On his upcoming release Don Cusack in High Fidelity (due out March 23 on Interdependent Media), Cincinnati rapper Donwill pays homage to the cult classic film High Fidelity. While other rappers have attempted to recreate the personification of movie characters like Scarface, Donwill tactfully takes on the role of Rob Gordon, an insecure music buff who just can’t seem to figure out the game of life and love. Along with the precursor mixtape, aptly titled Laura’s Mixtape , Donwill turns the script of High Fidelity into a real-life scenario through his own experiences. As such, the album serves as a conversation between the listener and the Tanya Morgan group member that is both engaging and enriching from beginning to end.
In this exclusive interview with HipHopDX, Donwill covers Don Cusack in High Fidelity, compares his own story to that of the film, talks about how artist limitations from fans is a growing concern, and the state of Hip Hop as seen from a technological vantage point. Oh yeah, and how making a girl a mixtape almost got him laid. Almost.
HipHopDX: Let’s start this off with a recent quote about Don Cusack in High Fidelity in which you said, “Nothing in life will give you all the answers, but this album will help people find some of the answers they might be looking for.” What did you learn about yourself in making this album?
Donwill: I think creatively, I just learned my own limitations. With respect to what I’m capable of, I did it all with this album, from sequencing to engineering sessions. The only thing I didn’t do is mix or master it. But it taught me a lot about where I am as an artist creatively. Like, can I put together a project from start to finish? I did that. As far as production, I made a beat on there. But it also taught me about the limitations and the confines of what I can and can’t do. It kind of prompted me to wanna grow more as an artist - to do more, to learn how to take on and perfect what I know. As far as the personal process, it kind of showed me more about the way I look at people and the way I look at relationships and the way I look at love. It’s one of those things where it’s a journey, not necessarily something that has a finite answer because tomorrow is different than today. It’s one of those things where at the end of the day, you know, I’m a man. I know exactly where I’m at and I’m not floundering; I’m not wondering. I know what I need out of a relationship so to speak.
DX: I’ve gotten a chance to give Don Cusack In High Fidelity a few spins and I have to say it really takes you on an emotional rollercoaster. Is that the type of effect you wanted on this project?
Donwill: [Pause] Yeah. I say yes because it’s like…Relationships and love are trivial things for some people, for the most part. It can be kind of like smooth sailing, but a lot of times it’s not. What I did with this album was, I tried to take, I tried to love just life and look at life. From death to birth, to your career, to recreational stuff, that rollercoaster, it exists and that’s just how my life is. It’s unpredictable a lot of times, and that was just a snap shot of the past year that I’ve dealt with. I guess in the context of the album I had a rough year. It wasn’t really rough per se, but it was definitely eventful.
DX: I believe the record “December 27th” is about your father passing away, correct?
Donwill: Yeah, that’s the one I produced.
DX: How did that event affect your music career?
Donwill: My mother and father, as well as my family have been very supportive of my decision to do music. My mother is the worrier, she tends to worry more so about my health, if I’m eating right and such. Just knowing the sense of pride he got when I would tell him about landmarks and accomplishments, and even up until his passing, not moments before his death but like the last few times I had seen him and talked to him, he just always would tell me not to give up or he was proud of me and to keep doing what I’m doing. Whenever I talk to my mom now and tell her what’s going on she’s like, “Your dad would have been so proud.” You know, I wasn’t one of those athletic dudes but I just know a lot of what I’m doing now is stuff that made him really happy and proud so…I know I’m continuing his legacy. He’s kind of the one that introduced me to music, in a sense. Like you know, I don’t come from a musical family where anybody was a musician or something. I come from a working class family but my father loved music and he enjoyed music so much. So just to know that, I think he would be extremely ecstatic.
DX: With an album that has obvious ties to a film, were you worried at all that listeners may miss the whole point if they haven’t seen High Fidelity?
Donwill: It was a slight concern of mine. But I feel like it’s guided by the narrative and the skits. The narration and skits guide it so much that I was more so worried about people who weren’t interested in the film like, “I don’t give a fuck about High Fidelity.” At the end of the day it’s a very specific album that touches on broader topics that can be removed from the film. I’m fully aware of this. A lot of times as an artist, and a lot of times for me, I do things that kind of satiate myself or predicate myself. I don’t make a lot of music necessarily thinking it’s gonna be a hit. I make music in the frame of mind of, “I would like to do so and so, I want to make an album about the movie Best in Show,” and whoever likes it likes it, whoever doesn’t does not. I just kind of work under those pretenses in my music and that’s good or bad. It can be either. I think the Black Eyed Peas are a good example where they make music for popular consumption. They make music that is targeted at the masses. It’s done deliberately and it’s done very well in a crafty, creative way. will.i.am is a fantastic producer, and say what you want about the Black Eyed Peas, but their music will live on forever, and it’s transcendent beyond their first album, Behind The Front, where they had songs that were just geared toward the underground crowd, which they knew how to do. Then they wanted more out of their music career. Like if you listen, they sampled “White Horse” by Laid Back for a joint, and that’s just not shit a backpack group would do to make a club joint.
