DJ Drama may have the most famous shout in hip-hop, if not all of music.
The Atlanta DJ, whose Gangsta Grillz mixtape releases with artists like T.I., Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne helped define the modern hip-hop distribution model, has shouted his boasts and observations over the music of many of the biggest stars in hip-hop and R&B, often right before they broke through into mainstream success. Recent projects bearing the familiar “Gangsta Grizz-ills” and “DRAMATIC” drops include Meek Mill's “Dreamchasers 2” mixtape, the most downloaded release in the history of mixtape hosting site DatPiff, as well as Chicago artist Lil Reese's “Don't Like” mixtape.
We caught up with DJ Drama, 34, who was in town with Meek Mill's Dreams and Nightmares tour, after the pair's Friday House of Blues show to discuss that characteristic shout, Chicago rap and extreme sports.
We're here with DJ Drama...
What up. I'm here. Mr. Thanksgiving, aka Dram Cruise, aka Dram F Kennedy, the mixtape president, aka Barack O-Drama, aka Optimus Dram, 'cause I transformed the game. I can keep going until you want me to stop.
How did you develop your style on the mixtapes? Where did that voice come from?
Well, my voice I actually got from my pop. My pop had a very deep voice, so I was blessed with that gene from him. And I guess I've just been a student of the mixtape game for forever, and when I really started to revolutionize the Gangsta Grillz mixtape series, when we started doing things with like, T.I. and Jeezy and so forth, I wanted to transform going from like regular shout outs on the mixtapes into really like, giving little, like, speeches in a sense. Making it kind of motivational. So that was kind of my motivation at the time, just to be a little different from, you know, shouting out hoods and stores and things like that. I wanted to try to say something meaningful.
Over the past few years, mixtapes have become the norm for the industry. You got cracked down on for distributing CDs in 2007. How have you noticed things changing? What's different now?
Around the same time that that happened to me, the game kind of changed, and it went very viral, and it went very web-based. People started really going more downloads and free downloads, so to me it kind of came back to the essence of what the mixtapes were about: free music to the fans, to the people – is that my phone making noise? Oh yeah, my phone is playing my song! Isn't that crazy? How cool is that, my phone is playing [DJ Drama's song] “My Moment” in the background!
But also, one thing about the game that changed is mixtapes became that much more universal to all types of artists. Just in the last couple years I've done them with R. Kelly, with Chris Brown, a lot of R&B artists. The mixtape genre has become bigger than what used to be hip-hop street culture. And just recently, the Meek Mill tape did like three million downloads the first day it came out, so I kind of see the culture as bigger than ever.
For me, for the raids to happen, and to happen when I felt like I was at the top of the game, I really am thankful that it didn't die on my shoulders. I feel like it was almost kind of like a phoenix arose from that situation, with how the game is now. You see people like Drake and Wiz Khalifa and J. Cole all have success from putting out their mixtapes, all through the Internet and then going on to become some of the biggest stars in the game.
Well, even Meek Mill doesn't have an album out yet, and here we are.
Yeah, selling out Chicago House of Blues!
One of the artists you've worked with recently is a Chicago artist, Lil Reese. How did you connect with him, what drew you to him and what do you think of some of the Chicago stuff right now?
I think it's dope, man. You know, actually that connection came from my man Don Cannon, who had been doing some work with [Chicago producer and Def Jam VP] No I.D., who – you know, Reese is in the Def Jam building. But the Chicago movement is really dope, man. It reminds me somewhat of what's going on in Atlanta with a lot of the local artists. Just creating these movements that create national and worldwide attention, with Reese, and Chief Keef, and [Lil] Durk, and [Young] Chop and so forth. I think it's exciting for the city. There's a lot of talent here bubbling: L.E.P. [Bogus Boys], of course King Louie, Rockie Fresh. So you know, I definitely keep my ear to the streets. Chicago has always been one of those places with some of the biggest artists in the game, from Common and Twista to Kanye. So it's good to see this new generation coming.
Lil Wayne, who you're working with on “Dedication 4,” recently told you that he was more interested in skateboarding than music right now. If you had to pick an extreme sport that you were going to do and stop doing music stuff for a while, what would you do?
Do you surf already?
Nah. But if I wasn't DJ Drama I would be a surfer. I would move to, like, Costa Rica and just straight out surf. It seems like the most fun job in the world. Like, oceans, beaches, waves, gnarly-ing, you know? What can go wrong being a surfer?
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic