In the summer of 2011, I started my undergraduate career at Butler University – a tiny, private (mostly white) school located in a quiet, residential neighborhood of Indianapolis, Indiana. At the time of move-in, I was already a part of the diversity mentorship program at Butler so I was able to meet fellow students of color who were attending Butler in the fall. Cue Brandon Willyums, or as the world currently knows him – Don Kew.
A soft spoken, small-framed black boy with glasses who happens to enjoy soccer. The last black kid that you would expect to rap over melancholy beats and hold a decent following on Soundcloud.
Fast forward five years later, and we’re both sitting in a noisy Napolese restaurant in downtown Indy talking everything music, professional careers (or not) and racial relations. He doesn’t look too much different from the professional lunchtime crowd that had started to gather in the downtown restaurant – fresh low-cut fade, wiry glasses, business casual attire.
Again, not your typical college-aged rapper – but that’s the point.
Here’s what we talked about:
On taking rap seriously vs. pursuing a professional career.
Do you remember at Butler when you first started, you were embarrassed. Didn’t want anyone to know you made music! You didn’t take it seriously. Do you still have that attitude?
It was more like I wanted to graduate first. There was the stereotype of black kids wanting to rap – I didn’t want people to think I took the easy road out. People ask me about it, and I’m honest but I don’t advertise it.
Oh, so you don’t plan to stand outside Walgreens and pass out your mixtape anytime soon?
You’re working at a law firm right now… why don’t you want to rap full-time?
Not that I don’t want to – but I have to have a backup plan. I know there are people who give up everything and put their all into music. And it’s not that I’m not confident in my music, but I need that stability. I can’t just blow everything away and focus on the music. I respect people who go all out, but it’s not for me.
Fuck it, mom! I’m making songs!
A lot of people tell me to focus on the music – I know I could have a lot of potential if I just focused on that. But I have to have a fall-back plan. And no matter what, education is really important.
And no matter what, education is really important.
Have you ever thought about putting music at the forefront? You’ve graduated, you could always go back and get a job.
Not really. Right now it’s a hobby. I don’t want to put it at the forefront because then it becomes a job. I don’t want to ever feel like I have to make music. I also don’t know how other people’s creative processes work. Like how people are able to be creative on a deadline. I think about Lil Wayne and how he just gets in the studio and spits and says shit off the top of his head. And then he goes back and molds it and perfects it until it’s the verse – as we see it. But he’s good at just being creative on a whim – when he has to be. I can’t freestyle for shit.
I care more about the creative freedom than the money – I don’t want to get to the point where I’m so dependent on music as a career that I lose the passion that I have for it now.
So do people at your job know you rap?
One of them does. If they ask me about it, I’ll tell them. One Friday they asked what I was doing for the weekend and it happened to be when I was going to Nashville for the show – so I told them about it. Not a big deal.
How was first show?
It was fun! But it was pretty nerve-wracking. First of all there weren’t that many people. It was at this place called Exit/In which holds like 500 people – a lot of really known rock acts perform there. But there were only like 40 or 50 people or something like that at my show since it was just my first time… it was fun though!
There’s a kid that I made a song with, named Jordn, that told me about the show – I opened up for him. And then of course I told my friends about it so we all drove down.
Are you doing more shows? You have to – I still need to put “hype-woman” on my resume.
It just came about! So I don’t know.. We’ll see. It’s so weird performing to people you don’t know. We rented out such a big space, and there weren’t that many people. Some people don’t interact, I have to get used to that. I guess you have to get started somewhere. I think it would still be weird if people showed up! I started doing open mics around the city – like spoken word. I did a couple bars at the IRT for a couple hundred people, that was crazy. I was just trying to slowly chip away at the nervousness. Eventually I’ll get to where I’m more comfortable.
What’s the best concert experience you’ve ever had?
I’d have to say Pusha T at Pitchfork. He did songs I’d never heard before, but he had such great energy and stage presence that you could still vibe to it. That was probably the best concert experience I’ve had.
Is that who you aspire to as a performer?
Not really. Most of my music is story based and laid back. It’s not get up and move around type music – you might bob your head. You know how Lauryn Hill would come out and just sit on a stool and vibe with the crowd? That’s what I envision for my concerts. It’s hard incorporating that into rap but that’s what I’d like to do.