I think that’s a part of growth and part of what I’m doing is once you achieve certain plateaus, and know what you’re doing, as an artist and as a human you want to learn and you want to grow. So it’s a natural progression for me to wanna go from sequencing a song to wanting to know how to produce and play live instruments and learn how to make music that doesn’t require words. Or learn how to make music that requires a different kind of artistry. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to expand your music repertoire. I think a lot of times fans are what hold artists back because they don’t expect you to do anything outside of what they expect you to do. For instance, people want Common to make a record again. I guarantee you that Common cannot write Resurrection again because he’s not that age and he’s not having those experiences anymore.
DX: Do you think it’s a bad decision for listeners to create a certain perception for artists? Like you said, at this time Common can’t make another Resurrection again because he’s moved toward a Universal Mind Control aesthetic. Is it unfair for listeners to assume artists are going to always be creating the same type of music?
Donwill: I think it’s the listeners’ responsibility to accept the artist as they present themselves. I think it’s unfair and a bit selfish for a listener to look at an artist and not expect them to grow within two or three years, or between albums. This is not necessarily true for someone like 50 Cent. When he drops, he can make the same kind of album with similar producers because he’s more of a hyper-masculine character. By saying that it’s not controversial, we all know that 50 Cent is a businessman. At the same time, he represents this type of attitude like, “My world is in the street, gonna eat you nigga, don’t fuck around.” And people like this character, so there’s no need for him to come out with a new album and expand because he’s the brand “50 Cent.” He’s not going to come out with a soft album; to do that would be insulting to his brand and fan base. But for people who are being themselves and grow as artists, it’s really unfair that you are held to these expectations and limitations. Like when Phonte stepped away from Little Brother to do Foreign Exchange. The first Foreign Exchange album [Connected] was Rap, the second [Leave It All Behind] was more singing, and that in itself was growth. As a fan, people who can’t accept that transition should just stick with the albums they love and try to find other artists that fill this niche, because there are new artists coming out every day. But it’s just like being a human; you’ve done that before and you don’t want to keep living the same life, the same experiences.
DX: The movie High Fidelity plays off an elitist view of music taste. Do you feel like that’s similar to what’s going on in Hip Hop these days?
Donwill: I would say, to purists, yes. I think that it’s not really necessarily elitist, because it’s the iPod shuffle culture where people will have a mix with 50 Cent and Kanye West and The Roots, and then throw in a Lady Gaga song as guilty listening pleasure. I think that elitism in 2010 is about being opinion-based. It’s based in preference, because there’s such a wide assortment of everything to have. Like there’s so much you can pick from that opinion is now replacing fact. So, someone might just like something because they like it, they don’t need a basis for liking it, nor give hard facts as to why they enjoy it. I feel like elitism is favoritism and opinion-based.
DX: There’s a part in the movie where John Cusack’s character Rob makes fun of Laura for her diverse music taste. Were there any artists you listened to growing up where friends or family were like, “Why are you listening to this?”
Donwill: Not really, but now there are a lot of artists I listen to where people are kind of like, “What the fuck is this?”
DX: Who are some examples?
Donwill: I don’t have her album, but I like Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is one, and I listen to Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus a little bit. I’m also a diehard John Mayer fan. But that’s the thing. There are a lot artists where I’m not necessarily getting interrogated for liking them, but it’s music that a lot of people just don’t expect me to be rocking out to like that. But I appreciate the musicianship in their music, and the honesty in their artwork.
DX: The movie alludes to Rob’s continuous battle with music and commitment. For you, were there ever times during your early career in which you just wanted to step away?
Donwill: Yeah. [Laughs] Yeah, because the music and career I chose to do is largely do-it-yourself and largely independent. Because of this, there are a lot of moments where if you don’t get something done, you feel like it’s your fault. And it’s a lot easier to just go out and get a job. Like for me, I just wanted to go get a job and decrease my attention given to my music career, to only do it in my spare time. At the same time, that’s silent submission. If it’s not in the forefront of my mind and what I’m doing, it doesn’t take up a lot of my time. Like if I get home from eight hours of work, I might need at least two hours to chill, and music maybe gets only an hour. Whereas now I get eight hours of music, then I get some chill time, then I get right back to the business side of things, because there’s a lot that goes into music. It’s not just recording or writing; it encompasses everything else when you’re dealing with it on this level. I think that I’ve had that embattled conversation with myself about stopping. But it’s not about quitting at this point, it’s about this is what I do and I enjoy doing it more than anything.
DX: The setting of Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity is sort of an ode to mom and pop record stores around town. Were you the type of person who spent hours sifting through records at these types of stores?
