Interview: Donny Oh is mad good

fotor_137298746689462’s Tom Spooner meets some hot new talent:

Donny Oh is a sixteen-year-old from Brooklyn. He has recently graduated High School. It just so happens that he is also one of the most exciting young rap prospects to emerge from the United States in recent years. Facing big decisions, he takes a moment out to discuss his music and what the future may hold.

When you listen to Donny Oh’s debut EP Stuffed Shells, it’s hard to imagine that he has only been rapping for one year, harder still that he is only sixteen. His lyrical dexterity and impressive vocabulary are the first things to hit you, next comes his flow, the way he effortlessly switches up styles. It begs the question just how did he get this good so quickly?

“I was always into hip-hop – my mom used to play a lot of Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Supernatural when I was growing up so I guess that whole lyrical thing was embedded in me from young,” he explains.

“I started rapping because I felt like I had potential to be good at it basically. I love music and I figured why not create something I love?”

Potential is the key word when it comes to Donny Oh. The young New Yorker has talent yet you get the sense there is more to come, maybe a lot more. It all started with the track Bag Fries: an unpretentious bursting forth of ideas, loaded with old school rap stylings and rascally wordplay. Bag Fries was not without its flaws but for all its retro 90’s touches, it sounded undeniably fresh. There was something playful and irreverent at its core that instantly made it stand out from the dirge of generic bedroom rappers.

Since Bag Fries, Donny Oh has progressed, steadily seeking out new beats, exploring different ideas and generally honing his craft. The resulting Stuffed Shells EP, released in July, is an altogether more focussed offering.

“I definitely feel like I have developed. Bag Fries was the result of me listening to a lot of 90’s hip hop, reggae, and Beastcoast. I imitated what I heard and I don’t feel like I was really myself in that song,” he says.

“I’ve just been using more of my own personality in my raps. I spend a lot of my time writing, and song-writing is like a muscle, so with a lot of working out I’ve seen some improvement.”

Donny OhStuffed Shells‘ 11 short tracks, some of them little more than ideas, still spark with insightful lyrical turns, deft soulful touches and brim with, you guessed it, potential. Donny’s flow impresses throughout, sometimes so much so that it exposes the limitations of the productions. You can hear elements of his cited influences MF DOOM, B.O.G, Nas and Biggie at play as well as current rappers like Joey Bada$$, Kendrick Lamar, and Earl Sweatshirt.

Stuffed Shells showcases my ability and versatility. There are a lot of songs on there about various topics – all influenced by my day to day life and things I’ve seen and heard,” he states.

“I hope people hear it and are like ‘Who the fuck is this kid? He’s mad good,’ and then share it with all of their friends. It would be cool if people woke up and listened to my music and shit like that too.”

Parables and Fencing make up the backbone of Stuffed Shells and along with new track GSVR, are evidence of a developing maturity. These cuts showcase Donny’s love of wordplay, reminiscent in places of Edan’s leftfield machinations. For someone of his age, Donny has an extensive vocabulary and he isn’t afraid to show it. Words become tactile and versatile in his verses, things to be chopped and changed for different affect:

“You can make people laugh, cry or smile just by using words. I think that’s crazy,” he enthuses.

Having graduated High School a year early, it seems Donny’s intelligence isn’t confined to his raps. Right now he is faced with some crucial decisions like what to study at University:

“I’m interested in Civil Engineering but also in psychology and maybe even a little interested in education. Civil Engineering helps develop areas that really need it, Psychology is all about the mind and I find the way the people think and interact intriguing. I think education is cool because educators basically create the future.”

So with an interest in how people think and a desire to improve lives, does Donny Oh see his music becoming a vehicle to inform, discuss ideas and educate?

“Honestly, I don’t think commercial rap will ever be positive or conscious. It isn’t marketable at all: most people listen to music for melodies and to dance, not for the message.”

It’s disappointing that someone with the talent, and maybe, in the future, the influence to reach people with his ideas, dismisses rap so readily as a vehicle for positive change.

“I just say a lot of witty things in my raps and I think it takes listeners by surprise; especially because I’m 16.”

“I’ll drop gems about things here and there and even dedicate entire songs to topics but that isn’t what I want to define my music at all.”

Clearly determined to become the best rapper he can be, it was a surprise when soon after graduating Donny tweeted: “Some days I don’t feel like rapping. I can’t imagine waking up everyday and that being my life.” It seemed he was questioning rap as a viable option for him. When pushed on the issue, he answered:

“I just wouldn’t wanna be limited to one thing, that’s all. Life is what you make it.”

Wise words from Donny Oh, no doubt there will be many more to come.

Stuffed Shells EP is available for FREE now via bandcamp.

tom spooner


Interview by Tom Spooner