DJ Drama: Triumph

If you’re a quality DJ you better know how to juggle. Not just the one’s and two’s, but actual multi-tasking: deejaying, production, mixtapes, life. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve heard about January 16, 2006—the day the RIAA sent federal agents to arrest DJ Drama and DJ Don Cannon of the Aphiliates Music […]

If you’re a quality DJ you better know how to juggle. Not just the one’s and two’s, but actual multi-tasking: deejaying, production, mixtapes, life. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve heard about January 16, 2006—the day the RIAA sent federal agents to arrest DJ Drama and DJ Don Cannon of the Aphiliates Music Group for alleged racketeering and bootlegging.

Drama’s been juggling for over a decade. Never mind the impending court date—an official Gangsta Grillz: The Album is on the way, there’s a legal battle going on over his name, and he’s a father who needs to make it to soccer practice on time. Before he got his Pele on, Dram kicked his views on his roots, his arrest and the future of his craft. As it turns out the phrase “DJ Drama” is both a proper noun and an adverb. This isn’t English class though; it’s more like Hip-Hop 101. Pay attention. Let’s take it back to the beginning. People automatically associate your name with Gangsta Grillz, but your roots go back to Philadelphia and the Automatic Relaxation series, right?

DJ Drama: Yeah, but not just that. I don’t want people to think I was just a neo-soul dude. I came up in Philly on Hip-Hop, so I was also making tapes when Nas and Biggie first came out. Black Moon had just touched down AZ, Gang Starr and everything of those sorts came out. I started deejaying in ’92, this was during the time The Roots were called The Square Roots and before Philly was known for battle rapping on YouTube.

When Bahamadia first got signed to Guru’s label [Chrysalis] we lived in the same neighborhood, literally right next door to each other. I saw her come up and everything, but I actually didn’t become her DJ until I moved to Atlanta. We always had that relationship though.

The time when I was a teenager, which I think is always an important part in people’s Hip-Hop lives, was right around the time when Biggie, Nas, Wu-Tang and Black Moon were all prevalent.

As far as the Automatic Relaxation, that’s something that I didn’t start until I got to Atlanta. Philly is definitely a very musical city, and, from a deejaying standpoint, I had always been very versatile. The theme of it was called “Hip-Hop Loveables.” I took all of the Hip-Hop love songs that I knew at the time and put that on one tape, so that was the first. So that wasn’t really the jump off, it was just one of many things you were involved in at the time?

DJ Drama: Yeah, it was one of many things. My first real mixtape was actually called Illadelph. I did it in ’95 and it basically was completely inspired by Doo Wop’s “95 Live.” That was the Holy Grail to me at the time. Early on, when Doo Wop made that tape, that was the beginning of a lot of freestyles on mixtapes. People were putting songs on, but he was really revolutionary in that concept. I had Malik B, Black Thought, Dice Raw, Bahamadia and this group called 100X. Remember when “Horror Core” was real popular? Definitely.

DJ Drama: 100X was killin’ Philly at that time. Do you have one particular memory that stands out from back then?

DJ Drama: That’s hard, man. Philly is what made me. I spent a lot of time in the clubs and I’ve seen a lot of people perform. We used to be on South Street all the time and we’d just start up a cipher. I would sit there and beatbox and there would be like ten rappers. Before you knew it a whole crowd would form. I come from that era when n****s used to really stand outside and rap. The Aphiliates are a diverse crew. You, DJ Sense and Don Cannon all met up at Clark Atlanta University, but how did you end up linking up with people like La The Darkman and AllHipHop’s own Amanda Diva?

DJ Drama: Everything kind of comes together. I met La through Willie The Kid and Cannon. Will had gone to Clark around the same time that Cannon, Sense and I went. Cannon and Will had hooked up. La was Will’s older brother, so he kind of seen what we were doing and it came full circle. When stuff started on the label side of things, La was right there with Will being our first artist. With La being basically part of one of the biggest movements ever in Hip-Hop, he brought a lot of jewels to the table. Some artist’s Gangsta Grillz are better than their studio albums. Did you ever consider putting out full length LPs as opposed to mixtapes?

DJ Drama: Not really. I treated them like albums, like street albums really. I knew early on, before I got into mini-album mode, that the opportunity would come to do an album.

I’ve compared it before. 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. For legal reasons, we have to tread lightly when talking about your arrest. But, can you tell us where you were emotionally on January 16?

DJ Drama: I went through a lot of emotions that day. From the cops jumping out of them Tahoes and putting guns to my head…under the circumstances I was pretty calm. When I heard that we were under arrest for bootlegging and racketeering, I went into shock mode and a million things were racing through my head. Basically, when I was in jail for that small amount of time, I was just hoping to God that I was going to make bond and get a bail.