Donwill: Yes, not really even sifting through records but just looking at release dates. It was one of those things where it was a camaraderie type of setting. Me and my friends would sit around, and we knew when releases came out because someone would go up to the store. It was like, “What are you gonna buy this week?” All of us would buy a different album and then dub each other’s tapes. We would go to my record store every Tuesday and Thursday and watch the release schedule, and take home the pamphlet that lists all the releases coming out next month. I was a huge mom and pop-goer to the point where we were just hanging around the store. You couldn’t loiter inside or they would kick you out, but we would spend about 30 to 40 minutes looking at covers and talking about albums. It kind of made me who I am today.
DX: In an interview a few years back you said you used to steal tapes from record stores. In that sense you’re kind of like Vince and Justin in the movie [laughs].
Donwill: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s funny because there was this one spot we used to steal so much shit from that we literally watched the progression of tapes and records going from display shelves, then to little plastic cases, to actually behind the glass. [Laughs] I used to have a collection in my house of just those plastic cases you take the CDs out of before you leave the store. That was like my thing; I was slightly klepto so I used to get off on stealing, but just weird stuff. Not cars or clothes, but stealing just dumb shit to do it. I was one of those kids that was just bored all the time so I was stealing traffic signs and shit.
DX: [Laughs] Alright, top five songs you want played at your funeral.
Donwill: [Pauses]. Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go,” Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” Tony Toni Tone’s “Party Don’t Cry.” I should slip a Tanya Morgan song in here somewhere. [Laughs] I would say “So Damn Down.” No, not even “So Damn Down,” I would pick “Forgot 2 Say,” although Ilya’s verse kind of makes it…Ilya’s verse is off-topic because he talks about getting pussy, but I guess that still works [laughing], so that would be my fourth song. For the fifth song, shit. [Pauses]. You can tell I’m looking at my CD collection right now. Alright, for the fifth song, George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”
DX: Did you ever make mixtapes, or I guess in these times it would be mix CD’s, for any past girlfriends?
Donwill: I did make a mixtape for a girl a long time ago. I made the mixtape as a story and picked songs that literally told a love story. It was all different artists, but it was like, boy-meets-girl and they’re on their first date, stuff like that. Then I went as far as making liner notes and explaining why each song was on the mixtape and what it meant. It was some pretty cool shit, should have gotten me some ass but it didn’t. [Laughs]
DX: I’m guessing she wasn’t as fond of the mixtape as you were.
Donwill: Naw, she liked it. It was complicated though, where it was some shit like, too far of a distance to get to the girl. It was one of those scenarios where it didn’t work out in the grand scheme of things, but if I would have handed her the tape personally it probably would have worked.
DX: Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek recently co-signed your group’s work. Being a group that also bridges New York and Cincinnati, what do you think that says about the reach of Hip Hop?
Donwill: I’m an older cat, so coming up Hip Hop was more regional, meaning that you could go to Atlanta and only hear Atlanta artists or if you’re in Los Angeles you could hear some fresh L.A. shit. Nowadays, it’s more nationally-oriented, which speaks to the fact that the culture itself is kind of normalized. You still have regional music, but it’s a lot easier to get your music heard throughout the country as opposed to just trying to make it locally; now you can think nationally. That’s one of the main things that Tanya Morgan witnessed. We got popular nationally and internationally before locally. There were a lot of people in my own city of Cincinnati who didn’t necessarily know who Tanya Morgan was. It’s one of those weird things where there’s a loophole in artist development, where you can be bigger outside of your hometown. This is the technology age. I mean, Reflection Eternal was before the technology age and they did their work in person, whereas we did it ass backward. I think this change speaks to the fact that everything is evolving. I’ll be interested to see in five years how everything is different.
DX: You’ve said before, “Learn to love what you hate about a person.” Spinning that question, what do you hate about Hip Hop?
Donwill: [Pauses]. I hate…I hate how things are not universally acceptable and how you can only be accepted by segments of the culture. Meaning, there are only certain artists that are universal and transcend these invisible barriers that are put in place, but for the most part it’s still a big deal to get your single on HOT 97. I hate that. For music to be revolutionary as the voice of the people who aren’t heard normally…We’re at a time where nobody talks about anything anymore, and the people who are talking about something are blackballed from being heard on the radio. It shouldn’t be a big deal that their playing a Hip Hop song on a Hip Hop station in New York. On the flipside, in learning to love it, that’s just a part of the game. If you understand that, you can figure out how to move around it in a creative manner to get your stuff out to the people.
DX: I know it would be a time-consuming issue, but would you ever consider performing the whole album Don Cusack in High Fidelity in sequential order at a concert?
Donwill: I have considered it. The album itself is only an hour long, so the hardest part of that would be guest appearances. I actually figured out how to do it, like I know exactly how the stage set-up would be but I don’t want to give away my tricks if I do decide to do it. I think if I did do the whole album it would have to be extra special. It would have to be done like a performance art kind of show, almost like a mini-broadway show. I couldn’t just get on stage and rap, I would have to do it bigger than a regular performance.