“I’ve always been a real selfish person. A loner. Everything I’ve always done has been by myself. I don’t even play team sports. This is all new to me, man.”
Dorian Brown utters these words at Brooklyn taqueria, as the nearby hum of industrial tortilla-making equipment threatens to drown out his soft-spoken demeanor. The ‘this’ he refers to is the larger context of our meeting: an interview about his work, surrounded by a managers and collaborators, as he’s about to complete his first major tour as a rap artist under the name DoLA. But right now it seems everyone’s just glad to be out of the car. “We drove a fucking van from Jacksonville to Chicago,” says Alex Cohen, DoLA’s manager.
For 25-year old Brown, it’s understandable how all of this can seem like an abrupt escalation. He sits, dreaded, sweating and complaining about the New York humidity, but appreciative to be here. Two weeks prior, he was still working at a call center, only able to record on his off hours. “I’d been trying to find my way in the music industry for a long time,” he explains. “But coming from a city like Jacksonville you have no real guidance.” He tells me about the past six years of trial and error; stories of scheisty studio engineers, pseudo-managers, and traveling to the Black Hollywood of Atlanta in 2011. After flirting with their scene and making some connections—DoLA has since played multiple shows with former Two-9 member Key!—he finally found the confidence he needed and had developed his style: “I had to move back to Jacksonville and create a movement of my own.”
That movement is largely sculpted by Apply Pressure, DoLA’s management company, streetwear company, and artist collective. While the rest of the crew—numbering five in total, including Eddy Braveaux, producer, and Quan, DJ—get back to munching on cheap Mexican and stretching their legs, Alex gives me a brief synopsis of what they do. His younger brother Peter, co-founder, chimes in occasionally. “We all came together completely organically,” he explains. “We were all friends already. I was booking shows under a certain company that I had incorporated and then Apply Pressure is basically what that company evolved into, because it’s a lot more than just shows. This is in Orlando, Jacksonville, and Miami. Myself, my brother, and Frost the Wave God live in Orlando. DoLA, Eddy, Quan, who’s DoLA’s official DJ, they’re all based in Jacksonville for now.”
The crew does almost everything in house, from engineering to videography, with help from close friends. DoLA himself has directed all of his videos thus far, as well as some for other artists around Jacksonville. This creates a rugged self-sufficiency not unlike the lauded Awful Records crew out of Atlanta. Later, DoLA talks to me about wanting to be a screenwriter, to really begin focusing on visuals as an artistic practice. Of course, Apply Pressure is right there to support him. “We’re gonna brand DoLA’s creative services,” Alex says. “His vision is something that other people would want, and would buy.”
“How did you first find out about DoLA?” is a question that comes up eventually, an understandable one given the rapper’s current status as a relative unknown. In a way, it is surprising he’s even on my radar. I first discovered DoLA back in 2013, randomly trawling Soundcloud and Twitter. At that time, the Jacksonville native had four tracks up, no formal project to his name. But the songs that were up – most memorably, one titled “Bitches Be Like” – showed a sharp flow, and a thoughtful approach to relationships and drug abuse: “I tried to hide it but my pops he always know when I’m lying/I told my momma I’m trying/ and if she let me inside/I won’t betray her trust again and she can keep me in-line/Her love it keep me alive/And I be stealing her shit and still she keep me in mind.” This kind of ‘trapped between the trap and genuine emotion’ feeling is present throughout DoLA’s work, and is clearly the music who’s tread this path, or seen others stray. His cover photo was also a shadowy image in which it was impossible to make out any features. Anonymity may be a played out trope now, and maybe it was then too, but for whatever reason it made me keep tabs on this quick-tongued mystery rapper from north Florida.
My patience and curiosity was rewarded about a year later with the release of 2014’s Ch. 1 Night Visions. Over this 10-track mixtape (named #5 on my year end list) DoLA expanded upon everything I loved about his first few singles: the thoughtfulness, the fast raps, and the moody, minimalist production from Eddy Braveaux. All the throughout, combined deceptively generic turn-up hooks with sorrowful lyrics on tracks like ‘Salutations,’ which mourned the Jacksonville’s destructive violence: “We attend more funerals than football games.” A few more tracks at the beginning of 2015 continued this trend of quality. And due to the apparent lack of traction in the blogosphere, DoLA was just as mysterious as when I had first heard him. But it was a developed and refined aesthetic, a rarity from an up-and-comer of his caliber.
When I ask about how this tour is going, their first step into catching the public eye in a major way, Alex’s otherwise cheery mood visibly sours. “The tour, to be honest with you, is going just ok.” he explains. “We did Chicago, we did Philly. We had to hold off on Baltimore because the venue got double booked by this promoter who wanted to work with us. This is the type of shit we have to deal with. We came out of pocket for this. We booked ourselves in these other cities because we were confident that the people who wanted to work with us would meet their end of the deal.” I now begin to see a different side of the group sitting around me staring at their phones and clowning on each other. This is the part that never hits Instagram, the pitfalls that come for the young artist trying to get off the ground. They’d slept in their van at least a few nights, and over the next few days I get to know DoLA and the crew, the preference for dining was always one word: cheap.