I get it. Wait, you had a name change! At Butler, you went by Brandon Willyums. Gotta say, I liked that name a lot. Why’d you change it to Don Kew?
My name’s Brandon Kyle Edward Williams, so Don Kew is from that. But once I started taking this music thing somewhat seriously, I realized that there was a marketing aspect that I needed to consider. You can make music all you want, but if people can’t look you up on Google nobody will hear it – you have to have a unique identifier on the web. So Don Kew is really the only thing that shows up. If you google Brandon Williams or Willyums, there are so many different things that show up.
On rapping on a recently college-graduated budget (and time schedule).
How much of a time constraint is it to make music, plus have a full-time job, plus have a social life?
It’s not a crazy time constraint – I mean, you make time for what you want to make time for. Now that I don’t have school/class, I pretty much use all my free time to make music. I don’t really have any other responsibilities besides work.
you make time for what you want to make time for.
Where do you record?
I do all of my stuff in my apartment. I started out with a USB mic which is very podcast-ish. But I started learning mixing/mastering techniques through YouTube because I got tired of paying people. For the most part I try to do the mixing on my own. There were a couple songs I paid people for, but they weren’t really my songs, they were songs I did with other people. But my personal stuff I try to do everything. But now I have a full studio in my apartment – mic, audio, all that stuff.
That’s a pretty big investment. How much have you spent on all that stuff?
Honestly the software was the most expensive – probably like 800 or 900. But I didn’t do it all at once. I’ve had the software since I was a sophomore in high school when I used to make beats…all trash… but my parents paid for it. The hardware equipment I paid for myself. Not the best, but gets the job done.
Who does the beats?
Unless I’m working with someone, I pretty much do everything my own. I have to pay for the music license, but I do it pretty much. Now with Soundcloud, it’s easier to work with people and collaborate without paying. People that make beats hit me up to work all the time, we collaborate without having to pay for it. [Soundcloud producers, hit him up!]
Don Kew on his heartbreak.
Your flow seems really chill… solemn… about heartbreak. [We both laugh because he had to know this questions was coming.] I love your storytelling, but there are for the most part sad stories. Does it just happen that way or have you sort of embraced that genre?
Honestly, it’s just what’s going on with my life – what I’m inspired by. That relationship/heartbreak was a huge part of my college and formative years and really played a large part in my experience, so it’s what I write about.
It’s sort of a coping mechanism. If I’m stressed, I just write about it.
Pretty talented coping mechanism…
It’s just like writing in a diary or a journal… I just turn my journal entries into songs.
But most people don’t post their diaries on Soundcloud for the whole world to hear!
Yeah, that was the most nerve-wracking part of it all. Once people started listening and associating it with me, it was weird. It’s one thing letting it out, and another posting it for other people to hear.
Has your ex heard it?
Probably, I don’t know. I try to be as respectful as possible of her privacy, so it’s not obvious who I’m talking about. My mom’s heard my music – that’s pretty weird. She’ll tell me if there’s something she doesn’t agree with or anything she doesn’t like.
I’ve always wondered what artists’ parents thought of their music. Like oddly enough, when I listen to Lil’ Wayne I picture his daughter listening to his lyrics and wonder if he considers that when he hits the booth. Do you think of that while recording?
I didn’t think about that until she started hearing it. Now, I think she has a good point. I consider it – I’m a rapper but I ultimately want to get a full-time job, so I don’t say anything that could really mess that up. Try to keep it professional. I can’t air my entire life out like I would want to – some things have to stay under wraps.
On musical inspirations.
If you could make a song with any artist (still alive and not in jail) who would it be?
Off the top of my head, I’d say Raury. I’d love to work with him.
Is there a particular artist you could compare yourself to or get inspiration from?
Kid Cudi. He’s not afraid to try some ridiculous types of music and really change his style. That’s what I see myself doing down the road.
I could see that. It seems like Kid Cudi has a song for everybody – every type of person or music lover could find something that they’d like in his discography. Also, he’s one of those weird black kids that was too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids. He embraces it though.
Yeah, for sure. Reminds me of Childish Gambino. He has music I can relate to. I was reading this article where Childish was talking about the stigmas of dating outside your race. You can date a black girl – that’s cool. You date a white girl and people start talking. If you date an Asian girl, you must be successful. But nobody even really cares.
