PORTSMOUTH — Want to make Nick Donnelly’s day? Just sell him short.
When he takes the stage armed with rhymes and rhythms, Nick gets a few double-takes from hip-hop fans who aren’t familiar with — as his dad, Paul Donnelly, describes him — “this skinny white kid with the nice haircut.”
“I like walking into a venue and being judged and being underestimated,” said Nick, a Portsmouth High senior who raps under the stage name of Toska. “I can’t escape the inevitable, ‘No offense, but I didn’t think you were going to be able to rap like that.’ Which I don’t take offense to; why would I? I know how I look and how I appear to people. I don’t fit the stereotype of a rapper.”
It’s a challenge he relishes. “I don’t look like I carry any promise of skill,” he said. “But it’s that much more satisfying when I win a fan over. I think it’s a good thing because it teaches people not to judge a book by its cover.”
He added, “Maybe next time I’ll come on with a full tuxedo.”
Although he’s been into hip-hop since his freshman year, Nick hasn’t performed live on a regular basis until this past year. In that short period, however, he’s already developed a strong reputation on the Rhode Island hip-hop scene, with several older and more established rappers taking the 18-year-old under his wing.
One of them, Joel JP Perez, was Nick’s mentor on his senior project: a benefit hip-hop show in Providence Saturday night, with all profits going to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Besides Toska and JP, the show featured performances by Nosfera7u, Re:Verse and KY Da Arsonist.
That event came just two weeks after Nick took first place in the annual Battle of the Bands at PHS, where he first started scribbling verse as a sophomore after falling under hip-hop’s spell a year earlier.
“Me and a couple of my friends, in a silent study, we’d write diss raps — just goofy raps making fun of one another — and pass them around,” said Nick.
His writing has evolved to a considerably higher level of sophistication since then. “I like stories, but other times I’ll write about relatable things — emotions and whatnot that people go through every day but they don’t really talk about it,” he said.
One of those songs is “Pill.” Inspired by his mother Cindy, who died of cancer at the age of 42 in 2005, it’s about sacrifice and loss, something Nick said everyone has gone through.
“It’s not a song I’ll openly say is about my mother, but it can be easily inferred,” Nick said. “There’s a line in that song that’s repeated over and over until the end that I’ve never shared with anybody and I’m not really comfortable explaining, because there’s an entire story behind that one line. To a person hearing it, it’s almost cryptic because if you don’t understand the story behind it, there’s not really any way I can expect it to make sense to a person. Which is fine with me, because it leads one to interpret or imagine for themselves what it could mean.”
Another song, “Toothpaste,” sounds like a darker version of a DirecTV commercial.
“It’s about a man going to a job interview and he spills a little bit of toothpaste on his suit,” said Nick. “Things progress from that. He’s distracted by the toothpaste so he crashes his car, which makes him late for the meeting, which makes him lose the opportunity he wanted to get. He couldn’t make ends meet anymore, so his wife left him. So he’s alone and ends up committing suicide — all stemming from that little bit of toothpaste.”
He’s most proud of a new work, “Gadzooks” (download a free mp3 here), which is almost two songs in one and covers a number of topics. “All these different subjects are all brought together by a hook that basically says, I don’t really care about someone’s opinion of me, because as long as I’m alive and doing what I want to do, that’s fine with me. And often times, if you underestimate me, I’ll say, ‘Gadzooks.’”
Plus, he just loves the word — even when it’s mispronounced.
“A lot of people at the shows have never heard that word,” said Nick, noting that audience members often yell out “Godzooks” or “Gadzeus.”
Nicks love for ambivalence and double meanings even extends to his stage name, Toska.
“It means a bunch of different things,” he said. “It’s a word in Russian that no single word in English directly translates. That really captured my interest. It epitomizes negative emotion; every shade of sadness or even boredom from spiritual anguish is covered by this one word, Toska.”
Toska also refers an island, is the surname of a famous bank-robber, a clothing company and more, he said.
“A word only means what it’s understood to mean. That’s something I really appreciate about language,” said Nick, adding that he doesn’t correct people when they mispronounce the name.
“I like using words in ways that they’d be interpreted differently. I have a song called ‘March’ and often times I won’t talk about the meaning of those lines because instead of having a straightforward message, I’d rather have people interpret it.”
Starts with a beat
When writing songs, Nick generally comes up with a concept for a story and then develops beats until he finds one that works well with that idea. “I usually write to a beat; I rarely write a song before I have the instrumental to back it because I think it’s better to have the mood match up with a tempo and overall feel of the beat,” said Nick, who uses FL Studio software to make most of his beats.
Like most hip-hop artists, he also samples from other artists. “I’ll take a song, find a segment that I like, and cut it and loop it. I’ll build a beat off of that sample,” said Nick, who sampled the Four Tops’ 1967 hit, “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” for his song, “Shadows.”
Sometimes his inspiration comes from unlikely sources. One of his father’s favorite songs of Nick’s is “Haunted,” which adopts the melody of an old Nintendo video game, “Luigi’s Mansion.”
While his contemporaries are impressed with his skills and musical vocabulary, said his dad, they’re more knocked out by Nick’s ideas and maturity. “They said if they didn’t already know who he was, they’d swear he was at least 25 years old,” he said.
Nick credits his rapid development — “JP’s told me that I skipped like six years of practice,” he said — to his upbringing.
“If your parents taught you to have a good vocabulary, they raised you with good critical thinking abilities and they raised you with good musical taste, then you’re definitely going to have more of an inclination to do music,” he said.
His mother was a classically trained pianist and also sang in the Newport County area, while his dad sings and plays guitar. His mom also pushed Nick toward academic success.
“It’s conditioned me to really hold intelligence in high regard. Not so much book smarts, but the ability to think and adapt and learn — street smarts,” he said.
Strong local hip-hop scene
Nick said he’s also fortunate to live in Rhode Island, which has such a strong hip-hop scene.
“I wouldn’t rather live in any other state,” he said. “Hip-hop as a whole is a culture, and I think it’s really strong and pretty tight-knit in Rhode Island and everyone’s really accepting. They genuinely want to see everyone succeed. If they’re giving you criticism, it’s constructive.”
Joel JP Perez isn’t just his senior project mentor, but his career mentor as well, he said. “He reached out to me and helped me get in with these people. He didn’t have to do that,” said Nick, who also credits his 20-year-old sister, Dustyn, with helping him make a name for himself. “Without Dustyn, I’d still be here with no connections whatsoever. She’s the one who sat JP down and kind of forced him to listen to the mixtape.”
His father agreed. “Dustyn knew all these people and hooked Nick up with them,” said Mr. Donnelly. “Even if she’s not his manager in the traditional sense, she’s always been his promoter, she’s always been behind him 100 percent. She’s not only protected him, but thrown him to the wolves at the same time.”
Next fall, Nick plans on studying audio engineering at the New England Institute of Art. He’d eventually like to open a recording studio that offers affordable prices for emerging rap artists.
“I’m hoping to be one of the driving forces of the Rhode Island hip-hop scene,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s focused on creating different beats, different rhymes, different stories — all which he hopes will be improvements on his earlier works.
“I’m always looking to progress and improve, otherwise there’s no point in continuing to rap,” he said. “There’s more competition in this genre than any other.”
Nick Donnelly (Toska) said he’s hoping to put out an album of new music sometime this year. In the meantime, you can hear all his music — for free — by clicking here.