Don Michael Jr. is proof that you can live out your dreams, no matter what the circumstances.
At 42 years old, the East Coast producer, songwriter, and rapper continues to exercise his passion and love for music daily, dedicating his waking moments to the lab, focused on improving his craft. Hailing from Camden, New Jersey, Don’s sound has been compared to the likes of J. Cole, Joyner Lucas, Drake, and even Kanye West (on the producing and rapping tip).
With J. Cole and Childish Gambino being his direct inspirations, Don Michael Jr. describes himself as “an overall music addict.” He explains, “I’m an honest, real artist while I’m making music. Because everything is my life and needs to be authentic, that’s a big part of who I am as an artist. Even though I can’t churn out as much music as I would like to, as the competition, at least I know it’s 100% authentic when it comes out. It ends up meaning more to people, that’s me as an artist.”
Fast forward to today, Don Michael Jr. is excited as ever to be releasing his newest project titled The Wolves Smell Joy. The album speaks volumes to the highs and lows that come with life, and being able to take the good with the bad.
AllHipHop spoke with Don Michael Jr. virtually, who was spending his Saturday in the studio. Read below as we discuss his background, growing up in Camden, his new project, going viral on TikTok, working with Terror Squad, goals, and more!
AllHipHop: Why do you feel you can’t put out as much music, because you’re independent?
Don Michael Jr.: It’s not just the independent thing. It takes a lot to sit down, come up with and talk about all the things from a super honest perspective. I run a studio, so I record a lot of other artists too. Sometimes I’ll hear them, they just want to make up whatever sounds good so they can get to the next song.
For me, ehhh it didn’t happen. I can’t say it. It’s a little roadblock for me, it’s almost mental. I can’t even continue on with the song, it’ll bother me. Damn I said 10 because it rhymed, but it was really only nine people at that party. I gotta figure out how to make that be true and make sense. For me, the music turns out better like that for me personally. I could push it better and believe more in it, because it’s so authentic. But that’s me, I’m just an authentic artist. I’m rapping my life.
AllHipHop: People compare your music to J. Cole, who are some artists you like?
Don Michael Jr.: I’m a big fan of Cole, more of a fan of Childish Gambino. had to sit here and read a lot more of His Names. But that’s that’s just, you know, that’s that’s who I get described as, I think I’m just me, but it’s hard for artists to put themselves ina describable category. We’re indescribable.
AllHipHop: What was Nipsey’s influence on you?
Don Michael Jr.: Nipsey was a huge influence. I got compared a lot to Nipsey. He wasn’t an influence on my sound, he was an influence on how he’s moving. I got compared a lot to Nipsey when I did my first solo album, which was called Threeday. People kept saying, “Yo, you remind me of Nip.” I’m like, let me go listen to some Nip. I listened, I didn’t know why they saying that. I don’t rap nothing like him, we don’t pick the same beats.
But when I saw him in an interview, I liked his mind. I liked how he thought. I heard how motivational he was, and that’s what people were talking about. My first album was super motivational. Threeday came from: make one day your two-day, and you got Threeday. So one day, two day three day. People really liked that.
What I was talking about throughout the whole album was to stop putting things off. Saying “one day, I’ma do this. One day, I’ma do that.” Do that one day thing, today. Because people took that motivation a lot, they fell in love with the message I had throughout the whole album. That’s where I was getting the Nipsey comparison, just the motivation. Once I saw that in Nip, I connected to Nip on a crazy level. Sadly, he was taken far, far, far too early. My other favorite artist.
AllHipHop: Being from Camden, New Jersey, what was that like growing up?
Don Michael Jr.: I’m an older artist, so I grew up in Camden in the late 80’s, early 90’s. The height of the crack epidemic. Camden was top-tier when it came to crack dealing. A lot of fiends, a lot of _____? on the ground. But overall, we were kids just running around. Like any other place, playing basketball on the street. But when you start losing friends, because they need to make money and everybody’s broke, it’s a lot to deal with. So that has a little effect on you.
