year, but I refused to do it. If I'm going to lose, I'd rather lose on my own accord. I want people to understand who I am as an artist. I don't want people to fuck with me because I have a T-Pain, Akon, Hov, Lil Wayne, whoever on the hook. I write my own hooks. Everything on Fashionably Late, besides one hook, I wrote. Even the joint with Tony Williams on it, I brought the hook, and he was like, "Your melodies are crazy."
Complex: That's a big co-sign, since he works so closely with 'Ye.
Donnis: Yeah, man. It's love. I'm just trying to perfect my craft, and be that artist who is writing shit for other people, because I believe in my talent that much. I don't want to be in the spotlight so bad that I'm going to sell my soul, or sell my creativity short. I'm not going to go in and get some hooks from some niggas who don't know me, or know what I'm about. I don't want a record that J. Cole, Drake, Lupe, or whoever else passed on, then it gets to me. Then the label is like, "You gotta record this because it's the new heat, and this person had it." I'm not going to let them do the math with my record. Me and my team do the math and give it to y'all. This ain't R&B, this is rap music. This is supposed to be real, man. People forget the days when Illmatic first dropped, and Shyne first came out, it wasn't all of that fluff and glitter, shit was real. Niggas was just going in, and was like "this is my muthafucking single." When Tip dropped "24s," and 'Ye dropped "Through The Wire." "All Falls Down" was a single, but it's real music. It don't have to be all super-generic and pop, not that anything is wrong with that. I mean, I've got my girl records that are real feel-good and could be a radio crossover. But it's not me going in that direction, and being like, "We need this huge pop crossover record where we need this girl on the hook."
Complex: So the Fashionably Late mixtape is hosted by Clinton Sparks and DJ Ill Will?
Donnis: Me and Ill Will just recently met up. I love his energy. He's ready to rock, so we tossed him on board. I met Clinton probably five or six months ago, but I feel like I've known him forever. We kicked it, did Coachella together. Vanity in Vegas together. He champions my music so we stay in contact, that's the homie. Plus he's in Hollywood. I turn my TV and he's on fucking E! [Laughs.] We met a little after the deal; I went to listen to his beats and stuff, that was also the first time I met Bei Major. Clinton played me a few beats. I played him some records, then we went our separate ways. From that, I recorded what will be the intro to my album. I did the record, played it for him, and told him I wanted it to be my intro. His mind was blown, he was like, "When I made the beat, I wanted it to be like a movie, and you did it." After that, we stayed in contact. I only have two songs for my album right now, that I know I 100 percent want for the album. I will make it a classic, I'm very adamant about that.
Complex: With the delays, how's the mixtape evolved over time?
Donnis: A few things changed. Fashionably Late was originally supposed to be freestyles and a couple of original records, like The Invitation. I ended up tapping into a zone, me and Needlz. I decided I wanted to start prepping for the album, getting into the mindset of what an album should be, with a concept and all that. The label may not be ready for an album, but I'm ready. I feel like it's my big introduction into the bright lights or whatever. A lot of people didn't know about me after Diary of An ATL Brave dropped, but a lot of people did. I still have fans that don't know Diary of an ATL Brave exists, but everyone is excited for Fashionably Late. I took the concept of me being late to a party, because I felt I was late getting a deal. Compared to some of my peers like Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, and being cool with dudes like Cudi and The Cool Kids while I was in the military in Japan. All those dudes are running now or have had their run, but I was watching from the sidelines and feeling like the kid who missed the bus. I did my deal in November, and feel like I was late to the party. I'm tweaking it, hopefully I get to make all the tweaks before it drops. If not, it's still a great piece of work, and there's been a lot of growth since Diary of an ATL Brave.
Complex: Will it be like the Chester French Jacques Jams tape Clinton worked on with a lot of interludes?
Donnis: It's not a lot of interludes. It's like I'm throwing a party and people are waiting for me to arrive. They're leaving messages on my answering machine, wondering where I'm at. These are people who knew me before I signed my deal, friends like John Legend hitting me up. When you listen to it, you can tell I'm really living in the moment and telling what's going on with me. I used The Invitation to give away all the punchlines—this right here is more introspective, how I feel, and what's going on.
Complex: How'd you meet John?
Donnis: I met him in Aspen, Colorado. I was in Denver and had a manager who used to do work for John. It was a cool, "What's up, hi, bye" type stuff. After that, we met again because I had moved to New York. I sat with my manager at the time and John; I played him some records and he was blown away. He wanted to give me a record deal on the spot. This is like a year before "Gone." My manager at the time felt it wasn't the move to make, and it ended up falling through. Fast forward to now, we have a good relationship. He's sending me records already for my album. It's dope to know he believes in my stuff, he and his girl are huge fans of my music. Homeschool [John Legends' label] champions me. Estelle, Eddie Blackmon, all those people take care of me. Calling me to see what I need, and making sure I'm good. Whenever I need a studio in NY, they got me. That's my extended family right there.
Complex: You were trying to get Gucci Mane on the tape, right?
Donnis: He had just gotten out of jail, it was a big deal to try and get him on the record. I couldn't make it to his studio. But OJ came through for me on the "Pop Bubbly" record for The Invitation.Complex: On the intro to The Invitation, you made some really strong statements. It sounded like some T.I./Jeezy shit. It seems like your confidence has grown.
