[Interview] D.O. aka Defy the Odds talks “Heavy In The Game,” meeting Kid Cudi, and his small-town upbringing

Interview by: Martin Bauman

If you’ve been checking The Come Up Show regularly, you’ll know that we covered D.O.’s Fresh Fridays series leading up to the release of his latest album, Heavy In The Game. You may have heard his album, but chances are you haven’t gotten to know the man behind the music. D.O. aka Defy the Odds has been steadily making a name for himself for the past ten years, along the way earning the Guinness World Record for longest freestyle (8 hours and 45 minutes, since broken by Chiddy of Chiddy Bang), influencing thousands of people through his Stay Driven motivational speaking tours, and touring the world, both as a solo act and as one half of Art of Fresh. I recently caught up with D.O. to talk about his album, growing up in a small town, his encounter with Kid Cudi in LA, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: Your album Heavy In The Game came out May 15th, and you were building up to that with the Fresh Fridays series, how has the response been so far?

D.O.: The response has been great. I think for me, when I make music, I usually play it for a close group of friends that I’ve grown up with and that I’ve known for a long time. So I think that really helps narrow down for me what I want to put out there, and then when I put it out there, I feel like it’s the representation of myself. I’m not really trying to be somebody that I’m not at this point in my career. So it’s good to see that my core fans respond well to it, and I’m always making new fans along the way.

TCUS: What does the title, Heavy In The Game, mean to you?

D.O.: I took it from a Tupac song, and what that song is about, a couple of the lines that stick in my mind are: “Got to the point where I was driven, twenty-four/seven/ Money’s my mission, just a brother trying to make a living.” Those lines stick in my head because sometimes when you’re trying to make it, trying to be successful, or just on the come up, you realize you’ve gotta put a lot of time in. And you might not have time to kick it with your friends like you used to back in the day, and you might not have time to go out on a lot of dates with a lot of different women like you might have done, because you’re so focused and driven on a particular goal. And at the same time, for me, I’ve been a rapper for ten years now as a professional, and you kind of make that decision like “do you want to keep on doing this? Or do you want to go on a different path?” You’ve invested so much of your life into it, it’s kind of hard to get out of it.

TCUS: From listening to your album, I noticed it has a story arc to it. How would you describe the transition from one song to the next?

D.O.: One thing that stuck out was when I was watching a movie called The Comedian. It’s Jerry Seinfeld, and it talks about him, basically after the TV show was done, he wanted to get back into stand-up comedy. So he went back on the road. And I can relate to that in a lot of ways too, because after you’ve been a veteran for awhile, you want to come back out, but you don’t want to just coast behind your name or your old material. And especially for somebody like Seinfeld. I mean, as a comedian he’d go and tell jokes, and sometimes he didn’t know if people were laughing at the joke, or laughing because he’s Seinfeld and he’s supposed to be funny. So he talks in that movie about how you have to develop your act. You’ve got to craft yourself. And as an emcee, I’ve really enjoyed the times that I’ve performed at open mics, and performed at shows in hole-in-the-wall clubs. And those are the times that I always look to. And just like yourself, sometimes I have people come up to and say “yo D.O., man, I was at this show you did,” and sometimes it’s a real small show that I barely remember, and I remember sometimes being disappointed at the show or something like that, because of the turnout. But hearing that you’ve made that connection is key, and I think that’s missing from a lot of emcees nowadays because they don’t perform live as much. They don’t get a chance to hone their live skill, and I think that’s a really important aspect of being an emcee.

TCUS: Definitely. That leads perfectly into my next question, actually. You’ve got a line in your album intro, “Bill Russell”, that goes: “I see the young bucks, and I respect their hunger/ In a way, it takes me back to when I was younger/ They want it all, and they want it all fast/ I tell them make sure you’re doing it so it lasts.” You’ve been in the game for awhile now, how has your mentality shifted from when you first started to now?

D.O.: I liked the flow in that one, by the way [laughs]. Right now, I was just at the Stylus Awards, and I saw Raekwon. And when I used to see an emcee back in the day, I’d want to run up to them and and I’d want to kick a freestyle for [them]. Just when I heard other rappers rapping, I’d want to get right in and kick a freestyle and make sure that when I left, my verse was the dopest. And that was kind of my mentality as a freestyle rapper in that respect. But nowadays, it’s kind of changed. I’m more laying back in the cut. I’d rather hear what other cats are saying and take it in, and be like “hmm, I respect what that cat’s doing.” But at the same time, when it comes time for me to do a show, I put a lot of energy in that, and focus, and I want to blow people away with my whole show. And so what I’m saying on the album is, I think you’re defined by your body of work when you hang things up. So I try to have a diverse body of work that, when I perform it, I can perform for a full album, or I can perform for an hour and a half. I don’t have to just do two or three songs that were my radio hits. And I like being able to say that at this point in my career.

