“If you don’t know my name, I’m not working hard enough” — Donny Goines.
Donny Goines said this to me shortly after I met him for the first time. I’d been given the opportunity to hang with him when he was opening for Talib Kweli’s group Idle Warship, who all were allegedly too busy to come upstairs and hang out with the common folk. Goines, who obviously had access to move about the club at will, never abandoned the guests whom he had brought to the show to go pop his collar with the headliners. Instead, he was gregarious and always willing to talk, taking the time to introduce me to several of his industry peers and ensuring I had all my needs taken care of.
That scene really speaks to the type of person that Goines is. “I’m a man first, artist second” he said at one point during in our interview. Meet him and you’ll never experience a moment where you doubt that. He never drinks or smokes, he never seems to get angry or impatient. His motivation and his artistic hustle are pure and honest. Combine all of those personality traits with his ever-growing talent, and you have one of the most admirable budding artists out there- a man and an artist that are both easy to root for.
A big thanks goes to Donny for his time. He’s always working, so do him a favor and remember his name. I don’t think it’s possible for him to work any harder.
TSS: So how’s everything Donny?
Donny Goines: Everything is good, I’m feeling blessed.
TSS: First and foremost, congratulations on your release of The Breakfast Club. You just had your release party, how did that go?
Donny Goines: Oh it was great man; it was cool vibes and good times, and that’s all I really care about at the end of the day. Everybody that came out had a good time, we ate a bunch of cereal and rocked out.
TSS: Yeah, I saw the pictures of the cereal, that was a nice touch. That was another reason why I was disappointed I missed it because I was hoping to get some Frosted Flakes.
Donny Goines: Yeah, we was missing the Crunch Berries though, but next time.
TSS: That’s your favorite, the Crunch Berries?
Donny Goines: Yeah man, I been eating a box of those for the past three days. I been surviving on Crunch Berries and fat-free milk (Laughs). But yeah, the listening party was a great time. It was the first time I’d performed any of the material off the new album and everybody there seemed real receptive, they were having a good time. Like I said, at the end of the day, all I really care about is good vibes. It was also nice because a lot of the artists that were on the album were able to come out and perform with me so it was a lot of fun.
TSS: Nice. Now, I know you got that quote, “if you don’t know my name I’m not working hard enough.” How did you come about that quote and why do you feel like it fits you so well?
Donny Goines: Funny you asked that because nobody ever asked me that question. I honestly don’t know when or why that quote came to me but I guess one day it just happened to pop up in my head. I don’t really remember why. But I was just like, “You know something? I’m gonna use this as my motto.” and that’s just a motto I’ve been living by ever since. I really feel as if artists always want to blame others for their lack of buzz, or whatever the case may be. It’s always the labels fault or whoever. But, as far as my music goes, if people don’t know my name, then I’m doing something wrong. It’s my fault, it ain’t nobody else’s fault. I really hold myself accountable as far as my promotions and things like that, that’s why I’m very hands on with everything I do. At the same time, I’m one of those kind of people, who I feel like people should be aware of. So, I make sure that every day I wake up, somebody new knows my name.
TSS: I think one of the things that I appreciate most about hearing that is that it’s just a refreshing take on the business. Like you said, a lot of artists do find other factors to blame their failures on. How did you gain that perspective? Is that just you? Have you always been like that?
Donny Goines: Not always. I mean for a long time, I always had a very pessimistic attitude. Not just about music, but about life in general because I was very negative. I just felt like “what the fuck? Woe is me,” you know? But after awhile, I realized that certain things were happening to me because I allowed things to happen. I was bringing negative energy into my circle or I wasn’t making appropriate moves. So, I just decided awhile ago to be really optimistic about things and really positive. It was time to take my own destiny in my hands. I’m a man first and an artist second, so I just live by certain principles and rules.
TSS: Was there a specific turning point that made you say “All right, I have to take control of things myself” or was it more of a gradual paradigm shift?
Donny Goines: Gradual. Definitely gradual. What people don’t understand about me, is that for a long time, I was doing a lot of things that I shouldn’t have been doing. I was being a fucked up individual. I was out there doing all sorts of shit, learning the hard way. Whether it had been me on the floor of a jail somewhere, or getting beat up, or beating somebody up, whatever the case may have been, I was just getting in a lot of trouble left and right for years.
Like I said, a lot of that was from the negative energy that I was allowing in my life. But, as I was getting older, certain things just started seeming less important than they once did. Like partying and drinking, fighting and arguing. After awhile I was just like, “you know what? I’m tired of this. I’m tired of waking up with hangovers, I’m tired of getting into fights. I’m tired of calling people problems and issues.” That’s why I love music, it really keeps me on a straight and narrow path, it keeps me grounded. It allows me to vent my frustration. But, that took a lot of aging and maturing for me to understand these things.
TSS: I know you have your music to keep you straight, and I know, when we spoke before you mentioned that you don’t drink or smoke.
