The era of UK Funky music was arguably the most painfully short lived, and wistfully remembered periods in our lifetimes – well, it was for me at least. It emerged as the brainchild of a 20-year-old North-London Producer, named Apple, who quite serendipitously discovered a new way to configure his drums and melodies, in turn creating an entirely brand-new soundscape. UK funky quickly usurped itself as Black Britain’s new club/dance sound. The sound was particularly well-received on the party islands, sound tracking the holidays of teenage ravers on the streets of Ayia Napa.
But as prescient and forward-thinking as it was, it carried with it heaps of cultural information about our past – drawing influences from soulful house, garage, soca, African & Latin percussion and grime. It then informed many of the Afro-diasporic sounds that followed. So, in a way, it never really went anywhere.
And neither did Donae’o – one of the scenes most loved and respected veterans. He contains this rare innate musicality that kind of creeps out of him whatever way it can. That means writing songs sometimes, singing songs sometimes, rapping songs sometimes and producing songs, too. It’s there, in his production endeavours, where his impact is the most wide-ranging. From his early background in grime and bassline, to his funky house domination and growing influence in the UK rap space, Donae’o has always had this uncanny ability to communicate with us deeply, through the purity of the noise.
Hailing from Northwest London, born to parents of Ghanaian and Guyanese descent, Donae’o grew up on the multifarious sounds of Afrobeat, Hip-Hop (in all its various guises) R&B and Caribbean music. He would eventually breakthrough with the release of his second single “My Philosophy (Bounce)” in 2003 as a hyper-active grime record with sagacious wisdom at its core, opening it up with the words “don’t do drugs, don’t do guns, just have sex”. Great advice, if you ask me.
Over the next few years, Donae’o released a string of EP’s flitting between the sounds of garage, grime and then-novel UK funky. In 2009, he would make his most widely remembered – and adoringly revered – contribution to music with his Party Hard LP. It contained the smash hits “Devil in a Blue Dress”, “Party Hard”, “African Warrior”, “Riot Music” and “Watching Her Move” – songs that over 10 years later, define this era of music.
He experienced huge commercial success in 2016 with “Lock Doh”, a collaborative effort with Giggs from his Landlord LP, that became a huge club smash across the country. Produced by Donae’o, the track felt eerily reminiscent of UK Funky, with those huge, catchy drums and that jarringly unforgettable hook. He’s enjoyed more recent success with the burgeoning Amapiano sound emanating from South Africa on songs like “She Belongs to the Night”, “Party Hard 2020” and “Free”. It then becomes impossible to dismiss the very distinct sonic threads that link all of these songs together, and then back to their UK Funky origins.
I met with him on a rainy day to talk about everything from UK Funky to Labels and trends.
I read somewhere that you got bullied a lot when you were a lot younger. I’m interested to know where you found the confidence from to start making music.
“I think I was very sensitive when I was younger. And the way boys interact with each other, It’s quite aggressive. And my dad didn’t really explain that to me. So I took things on more than I should have. But no one ever like physically bullied me, because I’ve always been big. But I do think like 50, 60% of it was just me being sensitive and not understanding, that this is how people like, men kind of interact.”
So you don’t think you were actually being bullied?
“Now looking back on it, I think because I believed I was turned into that. But when I look back, I can see where my heart was because you create your own reality.
“That came from when I was about six years old. And I knew that I was going to do it messed up at school, everything. I wasn’t going to learn it because I knew I was going to do this. So not even my parents could derail me. I remember the day I was in my dad’s car. He was playing like an old school rap tape. And I listened and I was like, I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.”
I read somewhere that “My Philosophy” was the first track you ever released. It probably wasn’t the first tune you made, so tell me the story behind that?
“I made a song called “Falling”. And then there was remix. There was a remix I did of Ashanti’s “Foolish”. I’ve been making music every day since I was 14.”
You’re known for singing, rapping, producing and songwriting. Which of those titles do you feel the most connected to?
“My creativity is connected to my producing. My ego is more connected to me as an artist.”
I want to know the story behind the very first funky house tune you made.
“Me and my friend Mike Linkwood, made a broken-beat record. And he played these chords for the bridge. And I thought, we can turn this into another song. Or when it turned into “High”, and we used the bridge, the main melody for a second song. That’s what happened.”
Why do you think Funky-House died out? I honest to God think that was one of the best things to happen to British Music. And I listen back to some of my favourite songs from those days, and they still sound amazing?!
