DJ Drama [Interview]
Atlanta, GA – It all started off back in Philly, where Tyree “DJ Drama” Simmons was born and raised. Working the hustle to push himself forward, Drama did everything from mixtapes to house parties. He brought his hustle with him when he moved to Atlanta to pursue college. He wasn`t just a fan anymore – he was living it. In April 2003, Drama and his partners Sense and Don Cannon founded the Aphilliates, which has since grown in both size and reputation.
Soon Drama inked a deal with Grand Hustle, serving as the official DJ for recording artist T.I., which placed him on two of the most successful hip-hop tours of 2004/2005: the Jay-Z and Friends Tour and Nelly’s Sweat/Suit Tour. Fastforward to 2008 and everyone in this game can tell you who DJ Drama is. He introduced artists like Young Jeezy and Young Dro, amongst others, and has helped shape the careers of several Southern rappers, including the game`s current favourite: Lil Wayne. Drama represents everything that the mixtape game is all about and embodies the duties and responsibilities that DJs have in the music industry. In it for good music and beyond, Drama is always looking to break new artists with his Gangsta Grillz mixtape series.
“I grew up with hip-hop culture; I was immersed in it. I came from an era where lyrics mattered. You had your watered-down stuff, but you know… I listened to everything and I think I represent quality as a whole. It’s what I know and what I love. Being Bahamadia’s DJ, I toured the world before I ‘blew up’. I went to South Africa in 2000 before a lot of people were checking for me and because I got the chance to travel on my own and with an artist I really got to see how global hip-hop was. It made my horizon bigger on what I was trying to accomplish. At the same time that I was trying to appeal to niggas in Bankhead, I knew that if I played my cards right they’d be checking for me in Canada, or in France or in South Africa, or wherever.”
The mixtapes started a movement in southern rap culture, and artists were suddenly requiring to be the next feature on the Grillz. Artists however, were not the only ones interested in the project. In early 2007, Drama and partner DJ Don Cannon found themselves facing charges on a felony violation of Georgia’s Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization law (known as RICO) and were held on $100,000 bond. In the raid, Drama had a lot of his assets seized, as well as 81,000 of his Gangsta Grillz CDs. 2007 brought even more hardships as friend and associate on his Grand Hustle label, Clifford “T.I.” Harris, was arrested on gun charges the weekend of the BET Hip-Hop Awards in October 2007 in Atlanta. At the awards, Drama, accompanied by Busta Rhymes and Alfamega, performed T.I’s single “HURT”. That same weekend, Drama also shot the video for his first official single off his Gangsta Grillz album, called “5000 Ones”, which is produced by Jazzy Phae and features T.I., Nelly, Diddy, Yung Joc, Twista, Willie The Kid and Young Jeezy on vocals. The video had many guest appearances by artists like Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, Dj Khaled, Fabolous, Grand Hustle’s Lil Duvet & the PSC Clique, Swizz Beats, Freeway, Young Joc, Webbie and The Dream, who all came through to show their respect. The album was released on December 4 th and it helped solidify a brand that the Gangsta Grillz mixtapes had already created in the world of rap. Besides his album, Drama and the Aphilliates also have two radio shows: Aphilliates Radio: Streetz Iz Watchin, airing on Eminem’s channel, Shade 45, (on Sirius Satellite Radio every Friday), and Gangsta Grillz Radio, airing on Atlanta’s own WHTA-FM HOT 107.9 Monday to Thursday as well as Saturday nights. Whew… talk about over-achiever. HipHopCanada.com was able to steal some time from Drama’s busy schedule on a lovely Saturday afternoon, where he was able to sit back, relax and enjoy the good conversation…
HipHopCanada: You are infamous for your Gangsta Grillz mixtapes, on which you’ve collaborated with some of hip-hop’s greatest, as well as supported new acts in the game. How will the album be different from the tapes?
DJ Drama: I don’t think it’s different. I think it’s a Gangsta Grillz mixtape on steroids. I call it the best mixtape album ever. It’s basically all that the Gangsta Grillz mixtapes stood for, compiled into one album. I worked with a lot of artists that I previously worked with, like T.I., Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne. I have a song with Outkast on there that’s incredible. Lil’ Jon is there, among other top players in the game. I think it will be really exciting to see how I intertwined the project to give it the feel of an album but still kept it in tune with the Gangsta Grillz feel of it. At the same time, this is a great introduction for the artist on my label, Willie the Kid. People know Gangsta Grillz to bring in new artists and this album brings that to the table as well.