TCUS: You’ve got the remix and original version of “Can’t Tell Me” on your album, the remix featuring Famous, SonReal and Chris Jackson, and in the chorus, you keep repeating “you can’t tell me that I ain’t made it.” What’s your definition of success, or making it?

D.O.: I think success always has to come on your own terms. And as a musician, you can be chasing success forever. My comparison to that is sports, like if you make it to the NBA, there’s maybe three or four hundred players that play in the NBA. So if you make to the NBA, that’s pretty good! And if you’re a starter on your team, there’s probably about a hundred and fifty starters. Whereas in music, some people define success as being in the top ten of earning artists, you know what I mean? And if you’re not in that top ten, then they’re like “ahh man, I don’t see that person anymore, he kinda fell off.” And that’s just ten slots! And I think that’s unreasonable for a lot of artists to aspire to. For myself, success as an artist has been the ability to make music that I enjoy. I’ve never had somebody tell me “no, you can’t release this music,” because I’ve been in control of my career, making choices of what singles I want to put out. So I think that’s great. Financially, it’s been cool that I’ve been able to buy a house, and drive a nice car. So I think those are key things, and you know, being able to pay my mortgage. And I think that comes from consistency. Because as an artist, that’s one thing that you have to strive for. You don’t want to just have one big payday and not another. And finally, it’s having fans that I’ve had for a long time. And I realize that it doesn’t just have to be from rockin’ a traditional hip-hop show to gain fans. I’ve made fans from doing my school shows, and those people that I’ve known for five to ten years now are still interested in what I’m saying on the mic. I think those things are important as a living artist, being able to make art you want. It’s great when you can pay your bills and feed yourself, and it’s great when people want to hear more of it.

TCUS: In your song “For Heaven Sake”, you talk about kicking it with living legends and having so many questions that you want to ask them. What was your first experience feeling like this?

D.O.: For me, it’s two ways. Sometimes when you’re with family and you have an older relative and you talk to them, sometimes there’s questions that you want to ask them, but you don’t even get there because they’re telling you a story. You might not even realize the importance of it. For instance, in that song, my uncle tells a lot of stories, and sometimes I’d want him to tell me other ones, like “I’ve heard this one before!” But then you sit back and realize that there’s a lot of meaning within that one story that he’s telling you. And then the other side of it is, for me it was meeting somebody like KRS-ONE. And as a fan of his music, and him as a person, he’s a very deep thinker, I kinda had in mind of asking him a lot of different things. But then when I was in front of him, you know, you start thinking you want to just let the conversation go with the flow. So you don’t want to force things on people. And I think that’s been my approach ever since meeting some of the people that I’ve looked up to. It’s almost like as an interviewer, you kind of want to have an idea of what questions you want to ask. But at some point, you gotta freestyle. You gotta go with the flow.

TCUS: You recently dropped the video for your song “Small Town”, which is about growing up in Sarnia, Stratford, and Sault St. Marie. In the song you also mention being “the only black boy besides (one) other.” How did that small-town environment, growing up in places that aren’t really known for hip-hop, influence you and your music?

D.O.: One thing I think is true about music is that you’ve got to tell a story from your own perspective. And a lot of emcees want to be something they’re not. Growing up, being from a small town and and being a rapper in the music industry didn’t seem like a viable thing. Before the internet, it always felt like you had to be in New York City, or you had to be out in LA or something like that. Now that you can put [music] out digitally, and with YouTube and everything, I really want to tell my own story. And when I look back at my life, I realize that if I didn’t grow up in these small towns, I wouldn’t have had the friends that I’ve had, and I wouldn’t have had a lot of the opportunities that I’ve had. And I don’t know if I would have been an emcee by going on a different path and growing up in a big city. For me, when I started out, I wasn’t a great rapper, but I had friends that encouraged me to keep going and keep at it, and always thought the best of me. So I never really thought of being the best rapper in Toronto at the time, and I think that might have been overwhelming to me. I was just trying to be the best rapper that I could be worldwide.

