DJ Drama’s Well-Earned Victory Lap

Greg Noire

DJ Drama’s Well-Earned Victory Lap

Greg Noire

In one of the quieter moments on J. Cole’s new Dreamville mixtape D-Day, DJ Drama chimes in with a little self-aggrandizing commentary. This is nothing new. For decades, Drama has been filling up the pauses on mixtapes by bellowing about his own greatness. He’s very good at it, and he’s established catchphrases — “and like that, we gone!” — that trigger pavlovian endorphin-floods in rap dorks of a certain age. In this one moment, though, Drama is actually a little too humble: “Every time you hear my voice, I’m thinkin’ Mount Rushmore! And there’s only a couple spots available!” I don’t know what Mount Rushmore Drama is talking about here, but if he’s talking about the Mount Rushmore of mixtape DJs, then Drama’s spot is safe. The mixtape-DJ Mount Rushmore might just be DJ Drama’s face four times.

DJ The Fuck Drama, Mr. Thanksgiving, started making rap mixtapes in Philadelphia as a teenager, and he started making specifically Southern rap mixtapes after arriving at college in Atlanta in the late ’90s. At the time, mixtapes from people like DJ Clue were a big deal on the East Coast, but that specific style of tape hadn’t really migrated down south yet. (Houston had DJ Screw, whose mixtapes were even more important than the Clue tapes in New York, but Screw tapes were a whole different thing.) Drama applied the DJ Clue model to Southern rap, and within a few years, his Gangsta Grillz series was a big deal. I used to buy tapes from this one guy in Baltimore who had a table that was sometimes set up on a particular corner, and I’d grab every Gangsta Grillz tape that guy had, along with DJ Smallz’ Southern Smoke tapes.

With Young Jeezy’s Tha Streetz Iz Watchin and Trap Or Die in 2004, Drama got into the business of single-artist mixtapes that were basically just full-on street albums, full of jacked beats and triumphal ad-libs. From there, Drama and Lil Wayne made the Dedication series, and their first two tapes together were some of the best straight-up rap albums of the mid-’00s. Drama was hugely important in the ascent of Southern stars like Wayne, Jeezy, and T.I., and he also put in hugely important work with tons of artists from across the rap spectrum: Gucci Mane, Pharrell, Meek Mill, Little Brother, Jeremih, 2 Chainz, Lil Boosie, Rich Homie Quan, countless others. In 2014, Sheldon Pearce took on the insane task of ranking 150 different Drama tapes for Deadspin; perhaps you would be interested to learn that Katt Williams and Metta World Peace both have Drama tapes.

Drama’s mixtapes got so big that he made himself a target. For years, mixtapes existed in a sort of legal gray area. They ignored all copyright rules, but they were beneficial to the business of music. The mixtape circuit made stars out of people like 50 Cent, so mixtapes were allowed to flourish, often bearing the made-to-be-ignored “for promotional use only” stamp. People did sell mixtapes, but the people selling them were, more often than not, bootleggers. (My guy in Baltimore definitely didn’t have the official copies.) But Drama started circulating his tapes, getting them stocked in Best Buy, putting UPC codes on them. In 2007, federal agents, acting on a tip from the RIAA, raided Drama’s studio in Atlanta. Cops hit Drama with RICO charges, confiscated all his equipment, and cleaned out his personal bank account. At the time Drama was a major-label artist himself. It didn’t matter. Those charges were eventually dropped, but that classic mixtape style was essentially shut down.

Drama stuck around, and he kept making mixtapes, but those tapes moved online, to sites like Datpiff and Livemixtapes. Drama also co-founded the label Generation Now with his longtime collaborator Don Cannon, and they signed big stars like Lil Uzi Vert and Jack Harlow. Drama never became an overbearing, omnipresent cultural presence like his onetime mixtape contemporary DJ Khaled. Instead, he just kept making moves. And while Drama’s tapes aren’t limited to any one historical era, the sound of his voice instantly evokes memories of the mid-’00s golden age of the mixtape. That’s probably why Tyler, The Creator — himself a product of the late mixtape era — recruited Drama to shout ad-libs all over his album Call Me If You Get Lost last year. Call Me If You Get Lost is a love-letter to rap music in all its forms, and Drama’s presence gives it a certain electric-jolt energy.

