Like any studied hip-hop artist, Donald Purvis has a few alter egos. There’s the mild-mannered working stiff, husband, and father by day. By night—on the mic—Purvis, as d.o.n. or d.o.n. the worker, transforms into a lyrical heavyweight, dropping rhymes that fold and kaleidoscope out Inception– style over gritty, NYC-style beats. Then there’s Billy Bob Sweetneck, the twangy barndance MC featured on Ballzack’s “Doodlebug.” It was through Ballzack—a.k.a. Rami Sharkey—that I first met Donald in the early 2000s, when the Ballzack Clan was twisting the NOLA hip-hop scene inside out with goofy, yet earnest tales of suburban malaise and awkward romance. Wes Anderson on the Westbank. Donald was a key supporting character in the skits between songs, a time-honored tradition of the genre. Like Ballzack, d.o.n. was influenced equally by dance-heavy local sounds—shades of Cash Money and Take Fo’—with an East Coast style—Def Jux, Madvillain, Wu- Tang—that favored slower, lo-fi beats and complex, narrative lyrics. Early works like Employee #0387 (which has since been folded into The Prologue) were solo productions, where the loops were rudimentary but the rhymes were already well-crafted. 2009’s Commercial Free Broadcast was more of a collaborative affair, with production by Inner Recess Studios’ Aaron “Dubla” [pronounced Double A] Thornton. The d.o.n.’s latest, Year of the Worker, is his most polished release to date, thanks in large part to Thornton’s mixing and mastering, and a huge roster of contributors, from Prospek and S. Habib of GPNYC (Guerilla Publishing Company) to Brother Seamus of Galactic Brethren. Year of the Worker continues the saga of an eloquent spitter trapped in a construction worker’s weary body. I spoke with Donald one evening at Inner Recess, which overlooks the intersection of Calliope and Magazine Streets. We spoke at length about his days hanging with Rami, a state of the hip-hop union, his spirituality, and jobs. Lots and lots of jobs.
What are some of your earliest memories of hip-hop? What was some of the first stuff that you listened to growing up?
Donald Purvis: In the ‘80s, my dad had this old record player, an old Technics, and he used to play albums. Usually he would listen to a lot of Rick James, Otis Redding, Anita Baker. He had these four huge 20-inch speakers in the living room, and I would just sit there on the floor and watch Saturday morning cartoons and listen to him play records. The first rap record I remember him having was The Fat Boys are Back. But one thing I really do remember from my childhood was us going together on Sunday afternoon drives, just me and my dad. We would run errands. And he had Eazy-E’s solo album, Eazy-Duz-It. Eazy-E was cussing in the music and stuff and my mom didn’t like me listening to it. But when it was me and him, she’d let me listen to Eazy-E with him. It [was] really special because it felt like something me and him had together. My cousin was instrumental in helping me because I would go visit him for the summer. And he had this stash of cassette tapes: DJ Magic Mike, Grand Daddy I.U., Big Daddy Kane. This is like the early ‘90s. He had all the standard stuff. And I stole his DJ Magic Mike tape because he wouldn’t talk to me or something… and he was pissed off! I don’t know if he’s still pissed even to this day. He got a laugh at me because I got a lot of grays in my chin. I guess it’s payback for me stealing his Magic Mike tape. I went gray before he did.
When did you start writing rhymes for yourself ?
It started from poetry in high school. Just writing little poems just to see if I could do it. I always enjoyed writing. I had a fifth grade teacher; she couldn’t stand me and she used to punish me. She used to make me copy words out of the dictionary. Depending on the severity of what I did, it was 50, 100, 150, 250 definitions. And that sparked something in me. That sparked my interest in words themselves. I wrote my first rhyme in ‘94 but I ended up balling it up and throwing it away. I started back writing again in ‘96 and just kept going. I didn’t have a clear goal in mind; I used to like writing as a hobby, just because I enjoyed doing it. Every night without fail, I would go into my room when I was done with whatever I was doing for that day and just write. I didn’t know anything about song structure or 16 or 8 bars or anything like that. I just wrote til I felt like the rhyme was finished. I have all those rhymes still. I have every last one of them in notebooks, binders, and a diary that’s like something a teenage girl would have: it’s suede with my baby picture on it.
Why did your teacher not like you? Were you a cut up?
No, not really. I had my days where I could be a little too talkative. Most times I just wanted to be left alone, because I don’t think I have a very extroverted nature at heart. Her line of reasoning was: I’m your teacher and I care about your well- being and I’m just trying to help you. I didn’t feel helped! [laughs]
But she did help.
Exactly. What she was using to reprimand me ended up helping me in the long run. And I guess I have to thank her for it. I really do, because those times, it ends up making you a more resilient person, especially when you’re trying to deal with making music or whatever. Somebody putting a target on your back really prepares you for trying to do something creative. Because when you do something creative, it’s like putting a huge “Kick me” sign on your back and just running the gauntlet. So Ms. Guthrie, if you happen to read this, thank you.
How did you meet Rami?
When you do something creative, it’s like putting a huge “Kick me” sign on your back and just running the gauntlet.
How do you feel about the New Orleans hip-hop scene?
It could be better. I mean, I’ve been so out the loop for so long… if I tell you something off the wall, it’s going to make me sound like a bitter old man. But of course you’re going to feel like there is no scene when you’re not part of it… When things started picking up for me it was after Katrina, so between 2007 and 2009 I was more a part of the scene that was reemerging. Before then I used to mumble and grumble. But now? I can only say from the outside looking in: I guess it’s thriving. You got a couple of young guys that are really doing some decent work. It may not be always what I look at as great, lasting hip- hop, but they’re trying their best. I can’t knock anybody who’s trying.
Sometimes it seems like there’s two scenes. There’s the bounce scene and that kind of takes all the oxygen out of the other scene.
You have to put yourself in the mindset of somebody who’s in the club all the time. And you have to put yourself in the mindset of a member of the bounce music audience, their constituency. They’re not playing to somebody who wants to feel like they’re in a science class when they listen to a song. They’re playing to the crowd, that’s worked all week, dealt with their boss, dealt with their girlfriend or boyfriend, babby-daddy, baby- momma, whatever. And they want to go out and not think about anything and just dance. Bounce music serves a purpose. I don’t think it’s sucking the life out of the underground, more traditionalist or true school form of hip-hop. They can coexist together. I don’t think one can really thrive without the other because you have to have something to balance it.
One reason I was asking is because in some of your older work there’s some frustration because you’re in the genre of hip-hop that’s more, like you said, science-class, maybe cerebral. And bounce is more of a visceral experience.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of times there’s more heart behind bounce. It’s more from the gut. And when you’re in it, there’s an energy that comes with it. That same energy is not in the traditional hip-hop show, I often find. It’s more raw, more street- oriented and it’s more identifiable with people down here than what I do. Which is fine because if I were to do that, I wouldn’t be the old cliché of being true to myself… I grew up on it. It was there in junior high, it was there throughout high school. I can’t front like I never danced on some chick at a school dance to a bounce song or watched some chick pop at a house party and get up on her. I’m not that hip-hop. I am from the Westbank, you know? C’mon.
Your new album is a long way from Employee #0387, which was pretty raw, technically.
Oh yeah, very raw. I had just gotten an Akai MPC 2000 from a pawn shop. I was going to get my haircut in Algiers and I passed this pawn shop; something told me—I believe it was God: turn back around. And I couldn’t shake the feeling. Turn back around. I’m like, all right. I turned back around and went in this pawn shop, which is not something I really do. And I got it. I saved up for that thing. Rami helped me out, giving me little hustles where I put up fliers for Air when they came down. I saved up money, my girlfriend at the time (my wife now) helped me. She put some money towards it. I got that sampler and I did not know how to use it. I didn’t have an instruction book at all. That’s where Employee #0387 came from, me learning how to use that sampler. When I put in my first drum sounds and sequenced them out, I was just like yesss! And the machine only has like ten seconds of sampling time. Everything you hear even up to now—you hear Year of the Worker, I did three beats on it. I still use it. The disk drive is broken but it works. I had that machine since 2004. And through financial hardships, never got rid of it. I can’t. That machine made it with me through Katrina… I left it in the Lindy Boggs Medical Center when they [came] to get me and my wife [who was an essential employee] out and take us by boat to another place. But that machine was left in there and after Katrina when we got back home, I went back in there and got it and made two or three more albums off of it.