Donny Goines: Yes
TSS: Well, is it difficult at times? Because fans of the music culture, that’s kind of embedded in the culture-
Donny Goines: …Not at all. You don’t even have to finish the question (laughs). Nah, I’ve never been swayed by other people, that’s one thing I can say. One lesson I learned early in life was to never be a follower. I learned that from following the wrong people at an early age. So, as far as peer pressure, I’ve not really privy to that. I always was about learning how life works on my own accord. So, it really doesn’t affect me at all. I can sit in a bar all night and not have a sip of any liquor. I can sit in a studio full of smokers and not have to touch a blunt at all. I don’t want to, so nobody’s going to force me (laughs).
TSS: You’ve got your Crunch Berries instead right?
Donny Goines: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly. There you go, I’ve got my fix.
TSS: You grew up in Harlem, correct?
Donny Goines: Yeah, Harlem and the Bronx. I grew up in the Bronx early on, from my teenage years. But I grew up as a man in Harlem.
TSS: I know you don’t place responsibility on anything but yourself, but do you think the environment you were in shaped you and created that negative energy you felt in any way?
Donny Goines: Of course. I mean, here’s the thing. Anything can affect you. The question is, do you let it affect you? I wasn’t as smart back then as I am now, and you’re right, environment plays a role. There were a lot of situations that were out of my hands that played a part in a lot of negative aspects of my past. But, at the end of the day, you know, I’m ultimately the person who made the decisions. I can’t say the ghetto forced me to drink you know? I drank, I got drunk. I was out there fighting. It’s true that the environment played a part of that, but all that it did was influence me, and I fell victim to the influence.
But who knows? If I grew up in the suburbs I’d probably be a doctor or something. I’m fully aware of the role that the environment plays though, and that’s why I said in my music that I don’t glorify the negativity that’s in my community. I try to make uplifting music and guide people in the right direction. I’m one of the blessed ones, I’m not in a cell or a grave.
TSS: You talked about the change being a gradual process, but there really wasn’t a specific moment that you hit rock bottom and it made you say like, “All right Donny, I’ve got to turn this around?”
Donny Goines: Yeah, well, I’ve had a couple of those moments. For a long time I felt like I was just living to be living. I didn’t really give a fuck. But then I would go right back to the bullshit. But the last moment like that I had though, I had a serious falling out in my neighborhood in Harlem, not only with my neighbors but also with my family. Once that happened, I got up and I left. I decided that I had to get out of there. So I decided to go live up in Westchester, NY. There, I could take myself out of the negative environment and work on myself. It was there that I realized “All right, I’m an adult now, I can’t be acting a certain way.” In the middle of all that, that’s when I discovered the passion for the music. That’s why I’m here today.
TSS: How old were you when you left for Westchester?
Donny Goines: 25.
TSS: Speaking of starting your career, I remember reading in your bio that another inspiration for you was the documentary “Fade To Black.” What was it about that documentary and where you were at in your life that it made such an life-altering impression on you?
Donny Goines: It’s just one of those things, I call it serendipity. It was in the cards. The only way I can really describe it is that I had an epiphany. I can’t really detail what was going on, but I know what it felt like because I’ve only had a moment like that happen twice in my life. The first was when I was in Riker’s Island at 16 years old and I decided that I couldn’t be no jailbird (Ed. Note: Goines had been incarcerated for armed robbery). Long story short, the case got dismissed and I took that as a blessing. That was the beginning of my transition.
Before that moment, I was as fucked up as people can get. I was doing shit that I can’t even say in the interview. It took me a decade to make the changes I had to make. So, fast forward that decade later, and that’s when I saw “Fade To Black.” That again was one of those moments where I was like “I’ve played around with this before, but I need to really do this. This is my life.” So I started and I never looked back.
TSS: Was it partly the inspiration of seeing an icon like Jay-Z, a man who comes from Marcy projects, being in front of thousands and thousands of people?
Donny Goines: Of course. He’s the muse of this portrait here. If he hadn’t done what he did, I would have never seen this movie, and chances are I would have never pursued this music shit. The initial thought that came to my mind was that “if this man can do all that, then there’s no reason I can’t do it too.” It was right then that I wrote my first song called “Inspiration,” a song about Jay-Z and why I was inspired. It’s one of those songs you’d really have to find on some humbug shit. I wrote it with no beat. So, I had that song and I had some other songs I had recorded before but once I found the right beat, I recorded that song on my very first studio project, which was called The Prologue.
TSS: Have you ever gotten the opportunity to meet Jay?
Donny Goines: Can’t say I have. I actually saw him once, I was in Def Jam Offices with God bless the dead, Disco D. We were in an A&R meeting and it’s funny because I had the song “Inspiration” in my hands, and I wanted to go give him the song. But you know, I was with Disco D, and I couldn’t disrespect him like that. It wasn’t my meeting.