After I got out, we got together, sat down and had a meeting. We basically was like, “It’s time to work.” So, I guess my next emotion was hunger. After going in my office and seeing it pretty much naked [and stripped] of everything I’ve accomplished and brought to the table, instead of waving my white flag I got inspired. You’ve collaborated with DJ Chuck T on Down South Slangin’ #37. Since he was in a similar situation in 2006, have you guys talked at all?

DJ Drama: I saw Chuck the other night. I was in Charlotte for a gig, and Chuck has just moved out to Charlotte. That was the first time I saw the tape. He pretty much put the tape together and I just hosted it for him. A lot of DJs have come to me to host tapes with them. It’s a pleasure and an honor to me, as a DJ, to help any DJ out or host a tape. I definitely made my stake in the game, so I respect everyone on the come up. As an CEO/A&R, after this situation blows over, what’s the best way to promote your artists?

DJ Drama: The mixtape game is still here and I’m still doing my thing. I’m a master of promotion. Pretty much everything I’ve done so far has been practice for what’s next to come. We do what we do on the radio, and do what we do in the streets. Whatever other outlets there may be, you have to embrace them, you can’t fight the Internet—whether it be Myspace, YouTube or even the new boom with all these blogs. You bring up a good point with the Internet. Even though you’re the “iPod King,” people may assume that you have a beef with the Internet because of your blogging experience.

DJ Drama: Nah, not at all. I just think you get a lot of personalities on the Internet. I don’t think blogging was necessarily for me, but I’m glad I did it. I wasn’t even aware of that world before they asked me to do that. I learned about the blogs, The Ill Community on AllHipHop and all that s**t. I just think it’s important. I’ve gotten a lot of good tidbits and found a lot of good music f***in’ with those things, so hey, I love it. Based upon that and your position as an executive, do you subscribe to the notion that 300,000 is the new platinum?

DJ Drama: No, 300,000 is 300,000. I don’t look at it as being the new platinum because you’re not certified. People are still going platinum out here. Because I’m new to the game and I have yet to sell any records, my goal is really to make quality music. I want to sell records making quality music. At this point, I can’t say I’m concerned with going platinum. I’m concerned with giving the people something they can appreciate that will stand the test of time. By doing that, it means that you can’t always worry about how many records you’re going to sell.

I know it’s not Hip-Hop, but just take an artist like Robin Thicke for example. He’s been out forever, and now his album is really doing what it was supposed to do in the first place. You take a lot of trendsetting people like Pharrell and ?uestlove who’ve been saying that Robin Thicke was the truth, but nobody wanted to listen back then. Take a group like Three-6 Mafia who’ve been around for what, 10 to 15 years? Now they’re Hollywood’s darlings. It’s all about what you bring to the table.

I’ve got real fans and people really respect what we do as a movement. I’m not banking on getting 10,000 spins to sell my record. I believe in people respecting my movement and what I bring to the table. That’s why they f**k with me.

It’s the same thing with Nas. You never used to hear his stuff on the radio, and he did quite well, if I might say so myself, with his sales and his album. That was based off of his movement. Nas got the whole world talking about Hip Hop is Dead with what he brought to the table. Whether you believe it’s true or not, it was ingenious. As bad as January 16 was, it gave me more attention and it gave me a story, so I’m rockin’ with it. After your arrest, immediately got an editorial from your sister Aishah Shahidah Simmons. Your family is very political, so did you two have any dialogue about the Don Imus situation?

DJ Drama: Yeah, I just talked to my sister about it yesterday. She’s had her two cents on the situation. It’s kind of ironic that the Don Imus situation happened around the same time that these three White boys got acquitted for the rape charges [at Duke University] in North Carolina. I can’t say whether they were guilty or innocent, but just because they were acquitted does not mean they were innocent. That came to play in our conversation.

Me and my sister, I love her to death, but we don’t always agree on our Hip-Hop views. We did talk about Oprah and I expressed to her that it was quite wack that the only rapper Oprah had on the show was Common. Out of the majority of rappers, he’s probably the one who uses the word “b***h” the least. How do you do a show like that, where the main man caught in the crossfire is Snoop, but not have Snoop on the show? How do you not have Jay-Z or Diddy on the show? If you really want to get down to it, you need to have these people on the show to voice their opinions and start a dialogue from there.

Going back to the Imus situation though, I don’t think Hip-Hop has anything to do with it. He’s a racist. It doesn’t surprise me. For him to get fired does not gratify me. What people don’t know is that XM Radio has already offered him a deal and he’s probably going to wind up making more money now. It’s not like anything has really been done by that.