Donnis: I'm trying to live with no fears and not care what anyone has to say. From sitting down with Tip, people had opinions about him and said someone from the South couldn't do what Hov has done. Everybody has something to say, but then the naysayers start to dwindle down. The same people who talk shit on the blogs become your biggest fans. I bet there's kids at my show who've said some foul shit online, but that don't stop me from doing what I have to do. I basically lived through what could have been my downfall and survived it, so whatever comes my way, I'm ready. I went from sleeping on the floor to supporting my fucking self. I'm definitely more confident. Even though I'm one of the lesser known dudes on the cover, I'm proving to be the one with radio right now, and the one with a Top 10 video on MTV. I'm gaining fans every day—not to say anyone else on the cover isn't making real music. I'm making shit that's ready for the mainstream as well as the underground.
Complex: When did you get up with T.I.?
Donnis: After we did the Akoo photo shoot for his fall campaign, about a month ago. That's my big brother, man. One of the realest people in the game. I send him a text message, he texts me right back. From where I'm from, it don't get no bigger than that. It's cool to have a personal relationship with someone who's your idol. Someone whose music you used to constantly listen to, when you were hoping you could make it one day. Shooting the campaign was fun. Everyone was kicking it and having a good time, it was dope. The billboard should be up going up in a few days. It's amazing to be on a billboard with someone of his caliber.
Complex: You guys took shots together?
Donnis: There's shots of me and him. Him in the foreground, me in the background. We did one that was just me and him. I'm not sure which ones are billboards, and which ones are ads, but it's incredible just to be involved. For him to put me under his wing and be like, "Yo, I want you to be the face of Akoo." Especially being an artist that's not under Young Money, Roc Nation, G.O.O.D, Grand Hustle, or anyone's record label, to be championed by him means a lot. A lot of artists just put on the people they can make money off of. Tip don't make no money off me, but he believes in my music.
Complex: You're doing the mixtape and the EP afterwards. What's the process for the album?
Donnis: I look at the album as my full-on story. Especially my first album; I want to make it a classic. I'm listening to College Droput, Trap Muzik, Thug Motivation 101, Reasonable Doubt, going back and doing my homework. I definitely want it to be conceptual. Working on it, I'm super-picky—that's why you can have another mixtape of all original music. Some people say Diary of an ATL Brave was a classic mixtape, that's awesome to me. Why shouldn't I make a classic album?
Complex: Anyone you really want to work with on the album?
Donnis: I'm open. I try to only work with people whose craft I believe in. I hate when any rapper would just use "Rapper X" because "Rapper X" is hot at the time and put them on the record. That's not how I do my thing. I work with my friends and people I consider fam.
Complex: A lot of dudes can get pegged as an "Internet rapper." How did you make sure you kept moving from step to step?
Donnis: Before it was the "Internet rap" thing, it was the "backpacker rap" thing. For me, it's all about the records. If you can make the hits, then you won't be an Internet rapper anymore. It's good for hip-hop. The people who are just like, "I'm not really about the radio" and shit like that, "I stay true to what I do... "—well, I stay true to what I do, but I love pop culture. I love pop music just as much as I like rap music, or ill-ass hip-hop music, or rock music. I'm not in any way selling out by having a record that's good enough for radio.
Complex: When the XXL Top 10 Freshman cover dropped, there was a mixed reaction about who was on there.
Donnis: I'm not gonna name the rappers that I deal with on there, and that I really believe in. I think the year will show that. I don't want to say that, then somebody is going to say, "you don't believe in me?" I will say that I have some favorites on there. Someone asked me who is my favorite pick besides myself and I said J. Cole. I like J. Cole a lot. I think he's super-dope. People can say, "He's not going to be able to make a hit radio record." They can say what they want. Especially him being from the South, it's so amazing for me. J. Cole—he is hip-hop. I stand behind that. We sit down and we talk shit and we laugh together. He's a cool dude. I fuck with him.
Complex: Anyone else you're going to work with from the cover?
Donnis: Me and Pill have already worked together. That's one of my closest friends inside of this industry shit. Me and Wiz had a brief conversation about the "Gone (Remix)." You talk to different people and you see what comes out of it. People like to say a lot of shit in this industry, y'know? We'll see what happens.
Complex: Speaking of covers, there's been some interesting artwork to go with the Fashionably Late leaks.
Donnis: I came up with the concept and my homeboy Nick killed it. He was like, "Donnis, you need to tap into the visuals." I wanted to do something dope that people are going to look at. I came up with the idea for the "Sexytime" t-shirts for Diary of an ATL Brave tape. I was even thinking of making my show bigger as far as lights and all that. Beside 'Ye, no one really goes in and gives a fuck about their visuals. Everyone put they grill in and takes a muthafuckin' picture, or goes by the corner where they grew up and stands near the stop sign. I want to do something dope. People don't buy albums no more. I remember buying albums and looking at the cover, hanging up the posters. The last time I really got to feel that way was with Graduation. Artwork is super-important, that's why my videos are the way they are. "Gone" is like a movie. We try to go above and beyond with what we do. That's how you stand out. There's already a Hov, a Lauryn Hill; when you do you, you can't lose.
Complex: Anything else?
Donnis: Complex needs to do a fashion piece on me! [Laughs.]