TSS: Disco D, I think most people know the circumstances around what happened to him. Were you close with him? How did you cope?
Donny Goines: Disco D was one of the only mentors I ever had in this game. I didn’t know him for a long time, but the time that I did know him, he was more of a friend than friends that I had had for ten years. He was just one of those kinds of people, he welcomes you with open arms. People like that are rare.
But I initially got involved with him after I quit my job in Westchester and I moved back to Harlem. I was looking for a part-time job in the music industry. I put an ad in a forum board and essentially what it said was “I’m looking for a job in the music industry, I don’t care what it is, I’ll carry crates, I’ll run and get you Dutches, I don’t care what it is.” The next day, Disco D reached out to me via Myspace. At the time, I didn’t know who he was. So he asked me if I wanted to be a runner and I didn’t even know what he was talking about, but I was like “yeah, sure, why not?”
So the next day I went down to his loft and basically I went there, we spoke for about 20 minutes, and he hired me on the spot and paid me right there. So, I was shocked. We were just rocking together since that moment. He was just one of those guys that really did a lot of things for me that I’ll never forget. As long as I’m alive making music, his legacy will live on.
TSS: All right. Let’s get into where you are in your career now. You’ve got The Breakfast Club out now, which features a lot of collaborators. This is a follow up to Minute After Midnight which essentially was only you. When we last spoke, you mentioned how you’re crafting kind of a three album arc, in which The Breakfast Club is the second installment. Can you elaborate on that?
Donny Goines: Ok, well, I put out five projects before those albums, and countless, countless music. But, throughout my journey, I decided that I had to take things more step-by-step and that my growth as an artist had to be gradual. The fans had to grow with me. So, when I was doing Minute After Midnight, I was thinking about where to go with The Breakfast Club, and when I was making The Breakfast Club, I was planning out my next album. The reason I took that approach has a lot of reasoning behind it, but essentially the first album Minute After Midnight is the foundation, the platform.
People might not have bought that album crazy when it first dropped, but people eventually caught wind of it and heard it. It was never meant to be a huge seller, but more an opportunity for me to speak on what I needed to speak on, which were a lot of serious subjects. This album [The Breakfast Club], is meant to open the floodgates a bit on a wider scale. Whereas Minute After Midnight couldn’t reach certain plateaus, this album can. The reason being is that it’s a little more diverse and more widespread, it’s for many demographics. The two together work as albums that cover a broad spectrum. One is very dark, I was by myself, it’s very serious. Then, you have this album, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s more lighthearted, it has many different features. That leads us to the third album, which will be a combination of both, one that contains several different sides of me and makes people understand that I am an artist, I’m not just some fly-by-night dude trying to make a buck. I can really create and craft great projects. That’s what I plan to do with the finalization of this project.
TSS: You mentioned the music that you put out before. You feel like Minute After Midnight was when people started to pay attention?
Donny Goines: Yes, exactly. That’s the point. Minute After Midnight was meant for people to take me seriously. That was my album to prove that I’m not a fluke and I’m not an internet rapper.
TSS: You weren’t just rapping anymore, you were crafting songs?
Donny Goines: Yeah, I mean it was about transitioning again. I felt like I had been up-and-coming for so long and that it was time to prove myself as a legitimate artist. That I wasn’t a joke. I feel like I succeeded. People started to believe. So after people believed, I wanted to show them with this latest album that you know, I’m having fun, too. I’m enjoying what it is I do now.
Minute After Midnight was cathartic, I touched on issues like my son dying and AIDS in my community. But now, I’m in a better space, mentally, emotionally. I feel good. I don’t need to be as uptight as I was before. Everybody understands now. That’s where The Breakfast Club fits in. You can even tell when you look at the cover, I’m poking fun at myself. That’s where the trio comes in. Now that you see that I can be serious and that I can have fun, you’ll see the complete picture next. But that third album has to be on a big platform.
TSS: Do you already know the title for your third album?
Donny Goines: I do, but I’m going to keep that under wraps for now because I might change it. I want that album to be the one that everybody gravitates to. Hip-Hop heads, Top 40 heads, everybody. Because for me, music is only divided into two categories: good and bad.
TSS: Well, make sure you come to us first when you decide to finalize that project and speak on it, okay?
Donny Goines: No doubt, no doubt. You already know, I got love for The Smoking Section, y’all were one of the first websites to really show me love and support. That’s why this interview in particular I feel is long overdue man (laughs). But I love The Smoking Section, real talk, y’all show me nothing but love all day.
TSS: We appreciate that (laughs). You mentioned earlier that you want your third album to be on a major platform. But you’ve also mentioned to me about your drive to stay independent, and how you’re a little hesitant to sign to a major label, which is understandable, considering the music industry right now. How do you think it could evolve to the point where you could be releasing on a major enough platform but weren’t necessarily working with a label? Do you think you would ever end up signing?