J. Cole was probably going for something similar when he brought in Drama for D-Day. Cole released his compilation on Friday, the day before his Dreamville Festival in Raleigh. That was a triumphant moment for Cole and for Dreamville in general, which is currently thriving way more than most rap crews built around a central star. At the moment, Ari Lennox has become a full-on R&B phenom, and J.I.D is sitting in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 with his goofy-ass Imagine Dragons collab “Energy.” Those guys are having a moment, and when you’re having a moment, you put out a DJ Drama tape

D-Day really does sound like a Drama tape, too. It’s full of concussive horn loops and frenzied ad-libs and chaotic energy. The hook of opening track “Stick” is mostly just Kenny Mason yelling the word “stick” over and over. None of the songs on the tape are classics, but a lot of them are fun. The assembled rappers all understand what’s happening here. Cole gets introspective a couple of times — Cole always gets introspective — but he gets in plenty of shit-talk, too: “Thirsty for the clout, talkin’ too brazenly/ Bullet hit his mouth, at least he died tastefully.” J.I.D indulges in that same type of talk, though he always makes sure to phrase it in complicated ways: “When the Wesson squirt, it does wonderworks/ Till you with the monsters in the underearth.” At one point, Drama gets to shouting about an incident that happened just five days before the mixtape came out: “Keep playing with Dreamville’s name! Don’t get Chris Rocked out your socks!” There’s something ecstatic about hearing Drama keeping topical while hyping his own tape up.

As it happens, Drama could’ve had his own awards-show moment a week after the Oscars. This past Sunday night, Call Me If You Get Lost won the Grammy for Best Rap Album. The RIAA once sent feds to raid Drama’s studio, and now the man has a Grammy, the ultimate mark of music-business acceptance. That award reportedly would’ve been a part of the Grammy broadcast if Tyler had actually shown up to the ceremony. Instead, Tyler was out on a hike, and he jumped on Instagram Live to make an acceptance speech. Drama was the first person Tyler thanked: “You are fucking so important to rap music.”

https://twitter.com/ElliottWilson/status/1510777061694005249

DJ Drama wasn’t in the building at the Grammys, either. Instead, he was in North Carolina for the Dreamville Festival. J. Cole had booked three of the heroes of the mixtape era for a special Gangsta Grillz set. Lil Wayne, Jeezy, and the now-disgraced T.I. all played sets that were heavy on mixtape-era material. That means Lil Wayne went back to his “Swag Surfin'” freestyle while Drama played hypeman. (Drama didn’t DJ, though.)

Drama happened to be doing an on-camera interview when he got the news about Call Me If You Get Lost winning the Grammy. That’s the kind of validation that he’s deserved for a long, long time. Mixtapes have now been completely subsumed into the music industry, and onetime outlaws like Drama have joined the establishment. But Drama’s not part of that establishment because he’s Jack Harlow’s label boss or whatever. He’s there because of the excitement that still surrounds those Gangsta Grillz tapes that he made back in the slimline-CD-case days. Those tapes were miracles, and it’s gratifying to see Drama reaping the rewards so many years later. He deserves more. Put his face on a mountain already.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Gucci Mane – “Blood All On It” (Feat. Young Dolph & Key Glock)
Young Dolph was special. He’s so commanding on this track that Gucci, a man who influenced entire generations of Southern street-rappers, sounds like he’s operating in Dolph’s orbit.

2. Big Cheeko – “30” (Feat. Mach-Hommy)
That bassline sounds like it’s stalking you through the woods late at night.

3. EST Gee & 42 Dugg – “Everybody Shooters Too”
I can’t believe we’re about to get a whole album of EST Gee and 42 Dugg ripping up beats together. It feels like Christmas.

4. Freddie Gibbs – “Ice Cream” (Feat. Rick Ross)
You shouldn’t rap over a Wu-Tang classic unless you’re absolutely certain you’re going to destroy that beat. Freddie Gibbs wasn’t worried.

5. PGF Nuk – “Waddup” (Feat. Polo G)
Chicago drill will never die.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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