Words + Photography: Laura 'Hyperfrank' Brosnan

From “My Philosophy” to “Lock Doh”, Donae’O has shown himself to be one of our true musical heroes. A career that spans through UK garage, funky, Afrobeats and grime, the singer and MC doesn’t jump from sound to sound but rather lends his vocals, and productions, to some of the biggest underground hits. One thing’s for certain: if you want to get a crowd moving up in the rave, fling on Donae’O’s back catalogue and he’ll do all the work for you. 

Building up his career for the last 16 years, completely independent, Donae’O recently decided to take a strategic move and sign his first record deal with Island Records. The North West Londoner has seen the technological age switch up the music industry from the ground up, exchanging record shops and pirate radio slots for Snapchat strategies and streaming apps. How does an evolving artist keep up, you ask? Well, the pioneering talent lets the music do all the talking. 

With huge demand for a UK funky revival, TRENCH decided it was time to take the “Party Hard” hit-maker for some green tea and a chat about the downfalls of being an independent artist, the legacy of “African Warrior”, and the hidden stories behind some of the country’s most treasured club songs.

What one word would describe your musical journey up to this point in your career?

Independent. I’ve been independent for a very long time.

White label independent?

Yep! Putting your own money into your business, independent. Losing that money, having to look at the loss, and working out what the mistakes are. Then correcting those mistakes when you don’t necessarily have the money to correct those mistakes. But then, somehow, you find the money to correct those mistakes.

What’s one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made?

Not working with other people and not learning how to socialise properly. That was one of my biggest mistakes. Because of bullying in school, I never really socialised properly. I’ve got my friends, but even they came late. But because I’m so self-sufficient, that didn’t help either. I produce, I rap, I sing, I write my own songs, I mix, I master everything. It just creates a bubble around yourself. I wanted to control my space so I never got hurt, which is not healthy. Getting hurt is a part of life. You have to be hurt to understand how you don’t want to get hurt.

How would you describe your relationship with music?

Obsessive. It’s a love I can never let go; it’s something that I’ve always had to do. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else in my life, honestly. I’m glad I worked out a way to do it because I’m sure there’s loads of people like me in the world who have that passion, that obsession, but didn’t pursue it for whatever reason.

What’s the difference between you and them?

I had a mum who created her own environment — same with my dad. I think having those two was a big thing. Being born in England as well, we’ve got a massive structure for independent business — especially on the music side — so I think I was lucky with that. Having a pirate radio station on your doorstep also helps.

You’re from NW London, right? Which station did you used to go on?

There was Rush FM — that was my first radio station.

What was it like stepping inside that building for the first time?

I wasn’t really wanted. I had to go to East. I couldn’t really get on Rush FM, at first, so I had to go to East. I met Mystic Matt — that was my first introduction to that world — then we were in the Bubbling Crew on Magic FM.

North West and East, especially in the early grime days, have been known to not really get along. Did that ever hinder you from travelling up there?

Not really, you know. I’m not a gangster, so those issues never really came my way. When they did come my way, nine times out of ten, those issues came from within your own crew. Man’s got rid of people because they were being harmful to my life and they weren’t healthy for me to have around.

You met [Island Records’ Head of Urban] Alex Boateng when he and [twin brother] Twin B was putting together Split Mics, in 2004. Alex signed you to Island recently, but how did the both of you reconnect?

It was very simple; I’ve always known Twin — always! We’ve always been friends, but I’m actually closer to his brother. Me and his brother, Alec, have always had a bit more interaction. Last year, I put a lot of work in and Twin heard about “Black”... I had that song for six months because I didn’t know what to do with it.

Why is that?

To have Jme and Dizzee Rascal on a grime record together is a bit much! Especially because both of them did it for the love. Dizzee had to talk me into releasing it because, in my head, there was bare pressure. But he was just like, “D! just put it out! I know you think it’s a big deal but, seriously, we did a record because we like you and we want to do the tune with you.” It’s a big thing, you know?

Do you think you can sometimes overthink?

Yes! Sometimes you can have all the right things in the right place, but it’s the wrong time. You might worry people won’t like it, but if you don’t put it out there — how will you know? 

I hear you. Even the concept of having a record deal in 2017, a lot of people are keeping it quite hush-hush. It’s ‘in’ to be independent right now, so how are you working around that? Why did you even choose to sign a deal?

I’ve really been independent. I was independent through force of wanting to get my art out there, you know? It wasn’t like I was trying to be cool or anything — there wasn’t a platform for an artist like me. So I had to learn business as a second language in order to display my art out there and make a career out of it. Last year, when I decided to collaborate more and move with people and do more stuff, I started realising my business mind was like if this is going to get bigger, I need to have other people come in to help me manage the stuff I shouldn’t really be managing. I, myself, need to be looking after the music and being an artist. That’s what I worked really hard for. I worked hard to build this. When I signed, it was more like growing my team. I need to be focusing on making the best record I can make and not having to worry about finding the money to pay my manager, pay for the video, pay for all those things. So that’s why I wanted a label: I wanted the support network to help with and grow the business, which has grown tremendously over the last year. It had a massive spurt.

How have you stayed in love with music?

Music changes... 

It can be a bit toxic sometimes, though don’t you think?

Do you think so?

Maybe I’m looking at it from an industry perspective.

See, everyone talks about the industry, but that’s not music for me. Music is the tunes. The industry is what exploits the music. I like the music side of music. That’s what I’m into. I bought two songs today: the Mist and Steel Banglez remix of James Arthur and Rudimental’s “Sun Comes Up” and “Texting” by WSTRN. There’s always something new. When you get bored of something, something new comes out and it regenerates. What I was listening to when I first got into music, to what I’m listening to now — it’s like ten different things. How can you not still be in love with music? It reinvents itself all the time. I like a wide range of music and genres so I can’t ever get bored.  

Heavy metal?

[Laughs] I don’t know if I like heavy metal, but I just like good songs. I like country music. I like ballads. Like, The Kooks were my favourite band at one point. Their album was sick! I just like everything, really.

What memories come to mind when I say “My Philosophy”?

I must have been about 16 or 17, in 2002/2003, and I made it because I’d heard “Pulse X” and wanted to make something similar. The flow and the idea came from me listening to a lot of Ludacris. At the time, that’s how I thought: put down how I think, in records. That was it, really.

Devil In A Blue Dress”?

I wrote that song when I was going to The Hill (Muswell Hill) every week. When I started playing around, becoming a ‘gash’ man and understanding women and having fun as a man, that’s what “Devil In A Blue Dress” was.

"African Warrior”?

“African Warrior” was a joke. I made the beat with all these intricate sounds and I sang the chorus. The chorus, at first, was a joke to me. I thought it was funny... I was kinda smoking at this point [laughs]. But then, I was listening to it over and over again and I realised it’s an empowerment song. That’s why I changed up the verses, to make sure the verses lined up with the record. What I found funny about that record is, I’m African; I’m half Ghanaian, half Guyanese. I used to live in Ghana and everyone used to say I shouldn’t say I’m an African warrior because I’ll end up isolating other people. I was like, “I don’t give a fuck! I’m African. It’s who I am, and I don’t see why I should be ashamed to say it.”

What was the reaction?

It created more consciousness in British-Africans. I didn’t realise until later down the line.

More pride?

Yeah. There was a documentary on 1Xtra about the rise of Afrobeats and one section of it —it was like an hour, and every section was 20 minutes — one 20-minute section was just about “African Warrior”. I didn’t know how everyone felt about the song until that documentary. People were saying that when you go to a rave, the raves were fully run by West Indian music and American music. So when “African Warrior” came on, all the Africans came out the woodwork screaming. It was the first song that represented them. It was more like the introduction to African music within Britain. Not even African music — it was the first introduction to African culture within Britain. Before then, you got cussed for being African. Whereas now, it’s respected as much as the West Indian culture. Because I’m both, I’ve always respected both. I think that song helped bring the two together as well, which is what I’ve been told.