Work is clearly a central theme to your music and I know you’ve had some pretty terrible jobs in the past. What were some of those?
I worked at Rally’s. That might’ve lasted about two weeks. I think everybody should experience working at a fast food place at least once. Not even for like months or years, but just for a week. It will really give you some perspective on the fact that there are some people that have to do this for a living to support families. My first paycheck, they screwed me on it some kind of way; it ended up being like $14! [laughs] But I quit that and I ended up working at Babbage’s, which is now GameStop. After Babbage’s I bagged groceries for tips, which was also fairly humbling, but I made a good bit of money doing that. I was a telemarketer. We were collecting money for the Louisiana Union of Police Association. We would try and talk to these old people who were on fixed incomes into donating 25, 50, and $100 to some abstract thing that’s not concrete to them: “What do you mean if I send you $50 you’re going to give me a bumper sticker? C’mon man, I’m on a fixed income. I can’t afford that.” You try to upsell people on a donation. [in salesman voice] “How about $100 at our gold level?” Those poor people. I’ve been cussed out over the phone, hung up on—it was part of the job! After that I worked at a daiquiri shop on Terry Parkway. And I was fired from there because I got into it with one of the managers over something dumb. Just me being dumb; it wasn’t her fault. I didn’t like the fact that I had to work for somebody younger than me! [laughs] To make it sound cool I tell people, “Yeah I tended bar at one time.” Man, I walked up to a daiquiri machine, pulled the lever, capped the drink, gave it to them with a straw and that was it. But the job title was bartender, like I’m Isaac from The Love Boat…
I have to thank all those adverse situations I was in and all those suck jobs because I think I got some of my best material out of that.
You have a whole family: wife and a kid. I’m sure they’re supportive… but clearly you’re somebody who doesn’t even have a choice: you are constantly writing. How do they put up with it?
They endure it with as much patience as they possibly can. My son is seven, so he’s not really cognizant of it. He just knows daddy really likes rapping. He doesn’t even really listen to hip-hop. He likes Wesley Willis’ “Rock’n’Roll McDonalds.” My wife is really patient about it. She knew when she got with me that this is what I was doing. I don’t know if there’s some underlying resentment there or not when I turn my back, like “Hon, look: somebody downloaded my album!” She’s like “Great!” But when I turn around, she’s like [mumbling] “I’m going to poison your foooood.”
It almost seems like a nervous tic, like the way some drummers can never stop drumming on something. Do y’all go out to eat and you’ll just be sitting there, like—
No, I’m not always on rap mode. Well, you know what? I am. [laughs] I let that lie fly out of my mouth!
I remember being little with my mom, we would be in the store Christmas shopping and I would just go hide between the clothes and watch her and let her look for me. I kind of do the same thing with my wife, where she’ll be looking at stuff to get for Christmas and something will hit me right then and there and I’ll whip the phone out. A rhyme that I’d been working on for a month and I didn’t have the next line to it. I will be looking at a bottle of cologne and something will just hit me. Or I’ll just be looking at a logo or something crazy that doesn’t even mean anything and a line will just come to me. And then when that starts, the floodgates open and I just start writing.
And my wife knows when I start writing… I don’t start brooding or anything like that. At least in my mind I don’t. She might tell you something different… it’s like waves. When you feel that wave coming on, you gotta catch it and ride it. The problem I was having before when I was not as mature as a writer, I’d get something dope hit me in the middle of going to bed or something, and I’m like, “I’m tired, I’ll remember it in the morning.” And sure as I’m black, by morning I had forgotten what it was. I told myself, “You know what? From here on out, I don’t care if it’s three in the morning and a rhyme wakes me up: write it down.”
On a grand scale, it seems like hip-hop is a little lost right now, like it’s going through its own glam metal phase. Where is the Public Enemy of today? When you turn on Q93, what do you hear?