For me, a lot of my friends were heading to the street. My dad’s grand idea was “he shows interest in music, I’ma pump as much music stuff to him as I can.” My dad got me a super professional keyboard at the time. When I was 10, 11 years old, he got me super young. I’m looking for a little $100 Casio, and he buys me the $2,000 workstation.
He really knew “if I keep him into his interest, he won’t fall into the street s###.” I still did a tiny bit, but by then, I was so focused on music. I didn’t have time for the streets, or nothing my cousins and my friends were doing. I’m in a basement. I’m making beats, I’m writing songs.
Everything around me in Camden was what you would typically consider a hood in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Even through the 2000’s, Camden used to be notorious for the murder rate. Top 10 most years. Now, I don’t think we’re even top 10, and a lot of people in the city are proud of that. I’m happy about it, I know some people are upset about it. They liked the rep of “I’m from Camden! Top 10 murder rate.” I guess that adds to whatever the mystique of coming from a place like this is. But for me, I’m glad to see that the city is turning around. Everybody’s not dying for no reason.
AllHipHop: Were you producing or rapping first?
Don Michael Jr.: I started both at the same time. I started all three at the same time: rapping, producing and engineering. When I started doing it for a living was when I got fired from Sam Ash. I was one of the top salesman, because I was making beats on the equipment and convincing everybody they can do the same thing. “Man, if I buy that, I can make that?” Yup. [laughs] So they were about buying equipment.
I got into a production agreement, and I had to take a leave of absence. When I did that, the production agreement fell apart. I came back to Sam Ash, but by then everything was different. I wouldn’t switch over to the new payment system, so they decided to fire me. While I was waiting for my cab to come pick me up from the job, somebody called me for a session.
“It’s an emergency bro, I’ll pay you double.” Double my session was more than what I made at Sam Ash in a week. You know what?, I think I could just do this. So I haven’t worked for anybody or anything, I’ve been living off of music since 2007. A long time.
AllHipHop: Your new album is called The Wolves Smell Joy. What is the meaning behind the title?
Don Michael Jr.: The Wolves Smell Joy is the next installation in my series. The meaning for me: when things are going good, I start worrying about what’s gonna go bad. Because I’m a big person of balance. If there’s a lot of good stuff, there’s a lot of bad stuff coming. That’s what was happening. Everything was going good after my album. This is not music., that went viral.
Things started picking up a lot. Damn, this is going really good. What’s going to balance this out? Something has to come in. I started thinking about: why do I have these negative thoughts creeping up in the back of my head? It’s like wolves smell joy. I got these happy thoughts in the front of my head, I got these bad thoughts in the back of my head. That’s how I felt.
That’s overall how I see things happening in life. If somebody’s doing real good, there’s a bunch of people over here that damn near hate them for it. You don’t have no haters, if you aren’t poppin’ right? That’s what the famous phrase is. Well, the haters would definitely be the wolves. Thenegative thoughts are the wolves. The title for me just made sense. I know it didn’t make sense when I told it to everybody. Yo that sounds dope, but what the hell does that mean? It’s just the negative thoughts.
AllHipHop: What is it that you want people to get from your story?
Don Michael Jr.: As cheesy as this sounds, it’s not to quit. I tell people all the time, I’m 42. That’s a late age to pop. People always come back: “well, rap is older now. Jay Z and Nas…” They didn’t get signed in 42. They came in the game at 18, 26 and 27. At the typical ages. It’s difficult to make it and pop and start getting your recognition at such an older age.
But because I didn’t stop, and because I didn’t fall behind with technology and with the way things are moving with the sound of today — I’m not one of those people: if it doesn’t sound like the 2000’s, then I don’t like it! I still move forward. Don’t quit. If you do something you love, do it because you love it. That will lead you to more doors opening. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. If you love dropping music, keep dropping music.
You might take up a sync deal and start making music for TV. You might become a writer for some artist that loves the way you write hooks. You don’t know what’s going to happen, you just gotta keep moving. I didn’t expect to start poppin’ this late, but here we are. This is my first interview. A person that’s been a fan of the site for so long, this is dope. I didn’t expect all this to happen, so the best message is to keep going.