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot more focus on the emerging Afrobeats scene here in the UK J Hus, Kojo Funds, P Montana etc. How are you feeling about that?

I love it, man. You always need versatility. You always need new things. I’m glad that those guys are proud of the heritage enough to put it out there and put a modern take on what’s going on, as British-African men.

So, “Party Hard”.

“Party Hard”, “Devil In A Blue Dress”, “African Warrior” — they were all written in the same space of time. “Party Hard” was basically the story of me and my friends going to The Hill, and raving. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. Because we never had loads of money, we’d buy cider from the shop and get a bit tipsy beforehand, so when we go in we’ve got enough money to buy a girl a drink [laughs]. It was basically just explaining every Friday night.

That blew up.

It was the process of going out to a rave and being in the rave. Everyone’s process was the same.

It’s obviously quite a new one, but how did “Lock Doh” with Giggs come about?

In the last four or five years, obviously funky had died. My music has always hit a glass ceiling and I needed to find out why. So I met with Brian Higgins first and he taught me how to make pop music. Now that I understood the fundamentals of music making, I thought: “I need to make rap music on an American level.” So I was traveling back and forth to America, learning how to make music.

You were going to move over there at one point, right?

Still am. I was going back and forth, learning how to make music on their level. Then I made a record called “Whole Life”, which is out now, and it’s the first rap record I’ve properly made. So I had the English culture and American culture down and that’s when “My Circle” came out and that’s when “Lock Doh” came out. “Lock Doh” was like an amalgamation of that journey. It was the first rap record that America loves. It’s actually blown up. “Lock Doh” was my official “I’m a rapper” moment. I’m a rap producer and a rapper. 

And with one of the most respected rappers.

See, I’m an ignorant guy. I’m very foul-mouthed, and that was the first time I’d fully shown that side.

You recently dropped a mixtape entitled Sixteen. Is that how long you’ve been in the music industry for: 16 years?

It’s how long I’ve been independent for, and I wanted to end it with a bang. The Sixteen mixtape is so you always remember it as a moment in time. I made the transition from one space to another. I also wanted to make a project where me and the label work together as a team. That’s basically it, man. It’s like the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

It feels like a celebration.

I made it in three months. I called all my friends, my artist friends, my bredrin-bredrins, I booked the studio for three months and I just asked them all to come hang. If they wanted to jump on a tune, they could. If not, it’s just vibes. The record was more of a collaborative thing, than anything.

Do you think the musical process can be lost when we rely too much on the cyber world rather than in person?

Yeah, most definitely. There’s nothing better than two minds. Sometimes, when you’re stuck in your way, you might be saying something and not thinking it’s that good but someone else might tell you to keep that. You always need that human interaction. Why do you make music anyway? Because you like it, and you want other people to like it too.

What has sixteen years being an independent musician taught you?

If you decide to be an independent artist, be willing to learn to be the best version of yourself. If you’re gonna be the leader of that ship, you can’t accept mediocrity. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re wrong. Sometimes, you’re not as good as you think you are and if you’re not as good as you think you are, find people who can help you to become that person. The biggest myth is that labels control you. They don’t control you. You do what you want to do, and they allow it. Then there’s artists that want to be told what to do. Nine times out of ten, if a label puts money into you, it’s because they believe in you. But you, as an artist, need to understand that a big corporation wants to make money. There’s no one telling the middle story. There’s a lot of independent artists getting signed because of a record that blew up on the underground. But then, after it blows up and the record gets signed, no one follows that process. Once you’re signed, you change the music. Everyone who’s successful is always going to challenge you, but it’s up to you to say “that makes sense but, actually, I’m not so sure.” Artists need to take responsibility for the failures and sometimes labels need to take responsibility for their failures. It’s that simple.