Colby O'Donis: Paid Dues
With his chart-topping Pop/R&B hit "What You Got" coming to a boil, Colby O will be a self-titled debut that hopes to achieve what Rihanna has, with teen mass appeal, from a male. The New York-born O'Donis speaks to HipHopDX about his two degrees of separation from Michael Jackson, returning Latinos to Pop music, and how he got ahead in the pecking order at Konvict, with a release date and official label backing.
HipHopDX: You had a New York City childhood. Not much has been talked about in that regard. How did you the city you grew up in influence you?
Colby O'Donis: I love New York City. I lived there for six, seven, eight years. I can definitely say Im a city boy. [Laughs] Definitely a city boy. I moved out to Florida for a little while, far from the city, and I was having withdrawal symptoms.
DX: Where in New York are you from?
CO: I was born in Jackson Heights, Queens. At Saint Johns Hospital.
DX: What part of Florida did you move to?
CO: I actually moved out to Orlando.
DX: Ten years ago, that was a musical genesis for all the pop stars involved with Disney and all that.
CO: Oh yeah. The whole NSync, Backstreet Boys thing.
DX: For you, was that a factor or worthwhile place to be in terms of your career?
CO: It was pretty cool. With what I was trying to do at that time, that was the place to be at the moment. At nine years old, I got signed to Full Force you know, Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam, NSync, Backstreet Boys I got signed to them. Then I got signed to Motown Records at 10 years old. I sang on the Stuart Little Soundtrack. Ive been at it for a while. There was a point to where we were hustling so much that people were saying, You guys arent getting noticed out here in Florida, cause my dad, who is my manager, my dad and I were hustling so hard. They said we needed to go to New York, L.A. or Atlanta. So we made that move out to L.A. to chase the career, cause we were really grinding out there hard. As I was starting to get older, it was starting to get less Disney for me. [Laughs] [Orlando is] definitely a Disney-orientated place.
DX: Were you having gigs through Disney?
CO: I did a few shows and stuff for them. It was a grind. Out there, its not as heavy as Atlanta, L.A. or New York when it comes to the music end.
DX: I commend you for admitting you did The Stuart Little Soundtrack. So many artists in urban music try to shake things like that off their portfolio or lie about their past. You embrace it.
CO: Looking back at all that stuff I did, Im proud of it. It made me who I am today. Being signed at 10 years old to Motown Records was a big breakthrough for me at the time. Theres a lot of dealsafter that, when that fell through for me, Ive been through a lot of presidents and labels. Full Force really showed a lot of love to me. A lot of things have fallen through on me. All the labels always wanted to sign me, but when it came to the contracts, it was just never exactly what we were looking for.
DX: You mean being a priority?
CO: Not just being a priority, but percentages, how much someone wanted, how much I was allowed to write. My father was always looking out for my best interest. I think that, everything Ive experienced, Im proud of it, cause it made me the man I am today business savvy and everything. With my father, every business meeting he ever had, he would always include me in it, since I was eight or nine years old. When it comes to business, Im very into it. When we met Akon, he knew how long wed been hustling for, how long weve been struggling, and he just came correct. He was like, Yo, if you want, you can write your entire album. That was definitely a good look on his part, and on my part to be able to do that. We just ran with it.
Im a songwriter and a producer. I produced most of my album. I like to be a part of the creative process. Akon gave me creative control on my whole album. These labels, they wanted to control every little detail and aspect of what I wanted to do. I just enjoy the creative process. Akon heard my demo, and he loved it. From there, we ran with that. I [also] wrote pretty much every song on my debut album too. Im excited about that.
DX: Was your father experienced in the music industry before you, or was it something you embarked upon together?
CO: We started together, from scratch. We started professionally around nine years old. We came into the game, we knew nothing about it just raw. Everything I experienced, it made us who we are today in terms of business savvy and everything. Every mistake weve made has made us that much wiser and that much smarter, when it comes to the business.
DX: The most tangible case to most people is the Knowles family. Have there points over the last 12 years, where business bleeds its way to the dinner table?
CO: Oh yeah. All the time. [Laughs] Hes the one who does it most of time, like, Were eating. I dont want to talk about business. Our lives is this. We wake up in the morning and this is it.