AllHipHop: You said keeping up with the times, talk about doing your thing on TikTok.
Don Michael Jr.: I was running my boy Dev’s page. Dev had a podcast called The Devinwade Show. I learned a lot about TikTok from running the page of his podcast. That told me: okay, I gotta cut this part of this interview. I gotta get right to the best part of the interview. I need to start it like this, it needs to jump right in. Titles at the top are good.
So I started to apply that stuff to my page and it started working. I did a skit that went viral. What’s it like recording a 40-year-old rapper in the studio? It went viral. The song was fake, and I didn’t like that. It wasn’t a real song. Everybody in the comments: “what’s this song? where’s this song? I want to hear this song!” Alright, I messed up.
Next time I do that, I’m not making a fake song. It’s going to be all from my real music, do the same skit, but I’ma use my real songs. I did that skit the day after my album came out, the next day was viral. The next day after that, T.I. saw it. He reposted it, it went super viral. All these blogs picked it up.
I did another skit, that one went viral. I did another one. that went viral. Oh wow, this is really working. Everybody was saying, “where are these songs?” So then, I saw Facebook had their own Reels. This worked on TikTok, let me put it on Facebook Reels and see if it works. It took off even bigger than what it was on TikTok. The difference on Facebook was there was a link right there in the comments. People could click and get right to the music.
It started translating right to the streams. Next thing I know, I’m dropping skits every week. People are finding new songs, people are going back to my old albums. I’m a full-blown artist, in a matter of weeks. It was a dream story, I didn’t believe it was happening.
AllHipHop: Can you talk about working with Terror Squad?
Don Michael Jr.: I did that when I was 18. I was super young, that was my first thing in the industry. I sent some beats to my boys’ aunt, who knew some A&R. She sent it to the A&R, he liked it. Played it for Fat Joe, Cuban Link, and Big Pun. This was when Big Pun was alive. They liked it. They told them to come to New York to hear the song. Cuban Link had rapped to it. I listened to it, they’re like “you want to add some stuff to it?” So I brought my keyboard up, I added some music to it in the studio.
From there, it was on the album. I was running around with Terror Squad. I ended up doing a bunch of songs for Cuban Link, a bunch of songs for another member of Terror Squad named Armageddon. But this is right when Pun died. Pun passed, then that relationship that Cuban Link had with Fat Joe was no more. They never really liked each other, come to find out. I think there’s still beefing to this day. Pun was the only person holding that relationship together.
The rest of the music I did didn’t come out, but I did do Cuban Link’s first solo that was released, which is called “All Around The World” on the Terror Squad album. Fat Joe named me from that. He gave my producer name, which at the time was A.P. Traxx. My first producer credit. Since then, I’ve unnamed myself. I’m Don Michael now, but that was cool running around with Terror Squad for that few months.
AllHipHop: Any goals for yourself?
Don Michael Jr.: I want to continue on doing what I’m doing. I’ve done things like starting an indie label and finding artists. I have a production team, The Cool Part. We’re continuing working on stuff. We got some placements coming, some stuff that hopefully is pretty big. I’m looking forward to running my studio and continuing building with The Cool Part. Who knows, hopefully I’ll be able to get into running a label or something soon.
Right now, my goal is to take this rap thing as far as it could go. It’d still be a dream to hit the Coachella stage. I don’t know how soon that’ll happen, but I didn’t think any of this would happen last year. So who knows what’s gonna happen, my options are open.
AllHipHop: Anything you want to let the people know anything else.
Don Michael Jr.: Follow me on social media, look out for more music. The early release of the album is currently on Even.biz, so they can go hear it now. That version will have extra songs on there. I’m adding more songs to it in May. If they go get it now, you have a chance to win my Macbook Pro with all my sessions on it. All the sessions from the album. I’m doing the raffle on the 15th.
AllHipHop: Does that mean they get all your beats?
Don Michael Jr.: They get all the sessions from the album. It’ll be dope for some fan to be like, “Yo, I want to hear just that beat!” Or “I want to take the piano out.” Some fans would love to have the sessions from one of their favorite artists.