Trying to discuss music with Donnie Cross is a cumbersome experience, to say the least. He has meaningful thoughts about the world of music but is far from laconic when discussing his as-yet-unreleased project, "Soundtrack To My Soul," and his future plans. As I sit with Cross, two things are prevalent—his love of the art of hip-hop and the seemingly non-effect of the vodka he consumes.
Cross grew up in Jackson in the turbulent '80s, when the city was undergoing the economic decay brought on by the influx of drugs and gangs from northern cities. He started his foray into music as a member of the four-man unit US from DIRRT. The group hit the local underground rap scene and created a sensation with their eight-song demo that subsequently made its way around the city. The buzz from that tape led the teens to numerous engagements at local clubs and festivals.
In fall 1996, two members of the group entered the studio with their friend and producer B-Minus and recorded a song called "DIRRTY Preaching," a smooth-riding track filled with tight lyrics that coolly addressed the frustration that many inner city youngsters were feeling during the time. That song leaked out, and the buzz was back on for US from DIRRT.
Encouraged by the response, they pooled their money and hit the studio to record eight more songs for their debut EP, "The Green Tape," selling hundreds out of the trunk of their car and on consignment at local mom-and-pop record stores throughout Mississippi and Northern Louisiana.
"We got a lot of respect," Cross says. "People couldn't believe that some teenage niggas was putting out tapes that was so dope. We showed people that you really didn't need big pockets or big paper behind us."
With "The Green Tape" selling briskly and US from DIRRT gathering more fans each time they performed, the two soon caught the attention of yet another Mississippi duo named Crooked Lettaz (David Banner and Kamikaze), who admired the group's talent and hustle so much that they asked the DIRRT to perform on the song "It's Ours" from their critically acclaimed album "Grey Skys." The record garnered a lot of attention on the mix-tape circuit, earning them a small cult-like fan base beyond the Deep South.
Since then, Cross has built an empire of sorts, developing the record label Ambassadors Way Entertainment. The group also acts as a creative consultant for artists dealing in areas from production to lyric writing and even promotional support. "When I work with someone, they need to have a certain street-feel—something the average cat getting his car washed for Friday night can relate to," Cross says. "I know how to provide that. But he also needs to know how to get it to the public, and I can provide that, too."
Cross is a self-taught musician whose specialty is programming beats that fit a rapper's flow like a fist to a fitted glove. His music can move between the melodic backdrops of the Dirty South to the hardcore walls of sound of the East Coast on down to the mellow abstract hip-hop or even trip-hop and R & B.
"It's really about the artist, be it myself or someone else, and knowing what fits them, but that takes time. A lot of producers use a cookie-cutter format to produce hits and that's why they are popular one minute and broke and out of the game the next," Cross says.
Obsessed with constructing the right blend of music, subject matter and content, Cross has painstakingly worked on his latest project for almost two years. "The title of the project is 'Soundtrack To My Soul.' That means the content has to be intimate. It has to be soul stirring, and it has to basically be tight above all else," Cross says.
The first vestiges of this project could be found on a 2004 compilation by Memphis' Skaface Al Kapone's "Out Of Town Love" project. The album featured a song by Cross entitled "I'm Sorry."
"That was me basically flexing my muscles lyrically and sonically. The track itself is regretful, but the lyrics are really about making amends—having no regrets, but basically saying this is way things are because that was the person I was then," Cross says.
Fast forward to 2005—Cross' new teaser single "I'm A Hater" is receiving moderate play at clubs around Jackson. However, the outside response has been far warmer.
"The response outside of Jackson has been great. The song has appeared or is set to appear on about 12 mix-tapes or mix shows from Miami to South Carolina, to Texas and even Ohio. I'm even getting some radio play on mix shows, screw shows and online radio shows," Cross says.
Incorporating a menacing piano-loop minimalist instrumentation with a backdrop of, to say the least, violent and volatile lyrics, Cross says the record is about overcoming obstacles. "The record itself is talking about being the underdog and overcoming the supposed frontrunner. A lot of these rappers want to be something they are not," Cross says.
"See," he continues, "you have these cats who think because they have a little cash or notoriety that that gives them immunity from the messed up stuff they do and have done. There are a lot of artists that want and claim to be mythical super heroes. That's fine, but if that's true, then call me the super villain. If these cats stand for keeping down the average grass-roots emcee and trying to make all the little guys out there sweat, I'm against them and everything their so-called establishment stands for. The word 'hater' has really been misused. We all hate something or someone, and it's justified."
Cross has remained focused—devoting his time to finishing up his project and recording another as-yet-untitled Us From Dirrt album featuring all four original members. "Yeah, what do them rock-music cats say? I had to get the band back together again," Cross laughs.
The rapper is a lot less jovial when asked about the intentions and expectations of this project. He smiles, consumes a full glass of vodka in one gulp and then offers: "Take over the world."
Alphonso Mayfield is the JFP's hip-hop columnist.