The Austin music scene is reeling following the death Wednesday night of Donnell Robinson, who was better known as MC Overlord, one of the city’s most prominent hip-hop artists. He was 49.
Robinson was the first rapper to be accepted into the fold of Austin’s downtown music scene and he remained a perennial presence in the Austin Chronicle’s Austin Music Awards rankings for best hip-hop artist for years, even during the period in which he put performing as Overlord on hold to focus on his children’s music project, Big Don.
Large in stature with a jovial disposition, friends and fellow rappers remember him as a big teddy bear of a man.
“He never talked bad about anybody, never talked down to anybody. He was always friendly, would shake your hand and sign autographs…he was a people person,” Baxter Russell, who raps as MC Fatal, said on Thursday morning.
Robinson moved to Austin from St. Louis in the early ‘90s to pursue a music career. He met one of his longtime producers, Ter’ell Shahid when the two men worked as bouncers at a Sixth Street club.
“He wanted to get in the clubs, but there was no hip-hop in clubs. They wouldn’t allow rappers to perform in clubs in Austin, so we found a way to get him in by putting a band behind him,” Shahid said on Thursday morning.
He rapidly developed a loyal fan base in Austin’s mainstream music scene, but it wasn’t the typical hip-hop crowd.
“It was a predominantly white audience,” Shahid said.
His music was unique, a hybrid of hip-hop and the funky rock that was popular in Austin at the time. Shahid characterizes it as “alternative hip-hop.” It was good music, but also, non-threatening.
“He was a bridge,” Shahid said. He believes the widespread appeal of Overlord’s songs was in “the uniting factor.” He rapped about struggles and pushing through, but his music was loaded with love.
The love came across when he performed, both in his gregarious stage presence and his generosity with stage time.
“He paved the way for people like me to be able to come onto the other side,” Russell said, noting that after Robinson started calling on him to freestyle on sets, he was booked into the South by Southwest Music Festival and began to land downtown gigs.
“We was all rapping in the neighborhoods, on the corners and in the street clubs and stuff like that…he got us where black people could start performing in front of white crowds and break that barrier, going over to Sixth Street,” he said.
“He shared the air with me,” rapper Bavu Blakes said Thursday. “He was very non competitive…he was the type of dude who was like, ‘Get it, get it. You’re incredible.’”
“We stood side by side and never had a beef and shared in each other success as if it was our own,” Terrany Johnson, who raps as Tee Double, wrote on Facebook on Thursday.
Though he recorded an MC Overlord album in 2017, Robinson’s focus in recent years was on his children’s music project, Big Don.
“His music has always brought young people out, even as Overlord,” Shahid said. As Big Don, Robinson was “trying to teach the kids, help them find moral compass,” he said.
In recent years, Robinson’s health had been up and down. Earlier this year, he returned home following the death of his mother and, while in St. Louis, he was hospitalized
“He ended up having a hernia that was strangling out his intestines and he had to do a bunch of surgeries,” Shahid said. Friends at home rallied with multiple benefits to help defray his medical expenses.
Shahid said a friend took Robinson to the doctor on Wednesday because he was feeling unwell and “his heart just stopped.”
Robinson will remembered as the godfather of Austin hip-hop. “He was a godfather in terms of showing that god-like love as a predecessor and just being welcoming and affirming to additional presence in a place where he had made his mark already,” Blakes said.
“He built his own lane,” local journalist and hip-hop promoter Matt Sonzala said Thursday morning. “He toured a bit … but he mostly was that Austin artist who really existed in Austin and thrived on his own.”
Robinson is survived by two sisters and a brother.
PUBLIC VIEWING: 2 to 4:30 p.m., September 30 at King Tears Mortuary at 1300 East Twelfth St.