By: Julia Conyers
Most people will tell you Tomás Doncker’s musical career began was born out of New York City’s “No Wave” scene of the early 1980s, but Doncker himself will tell you that his relationship with music dates back much earlier than that.
It all began in the living room of his childhood home, during an episode of Don Kurshner’s Rock Concert, where he watched rock band Foghat perform, immediately followed by funk band Graham Central Station. He was inspired by the juxtaposition of the two genres being presented in the same format, and knew from that moment on that he wanted to create genre-bending music.
Doncker, a Brooklyn native, made a name for himself as a young man playing with bands like James Chance & the Contortions, Defunkt, and J. Walter Negro & the Loose Jointz. “I came of age as an artist when New York was the bohemia center of the universe, without question,” says Doncker.
“I was actually here, involved in the birth of hip-hop. It started in the the Bronx and worked its way down to all the hip clubs, and then BOOM, it became a thing,” he says. “I was in a band called J. Walter Negro & the Loose Jointz. We are actually, factually, historically, the first rap band. We were a band and we had a rapper.”
- Walter was a graffiti artist, Doncker explains, and so his fellow graffiti artist friends would come to their shows because they had plans to go tag some building after the gig anyway. Doncker casually mentions his friend, renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was a part of his crew at the time. Doncker explains his incredulity at how a group of kids, who were making music and art because they spiritually had to, became an essential part of New York City culture.
“All of a sudden kids scribbling on the side of a train was worth money,” he says.
Since then, Doncker has worked with the likes of Bootsy Collins, Yoko Ono, Corey Glover of Living Colour, Bonnie Raitt, and Parliament Funkadelic keyboardist Amp Fiddler, just to name a few. He’s also managed to have a lucrative solo career and found his very own record label, True Groove Records.
True Groove, which began in 2011, promotes the genre that Doncker himself created, called “global soul.” The label, and “global soul,” are, as Doncker explains, “Genre inclusive, not genre exclusive. From Brooklyn, to beyond.”
In response to what he looks for in artists looking to sign to his label, Doncker’s answer was lightening fast: “Authenticity without question. Sincerity. Dedication down to your last drop of blood.”
If a potential new artist passes Doncker’s personal vetting process, they also have to be approved by his partners Marla Mase (another artist on the True Groove label) and James Dellatacoma (an in-house producer for True Groove).
“Let’s say I actually like what you’ve got in mind, the first thing I ask is ‘Are you willing to run down the street naked, set yourself on fire, and yell at the top of your lungs ‘Listen to what I have to say’?” says Doncker with an astonishingly serious look on his face.
Then he cracks a smile and says that after he asks that, most people look at him with a confused expression that seems to say “What are you talking about? I just want to put out a record.”
Sticking true to his belief in authenticity, Doncker expresses that if a musician is not ready to go to insane lengths to support the thing they want to create, they shouldn’t waste their own time and money entering a studio.
On top of his incredible talent, one of the things that has made Doncker so successful as a solo artist is his ability to tap into the social conscious while still making music you can dance to.
“Serious ideas can be framed and shared in a very fun and enjoyable context. I find that you can get into someone’s heart through a groove,” says Doncker. “Once someone’s grooving, they might not even realize it, but you got them under a spell. You can almost tell them anything, and they’ll take it away with them. It’ll come out of their mouth, maybe a week later, and they won’t even know where it came from. That’s the power of music.”
In 2015, Doncker released an album called “The Mess We Made.” The album was a direct response to the Charleston church massacre, where, during a prayer service, a white supremacist opened fire in a predominantly black church, killing nine people, including the pastor. The young man who committed the atrocity admitted his reasoning was that he had hoped to start a race war.
Doncker explains that Charleston was the tipping point. He had been growing frustrated with the constant reports of police brutality and unprovoked violence against the black community. And then Charleston happened.
“It was like someone just walked into a church and shot my grandparents. Folks were having a prayer meeting, and they invited him in. And his reaction to that was to kill them all,” says Doncker.
“I got really paranoid, really freaked out. I feared for my life because, on this road to that moment, I had this thought that ‘OK, it’s about to become open season on black people.’ I also feared what I might do. Like someone might say something to me and I would just react badly and try to take their head off.”
So Doncker canceled everything, and retreated to his home, where he says he spent the next five days shutting the world out, and seeking solace in his music.
“Ultimately, when I get crazy like that, I grab my security blanket, my acoustic guitar. I wasn’t trying to write an album, I was just playing because it made me feel better,” explains Doncker. “I started recording stuff, and before I knew it, I had written 6 songs.”
A couple of days later, Doncker returned to the studio, and discussed with his partners the craziness of what had happened in Charleston, and explained where he’d disappeared to. He played the songs for them, downplaying their importance the entire time. But after listening, Doncker’s musical partners assured him that these songs were some of his best work, and that he absolutely had to make something concrete out of them.
Doncker says it took some persuading, assuring his bandmates the music he’d made in his frantic state was “not for public consumption,” but that he eventually came around and agreed this collection of songs belonged on an album.
By the time “Mess” was released, and gaining favorable press, Doncker was already hard at work on his next album. But the songs he was working on were strongly tied to the songs on “Mess.” They were “part of the same discussion,” as Doncker put it.
A radio promoter suggested Doncker re-release “Mess” with the new songs because, two years after its initial release, the topics discussed on the album were more relevant than ever. The deluxe edition of the album, which was released earlier this year, includes five new songs, as well as an acoustic live version of the hopeful closing track “Time Will Tell.”
“Part of my responsibility as an artist is to reflect and hopefully illuminate our time, the time that we live in,” says Doncker, reflecting on his ability to create music that shares a message while still being enjoyable sonically. “One cannot hope to inspire without entertaining, otherwise you’re just preaching, and we have enough of that.”
Throughout his career, Doncker has collaborated with Yusef Komunyakaa, who Doncker describes as the “Jimi Hendrix of Poetry.” About 10 years ago, they released an album called “The Mercy Suite,” together. Komunyakaa, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and the Poet Laureate of New York State, wrote the lyrics, and Doncker composed the accompanying music. Doncker explains that, at the time he made the record, he did not have his band, the True Groove All-Stars, and while he’s proud of the end result, it was not exactly as he imagined it.
Doncker and his band have been including songs from “Mercy” into their live performance for quite awhile now, and Doncker decided it was time to return to the “The Mercy Suite” and re-record the songs the way he originally intended.
“It took me 10 years to really learn how to sing these songs,” says Doncker of the album. “The terrain of “The Mercy Suite” is universal but it’s also internal. It’s all things to all people.”
Doncker is excited to get the re-recorded material out into the world because he feels the message of the album can still be used to inform the populus today.
“We as people, we need mercy. We need to be merciful upon each other.”
Doncker will be releasing limited edition vinyl pressings of the album through True Groove, and hosting a benefit gala in support of the album’s message at La Mama Theatre in the East Village on January 30th, 2018.
Tomás Doncker and The True Groove All-Stars will be performing at The Bowery Electric tonight (8/4) with Andre Cymone and Kellindo Parker. Tickets avalable here.