Donnis is eating an ice cream cone. It’s an unseasonably hot day in Nashville, so he’s not so much eating it as he is devouring it in a way reminiscent of Eddie Murphy’s Ritz cracker joke in Raw. The tattooed, ex-Air Force member is more likely to talk about various fashion designers or the indie Rock scene than chemical warfare or foreign policy. To catch him, during an off day performing as the opening act for hipster darlings Matt & Kim, is to understand how much the archetype of the emcee has changed in the last decade—dissimilar elements, once thought to be Hip Hop taboo, are all fair game.
“People think that to be Southern, you can only be one thing,” he says. “I got a mom who I have to look after, so there’s songs like ‘I Made It.’ Then, when I’m in the A, I like to go to the strip club. You can’t look at me and be like, ‘Ah man, this nigga trippin’. He talking about he be riding around Bankhead with so-and-so, and then we see him in Tokyo. That nigga ain’t real!’”
Sure, it’s a stereotype, but in a climate that currently rewards snap judgments, it’s somewhat understandable. As someone who has shown a dislike for manufactured singles, appearing on tour with Bruno Mars, who has co-written no less than three hit singles for himself, B.o.B and Cee-Lo, seems a bit, well, manufactured. The perception is only magnified when you factor in indie Rock duo Matt & Kim. There’s the obvious question of if he’ll end up in the same boat as his labelmate, Lupe Fiasco, who once alleged Lasers was shelved in part because of his refusal to fuse his bars with Mars’ chart-ready single, “Nothin’ On You.” Does purposely trying to make a song that caters to the Pop masses go against the unwritten rules of Hip Hop?
Erykah Badu referred to the fusion of genres as “pop techno cornball ass music?” Ironically, the concept for her “Window Seat” video heavily borrowed from Matt & Kim, a Pop/Techno duo, and their “Lessons Learned” video.
“There’s an organic way to do it,” Donnis answers. “Nobody ever looked at Michael Jackson like he wasn’t shit for having a smash single. It can slowly build up instead of everybody just sending in records and you just writing your raps in as a fill in the blank type thing.”
To speak of what Donnis is doing on both a business and musical level requires use of the word “manufactured.” It’s not an insult or something to suggest he’s selling out, because to be signed to any major record label requires the literal and metaphorical manufacturing of recorded music. The story of how Donnis can give away three album’s worth of music for free, and not only avoid debt, but somehow turn a profit is one of manufacturing. And you can’t have manufacturing without involving companies and corporations.
In April, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reported a total of $4.6 billion domestic physical sales of music in 2009. By contrast, the pharmaceutical company Phizer reported $5.7 billion in sales of its cholesterol-lowering drug, Lipitor. Aside from the obvious—Americans are fat—the statistical comparison points to the fact that many of us also don’t actually pay for our music. A stateside aversion to buying music that we can illegally download for free makes branding partnerships more important. It’s why the Honda in a Mickey Factz video or a Diesel sponsored concert featuring Donnis, Common, Big Sean, Vado and Nipsey Hussle are far from accidental.
“It helps their brand, and it also helps us,” Donnis says. In addition to 10Deep and Converse, he also has relationships with Diesel. “It’s marketing just like anything else. When you’re sitting at home watching ESPN and a commercial comes on, after Yao Ming opens up that Coke, you might go, ‘Damn, nigga I’m thirsty! Somebody go get some Cokes.’”
The cause and effect relationship of Yao and Coca-Cola may be the over-simplified version, but Donnis makes a good point. When performed well, corporate endorsements can result in free music for your fans, and the opportunity to build some relationships that aren’t sponsored by a major company.
For example, Donnis met Matt & Kim during the 2009 Converse Band of Ballers celebrity basketball tournament. Matt & Kim are signed to Fader Label, which also has connections to the marketing agency Cornerstone. And while you can definitely thank Cornerstone for seeing videos and photos of such random pairings as Diplo, The Diplomats, So So Def and Ninjasonik appearing on nearly every music site and blog that summer, the fact that some of them actually hit it off was pure, spontaneous chemistry.
“We would see each other in passing,” Donnis explains. “It wasn’t like we were best friends and texting or anything.” Despite being a fan of their music, Donnis says he only accepted their offer to tour after some additional coaxing from Matt & Kim. “I didn’t know how their fans would react to having a rapper on tour, since they’re usually on Pitchfork and other sites like that. I’m happy I did it. The reception has been crazy. Kids are moshing and crowd-surfing; they show love and they support.”
It’s a difficult balance, because when it’s poorly executed, a blatant attempt to shill for some extra cash will backfire faster than Lil Wayne’s homoerotic condom advertisement. His pairing with Common, Vado, Nipsey Hussle and Big Sean for Diesel’s Only The Brave campaign wasn’t one of them.
“Common came together with Diesel and Iced Media to form a list of rappers that they were rocking with,” he says. “I had never met Common personally. I told him about how I missed his show in Tokyo because I was in the military. We were doing chemical warfare practice. But his CD Be was so classic to me, because it got me through so much.”
Donnis says he and his team have turned down some endorsements that are just poor fits. But, considering that he’s been able to release two mixtapes and a free EP, all without having a release date for his debut album, getting some corporate assistance has paid off.
“That’s what this is for,” “It ain’t always about popping bottles every night and whatever people think we’re out here doing. It’s to touch people and give them a soundtrack to their life.”