DJ Drama: How to build a Gangsta Grill

 |  November 10, 2006

By William E. Ketchum III



      At the end of his Separate But Equal mixtape with Little Brother, DJ Drama screams, “My swagger is at an all-time high! Nothing can take me out my zone!” But if you look at what Drama’s been doing for the past few years, it’s not hard to take him seriously. Along with being T.I.’s official DJ, the bearded board handler’s Gangsta Grillz mixtape series has taken the streets over in such a manner that everyone from southern slingers Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne to bi-coastal mainstays Jim Jones and Snoop Dogg is enlisting his services. Atlantic Records also recognized game, and has brought Drama aboard for an official Gangsta Grillz album, whose guest list would frankly take up too much space for this article. In an interview with HipHopCrack, DJ Drama reminisces on his come-up and gives his take on today’s mixtape scene.


HipHopCrack: How did you get your start on the mixtape scene?


DJ Drama: Basically, I just started by trials and tribulations. I was in high school, I was just putting together tapes, selling them out my locker for five dollars. I did my first tape with a cover in like ’95, and this was around the time when S&S, Doo Wop, and others pretty much reigned surpreme. I was trying to follow in the format that was already laid. I remember Doo Wop put out “95 Live,” and I kind of followed his formula. I put out a tape called “Illadelph” that had a couple of local at the time, but also became national artists out of Philly, giving me exclusive freestyles for my mixtapes and everything. That was my beginnings.


HipHopCrack: What made you decide to take your mixtapes seriously?


DJ Drama: I always took it seriously from day one, but I think that years later, being a DJ. … I started doing mixtapes when I was about 16 or 17, and when I got about 19 or 20, after moving to Atlanta and being a DJ for a few years, you realize that with the clubs, you have to rely on promoters to pay you or book you. I wasn’t  on radio, I was (only) on college radio at the time. I was trying to get on mainstream radio, but I felt like the radio stations weren’t paying attention. So for me, it was just that the mixtape route was my own route, because I was my own boss on that. That was the best way for me to get my name out there; I was like “f” a promoter, and “f” a radio station. If they don’t see my talent, I know what I’ve got, so I’ma just do it myself and put it out to the streets.


HipHopCrack: Gangsta Grillz is what a lot of people know you for.


DJ Drama: It just came about from being creative, really. I never planned on that being my claim to fame; it was just a mixtape series along with many that I did. But I was onto something; I created a brand, I rocked with it, I fed it, I let it grow, and it became the phenomenon that it is today. So it just came about from me doing what I do, basically. I can’t front—it wasn’t anything that was planned, but once I started it and realized I was onto something, I ran with it.


HipHopCrack: How did you establish that brand from scratch?


DJ Drama: I always had visions and goals and directions that I wanted to go in. As a DJ, my main objective on the mixtape level was (to establish a reptuation, so that) when people go to the store to get my mixtapes, you didn’t necessarily have to go look at the playlist and read what was on the tape. I wanted them to be like, “Oh, that’s that new DJ Drama? Get me that.” That was my goal from early on, and by doing that, that’s just what I struck out to do. I wanted to differentiate my tapes from everything else on the market, and that was by making sure that I had exclusives, or just making my product different from everybody else. I was out to make mini-albums; that’s what I was trying to do, that was my early goal as far as creating a brand.


HipHopCrack: How do you form relationships with so many big name artists from jump?


DJ Drama: I’ve been in the game a long time, so thosre relationships come from years of just being around. It’s like the NBA. You come in the game as a rookie, and you might sit on the bench for a couple years and everything. You might see people like Jordan, Kobe and AI, and they’re in the league with you, but you’re not on their level; but you still meet them and play them in the game and everything. Even if you’re on the bench, you still need to shake their hand before the game.


And on the same level, other artists like TI, Jeezy, even The Roots and Kweli, I came up with all those guys. I’ve seen their careers from very early on, and people see the same thing with my career. But along the road, I’ve also been able to meet people like Puff, Russell Simmons or Jay-Z that I grew up on. But now, those are my peers; I’ve scored my 30-plus, and I go to the all-star game now, so you play with the same all-stars you grew up on. Everything’s about in relationships. It comes in time, nothing is built overnight.