TCUS: Would it be a stretch to say that your name, Defy the Odds, came from pursuing hip-hop while you’re growing up in this small-town environment?

D.O.: Yeah, definitely it came from that. The reason that I went with that name too, is that a lot of people were like “what does your name stand for?” And when you have an initial in your name, people are usually thinking there’s a reason. And originally it was just my name, Duane Oliver Gibson, D.O.G. When I told that story again and again, I was just like yeah, that is my name, but I want it to stand for something. I thought Defy the Odds embodied what my message was, the message that I put out when I speak, and the message that I create in my music. And so that’s why I think it stuck. And it’s a lot better of a story to tell.

TCUS: Your son has an appearance in the music video for “It’s On”, how has your role as a father influenced your music?

D.O.: I think it puts your career as an artist in perspective, because having a family, you realize that [family] is your first priority. And for so many of your years as an artist, sometimes you put music before almost anything else. And so I think it really calls into balance in your life. And that’s why I wanted to make the video in that respect, because as you grow up and you become an adult, you’re going to have a lot more responsibilities, and you’re going to have a lot more distractions. But at the same time, you always want to come back to what you’re passionate about. And no matter the distractions I have, or the responsibilities, I keep coming back to that mic.

TCUS: I found this Tupac quote on your Twitter page: “I feel like role models today are not meant to be put on a pedestal, but more like angels with broken wings.” What do you think about this?

D.O.: I definitely think that role models have got to be people that you can relate to, and people that you know in your life. For myself, I feel blessed that I’ve had my father around in my life, as a black male who’s successful. And in a larger sense, uncles and cousins in my family have been around and have been positive role models. And I think that’s important for young people of colour. While [having] women around is great, and I love my mom and having her around is great, I think as a young man, having those positive male role models really shaped who I am as a person.

TCUS: Finish this line: “Deadly, we coming back strong….”

D.O.: You know what? I can’t even finish it [laughs].

TCUS: I’ll finish it for you. “Cause these rappers, they doing it wrong!”

D.O.: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.

TCUS: What can you tell me about the 423 Clik?

D.O.: The 423 Clik is my original rap group. When I was in Sarnia, I was hanging out with my man Dza, and DJ Cub, and those are two of the other key members of the group. And along the way, there were other guys like MT, and P-Deuce. I come back to my original groups, because I think when you grew up making hip-hop, that’s what you really believed was real music that represented you. So those are the people that I play my music for when I finish a song, whether it’s a D.O. song, or Art of Fresh song. So it was cool to get back together with them and make some new music. And we’re looking forward to making some more joints for the future, too.

TCUS: This is a tweet of yours: “Nah I ain’t MC Hammer but back in the day I had 16 dancers!” What can you tell me about the Black Magic Team?

D.O.: Yeah, it was really cool back in the day having a dance crew to back you up. And there were sixteen dancers. And growing up, I liked MC Hammer, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When you’re a fan of somebody as a kid, I think you’ve got to embrace that. I was also a big fan of Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff. And the thing I loved about those hip-hop acts is that they really had a great live show. So MC Hammer would have a lot of dancers onstage, and for Art of Fresh shows, we’ve brought breakdancers onstage, but I don’t know if anything will top having sixteen dancers, and having them all dance around you in a circle. That’s always going to be one of my top career highlights. I think it’s cool to have pulled that off.

TCUS: I want to rewind to SXSW weekend. How was that experience?

D.O.: SXSW was crazy. It’s always great, because there’s so many people out there, from fans, to artists, to businesspeople. You have a chance to talk to them and meet a lot of people, and it’s all day and all night long, so it’s a music lover’s dream. You get to hear so many different distinct styles of music.

TCUS: This comes from your Twitter page: “Big smile on my face right now, 8 months of hard work for an artist just paid off. We are Northstarr.” What’s the most rewarding thing to you about your role with Northstarr?

D.O.: I think it’s being able to help other artists, and for myself, I’ve always looked at Canada as being a place where there’s a lot of musical talent but a lack of business sense, whether from managers or from labels. So I’ve felt good that I’ve had some success with grants from the business end of it, and so when I get a chance to help out an artist that I believe in and I’ve seen them work really hard, sometimes you’ve got to fight a battle for them. And that’s kind of what I was expressing in that tweet. Sometimes I’m the one who will passionately fight for someone else. And as an artist myself, sometimes I find it even easier to fight a battle for somebody else because, you know, for yourself you might be like “okay, I’ll get it next time,” but for an artist that I’m representing, I really don’t want to let them down. So I’m fighting extra hard.

