YouTube fame yields record deal for R&B rookie

Sat Apr 24, 2010 12:48pm EDT
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By Gail Mitchell

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Singer/songwriter Dondria thought someone was pulling a fast one when she began receiving e-mail messages on her YouTube and MySpace sites from someone calling himself Jermaine Dupri. So she ignored them. But the sender persisted until Dondria decided to take a chance and call.

The record label executive flew Dondria and her manager-mother, Cynthia McCarty, to Atlanta for a meeting.

"But it took him several months to make the next move. So the tables turned, and I was the one being persistent, asking him, 'When am I coming back?' "

Now, three years after signing with Dupri's So So Def label, the Sachse, Texas, native is breathing in the sweet smell of success with her first single, "You're the One." Written and produced by Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, the track is currently No. 18 on Billboard's Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop chart and No. 30 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. The single's classic feel is a "mix between Beyonce and Coko of SWV," Dupri says. "She definitely has those influences, along with others from Mariah (Carey) to Aretha (Franklin)."

Dondria -- born Dondria Nicole Fields -- came to Dupri's attention with a built-in fan base. Armed with a $15 webcam, she had been having fun taping herself singing other artists' songs and posting them on YouTube. Starting with an a cappella take on Musiq Soulchild's "Love," the former music-education major later began regularly posting clips of her singing to the instrumental tracks of songs like Alicia Keys' "Diary," Rihanna's "Unfaithful" and Ciara's "Promise." To date, her YouTube page counts more than 3 million page views.

Beyond her voice, Dupri says what also caught his attention was the interaction between Dondria and her fans even before the first single came out. "In this social-media climate, she is setting the tone for what I'm doing now at So So Def."

Titled after her college nickname "Phatfffat" (referencing her ravenous appetite despite her slim frame), debut album "Dondria vs. Phatfffat" is tentatively set for release June 22. Available for download since November is the "Dondria Duets" mixtape, featuring her versions of male songs like Maxwell's "Pretty Wings" and Musiq's "So Beautiful."