That was frustrating for me too once I got to high school where people would say “you’re not black enough.” But it’s like they would pick the one thing that they consider to be “black” and if you don’t fit it, you can’t be black. It never made sense.
At least you had a black girlfriend.
Right! (Laughs.) My mom got a kick out of that one – she was shocked when she saw that.
I could see how that could be frustrating, too because you’re probably one of the only black people in the office. …And then people find out you’re a rapper! Perfect!
Exactly! It’s crazy. Even with black people, they hear how I talk, see I’m wearing Sperry’s and then they hear I rap and they’re all of a sudden impressed.
On his creative process.
So what’s your creative process?
I just sit down and start writing. When I can’t think of anything, I just start writing about what I did that day or how I felt until eventually something comes out.
You do this every day?
I try to – but mostly whenever I have time. You make time for what you want to make time for – I enjoy it, so I make time.
You said you can’t freestyle… so I can’t do you like Sway in the Morning or Ebro and lay a beat down and force you to rap on it?!
Hip-hop’s changed to the point that when rappers are asked to freestyle, most people pull verses off their phone or spit something memorized. People started getting put on the spot so much, they had to come prepared. If somebody asked me to freestyle, I won’t lie it’d be horrible. Once I paid Morehouse a visit (this was in high school) and I’ll never forget this kid Marcus was just rapping off the dome – it was so good. That felt like real hip-hop to me. The scene’s changed a lot, though.
Collaboration and upcoming projects.
I admire you for being able to air everything out and put it online. Nowadays everyone puts everything on social, but it’s so different to air your feelings so vividly. Have you gotten a lot of love for what you write about?
Yeah! I put more up now than I used to. I’m a part of a new collective called Okami Tapes and it’s a group of people, like 20 of us or so, around the country and we all rap and support each other. There’s no website yet, we’re working on merch right now. But it’s just a collective group, sort of like an online label… like picture TDE. I reached out to this guy named Gene Fisher, he started it. Making music by myself is fun for awhile, but it got boring. It’s better to collaborate – makes it easier to get my music out to more people and expand my audience.
And let’s be real, when you collaborate it can help enhance your own sound and grow as an artist.
Yeah, for sure.
So I heard your song with Charlie Breeze (Charlie from Snu) (laughs). Do you collaborate with other people from Butler frequently?
Honestly, I kept my rapping pretty under wraps while I was at Butler so I wasn’t too sure who was involved in making music. I knew Charlie rapped – he reached out to me via email after I graduated so we finally got together to put that track [Crazy] out. Now me him and Double A are planning to put a track out soon.
Nice! I look forward to hearing that. Any other new projects like mixtapes or anything?
There’s one project called Amour, French for love, that’s a fabricated love story gone wrong… kinda based on reality. It’s an idea I had – I wanted to tell a story throughout songs, instead of just on one song. You know Duwan that went to Butler? Transferred to FAMU. But he makes music – he has really incredible spoken word pieces. I asked him to help me out with it so he’ll be on a song. I also have Terri New (you know Terri Diaries on Insta, she writes poems) so in between songs I want her to have similar poems so it’ll be like the female perspective on the love story. Still an idea in the works, but I’m excited about it.
Cool! Any cool visuals?
That’s a goal, but videography is expensive – it takes a lot to make videos, things I had never thought about. Right now we’re just focusing on getting the music out.
Understood. Terri’s so cool! And she’s bad! You have to put her in the video if you do it!
(laughs). (Terri is pictured in the artwork for the song Don’t Go, featured below).
Have you started that project already?
Yeah, I put out two songs on Soundcloud. One is the introduction – I see a girl, I don’t know what to say. Thinking about what if I never said anything at all. That’s the beginning. The other one, called Ecstasy. Is about this addiction. Past I like you, it’s like I need you. Both of those are on my Soundcloud. That’s what I’ve put out so far.
UPDATE: The entire Amour project is now complete and uploaded to Soundcloud. Check it out below.
So are you releasing each song as you finish them?
Those are the only two that I’m releasing before the entire project is finished. The rest will come with the full project.
Don Kew without a doubt brings a fresh perspective to the online rap game as we know it – as the new generation of loud and abrasive trap emerges, it’s refreshing to find an artist dedicated to soulful, heart-wrenching ballads.
It was a pleasure catching up with the coolest up-and-comer!
Check out new visuals from Don Kew & Jordn below!