DX: Do you have other siblings though?
CO: Yeah. I have a sister. My family has always been so supportive. Since day one, my sister would give $100 to $200 a week out of her paycheck every week to help pay for my lessons for seven years. Shes five years older than me. Same with my mother. I play guitar. The guitar is my main instrument; Ive been playing for 10 years. Ive played piano for six years. My familys just very supportive. Thats the reason Im here with him now.
DX: Let me be blunt. Akon has signed Red Caf, Mack 10, Glasses Malone, Rock City etc. So many rappers came and said, Im signed to Konvict. You obviously have an Interscope situation that they dont, but what guaranteed to you that your project will come out, when none really have?
CO: For one, me and my father, our determination was not gonna let [the album] not come out. [Laughs] Were the types thatI would pick up the phone everyday and say, Whats going on with the project? Everyday. Ive been signed to Akon for three years. Ive called all the time, constantly. Its like the saying out of sight, out of mind. Thats true. I would just constantly keep in touch. Especially cause I have my own studiothe majority of artists dont have that, so they have to wait for producers to hook up with them to make music. Me, on the other hand, I have my own studio and can create my own music, write my own music, so I didnt have to wait. I was getting it done while he was doing his thing. When I first met [Akon], he just started Konvict. This was before it blew up to what it is today. As he was making his label to the status-quo that its at now, I was in the studio, just grinding. Id make a song and email him. Check it out. Tell me what you think. Id send songs all the time, and let him know.
DX: As a producer, do you find you started with the music or the writing?
CO: Honestly, it changes with moods. Most of the stuff youll hear on my debut album, I pretty much freestyled into the mic. To me, it gets hard for me to write on paper. I just freestyle on the mic and clean it up at the end. That works best for me.
DX: Youre self-sufficient. Do you think your ability to write, produce and perform without help makes you, or artists like you Ill say Soulja Boys abilities here, more attractive to labels? Is the era of Babyface writing and producing over?
CO: Its funny that you say that. I was actually signing to Babyface before I met Akon. My dad always tells me, back in the 70s, artists used to all write their own material mostly. They played their own instruments too. To me, I feel like no one can know my voice better than me. Its coming. I hope it is. Id definitely like to hear songs by artists and know that theyre the ones who created it. It puts them on a whole different level. Like Ne-Yo, I have so much respect for him. He does his own stuff.
DX: Whos your biggest influence?
CO: I definitely would have to say Akon. He really teaches me. Hell show me something, then explain why. Hell break things down on production. Hes mentoring me. I love that. Also, Michael Jackson. Always been an influence.
DX: Did you ever get to meet Michael through Akon?
CO: No, not yet. I got to hear [Akon] have a conversation with MJ though. It was funny. I was sitting with Akon on the bus, in Canada, on tour with Rihanna. We were sitting on the bus, and he picked up his phone and said, Yo, look. It said Michael Jackson. My heart almost sunk intoI dont get star-struck, ever. I look at them as regular people. When I saw Michael Jacksons name on that Caller ID, I almost passed out. He let me hear the conversation too. It was crazy. It was beyond imagination. To be privy to see Akon and Michael Jackson have a conversation was just so huge to me.
DX: Coming back to Lisa Lisa. That 80s era saw a lot of Latino artists dominate the Pop market. It was wonderful. I dont mean to exploit race, but do you think you can help restore a Latino presence in a Pop/R&B market that really hasnt had it from a male artist in some years?
CO: My dad has always been proud of that. I can say, it was very hard for us to break in, just because of our ethnicity. Trying to get into the R&B industry, it was hard. We broke in. That alone, was a big accomplishment for us. The thing about me is, I dont smoke, I dont drink, I dont have tattoos. Im trying to set an image. Like you said, there arent a lot of Latino artists out there who are setting great images. Im trying to show kids, you can be kid. This can happen for them. They can do this. You cant be limited to your race or your skin color. Everyones created equal. I actually have a song on my album called Hustle Man about that. Its pretty much explaining that no matter what you are, who you are, that if you have that determination, you can get to where you need to be. Its the story of my life.