“They weren’t enough songs like that. And there wasn’t enough good producers. There just wasn’t enough people to create excellent products.
“Now, if the public demand something and you don’t give them what they want, they’re going to turn something else. So, if people wanted funky house, and they want new funky house, but the new funky house is subpar, they’re going to forget about it.
“Like drill hasn’t gone down in in quality. It’s gone up in quality. Now it’s reaching different countries. Now there’s like sample drill, like what New Yorkers do. That’s why it’s stuck around for so long. Because there’s loads of artists and loads of producers, all making quality stuff.”
I know the industry feeds off of trends, and there’s a narrative floating around that artists should should try to avoid them, but how important do you think it is – as a successful artist – to play into them sometimes?
“I think you should play into what suits you. If there’s a trend that’s out that you think suits you. When you do it, it’s going to resonate with people. I just think jumping on any trend doesn’t make sense. I always say if you enjoy something, try it. If you look at other people doing comedy skits on Instagram, and most of your people that you follow are comedians, try a little ting, init! You may not be a comedian, but you might be funny. it’s either going to work or it’s not going to work.”
When I look at you, all I see is somebody that really loves the music. Does that waver when it’s overlooked? And when people rant and rave about things that are mediocre, at best?
“I don’t care about that. My love for music, is my love for music. I don’t look for validation from people, never have.
“This woman was giving some relationship advice. And one of the questions she asked them first was, “who is the person that you can’t live without? Because when you find out who that is, you should never disrespect that person”. And when I thought about it, I was like, who is that? It’s me?! I am the person I can’t live without. I’m just I’m focused on me.
“I’m an underdog, but I’m not underrated. I think people forget this. If you go to a party, a house party this year, one of my songs is going to get played. A father is going to dance to his daughter to one of my songs. You are going to meet a girl to one of my songs. I am not underrated at all because people still cling on to my music. I’m in a position in my career where if I make a tune that nobody likes, I’ll get rinsed.
“I might even be called a has-been. As soon as I make a song that everyone likes, everyone just forgives me and they just accept it and then like say now “She Belongs to the Night” – we like this from you. We’re on it. It’s like I don’t feel overlooked because my life again is based off what I wanted. What I wanted in life was to make music, to have a life from it. Have a career from it, be able to support a family from it. Have business, I have that. If someone took that away from me, then I’d be pissed.
“But someone have more money than me or charging more. I don’t care about that. All I care about is achieving what I wanted to achieve. People are still loving my music now.
“When I was your age, or just a bit younger. In the grime days, yeah, I’d look at Dizzy and Wiley and think ‘Why doesn’t anybody check for me like that?’
“Because I was so focused on them, I wasn’t able to see what I actually had. I had my own lane that I should’ve been working on. And other artists came through. And they went down that lane. You can’t expect people to accept what they’re not willing to accept from you.
“I could spit gangster lyrics tomorrow. But then I think “what do people want to hear from me?” they want to hear positivity. That’s what they believe from me. That’s what they enjoy from me. They like whether it’s cheesy, what makes you want to dance or be happy, that’s what they want from me. And then I had to learn that the hard way, if you focus on what you have, that’s when you see real success.”
You’ve jumped on virtually genre that’s out there. Which is your favourite to listen to and which is your favourite to make?
“My favourite to listen is hip hop. And my favourite to make is British influenced black dance music. All the scenes I’ve done well in have been British black dance music, grime, baseline, and funky house even. I should even say club music, black British club music.
“Lock Doh” is a club song, “Lingo” is a club song as well. But “Lock Doh” wouldn’t have done well, if it was my song. That sounds stupid, but Giggs is more suited for it than I was. I mean, that element of Donae’o was still there because it was a club record. Yeah, it was a club record for Giggs. But if I was to do that record, it wouldn’t have gone off. Because it may not have suited me as much. But if you give me an Amapiano record, it’s different. This new record has no features, and everyone’s gone mad for it.
“Afro beats, British black dance music. That’s what I love making. That’s what I’m good at making.”
Do you regret not doing any of them more? Do you regret not spending more time? I don’t know, maybe two or three? In particular, do you think that you could have spent more time with I don’t know, maybe a house or fuel house?
“Great Question. Basically, when I was coming through that the general trend in culture was a new scene would come. Everyone go crazy for a scene at the start, then it starts waning, and they might have 50 years, then it’s dead. Then you’d have to jump on another scene. So, you didn’t really have the option to stick with one thing.
