DonChristian in Repose: The Singer Opens About His New Mixtape "Renzo Piano", Inspired by his Sexy Architect Alter Ego

Not to mention that he's Teddy Pendergrass' nephew and he makes Quaker R&B.

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Apr 11 2014, 6:47pm

Photo by Lindsay Keys

If the devil's in the details are the angels in the abstract? In the case of architecture and music—immersions of form in function, both—I think so. DONCHRISTIAN's latest mixtape Renzo Piano takes its name from a real architect who serves as a confident alter-ego for the Wesleyan painting major cum shy R&B lothario. DONCHRISTIAN explores the tension between R&B as a mode of seduction and introspection, a dichotomy he understands better than most—he's Teddy Pendergrass' nephew, and he both embraces and distances himself from the rockstar lifestyle he grew up around. Attention to space extends through the album's aching silences and wrought textures, an architectural approach to the language of love. DONCHRISTIAN texted me an hour after we chatted over coffee, correcting his original answer as to how he'd imagine Renzo's bachelor pad. Like I said, details. Stream Noisey's exclusive premiere of the tape and check out our interview below.

Noisey: So you’ve been working on this new project since September. What are the most important aesthetic ideas behind it for you?
Certainly architecture, and R&B. It’s a romantic album.

So, tell me about how Renzo Piano works as an alter-ego for you.
I think I’ve always been struck by his work and then I said his name out loud, and I was like ‘Yo that’s a smooth-ass name’ and I was like, ‘I kind of want to take on this character, like embody this persona, so that was kind of like my moniker.

What do you think is added to your personality when you become Renzo Piano?
I think he’s probably more flamboyant, flagrant, obnoxious. But still kind of suave, more colorful.

What would be the difference if Renzo Piano were to take somebody for a date versus where you would take somebody for a date?
That’s a good question, I think he would definitely like, high wine and dine, and I’m not that kind of person. I’m very low-key, and broke. I imagine Renzo’s rich.

So is the entire album, like from this perspective? Or is it something that comes and goes throughout it?
I hadn’t thought about that really. I think it’s a little bit of me and a little bit of him, kind of interwoven. But I think there are sometimes moments where I’m more, like aggressive, loud, or I curse a lot. In those moments I’m more Renzo.

When did you start singing?
So obviously, I started making music and rapping when I was at school with Khalif [Le1f], and I guess after I put out The Wayfarer, I realized that I wanted to sing more. Like after I put it out, in retrospect, I was like damn, I wish I had sung more on that. In conceiving the new project I just knew I wanted to sing, and it’s nothing I’d ever took seriously, I just sing by myself or in the shower. So it was definitely out of my comfort zone, but the fact that I was doing it with my close friends, or in my apartment, I was able to belt and feel good about it.

Tell me about your choice of producers, like The-Drum and Boody.
I fuck with them because they’re detail oriented, and I think they’re minimalists. As intricate as their beats are, they’re minimalists, they’re clean and crisp and they’re structural, they change over time. I was lucky enough to work with them on this because it has to do with architecture. It has to do with space and movement and changing and time, and I think The-Drum in particular, Boody, and this guy Crying, from Russia who I’ve yet to meet, I think they are so good at that.

What would the album look like if it was a house?
Oh wow, shit, I think it’d be minimal, and I don't know, maybe like concrete or something.

What about specifically Renzo's house?
A limestone cube in the woods.

It seems like a lot of cool artists came out of Wesleyan the last few years. Was it a creatively inspiring scene at the time?

It was, it really was! I mean, we lived in this house called Eclectic Society, and we would book shows and shit, throw crazy parties, and it made a really conducive environment for making art, whether that be film or music, it was always there, I was constantly inspired by my peers.

What was high school like?
I went to Boarding School, in Bucks County Pennsylvania. It was a Quaker school. We had this thing called ‘Meeting for Worship’ where you gather and sit in silence, and just reflect on your time and day, your week whatever. If you feel so moved to speak, they say ‘the light enters you,’ and you can stand up and say whatever’s on your mind. And it can sometimes it’ll be something as stupid as like “I had fun today at the basketball game” or something really profound from a teacher or something. But it was dope, and I didn’t really appreciate it when I was there, but I miss that time of reflective thought.

Photo by Becky McNeel

What kind of music was around you when you were a kid?
R&B, Soul, and Hip-Hop. Scattered, here and there some Jazz, Afro-Cuban shit, definitely some Bossa Nova from my mom. But it was mostly hip hop and R&B, Anita Baker, Andre, Erykah Badu.

Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
First record I ever bought was Eve. My mom was tight about it, because it had parental advisory. I was probably like, 9.

How do you think you developed the aesthetic that you associate with romance?
I think a lot of it comes from the core Quaker values. Simplicity, community, public service. Growing up around other pacifists, I was not a fighter at all. It was a very loving and nurturing environment, from first grade on; it was very supportive and conducive to creativity and being yourself, and embracing others.

One thing I see in your music is a tendency towards reduction, towards architecturally sparsity.
That’s a cool thing to say. I like that, I like to be blunt. I’ve been working on a daily basis at being more honest, you know? Like when I wake up every day I’m trying to be a more honest person, outwardly to others and to myself. In making this, I was very honest, it was very emotional I think. there’s a lot about love and relationships, lost loves and shit.

Is there a particular lost love or just in general?
No, it’s totally become something much bigger than any one specific romance. Also, my uncle is Teddy Pendergrass, and growing up with him was very weird. He was a womanizer, like machismo, you know? As much as I love him and shit, I knew from an early age I didn’t want to be like him. I think I worked actively, to be the opposite, as much as I love him. And you know, his music is very like, it’s personal and emotional, but it’s also lusty and I think I do that too, just in a different way. I used to have all my birthday parties at his house, he had a pool in the shape of a teddy bear.

No way.
He’s quite a character. I mean, this is probably just like, said in my family, but he was the first to do that like, he like coined women throwing their panties on stage.

Wow, I didn't know that.
Yeah.

Who would be your dream collaboration?
Damn, I was asked that before, and I said The Dream, because I love his production so much. I also really love Physical Therapy, and I know him somewhat, so that might be feasible.

Yeah, to me The-Dream really is, in a sense, the essentialization of what R&B can do.
His music is timeless for me, you can hear its roots in like 90s R&B and shit, but the instrumentation is very future. That inspires me, I like making stuff that sounds old, but also sounds future.

What does the future look like to you?
I think it’s like earth tones, and minimal shit. I mean, I would hope. I was gonna say Outkast's video for "The Prototype" video. They’re all in white, like aliens and shit. Like the world they lived in in The Matrix, you know what I mean? When they're in those burlap sacks, but more bright.

I think that the architecture of the next few years is really gonna define what the future looks like for a while to come.
Oh I think so, absolutely. Yeah urban planning and infrastructure of cities is totally interesting to me. The ways that which cultures develop around buildings, and structures, and roads. And I think, I miss the big sky. I want to go out West and see the big sky. Having been here for a year and a half, the buildings are my sky, so I find myself always looking up at shapes.

Any advice for the kids?
Look up.