With an ink-still-wet signing to Atlantic, ATLien lyricist Donnis speaks on Japanese wives, idolizing Jermaine Dupri and teaching Ciara the wrong way to ride
VIBE: When did you first decide you wanted to be a rapper?
Donnis: I realized I wanted to rap in ’92, after I saw the Kris Kross video for “Jump.” They were a little older than me, but their success just made it seem possible. I had no idea how to go about making a record, so I just began the slow process of learning how to rhyme, finding beats. Once I got a job and license, I started spending all my money on studio time.
Was there a rapper you emulated when you first started rapping?
I’ll admit—the person I used to emulate most was Jermaine Dupri. I’m not going to lie, I thought JD was the fuckin’ man. And also, Andre 3000. Those were the two rappers that had the biggest influence on me. Whatever they were rapping about, I was rapping about. Even if JD was talking about having money and girls, and I had none of that at the time. [Laughs] I really thought JD would discover me at the mall one day and I would get a big record deal.
And I guess you found out the hard way it doesn’t always play out like that.
Of course. After graduating high school and being at college for a year, I joined the Air Force, which allowed me to make enough money to buy my own recording equipment and continue on making music.
"Fashionably Late is definitely a little darker... Now that I’ve got my foot in the door, things are not really how I expected them to be"
Your stint in the Air Force landed you in Japan for two-and-a-half years. Did you ever think about staying there permanently to do music?
I got to a point where I really fell in love with Japan. But when it came time to make the decision of staying or going home, I put my career into perspective. I’ve done all that I could musically out there; I opened up for almost every major U.S. rap artist that came to Japan. I always want more for myself so I felt like I needed to get out of my comfort zone and continue to grow.
I hear the Tokyo nightlife scene is like no other.
Yeah, it’s ridiculous out there. The clubs don’t close until 6 a.m., so any trouble you could get into is right there in front of you. It’s like New York on steroids. You go to the club and literally there are girls there waiting to go home with you. They literally come with their bags packed to stay out [Laughs].
What do you think you’d be doing if you stayed in Japan?
I’d probably still be in the Air Force and have a Japanese wife and kids. [Laughs]
Did you see the Air Force as a possible career option if rap didn’t work out?
Not really. Honestly, what pushed me to start going hard with the music was seeing Ciara, because I actually grew up with her. Jonesboro is a small area, so we lived near each other. I remember seeing Ciara on TV when “Goodies” started popping; it was crazy for me to see somebody who I actually knew to be having all this success in music. After that, I spent every dollar I made from the Air Force into pushing my music.
Were you guys were close?
We weren’t best friends, but we were definitely cool. I actually used to date one of her friends, so we used to hang out. One night, we were all chillin’ and I had this raggedy 1989 Honda Civic Hatchback—the worst car ever. We decided to all pack in and go to this party T-Boz’s younger brother was throwing, but along the way my car broke down and we had to push that thing. It was straight embarrassing, man.
Your last mixtape Diary of an ATL Brave was strong enough for Atlantic Records to come calling. Who was the first person you told about your deal?
Definitely my parents, because they knew this is something that I’ve wanted almost my whole life. They are the only two people who have truly witnessed first-hand everything I’ve been through to get to this point. And even though I was excited and happy beyond belief, I really became [overwhelmed] with a feeling like, “OK, this is it!” Everything is real now. You really only get one big shot at this… I can’t mess this up. I wont.
So is Wiz signed to Atlantic now, too?
Wiz is part of the family, that’s the homey. I don’t think anything is official just yet, but Wiz has definitely been hanging out over there. [Laughs]
Your follow up mixtape, Fashionably Late, has been pushed back again, to June 22. Are you going in a different direction with this one?
I wouldn’t say that but it’s definitely a little darker. It really describes everything that I been through over the last eight months since Diary came out. All the emotions that I’ve been feeling and all the things I’ve discovered about the music industry are on this mixtape. Now that I’ve got my foot in the door, things are not really how I expected them to be.
You kind of represent the new breed of the South, along with artists such as B.o.B. and Yelawolf. What's your take on that?
For me, it’s really about continuing with the quality of music that we were raised off of, with artists like OutKast, Goodie Mob and the whole Dungeon Family. Any one of us could’ve easily sold out and recorded a hit record with a funny dance and been a one-hit wonder. But we have more integrity and just want to put on for our city. I want to take it worldwide. —Mikey Fresh