One For The Streets: DJ Drama Interviewed

Hip-hop mogul on pursuing success, working with Tyler, and Gangsta Grillz...

“It might be too early to say the features”. DJ Drama is resisting the temptation to name the artists he hopes to have on his upcoming UK centred Gangsta Grillz mixtape. “But there’s definitely some exciting features on there that I think the streets are gonna love”. 

Even a stock answer like this is reason enough for excitement. Through his iconic Gangsta Grillz series, the Philadelphia born, Atlanta made hip-hop mogul has astutely fused the roles of DJ, curator, label executive and hype-man, and afforded himself a 20+ year run at the apex of the genre. Flagship entries to the Gangsta Grillz canon have seen him narrate mixtapes by some of the biggest street rappers ever – the likes of Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne and Meek Mill. But you don’t maintain in a young man’s game for this long by being one-dimensional; he’s also worked with the conscious queen of hip-hop Rapsody, backpacker linchpins LIttle Brother and R&B crooner Jeremih. This upcoming international Gangsta Grillz which he says is about “50% done”, shows the same fearless streak that has kept DJ Drama at the top.

“It’s just a real movement going on here”, he says by way of explaining his presence in a hotel conference room near London’s Charing Cross, the location of the interview. He continues: “And it’s not even just street rap. It’s also what people would theme ‘backpacker’ or 90s. Like, what’s the kid’s name? Is it Strandz? He’s kind of got a UK Joey Bada$$ type of bop. But what I enjoy about it; it’s a time where [UK] artists aren’t trying to sound like what’s going on in the States or what everybody else is doing. The UK has its own sound and its own sauce, and niggas is stealing your sauce more than ya’ll stealing other people’s sauce!”

Naturally, DJ Drama respects the innovative spirit within the UK Rap scene – it’s the same spirit that took him to study at an HBCU in Atlanta back in 1996, instead of the typical move of heading to New York. Little did he know it, but turning down the chance to “go to New York and go to NYU and live in Brooklyn” as any kid with hip-hop dreams surely would have, was the best decision he could have made. Not only did he find himself in the city that would give birth to the trap genre, giving him access to soon-to-be Trap legends like T.I, Jeezy and Gucci Mane, but it’s where he met the friends with which he’d end up building his music empire. Drama explains: “You know, my dad told me when I was in high school: the friends you meet in college are your friends for life and he wasn’t wrong. I met [DJ] Sense and Cannon and Lake [Sheezy] in college, and we’ve been friends for almost 30 years. And not only friends but business partners. You know, we went from splitting $150 at college parties to make millions together and making history time and time again. So I’m so thankful to have met my brothers and had so much like history from our humble beginnings to where we are now.”

Through no fault of Drama’s, the standing of the Gangsta Grillz brand diminished in the 2010s. The advent of the streaming era simply meant a shift away from the downloadable mixtape format upon which Drama had built his standing. In the knowledge that the tides of change are inevitable, Drama invested in the new wave instead of resisting it. He founded Generation Now, in 2015 – the record label now has superstar names like Lil Uzi Vert and Jack Harlow on its roster. In life and especially in the rap game, those that fail to adapt are made relics of the past, while those that are willing to adapt will survive. But those that welcome change and seek opportunities to evolve, don’t just sustain but ultimately thrive. 

When I ask Drama about his ability to evolve and how it’s kept him relevant, he explains that he’s always had a long term vision: “What’s wild is that’s always been very key for me. Even when I first got on, I’d always say “now that you’ve got here, how do you stay here?” So relevancy has always been something that I’ve always been very big on. And I’ve had moments when I’ve been cold – everybody does, except Drake. But after all these years, to still be doing what I’m doing? You can’t pay for that. Especially as a DJ, or just in general in hip-hop, most people’s runs are two, three years if they get lucky. If you make it to 10, alright you’re one of THEM dudes. Past that? 20 plus years? It’s a rare club that is able to do that.”