HipHopCanada: When did you start working on it?
DJ Drama: It depends on what ‘working on it’ means. I’ve been working on it since the beginning, because everything has been a grind to get to this point. I think for anyone in this music industry, to be able to have an album with your name on it is always the highlight of your career, so I can say I’ve been working on this since 1992.
HipHopCanada: But the actual physical work for the album particularly…
DJ Drama: I’ve been working on it for about two years – a year and a half. Earlier this year, when my hard drive was raided, all my original material was taken away from me, so I kind of had to start from scratch. It was a very hard process and it was very challenging, in a positive way, because it made me stronger. I put together the original songs that I had on there as well as came up with new ideas that make the album even better.
HipHopCanada: Did you have a hard time re-doing everything?
DJ Drama: We did re-do a lot of the songs. I called people up and got a lot of the sessions back. A lot of the artists had different copies of them. We also came up with new songs that actually wound up being singles and some of the hottest songs on the album.
HipHopCanada: Now the album was initially supposed to drop in June but got postponed… what was the reason for the delay?
DJ Drama: There were a couple of issues. I had some clearance issues. There was an issue with another DJ saying he was DJ Drama and he called the label bitching. At the same time T.I was ready to drop his project and Atlantic really geared up for that, so I kind of got pushed back to the back burner.
HipHopCanada: I can’t even begin to name the artists you have featured on the album, from Diddy to Jeezy to Jim Jones, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Twista, Nelly, T.I., Outkast, and a ton of others. It’s a MAJOR chunk of today’s biggest rap stars. What was the most exciting project for you? A song that the album wouldn’t be complete without?
DJ Drama: I love the whole album. I think it’s all necessary from beginning to end. I can’t…it’s so hard to even try to choose one. To have Lil’ Jon on there is really important to me because he’s the voice behind Gangsta Grillz, and it was necessary for me to have him on there. When we sat down to work on it, I was like “You know I can’t do this without you.” He was the first person to come host Gangsta Grillz.
HipHopCanada: In terms of sales, are you counting on that popularity or are you approaching new ways and ideas of promotions?
DJ Drama: I’m doing everything. Of course we’re taking full advantage of the internet and I’m trying to keep myself as visual as possible. Even though I’m a new artist, Gangsta Grillz is fan-based. I’m definitely focused on my core fan base but I want people who may have never even listened to one of the GG mixtapes to finally be able to go to a Best Buy or Target and be able to ride to it from beginning to end.
HipHopCanada: Is there anyone or any other album you see as major competition at this point?
DJ Drama: I do me. I have my own lane so I’m just excited about the album.
HipHopCanada: As a DJ you have worked on full mixtapes with people that some artists would love to even get an 8 bar on their record. How were you able to brand the Gangsta Grillz the way you did?
DJ Drama: Hard work. I treated every single mixtape like it was the most important one and I went in and crafted many albums. Of course I chose artists that I respected and wanted to add spice to what they had already brought to the table. I brought a lot of creativity and hard work; it was not just a quick fix. It was from the inside out. From the album to what I said on the tapes. Everything counted so I came into every project like that and I think it showed and people saw that.
HipHopCanada: I have two of your quotes I want to touch on. One was from an interview you did with Power 106 at the Powerhouse. You said that you “D on’t like when people are like jukeboxes. You pop in a quarter and you get whatever. You believe in breaking artists.” Tell me about that… how do you see the “jukebox” concept apply to real life and who are some DJs and/or labels/A&R’s who are still breaking artists and taking risks?
DJ Drama: The industry is real hype right now. We’re in the ringtone era. People are getting signed on these hit records but no one is selling any records because no one is really building artists. It’s not always the artist’s fault. It’s everything. We need to take it back to the Motown days and the Def Jam days… and the dynasties that really had movements. It’s about movements. Radio is corporate now so you hear the same song ten times a day, and whether you like the song or not, you’re going to get tired of it. It’s just what happens. It was important for me to look at the big picture and keep my mind broad. Even when we were in the crunk era in the South, I never focused on just crunk music. It’s about good music – and there is good crunk music – but when you have fads, not in just hip-hop but in everything, like fashion and entertainment, people always want to follow the trends. It’s always the person that comes from the left field that knocks you out and that really trend-sets.