“In 2014, it might have been “German Whip” that started the run. And if you’ve noticed, none of the new scenes die. They just have their turn. Like Afro Swing.”
You’ve made a lot of music with a lot of legends. Who are favourite artists to work with?
“Ghetts. And we’d never met it before. I was in the studio. We were both quiet. I’ll never forget this day and a tune came on and it was so banging we both flew out of our chairs and start screaming. And he stopped and was like ‘you’re like me’.
“He’s got it somewhere on camera. We were dancing that whole session. I feel like usually that energy, I don’t express it a lot. Because it can take over the room. And so to meet someone else, it’s almost like being free. It’s like being Superman and everything you touch crushes. And you make me a next super breh and you could shake his hand normally. So it was like, Oh shit, I can actually express what I’m really feeling without worrying how it’s going to affect everyone around me.”
You were independent for 16-odd years, why did you sign when you did, I don’t doubt the labels came knocking earlier?
“I signed because the success I was having was bigger than I could handle. Like I’m starting to make records for other people and other people are blowing up from my music as well as me. I’m getting radio playlists. Some of my songs are charting. It was like my business grew very fast in a small period of time, took six months for me to re reinvent. And that was the fifth time I reinvented. So I signed, because I wanted to have a team to help handle the load that I was carrying. And then it goes as I hoped it would. It went better than I hoped it would. But there’s things I would have changed.
“I have felt Island Records heavily. They made my introduction to the mainstream, great, fun. They protected me when I needed it. I may not have had the hits but like, I could have always walked up to any of them in the office and asked them questions about things. Like it was a great education. And allowed me to realise, right, if we’re not going back into the mainstream, I’ll know what suits me. Because now that I’ve been in the building, I walked around, I understand everything.”
Has ever felt difficult for you to create?
“I mean, you can ask why but yeah, never. I don’t believe in writer’s block. What I believe is, some things take six months to make some things take a week. But I never thought “oh my god, I can’t” I just think I’m on it today. Nine times out of 10, I’ll be making tunes. I’m not wanting to I’m not on it today, man. And at the end, I make like a banger. Mindset is everything. You know, I’ve had times last year, when I didn’t want to make music.
“That’s the first time I’ve felt like that. It’s been quite intense for me. Because you gotta remember. You’re 21 right? How old’s your mother? Coming up 60? These days, there’s a possibility your mother, your older brothers and sisters, cousins; They will know where I came from. So, I’m etched into the British black experience.
“Going to the West End, raving, listening to dance music, having a social experience to my music. But what happens is you blow up, but then things goes downhill, and people start to get onto you because you’re not benefiting them anymore. When things stop blowing up again, they remember quickly how much they love you.”
Why haven’t you dropped a project since 2017?
“I needed to kind of clear my mind and build my relationships. Build My relationship with myself again and actually work it out because a lot of the time when you’re in the mainstream and everyone’s on you, you lose your direction. I didn’t really have much of a direction in the first place usually I just go with feelings, and I make what I feel. I mean, I realised that whenever I plan that’s when I really win, and I can only plan if I know what I want. So I had to take time out to kind of work out what I wanted.”
What happens when someone drops a dry verse?
“It’s always awkward if it’s not something I enjoy. But I feel like if I don’t say anything I’m doing myself a disservice. Because I’ve done that before where I’ve done tunes. And I’m like this is lit because I want to be a team player. And I was like nah, should have just got money.
“So, I’ll say it but what I what I’ve learned to do is I’ll give my opinion once. And I’ll see how you respond. And I’ll give you room to be curious and ask what I think. If you don’t want to probe, then it’s clear that you don’t want to hear it. So I’m going to force it on you. Because as I’ve learned a technique of like sometimes to say you got say once, maybe they might need a few days to process it and then come back.
“Like me and Ghetts, I can tell Ghetts that’s not good enough and we’ll go again. He could tell me that’s not good enough there and then I’ll have to redo it even if I’m pissed off. When we did “Preach”, I rewrote that twice. And I was annoyed. He was just like D no you could do better, and I was on a lazy one that day.”
Final question. I’ll give you the hardest one. What is your favourite the favourite dinner record?
I don’t have a favourite track, but my favourite to perform is “Move to Da Gyaldem”.
Keep it locked on GRM Daily for the next instalment of The Architects, if you missed the last one, be sure to check out our in-depth conversation with Venna right here.