Many current Rap fans weren’t around for Gangsta Grillz heyday of the Datpiff – much less the CD – era, and so might not recognise his contributions or significance to the culture. But another key to longevity is keeping the right perspective. When it comes to keeping relevant without chasing losing sight of the bigger picture, Drama has perfected the balance. “What people know me for varies, and I’m fine with that,” he explains. “You know, some people know me from my Gangsta Grillz mixtapes. Some people know me from Lil Uzi, some people know me from Jack Harlow. Some people know me because of Tyler the Creator. You know, it’s all part of my career. So, you know, from whatever point you have heard of, or appreciated DJ Drama in some form, whether it was as a DJ, artist, label owner, I’m thankful.” 

“It’s definitely not feeling like I have anything to prove, but it’s also about consistency. I never want to be the old guy trying to push respect for what I did in the past onto the younger generation. Respect is earned, not given. So let me earn it by putting out dope shit for them to appreciate, instead of me being like, ‘man, I was the n*gga back in the day!’ Don’t nobody wanna hear that shit! Whether it’s people in their 40s or 30s or 20s or teens, I wanna give them all something to stand up and clap for me for.”

The latest big achievement in DJ Drama’s historic run was his contributions to Tyler The Creator’s 2021 Grammy award winning album, ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’. Breaking the mould of what you might expect from a Gangsta Grillz project yet again, Drama’s narration on the album saw him awarded by the RIAA with a gramophone trophy. But there’s an acute irony to the win that gives this win extra significance. Back in 2007, the feds raided the ATL headquarters of Drama and Don Cannon’s record label Aphilliates Music Group, on the grounds that they were bootlegging mixtapes. The historic raid was organised in conjunction with none other than the RIAA, the same company that would go on to champion Drama 15 years later. What’s more? That Grammy win breathed new life into the Gangsta Grillz brand and created a new wave that Drama is still riding. 

“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing since!” he says when I ask him about the industry receiving him differently since his Grammy win. “Tyler is a very important key to the Gangsta Grillz resurgence. Who would have thunk it? Fucking Tyler the Creator would bring Gangsta GriIlz back to life. And although there were some dope [Gangsta Grillz] tapes in recent years – shout out West Side Gunn and YFN Lucci – but the popularity and the dominance of ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’ definitely made people want to do a Gangsta Grillz and made the brand like relevant all over again, 20 years later. So I’m very thankful to him for that and allowing me to play a role in his genius. And he’s an incredible person in general, one of the few people that is a very dear friend in the industry. But yeah, I don’t think it’s complicated – ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’ made Gangsta Grillz hot again.”

His association with Tyler is proof of Drama’s past triumphs still providing him with blessings decades later. He ranks his 2006 ‘Gangsta Grillz’ with Pharell as his top five in his discography – and that’s before considering how the project invited a young Tyler The Creator into the Gangsta Grillz universe. Those past triumphs are also why we’re still hearing Drama’s obnoxious gloats and motivational quotes on records to this day, and why although he has no objections to transitioning entirely into a behind-the-scenes label executive “and put my suit on, they keep asking me to hit the streets. The opportunities present themselves and I’m ready to rock. So it’s kind of not even done purposefully, it’s offered and I’m there to go. I’m a man of many hats, no pun intended and I love the role that I’m able to play.”

To close the interview, I ask Drama to pick the single moment he cherishes the most in his illustrious career. He doesn’t make mention of working with Pharrell or Wayne, or his Grammy win. Instead he opts for a personal full circle moment. “There’s been a lot but one that holds a very special place in my heart is last year, putting together the promo for [his 2023 album] ‘I’m Really Like That’ was when I shot the [1992 film] Juice vignettes. I worked with Queen Latifah and Omar Epps and the cast from Juice – to have pulled that off…  Juice was my inspiration to becoming a DJ.” 

“I have a picture from Juice with Tupac, Omar Epps, Rahim and Steel, the [latter] three of them signed it and I have it in my crib. This movie inspired me, so to then go on and work with the cast to recreate the movie is like, you know, it was like a kid living out his dream. That was definitely a moment for me that’s forever gonna stand out.”

Stay in touch with DJ Drama on Instagram.

Words: Dwayne Wilks
Photo Credit: Yasmin Cowan

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