HipHopCanada: What’s the biggest risk you took in doing a collabo with an artist?
DJ Drama: Nobody knew Young Jeezy when I did Gangsta Grillz with him. He was fresh when we put that project together. It’s not necessarily taking risks; if I hear good music I’m going to fuck with it.
HipHopCanada: At the end of the day that’s all that matters right?
DJ Drama: Basically.
HipHopCanada: The second quote came from an interview you did with AllHipHop.com where you said “It’s like being a chef and cooking some frozen chicken. Anybody can cook frozen chicken, but you only have a few top chefs. Nobody has the spices that I have, nobody has the oven that I have and nobody knows the degree to cook it on to make it the best chicken you’ve ever ate in your life. That’s how I look at what I do and what I bring to the table for other artists.” Now I don’t want the recipe, but what does DJ Drama look for in an end result even before mixing in those spices and putting on that DJ Drama touch? At the end of the day what do you want to offer to the consumer?
DJ Drama: A five star meal! I need you to be in ecstasy when you’re done eating that chicken. I need that belly to be full. You might have itis; you might have to be ready to go to sleep. I’m Mr. Thanksgiving. I’ve got to feed you right. But at the same time it has to be a comfortable full. I want it to sit right. All food ain’t good for you. I’m a gourmet chef – I only work with top notch.
HipHopCanada: Even though there are artists still hitting platinum status, general sales have decreased. The mixtape game has helped the careers of countless artists including Cassidy, 50, Chamillionaire, and Lil Wayne, to mention a few. As much as mixtapes can boost an artist’s career, they can -to a certain degree- hurt the album sales. Do you agree with that statement?
DJ Drama: No; mixtapes don’t kill album sales. Mixtapes help build a movement. They help the record label push more units.
HipHopCanada: What’s the most effective way of promotion you have seen revive an artist’s career?
DJ Drama: Mixtapes.
HipHopCanada: You have supported a lot of local and national talent across America. What impresses you about an up and coming artist? What do you admire the most?
DJ Drama: I respect the movement most of all. I mean, of course the music has got to be there, but the movement is essential. Artists always come to me and ask how much it costs for a Gangsta Grillz but my thing to them is that it’s free if I come to you. I respect people who are like me, who hustle and grind and can see the big picture.
HipHopCanada: You have said that you really used to stay out in the street and cipher with other rappers. Do you ever get a chance to check out street ciphers anymore?
DJ Drama: Nah, it’s been a long time since I seen that. People still do that? I need to come out there and check one of those, maybe get some celebrity beat boxing or something going on.
HipHopCanada: [Laughing] You definitely should. What’s the last independent artist you had a chance to listen to?
DJ Drama: I listen to artists all day, everyday.
HipHopCanada: So you can’t pinpoint one specifically.
DJ Drama: Nope.
HipHopCanada: Tell me about The Aphilliates – are you working on anything to put out collectively at the moment?
DJ Drama: We have a label deal with Asylum for Aphilliates music group, so we’re putting out Willie the Kid’s album next year.
HipHopCanada: The January arrest – did that slow your movement at all? And if not, how did it change the way you viewed your career at that moment?
DJ Drama: No, it didn’t spoil it at all. It made us the face of the game for a moment. It took me around the world… I went to three continents, 36 states and had four magazine covers.
HipHopCanada: What’s next in store for DJ Drama?
DJ Drama: Next installment of the Gangsta Grillz mixtape.
HipHopCanada: How’s the Dedication Series doing?
DJ Drama: It’s doing well, you know. Now you can’t even look at a mixtape without seeing Lil Wayne on the cover. A lot of that started from what we did together. Wayne is on fire, he’s doing his thing I’m doing my thing so hopefully next year we can see a Dedication 3.
HipHopCanada: That’s awesome. I have the Dedication 2 already so I will most definitely be looking forward to the 3 rd one. Anything else you’d like to say?
DJ Drama: I plead religiously to feed the streets for the rest of my life.