“When I was young I had to prove I could stand by myself, that I’m the best at what I do and all that crap,” admits Donae'O, taking a break from a studio session to talk to Clash. “As I’ve got older I’ve realised that trying to be the best is nonsense, because you can be the best but if no one else sees it, it doesn’t matter.”
The North West Londoner is already a legend of the UK underground; from the days of Garage crew Bubbling to his freshly-inked deal with Island Records, his work as a producer, song-writer and vocalist has made an unforgettable mark on the scene.
While working on his long-awaited fourth album, the follow up to 2009’s ‘Party Hard’, Donae'O has simultaneously been self-improving; endeavouring to put the song first, rather than attempting to outshine others. “I had to get over my ego to accept that I’m not the star in the scenario,” he says. “For instance, I’m not the star of [‘Lock Doh’], Giggs is. My job was to make him the star. It made me understand getting rid of that ego, giving more eventually that will come back to me.”
He experienced this good karma while working with WSTRN on the follow up single to their massive breakthrough ‘In2’. “Trying to be the best might not be the best for the song,” he implores. “I [was working on] a song called ‘Come Down’ for WSTRN. I made the beat and Louie wrote the chorus, but the song wasn’t finished. I couldn’t work out what it needed, so we got [other producers in to add to it]. Throughout the whole process my percentage [of royalties] were going lower and lower, but I had to get rid of greed and ego so that the song could be the best it could be.”
In the end his ego-less approach would pay off. The song would climb Radio 1’s playlist and prove more financially rewarding than it might have had Donae'O been selfish: “I’ve learned not to be so self-destructive,” he laughs. “Everyone has limitations.”
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Over the past couple of years Donae'O has been travelling back and forth to the US, examining how contemporary rap music is created in its homeland. The experience has opened his eyes to bigger aspirations, and has interestingly drawn his attention to the importance of his clothing choices. “I started seeing that even underground artists can make millions,” he explains. “I saw that image was part of the artistry. Wearing clothes was just as artistic as writing a song. It had never been portrayed to me like that before.”
He began to embrace streetwear, naming US brands Supreme and Stüssy, as well as homegrown staples Trapstar and Benjart amongst his favourites. “I like clothes and style that have a story behind them,” he says. “Benjart’s from North West and he’s doing well and I identify with that. Trapstar, they’re guys from West London. I love Supreme’s culture, the exclusivity... if you’re into it you’re into it, it’s not for everyone, it’s more about the culture than the clothing. I associate with the story, which I didn’t know before.”
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Me wearing black is the physical representation of me changing...
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In a similar way, the story behind a track brings context that helps reach listeners on a deeper level. To Donae'O, his single ‘Black’ - which features Grime heavyweights Jme and Dizzee Rascal - represents him coming to terms with letting go. “Me wearing black is the physical representation of me changing,” he clarifies. “It’s made me a better person.”
The track initially began life two years ago, around the time that Donae'O was shooting a video for his track ‘Mami No Like’ with director and Jme-collaborator Matt Walker. “Jme was going mad about the record, so I reached out to him and said thank you for screaming about it - because it helped it a lot,” he remembers. The pair soon began discussing ideas for collaboration, and Donae'O would send Jme an early version of ‘Black’. “I was chilling in Nandos when I got the verse,” Donae’O laughs. “I was like: what the fuck am I going to do with this, I’ve got a Jme verse!”
He’d also been in touch with Dizzee Rascal about a potential collaboration, and decided to send ‘Black’ over to him on the off chance that he might be able to bring a dream collaboration together. “Dizzee sent me his verse back in about four days!” recalls Donae'O, still with a hint of disbelief. “I was like: fuck what am I going to do with that!? I put it away for a bit and the rest is history.”
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Train yourself to solve problems and you will always be successful.
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Putting in more work last year than any of the other fifteen that he’s been in the music industry has paid off. In 2016 he had three tracks in circulation on the Radio 1 playlist - ‘Come Down’, ’Lock Doh’ and ‘Black’ - as well as underground hits ‘My Circle’ and ‘Polo’.
This prompted the the decision to let go of his previous control-freak approach, allowing others to handle business while he puts his all into the music. “I don’t need to be the businessman anymore, no-one’s gonna fuck me over and if they do I can walk away,” he explains. “I thought, let me put the business side away because I’m good at it, but I’m great at making music. I’m going to put my energy into just making a banging tune.”
Donae’o's freshly inked deal with Island Records gives him the balance of creative freedom and business support that he needs to move forward. “They want me to make the music I want to make,” he says. “They’ve given me a label to release my own music. I understand the underground. If you ask me to market a record in that world I can do that, but I’ve never really gone mainstream before.”
“I feel like ‘Black’ has crossed over into another world, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that. Island understand me and understand how to get it to that point.”
As he puts the final touches on his new album, Donae'o reflects on his journey so far, admitting that the position he’s found himself in, was never one that he envisioned. “You can plan as much as you want and I think planning is excellent, but your never going to land where you think you will,” he says, sagely, as our conversation draws to a close.
“The key in life is that nothing stays the same, the only thing you can do is trust that you’re intelligent: everyone is smart, they just have different things they are smart at. Train yourself to solve problems and you will always be successful.”
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Words: Shireen Fenner