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Donwill on His High Fidelity Concept Album: ‘Like a Book Report’ ... by a Person Who’s Not Read the Book

Donwill, a member of the bi-city rap trio Tanya Morgan (a Tribe Called Quest–like group that samples old-school hip-hop), just released a solo album with the interesting title Don Cusack in High Fidelity. As the name suggests, the album is a straight-up homage to Stephen Frears’s 2000 film, with Donwill taking John Cusack’s starring role, complete with spoken re-creations of the movie’s dialogue. (“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?") The rapper recently spoke to us about using the movie as inspiration, the difficulties of explaining the concept to others, and how he should probably read the book.

With High Fidelity, which came first for you, the book or the movie?
[Long pause.] I’ve not read the book. People keep telling me to; of course, the book is always better than the movie. There was a lot the movie had to leave out or imply that I would enjoy reading, so I’ll probably pick that up.

I was surprised by how much dialogue you recite from the movie. Was that always planned, or did you decide to add that later?
It was definitely added later. When I sat down with the material it just felt like it needed a mechanism to push the songs along in order to gel with the story line.

Was it important to you to stay close to the source?
That was why I did it, to explore the territory of really conceptually digging in — almost like a book report, if you will. I wanted it to be a wholehearted adaptation. At this point, if I did another conceptual album — I don’t think that I would do one, per se — but if I could do this one over, I would do the same thing, really skit-based. I enjoy that.

My sense is that your group, Tanya Morgan, is more or less a democracy. Is that true?
I would agree with that. I would say we maintain a certain individual autonomy. Even with the group material, songs are submitted, even the beats. You can get outvoted on songs. They’re very much involved in my solo material. They’re my council of trust. When I finished the album, the first people to hear it were Von and Ilyas. Those are the two people I trust as my second set of ears.

Given all that, I have to imagine it was kind of satisfying to cast them in supporting roles on the song “Championship Vinyl,” and then later on, refer to their characters as “the musical moron twins.” Did they give you any dirty looks about that?
[Laughs.] No, they didn’t. Sometimes as artists, man, we think we know everything, because we love what we love, and our tastes are our tastes. And in the group, we’re subject to each other’s tastes. Doing the album alone was like, “I can get all this singing and R&B on my album, and nobody can tell me I can’t.”

The album has a lot of guests. How do you approach people with an idea like this?
I definitely had to kick it to them differently. Like, with “Ian’s Song,” it was like, "So, Opio, I want to get you on this song. But here’s the catch: You have to say the name Laura and you have to be named Ian." He was just like, “What?” But when I explained it to him, it turned out he liked the movie also.

Have you gotten any feedback from John Cusack or Nick Hornby or anyone else involved with the movie? Have you run into any kind of rights stuff?
I haven’t. [Laughs.] I’m kind of just hoping it can get on-shelf before any sort of anything happens regarding that. But I want them to hear it. I want Nick Hornby to hear it. It’s not like a Warner Bros. release where 250,000 units are shipped; it’s a small independent release. I don’t necessarily see it being a problem. But I do understand how it could be a problem.