It goes without saying that for the up-and-comer, the right A-list cosign, the right blog posts, or just the right personal connection can make or break a burgeoning career. That’s why an artist like DoLA is here, why they’ve embarked on this tour. Alex is transparent about this: “Sooner than later, the right eyes will fall on Apply Pressure, our artists, and just the movement that we’re creating. We do enough in our region, and this tour is just how we get established in other markets, the Midwest and Northeast.” Not everyone can be a Fetty Wap, catching Lyor Cohen’s eye (no pun intended) and blowing up virtually overnight. If making connections that will help elevate DoLA to the next level of his career is the goal, the Paper Box show they were playing that week seemed to be a good look, featuring visual installations from A$AP Rocky’s art director, Robert Gallardo, as well as Codeine Crazy-videographer Uncle Leff.
I’d been trying to find my way in the music industry for a long time … I had to move back to Jacksonville and create a movement of my own.
Over the course of our conversation, DoLA repeatedly returns to what he believes is his edge in music: simple honesty. He cites influences like Lupe Fiasco, in which one can hear the language-bending punchlines and a heartfelt reaching, the harsh and gruff realities of DMX, and, of course Biggie. “The stuff [Biggie] was talkin’ about for hip-hop, at that time, was really dark. He has a song called Suicidal Thoughts. And for black people, that’s not common. I mean, people think about killing themselves all the time, I don’t care what color you are. But black people don’t talk about that. But Biggie put that shit out on the table. He was sayin shit like, ‘Mom dukes ain’t givin’ me shit/so for the bread n butter I leave niggas in the gutter.’ Who can’t relate to that?”
But the process of developing this intense and genuine voice wasn’t quick and easy. “When you come out and you’re rapping at a young age, it just seems like you’re supposed to rap about glorifying things that might not be true,” he says. “Like, I used to rap about killing people, drugs. In a really cool way. But it wasn’t honest.” That honesty prevailed in part due to aforementioned artistic influence, but also as a result of DoLA’s place of employment in Jacksonville.
“At the time I started working on Chapter 1, I was working at a group home for boys for about a year,” he explains. “It was just a job that I got by chance, and it honestly ended up being one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I went through some crazy shit there, to the point I’ve had to call the police on kids trying to kill other kids. I’ve walked in on a kid with a plunger in his butt. I’ve been through some shit growing up, but I’ve never been anything like that. I’ve never seen kids who’ve been so fucked up, the things that’ve been done to them, and them doing it to themselves. I’ve seen them respond in the wrong way completely to people trying to correct them, people judging them, so I really try, in my music, to really highlight my faults, as opposed to the things that are great about me.”
It bears mentioning that most of DoLA’s music was first released the same year as Trayvon Martin’s killer was pronounced not guilty, the incident occurring only about two hours from Jacksonville. With the many, many instances of racially motivated violence within the past year, I was curious to get DoLA’s take on his music as a reaction, both the state-controlled violence of Ferguson, and his own personal experiences at home. For DoLA, though, music provides more of a necessary escape; it’s about balancing having a message with providing a sense of release.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like I touch on violence in my city too much because I want to keep people in an upbeat mood,” he says. “It can be depressing, and I don’t wanna bring people down, I want people to be enlightened. A song like ‘Salutations’, it’s so meaningful to me, but people can still have fun to it. And maybe in their spare time sit down and listen to it, get more of the message. But still have fun to the music that means so much more to me than just a song to have fun to. The violence in Jacksonville, in Florida in general, is just crazy… my friends will tell you, I don’t even watch fights on the Internet. I don’t get enjoyment out of that, it’s kind of sick. A lot of the shit I see every day, I don’t get super mad about, like police killing people. I know a lot of people killing each other. I have a friend, which is a reason I wrote the song ‘Unresponsive’… The day I did the show where Quan and Alex first saw me perform, the day afterwards I found out my friend got shot. And he’d never seen me perform, he was supposed to come to my first event. It wasn’t from police, it was just somebody from my neighborhood just drove by my grandparents’ store where my friend was at and lit the store up with a chopper and my friend was left crawling inside the store with his fucking intestines hanging out. I mean, I can be mad at all the white people in the world, but it’s not about that, it’s about violence in general. It’s a bigger problem.”
A few days later at Paper Box, I sit and chat with DoLA and the team while Quan sets up. For them, it’s the end of a long tour of ups and downs, their first big foray into the national hip-hop community. It didn’t catch the eye of a rich angel investor, they’re still going to go back to Florida to grind out for as long as they have to. But they did it, they made their contacts, and they’ll do it again. And when Quan gets going—dropping tracks from Jacksonvillians up here in Brooklyn—DoLA and Eddy are on stage with all the other Floridians that have come out to see them. In that moment, being the biggest rapper, having the most money, having a record deal didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind. It was three friends from North Florida, able to play music for a crowd thousands of miles from their home.
Finally, DoLA and Eddy both took the stage. I hadn’t even known of Eddy rapping up until this point, but his energy was tangible, and the crowd took notice. Finally, in the sweaty little Paper Box on a hot June night, DoLA thanked everyone for coming out, and proceeded to deliver four tracks with the intensity of someone who’s now made music their sole means of survival. The sound was awful; the people didn’t know what to think of this virtually unknown artist ripping it up. But then he thanked everyone for coming out again, fell into hugs and daps from friends, and that was it. A few other artists performed, but I didn’t catch it. I was too busy standing with DoLA and the crew on Meadow Street, listening to them plot their next moves. Kooker’s Park and Rec, out later this year.