There’s no way to monetize revolutionary rap. Back in the ‘90s, when Afrocentricity was a thing—and you hate that it has to be in vogue… There’s something deeper that black people need now. I think the focus is so money-driven and so materialistic and so base. It’s just based on what you can see, hear, and touch. “I’m in the club, I’m getting drunk, I’m on molly. She got a big butt, she twerkin’ she poppin,” and that’s it… As far as the industry aspect of it, there’s no money in Public Enemy and Dead Prez and cats like Paris and Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian. There’s no De La Soul. There’s no quick money in that. So people are hard-pressed to invest in substance… We have a lot of younger cats setting the tone that don’t really have respect for the people who came before them. Not all, definitely not all. But we have a lot of younger guys, they are allowing themselves to be disposable. They’re going to these record companies with these one- shot internet songs that they just put on YouTube and it just takes off. And you look at it and it’s got tens of millions of views and the big giant record company comes along with this amount of money and boom, here you go. “I’m going to take you out the hood and give you this life that you’ve always dreamt of.” Somebody like me? Nobody wants to hear me go “Sad clown type uses chuckles as a crutch.” Nobody wants to hear me say that. They want “I’m a hot nigga, took out the gun and shot niggas” and that pushes a much deeper and much more insidious agenda because you have kids listening to stuff like that. You have certain female artists talking about just body parts. All you are are those parts. You’re not a whole person and we want you to put these parts on display because that’s what everybody wants to see and hear you talk about… When you’re in a club and you’re dancing and you’re drinking, that’s what you want to hear. That goes back to what I said earlier. Nobody wants to hear me rhyme about Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin in the club. You don’t want to hear people bring social commentary in the club because it’s too sobering for that environment. You’re in an environment of avarice and drunkenness. And that’s what people want to do at that point in time. Maybe on the drive home they got time for Mos Def and Jay Electronica and whoever.
I wanted to touch on the spiritual aspect of your record. Christianity is a fundamental theme to your music. When did that become important to you?
I recommitted my life to Christ in 2004. I went to a website about hell and I was just reading over it; and I had no really pressing problems in my life at that point. I was just going along. I was kind of depressed; I didn’t like the way things were, but that wasn’t so debilitating that it kept me up nights or kept me crouched down in a corner somewhere. So I was just reading this website about hell and I thought to myself “You know what? I don’t want to live this life, as hard as it is, to die and go to some dark, foreboding, evil place of despair for all eternity.” Now everybody may not feel like this and to each his own. But for me, I sat there and I asked God: “Lord, please come into my life and help me. Take the wheel of my life or I’m going to crash.” And I felt a genuine change from that point. I owe that all to God, to Jesus Christ. I know that’s not popular with a lot of people. But I really do not care about what’s popular, as you can hear. This is for me, personally. I need a spiritual relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That’s who got me here. I’m not about to shrink back from that. I’m 37 years old, man. I don’t have to impress anybody with anything.
A lot of people are distrustful of Christianity or at least the way it’s practiced in certain regards.
That’s why you have to get to know Christians as individuals. Don’t look at it from the political point of view. You’re not talking to Rush Limbaugh sitting here. You’re not talking to Jerry Falwell. C’mon now, I’m me… I present it like this: God’s been good to me, he’s changed my life. It’s helped me; it’s made me a better person, not through anything I’ve done but through what Christ did for me. That’s how it is. If you’re a homosexual and you approach me and you expect me to beat you over the head with scripture, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to present myself to you with love because that’s what Christ would do. He would present himself to people with love.
Have you experienced any backlash?
Nah. Because I’m a grown man. I don’t shrink back from it. That relationship I have with Christ is the most important thing. That’s what pushes me, that’s what drives me. Dude, I can’t function without prayer. People can identify with it, feel it, or don’t. If you don’t feel it, live your life. I can’t force nothing on you. I’m not going to be like that. Look, I’ve rapped in churches, I’ve rapped in clubs. It’s all the same: I’m there to rap, you’re there to listen. You either hear what I got to say or walk out.
Year of the Worker will debut at Gasa Gasa on Sunday, December 14th. Elespee of GPNYC and Metatron Sic-Hop open. For more info, check out dontheworker504.bandcamp.com