We were a little put off when we heard Atlanta-based rapper Donnis was going to be opening up for Matt & Kim at the Culture Room tonight. We expected a pop-infused hybrid born of pixie sticks and high-pitched tricks to take to the stage and open for possibly the happiest band we've ever heard of. Don't underestimate Donnis, though. He's just as happy and energized about tonight's South Florida show at the Culture Room as the duo is, if not more so. "I'm super excited," says Donnis, the enthusiasm in his voice blazing. All he seemed to want to talk about was what a great crowd us "indie kids" are at shows, and our nonstop energy.
New Times caught up with him recently to talk collaborations with John Legend, how he broke into the rap game in Tokyo, and why he now thinks this will be more fun than opening up for Snoop Dogg, T.I., and Erykah Badu (which he's already done, anyway).
New Times: Is this the first time you're opening for an indie rock crowd, compared to all the hip-hop artists you've opened up for in the past?
Donnis: Yes ma'am. I've done a lot of things, but never an indie rock crowd like this, so I'm super excited. I'm a big fan of Matt & Kim's, so....
How'd that come about? Since before this you were opening up for people like T.I., Snoop Dogg, and Erykah Badu. I heard you were handpicked by them?
I really don't know how that happened [laughs]. I met Matt & Kim about two years ago? Probably not even. Probably about a year and a half ago at a Converse basketball tournament. They were really cool and passionate and stuff. We'd run into each other at different events and then I didn't see them for a while. Then I ran into them again at I think another Converse event, and you know. It's not like a best friend type of relationship. We just have a mutual respect for each other's music. They called me up one day and asked me to jump on the tour. I wasn't really sure about it and was like, "Uhhhh I don't think so. I don't know if that's gonna work." And then a few weeks later they called me back again and were like, "C'mon you've gotta do this. You've gotta do it" and I was like, "Hell yeah, let's ride." So now we're in it together. Now we're teammates [laughs].
You're definitely going to get a different response compared to all of your previous shows. What kind of response are you hoping for from this tour?
For me I feel like this is gonna be a lot more fun than the typical rap tour because rap tours can be tough. When you're like rising like I am and you're getting a lot of love from the block and stuff like that. You might get to a show and nobody puts their hands in the air, but when you get off the stage, everybody's like, "Aww, man. That was awesome!" And I'm like, "But why wasn't anybody dancing? Why does nobody care?" [Laughs]. They're not super excited. But at indie rock shows fans are very receptive and they're very into it, and it's usually always a good time. Everybody's just so into it. So it should be a good time.
Yeah. Especially for a Matt & Kim show, where everyone is so energized to begin with.
Exactly. It's a happy crowd, so, you know? [Laughs].
You have a lot of heavy hitters on your debut full-length Fashionably Late, like John Legend, Estelle, Yelawolf. How did everyone get involved?
They're just like good friends of mine through my trials to get a record deal and things of that nature. You just run across a lot of people, and John has always been like a big brother. I actually met him for the first time at Estelle's "American Boy" shoot. Estelle's like my big sister and John --which was surprising to me at the time-- was a huge fan of my music. You know he has his whole label thing going on and he wanted to sign me. I became like his really good friend, and every time I need that big brother favor he's there for me. So I worked with him on the album and it's a good relationship.
What about the other cameos in your album? Was it a similar situation?
Oh man, you know I'm just playing music for any and everybody. John's single did really well, so that helps gather a lot of people's attention, and a lot of people in the urban community. My relationship with Fool's Gold [Records] really brought in a lot of the indie dance crowd, and the kids like Matt & Kim.
How'd you sort of transition into music? I heard that you were in the Air Force before you changed career paths?
Yeah. I was recording music since I was like 15. Even before that, like on my little Sony boombox recording music [laughs]. When I joined the Air Force I sort of stopped making music for a long time. I used to go to school with Ciara, and when I saw her on TV one day, I was like, "Wow. I need to start making music again because if someone I know made it, than I know that I can definitely make it." So I started recording and I found local studios in Tokyo and I used to record in one of my friend's apartments out there. We used to just make music and hand the CDs out and hand them out. I had to make the decision if I wanted to come back to America or if I wanted to stay in the Air Force, so I did my last year and a half in the Air Force, went from Tokyo to Denver, Colorado, then up and moved to New York.
Wow. So did you start putting together all of those mixtapes you did while you were in Tokyo?
Yeah. I released like two of those CDs at the time. They weren't really mixtapes. They were just me putting a bunch of music on a CD and be like, "This is my CD!" [Laughs]. I did my first mixtape last year in August. That was what got me my record deal.
So it just sort of kept on moving for you from there? How'd you get selected as one of four artists for Diesel's new "Only the Brave" fragrance campaign?
It was awesome. They reached out and it was like a no brainer for me. I'm a fan of what Diesel's got going on, and Vado and Big Sean and Common. I'm fans of their music, but they're also my friends. So anytime you get to spend time with your friends, it's great.
What do you have planned for tonight's show at the Culture Room?
Oh my goodness. We're still in the planning process. We've been running so crazy trying to put everything together. We're trying to make it fun and high energy. We're gonna make it a good show. I know those kids come out to have fun, so we're gonna go out there and we're gonna do some of my songs, we're going to play some familiar songs. We're just gonna have a good time.
So you're not going to do anything special because you're in South Florida?
South Florida? I love South Florida. I've only been once, though. So we gotta figure out what we can make happen out there [laughs].