Ask Donnis what makes him stand out from the swarming mass of rappers seeking a name for themselves, and the Atlanta-bred MC pauses to think before answering, "I tell my story, [and] my story's totally different from anyone else's story."
Listen to the range of material on his debut mixtape album, Diary of an ATL Brave, however, and you might struggle to pinpoint that difference.
In rap, an artist's backstory is often as important as the eventual byproduct. Part autobiography, part mythology, it fuels the fandom any artist must create if he intends to become a star. Most MCs use it to build up their street-cred. Before Eazy-E became a platinum-selling rapper (thanks to invaluable ghostwriting from Ice Cube), he was an ex-drug dealer who used the loot he earned in the streets of Compton, Calif., to finance his own label, Ruthless Records. Before 50 Cent dropped his multiplatinum debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin', he was the Queens street salesman-turned-mixtape MC who got shot nine times by adversaries attempting to silence his mouthpiece for good. Before Lil Wayne became the self-proclaimed "best rapper alive," he pretty much was a hip-hop prodigy who accidentally shot himself at age 12.
Or so the stories go.
Ladonnis "Donnis" Crump has his own story to tell, with his own inspiring plot twists and turns — sans the guns and gangsta glory. But you don't hear much of it on Diary, released in August. Instead, he insists on revamping some of the same stories heard a thousand times over, often while mimicking many of the voices who've told them so well before him. But for an independent artist yet to produce a hit, he has successfully amassed one heck of a team working behind him to push his profile skyward.
Having spent the last year doing what all Web-raised rappers do — faithfully leaking songs and pestering blogs while hoping that something out there in the Internet's ether will stick and spread virally — he recently struck a one-single deal with A-Trak and Nick Catchdub’s Fool's Gold label for the song "Gone," which will be rereleased by the label in November with a video. A proven incubator for rap-related acts riding the hipster wave (including past signees Kid Sister, Kid Cudi, and the Cool Kids), Fool’s Gold carries the kind of cachet aspiring artists used to seek from antiquated major-label deals.
But Donnis’ latest deal is indicative of the kind of high-powered support system he’s attracted without major-label pull. It includes the endorsement of DJ Benzi, whose credentials include remix and mixtape work for such artists as Kanye West and Wale; manager Dan Solomito, who worked under Jay-Z's old partner Damon Dash; a clothing and mixtape sponsorship from reputable streetwear brand 10.Deep; and a publicity firm that also handles acts signed to Rhymesayers, Def Jux and Diplo's Mad Decent label.
Make no mistake, the days of sitting in one’s bedroom pouring blood, sweat and years into a demo tape are dust. Now it's all about recruiting a team of individuals to help catapult one’s career. And if, by chance, the music is forced to ride shotgun while the movement takes the wheel, consider it a symptom of the times.
"Nowadays, it takes a lot more than just talent to cross over and have people pay attention,” says Donnis. "They want to know who you're hanging with, what you're about, what kind of clothes you like. So having a clothing line supporting my mixtape brought the vision to a lot more people than if I released it on my own. You're not going to walk into someone's office as a rapper anymore and get signed just 'cause you're a good rapper. Behind-the-scenes stuff is what makes it all happen."
Donnis’ states on his MySpace page that he's instigating "A revolution for the South." Yet the revolution he predicts may refer to his potential universality more than his specific talent. Until now, it’s been unheard of for a down-South MC, who raps with a distinctly Southern accent, to earn the kind of heralded hipster cred that signing with Fool’s Gold practically ensures.
A-Trak, who originally offered Donnis a single deal with Fool's Gold in ’07 for "Party Works," enthuses about the rapper's ability to "appeal as much to the streetwear, tight-jean, Complex magazine contingent as he does to your typical Atlanta rap fan."
Meanwhile, Benzi credits Donnis’ “overall package” with his "ability to drift from the 'hood stuff to the club stuff."
It’s a recurring theme within his camp. As Solomito explains, "Some guys can really just rap but don't know how to talk to people; others got a cool look, but don't really know how to write songs. To find someone who can do it all is probably the hardest thing to find in this business."
That may also begin to explain the reason why Donnis runs the risk of being liked by many and loved by few. Instead of the individuality that has characterized Atlanta's break-out hip-hop successes — OutKast's boundary-pushing musicality; Ludacris' animated punchlines; T.I.'s aura of confidence — Donnis spread himself too thin, stylistically.
Whether it’s the ATLiens-like flow he borrows from Andre 3000 on the mixtape’s lyrical opener “The Beginning,” the T.I.-like swagger and delivery he boasts on such songs as “Sexytime,” or the come-from-behind, Kanye West school of thought he applies liberally on “Over Do It,” Donnis tends to do it to death.
Though his style is transparent at times, he deserves kudos for picking artists worthy of emulation. It shows in his ability to craft songs that bubble with wordplay. From the outset, Diary of an ATL Brave swaggers with full-blown pop potential. After the thoughtful “The Beginning,” the second track, “Underdog,” is a rousing piece of braggadocio, featuring a triumphant Sly & the Family Stone sample, followed by “Country Cool,” which features production from J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League (Rick Ross, Young Jeezy) and a cameo from Southern rap icon Bun B.
But when Donnis boasts on “I Am Me,” featuring Colin Munroe on the hook, that “Nobody gave me nothing/created my own sound/created my own style/I am the A-Town,” it sounds like a page that could've easily been ripped from T.I.’s Paper Trail, or any other album from the king of the South's discography. And in a post-"D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" world, it could take a miracle from Jay-Hova himself to keep the intended Fool's Gold single "Gone" — with its catchy, Auto-Tune hook — from being entirely tuned out.
What's missing from Diary is more of Donnis' own story, part of which begins in Japan, where the homesick Jonesboro native began pursuing his rap career out of sheer boredom while stationed overseas as an Army enlistee after high school.
In a September ’09 interview with Complex.com, Donnis recounts how he used his time in the service wisely while in Tokyo: "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? Let's just make the best of it.' And I just started making music out there. ..."
Perhaps the military stint won't do wonders for his street cred, but it gives him his own identity. It could also help connect the disparate dots that led him from suburban Atlanta to Tokyo to N.Y. and back home. Instead, Donnis prefers to spend more time telling listeners what he is not: "First of all, you can miss me with that hipster shit/say it again and you bound to see some nigga shit," he spits on "The Beginning," in an attempt to distance himself from the dreaded subgenre. But maybe that's the point of releasing a mixtape album at this stage in his career — to test out sounds and ideas to see what sticks.
In the meantime, he can get to work honing his voice for his debut album, planned for a summer 2010 release. Ask Donnis how much of his story listeners will garner from hearing that proper label debut, and he takes another pause before answering, "The factors for that are still being worked on."
Hopefully, it'll dig deeper than the gold-plated surface.
in case i wasn't clear, i do sympathize with this guy getting shot and hope…
notice the name of the photographers brand .. "I Shoot My Friends"
Spot on Irony
Aren't those AK-47s aka "Choppers" on his tee-shirt in the photo?
When I hear that lyric it makes me think that he’s projecting…