It was no surprise when Philadelphia soul singer Jill Scott topped the Billboard 200 back in July with her fifth album, "Woman." But the album's lead single, 'Fool's Gold,' quietly marked the auspicious Billboard debut of the track's producer, Baltimore native D.K. The Punisher.
When I meet up with D.K. The Punisher, also known as Donovan Knight, at Red Emma's to talk and grab a bite to eat, his dreads are tucked under a Chicago Cubs cap and the soft-spoken producer is taking it easy after DJing the night before at The Crown, just around the block. The 23-year-old is still getting used to the thrill of hearing 'Fool's Gold' on the radio, but the song had begun its journey nearly two years before its release in May. "We did that in the middle of 2013," Knight says of the track, which wasn't chosen as a single until early 2015. "It's always been in the conversation of songs she liked."
Over many months, 'Fool's Gold' went through several different iterations. Knight had sampled the song's exotic loop from 'Evening Star,' a '70s smooth jazz track by Japanese kotoist Yutaka Yokokura, which had previously been sampled by the late, great hip-hop producer J Dilla. At one point, a keyboardist was drafted to mimic the loop, but everyone involved ultimately agreed it was worth paying more to sample the master recording than to save money replaying the part. That cuts into the percentage of songwriting royalties that go to Knight, but he's fine with that. "I'll take the hit, just for the good record, I want it to sound as good as possible."
Like many producers, Knight came to beat-making through aspirations to be an MC. "Originally I was rapping when I was a kid, and I started making beats," he says. "I ended up liking it more than rapping, so I just kept doing it more and more, and I didn't wanna rap anymore." And while hip-hop and R&B have been joined at the hip for decades, the two genres require different skill sets for producers, and Knight established himself as adept at bridging the gap between them. "I liked R&B more than most hip-hop dudes like R&B, I always liked playing keys and stuff."
As a high school student at Milford Mill, Knight interned at a local recording studio, where he met his first mentor. Singer and producer C.R. Da Show enjoyed a string of local radio hits on 92Q, including the D.K. The Punisher-produced 'Dirty After Dark.'
"I learned a lot from him, he was teaching me about audio engineering," Knight recalls. He later linked up with another Baltimore-bred R&B singer, RCA Records-signed CJ Hilton, and produced the leadoff track on his 2013 indie project "This Is Me." Soon, Knight was racking up credits with nationally known rappers such as Mac Miller and Dom Kennedy and co-produced Justin Bieber's 'All That Matters.'
Knight refers to his early adolescent years as an aspiring producer as "the MySpace days," and it was some of the connections he made on that now-unfashionable social network that planted the seeds of his current success. After becoming MySpace friends with the Los Angeles duo TiRon & Ayomari and producing songs for them, Knight's beats caught the ear of the group's manager, who linked him up with a powerful ally: Andre Harris, of the veteran R&B production team Dre & Vidal.
When Harris invited the young Baltimore producer to work for three weeks in an L.A. studio compound, Knight flew out for the first of several West Coast trips, armed with nothing but a laptop equipped with Ableton to make beats on. Working alongside other producers and songwriters, Knight pitched tracks to some established names, including ex-Destiny's Child singer LeToya Luckett, along with new label signees in need of material.
It was in those songwriting camps that Knight met Darryl "SiR" Farris, the singer and songwriter who he'd ultimately write 'Fool's Gold' with. They were initially paired together to write songs for Rotimi, a singer/actor who currently appears on the cable hit "Boss." But the duo's chemistry led to more collaborations, including two tracks on SiR's debut release as an artist, the acclaimed independent album "Seven Sundays," which came out in July.
So far, DJing at local clubs such as The Crown and The Ottobar has been Knight's way of keeping a foot in Baltimore's burgeoning beat scene when he's not jetting to California trying to land industry placements. But he hopes that the clout and experience he's been gaining out of town can allow him to help others in Baltimore in the future. "I learned a lot about actually producing songs when I was in L.A., so I wanna bring that here. I wanna bring in producers that might not be as seasoned in coaching singers or coaching artists into making dope songs," he says. More than a decade ago, Baltimore regularly produced national R&B stars like Dru Hill, Mario, and Ruff Endz, and Knight suspects that the homegrown singing talent is still here, and simply needs nurturing from savvy producers.
Knight has released relatively little music under the D.K. The Punisher name, including the "Float EP," out in April, which features idiosyncratic remixes of hits by Aaliyah and Robin Thicke. Unsure if he'll ever give rapping a go again, Knight figures that whatever solo project he releases in the future will be a compilation of collaborations with various singers and rappers. He's already worked with Baltimore rappers Black Zheep DZ and Butch Dawson, and has material that he may eventually earmark for that album. Knight also has a track completed with an extremely famous singer. But given how unpredictable the industry is, he'd rather not put that information in print until he knows whether it'll make the cut for their next album. "I just wouldn't feel comfortable puttin' it out there when it's not concrete yet, because a lot of people would be like 'Yo, what happened?'"
In the meantime, Knight is basking in the afterglow of 'Fool's Gold's' success, and waiting to see what other doors it might open. Jill Scott recently performed the song when her summer tour stopped at Pier Six Pavilion in July, but Knight didn't attend the concert and appreciate that moment. Instead, he made sure a proud parent was on the guest list. "I sent my mom, though, she got to meet [Scott] and everything," he says, happy to share his first taste of backstage access.