Don Richard Grant was born in Scarborough, Ont., on Nov. 30, 1982, during a family vacation. After his birth, his parents returned to their native Trinidad and Tobago, where Don’s father, Donald Phillips, was killed in a motorcycle crash. In 1986, Don’s mother Rosemarie married Leon Grant, whose name Don assumed, and later had three more children: Christon, Marika and Leah. The family travelled back and forth between Canada and the Caribbean, and music was the constant in Don’s life. Surrounded by all of this “negativity, the real-life experiences faced by [him],” his website would later read, he poured himself into writing—poetry and songs—at an early age, and performed at talent shows or for schoolmates during lunch.
At age 18, Don settled in Toronto to study business at York University. He continued writing music, and recorded his first track in 2002. Soon, he was known around the city by his rapper name “Don Kartel.” He did not finish his degree; his passion for music took over. “He was always in and out of the studio,” says Peter Makarewicz, a friend. “He never had his mind going the wrong way, always had it going down a straight path.”
Don’s bedroom was littered with scraps of his writings. Sometimes, while driving around Toronto’s suburbs in his Honda Civic (which he spray-painted white on the exterior and royal blue on the dash), he’d grab a piece of paper and jot down lyrics before they escaped him. Peter says, “Once, he picked me up from Tim Hortons, and he was in his car writing music. I asked him, ‘Don’t you ever stop for a break?’ He said, ‘When you’re passionate, you just give it what you got, and you don’t take a break.’ ”
In fact, hard work and action were themes that ran through his lyrics. In Get it Done, he sang, “Why does everybody want what I got, when they could just get up off the couch and get it done . . . I don’t sit around talking about s–t I want to do, I get it done.” The lean-muscled man, who looked younger than his years, said in a recent episode of his video blog, “When most of you dudes are sleepin’, I’m grindin’ . . . When dudes are partying and looking for girls, doing all that stupid s–t, I’m still grindin’.” He also expressed dislike for people who didn’t keep their word, and he never wanted to rely on others to please him.
In early 2007, Don moved back to Trinidad, where he was soon known on the music scene as “The King of the 868” (the area code in Trinidad and Tobago). He studied at Beckles’ law school. But his brother Christon said he was usually in the studio, or “study-o” as he liked to call it, when he should have been studying. By this time, Don was a rising star in rap in both Canada and the Caribbean. He had been featured on a series of mix tapes by notable rap and hip-hop artists, and was building his profile through social media. “Ms. Kemi” Omololu-Olunloyo, editor of the music gossip blog hiphossip.com, recruited Don to appear on a show called The Deal, to air on BET. What made him stand out, she explains, was his seriousness, and the fact that he was so hungry. Also, unlike some other rappers, Don didn’t use profanity in his lyrics—and he was anti-gun. “He hated guns,” says Peter. “He never had them, and didn’t want nothing to do with them.” A recent post by Don on Twitter read, “I don’t even RESPECT a pistol.”
Of his career goals, Ms. Kemi says Don told her, “I am going to have the most money by the end of all this work. I am going to have an empire.” She explains, “He wanted to be the next big thing. I’m not talking about Drake, I’m talking about Kanye West, Russell Simmons. He wanted to be a rapper and an entrepreneur, earn [money] the right way.”
Money was indeed a great motivator. Track titles included Pocket Fulla Money and More Money. In Audio Biography, he sang about having enough to take his music to the next level: “It sadly seemed that never would I grab the cream I needed just to get equipped and so I coulda had a team to take my vocals, make my vocals sound above the way locals’ tracks sound and show my dedication.”
Making money from music and for music is exactly what he wanted to focus on in 2010. On the eve of the new year, he said in a video that his resolution was “to make more money in that first quarter than I made for the whole of 2009.” In another video blog, he said he wanted to continue to focus on his work, and film videos. “I’m trying to keep it consistent from now, ’til whenever, probably ’til I die.” On Nov. 7, 2010, Don was shot outside of a hotel in Mississauga. He was 27.