Not only does the northernmost borough serve as home to hallowed ground like Yankee Stadium and the famed New York Botanical Garden, but it’s also yielded some of history’s greatest narrators from Chazz Palminteri to Slick Rick. Don Q proudly adds to that tradition with his 2017 mixtape, Corner Stories [Highbridge The Label/Atlantic Records]. Threaded together by an interview with hip-hop tastemaker Rob Markman, its 12 songs place listeners into the heart of Don’s own Highbridge neighborhood, witnessing moments of life on his come up unfold with the lucidity of A Bronx Tale and airtight rhymes that stand out as confessional and catchy. Without any traditional initial push, it quickly captivated press and listeners. Stereogum proclaimed him, “The New York rap hardass we need,” while further praise arrived from Vibe, XXL, HotNewHipHop, and more.
From the first bar, his authenticity separated him on Corner Stories.
“I didn’t want it to be like a regular mixtape,” he explains. “I wanted it to have the feel of an album, so the fans know that I’m capable of dropping a great project and not just a bunch of songs with rapping here and there. This is all real. Highbridge is a big neighborhood by Yankee Stadium. When we were young, it was fun. There were a lot of house parties. When you get older, shit just changes. People start dying or going to jail. Friends aren’t friends anymore. I’m telling you about it. With Rob’s narration, it was a special moment.”
It’s also a moment that Don has been preparing for since grade school. After buying Jay-Z’s classic Dynasty: Roc La Familia and studying “mixtape” era Lloyd Banks, Cassidy, and Fabolous, he would spend hours writing rhymes and preparing for impromptu rap battles throughout the neighborhood. He released one mixtape at 17 but kept relatively quiet, penning music intermittently until 2014.
“I didn’t have any motivation to keep rapping,” he admits. “I didn’t have money to be in the studio. A lot of other shit was going on. I was still worried about school. I wasn’t focused. In 2014, it sort of dawned me. I knew if I didn’t make it rapping; my life was going to be fucked up. It was going to be a lot of illegal activity. I’ve got a daughter to take care of. I can’t be risking my freedom. I knew this was the only way I could do something special, get my family out of the hood, and make my mama proud.”
He put his head down and got to work. In between fiery cameos on Meek Mill’s DC4 and Dave East’s “No Hook,” he unleashed his proper mixtape debut Don Season in 2016 as well as the collaborative High Bridge The Label: The Takeover Vol. 1 with fellow label mate and longtime friend A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. Along the way, he crafted what would become Corner Stories beginning with an idea back in 2014.
“I had the name,” he recalls. “I remember I told everyone, ‘I’m going to call it Corner Stories.’ I’m going to share the story about the corner. That’s what we’re doing every day. That’s our life.”
The first single “2 Perks” pairs an airy beat from Murda Beatz [Gucci Mane, French Montana] with Don’s impenetrable flow. He comes out of the gate swinging with visual and visceral bars that practically explode on impact before the undeniable refrain.
“I was going crazy on that beat,” he says. “I just went for it. It’s a turn up song.”
Produced by Scott Storch, “Take Me Alive” [feat. Styles P & Jadakiss] bridges eras of East Coast rap. Styles P and Jadakiss volley back and forth with Don, igniting lyrical fireworks in the process. Elsewhere, “Chasing These Bands” [feat. PnB Rock & Fabolous] can make any club go up with its unforgettable hook. “I grew up listening to Fab,” he adds. “It’s unbelievable to have him on a song. It was lit.”
The journey climaxes on the title track “Corner Stories.” At the beginning, Markman asks, “Certain tapes really take it to another level for an artist…does this feel like one of those for you?” Don’s gruff delivery gives the only answer anyone needs…
“That’s a lyrical exercise letting everyone know I really do this,” he continues. “Before we close this tape, I’m going to go hard. The interview made it even harder. It’s got that whole good Don Corleone vibe.”
Ultimately, Don Q makes The Bronx proud with a project that sparks a career he’s long worked towards.
“I’d love to get people motivated,” he leaves off. “The people who never came from anything can get it. I’d love it if my music helps somebody do what they’ve got to do or gets them through the day.”