Exclusive Interview: Donae’o – “You’re going to die if you don’t adapt.”
With sixteen years in the game, Donae’o has celebrated wins and suffered losses.
The fickle music industry has left him battered and bruised, but instilled him with great wisdom; and luckily for those setting out on their own path, he’s not too greedy to share.
Since his 2001 breakthrough single ‘My Philosophy (Bounce)’ he’s weathered the storm of several scenes – garage, funky, dubstep – but despite the changes in landscape, has always created music that is true to himself. This is largely thanks to two qualities; an openness to learning new things and a willingness to adapt.
Right now the North West Londoner feels more relevant than ever before. Unafraid to selflessly hand off some of his best work to collaborators, he’s making the best music of his career with hits like Giggs’ ‘Lock Doh’ and WSTRN’s ‘Come Down’. He’s also injecting the collaborative spirit into his own releases, from club banger ‘Black’ with Jme and Dizzee Rascal to deeper cuts like the Cosima-assisted ‘Alone’, allowing the Donae’o sound to be more versatile than ever.
Much of his recent success can be attributed to this mindset; having matured into the game, he’s able to cast ego aside, and do what’s best for the music that he lives to make. He’ll unashamedly talk about his failures, but only in order to highlight how the process has made him stronger.
For his new mixtape ‘sixteen’ his first release under a new deal with Island Records, he spent three years jetting back and forward between London and the US, immersing himself in the rap cultures of New York and L.A. in order to crack the secret behind making music that translates across the Atlantic.
We caught up with him to discuss the experience, and how it helped him to overcome his obstacles to become stronger than ever…
Your new mixtape ‘sixteen’ was inspired by time you spent in America, when was that?
For like the last two or three years, I’ve been going back and forth.
And where was it that you were staying?
Mainly New York – actually, it was equally New York and L.A.
In New York there’s a community out there that follows my music. So thats why I went to New York, and with regards to L.A. there was a guy that I met with Morgan Keyz called Dre and he was moving out to L.A. because he felt there was business out there. He was trying to change his life. And that’s where we met Post Malone and that’s where we all came up.
How did your experience differ between those two cities?
L.A.’s very business orientated. You can get a lot of links and business and stuff like that done in L.A., whereas New York is more like vibes. New York is more like London.
[The New York scene discovered me] through ‘Party Hard’. It’s like an Afro Punk kind of movement, DJs like mOma and Khalil who runs Livin’ Proof, Electric Punanny which is done by Jasmine Solano. Those raves were playing African music, British music and West Indian music. They booked me for a rave once, called Everyday People, that’s how I got in contact with DJ mOma and that’s how it started really.
I know you’ve cited KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee and EPMD as your early hip-hop influences, what rap music is out now that had you inspired to go out to the States?
I love Future. Mainly like Future and Drake. But you know what Drake being a Canadian, blowing up in America was quite interesting to me as well.
What are the main things you’ve brought back from that experience of going to the States to learn about rap music?
My sound is different. That’s why ‘Lock Doh’ sounds the way it does. My work ethic comes from the states. Now I understand how to make rap music that works on both sides of the coin.
[And that comes from] just being able to immerse yourself in the culture really. Once you immerse yourself in the culture and you find out what they like to play, and what England likes to play, then you can start mixing the two together.
Who specifically inspired you on the work ethic?
My friend AC Burrell. We used to have a lot of conversations about working. He said to me ‘It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, or how limited the money and resources are. Hard work is always hard work.”
Sixteen years into your career, what keeps you open and hungry to keep learning more?
When you fail you’ve got no choice. When you’re successful everything’s bless, and then you leave success and you have to gain it again. You’ve failed so you have no choice, you’re going to die if you don’t adapt.
So you feel like you’ve failed then?
Many times. I’ve had successes and failures, both. Sometimes people just don’t get your music. Sometimes stuff doesn’t work. Sometimes you’re not on top anymore.
What made you realise that you’d failed?
When I was in America. I was in a different environment, and I could see how they succeeded and I could see where I was going wrong in terms of my success. I think I wasn’t really a collaborative or sociable artist. I think that was one of my biggest mistakes.
I’m very self-sufficient: I make the product, I sell it. It doesn’t leave room for anyone else to be involved. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing. It’s your ego that makes you think it’s a good thing. I can do everything, I have the skills to do everything, but that means I’m in a better position to lead and help others.
When you can do everything and you do do everything, not accepting that others can help you is a flaw.
You’ve removed yourself more from the business side now…
Yeah, basically. I’m not fully removed, I’ve built something and for me to move forward I need to focus more on the creative.
How has that process been? Is it difficult to leave that side alone?
It is and to be honest, if you’re someone like me, you can’t fully leave it because you understand your business the most. I’m starting to realise that now. So you can’t fully leave it, I just have other people to help me execute. I’ve had more time to just make more music.
What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to overcome across this sixteen years?
Learning to get back up once you’ve fallen down.
And what’s are you most proud of?
That I’ve been able to turn my passion into a career, on my own terms. I actually need to make music. I’ve got no choice.
Sixteen is out now | Interview by Grant Brydon