TCUS: Back in February, you went down to LA for the first time. What was that like?

D.O.: LA was really cool, just the whole vibe of it. You know, when you go in the winter, it’s going to be nice and hot and sunny. So [that’s] always good. Coming at a time where the Grammy Awards are happening, and a lot of things in the music business, is cool as well because you an opportunity to meet a lot of people and build relationships with people and network. So we had a great time out in LA, and of course, hanging out with my man Slakah the Beatchild is always cool, and vibing on some new Art of Fresh stuff.

TCUS: You ran into Kid Cudi in LA, didn’t you?

D.O.: Yeah!

TCUS: What’s the full story there?

D.O.: Well yeah, what I like about LA is just the random meetings that you [have] with people. For me, I was coming back from where the party was to the hotel I was staying at, a classical hotel called the Roosevelt. And I saw Kid Cudi just standing there. There was a club in the hotel, and so I think he had come out of the club. And the thing about it was, I was coming from a bar where they were shutting down, but we had ordered several different beers. [Laughs] so what we did was, we just took two beers and put them in our pockets and left the club. And they were cool with it! Nobody gave us a hard time, and they knew what we were doing. So when we rolled to this place, Kid Cudi saw me walk out with the cab with a couple beers and he was like “yo man, looks like you know where the party’s at!” So that was a good way for me to just talk to him. I only kicked it with him for a few minutes, but it was cool, when you see somebody down to earth and just kickin’ it, and not all about themselves and pretentious that way.

TCUS: Aside from your music, you’re very involved in public speaking, and have been since 2001. Over ten years later and you’re still doing the Stay Driven tour, what inspired you to become a public speaker as well as an artist?

D.O.: For me, it was the first few times that I went out to schools, getting the reception and the response from young kids. Because when you do it the first few times, speaking in front of schools, I was doing an hour, and I was like man, how am I going to fill an hour, and will these kids feel me, and am I talking too long, am I rambling? And you’re thinking about yourself. But the flip side is when kids come up to you and they tell you specific things then it really helps. And to me, that’s always stuck with me, and it sticks with me to this day when I do shows. It’s getting that response and realizing that each time you do that show, you have the opportunity to inspire somebody and hopefully motivate them. At least, just get them thinking that things in their life are possible. A lot of the times, growing up, you come across a lot of adversity and tough times, and sometimes you just need that extra bit of motivation, a little push, to get through it.

TCUS: How did you and Slakah first meet?

D.O.: Me and Slakah first met when he was in high school. And it happened because a cousin of mine went to high school [with him]. We went to the same high school, but I was graduated, I was in university. So when I heard about this Beatchild, this young, fifteen year-old who’s producing and rapping, to be honest, I didn’t really give it much thought. I was like “ahh man, I doubt there’s another rapper from Sarnia.” And I checked out his beat tape, it was on a cassette tape, and I could hear some promise to it. I remember sitting there with my crew, the 423 Clik, and we played it. And yeah, it was dirty and dusty, and a real young voice and everything, but you could definitely hear a lot of talent. And the question that my friends asked me was “do you think he’s better than you were at the time?” And I was like, “Yeah.” [Laughs] Because of the fact that he could produce. But I could definitely see a lot of potential in him at the time, especially for him being just fifteen.

TCUS: I noticed that among your favourite books is The Pursuit of Happyness. How has Chris Gardner influenced you?

D.O.: I thought it was a dope book, I read it before I saw the movie, it was a couple years before the movie came out, I think. What that book was about to me was just about that passion, and being driven, and also being committed to somebody outside yourself. You know, he did a lot of it for his son. And that really gave a perspective. And so for me, I always tell stories about persistence. That’s why I call my talks and my company Stay Driven, because I believe that when you stay committed to a cause and you go through it all, hopefully things will work out in the end. And that’s an inspirational story for me, hearing that it worked out for him.

TCUS: That’s all from me, is there anything else you wanted to say to the people out there?

D.O.: Thanks for the support, and you can check out my new album at iamdo.bandcamp.com.

TCUS: Thank you very much for your time, I really enjoyed that, and best of luck to you in the future!

D.O.: Yeah, I appreciate it man, thank you!