HipHopCrack: As much as you work with bigger artists, how important is it for you to work with newer artists?


DJ Drama: To me, just as important to working with artists that are superstars. As a DJ, that’s part of what I do—break artists. That’s one of the reasons I’m so well-respected in the game and in the streets. It’s not just that I have superstars hosting my mixtapes, but I’ve also been in a position to break new artists. Hip-hop is a very fresh culture, and people are always looking for something new, so it’s about having your finger on the pulse. I take pride in being able to spot what’s coming out, what’s about to be hot, what’s fresh, and what I can bring to the table, so people can be like, “Yeah, I remember hearing that on Drama’s tape.”


HipHopCrack: Primarily, you work with southern artists. Is it a challenge for you to work with a Saigon or Jim Jones?


DJ Drama: It’s not a challenge for me to work with anybody; if it’s hot, it’s hot. I grew up in Philly, and I spent the last 10 years of my life in Atlanta. So that tells about the type of individual I am: I grew up on East Coast hip-hop, but now I’m a mainstay in southern rap culture. So if a Saigon has hot music and a Jim Jones has hot music, it’s nothing for me to bang out. I represent hip-hop as a culture. I take pride on holding the South down, and I take pride in being part of the southern explosion. But at the same time…it’s like when people say that you’re an actor, but then you’re a black actor. Black actors are actors at the end of the day, whether they’re black or not. The music is hip-hop, so I don’t care where it comes from.


HipHopCrack: How do you think that the southern mixtape scene and east coast mixtape scene are different?


DJ Drama: I don’t think they’re different anymore. I think at a time, they were different, but I think the south is pretty much caught up. I don’t think that the south was on the same level as the north when it came to mixtapes, because it was primarily an east coat and up north culture for years. With the exception of people like Jelly and Screw, and it wasn’t wasn’t even a big mixtape scene with those guys, it was a different direction. Now, I don’t really tihnk there’s a difference. Hip-hop is so expanded, and after what 50 Cent did to the mixtape game and revolutionized it, I think that regardless of where it is, it’s so big, so it’s all the same. But one thing I think the South has had an advantage of for a number of years is the money aspect of mixtapes. Up north, it was like the crack game when it comes to the wholesale prices. It wasn’t making that money like the south was making, but times have changed.


HipHopCrack: You’re signed to Atlantic Records. Do you find yourself having to switch hats, working with Atlantic execs one day and with street artists another?


DJ Drama: Not really. I’m a very well-roudned individual, and I just do me. They signed me because they respect my grind as DJ Drama, so I don’t try to be anything that I’m not. DJ Drama’s a hustler, he’s a DJ, a businessman. I wear all those hats gracefully.


HipHopCrack: Over the past few years, major labels have really utilized mixtapes a lot. These days, you can find a mixtape in Best Buy; that’s not something you’d always see. What do you think of that, and what affect do you think that’s having on the mixtape scene?


DJ Drama: It’s grand! It was only right that the mixtape DJs get their due and major labels start realizing the power. It’s not surprising to me, it’s just like everything with hip-hop in the last 25 years. It just keeps growing and growing, so nothing really surprises me.


HipHopCrack: Well as far as the growing goes, people say that hip-hop has been wattered down with all of its growth. Do you think that the mixtape scene has suffered the same fate due to its exposure?


DJ Drama: Mixtapes are already watered down. Mixtapes are a dime a dozen, everyone thinks they can do it. I’m just always one to discard what I don’t like, and I applaud what I do like. I don’t think that there’s that much of an extreme of major labels and mixtapes that it’s come to a watered down point. I think the mixtape game in itself, and people not being authentic DJs making mixtapes waters that down more than anything.


HipHopCrack: Elaborate on that a little bit.


DJ Drama: People think just because you can get on the Internet and get some songs and get a cover made and put it together, that it’s a mixtape and you’re a DJ, and that’s not the case. I thank God that I was raised on the mixtapes and DJs that I was raised on. I come from the era of S&S, Ron G, Doo Wop, Clue…people have said that Clue changed the game for the worst, but he had his own lane, and that’s why he is who he is today—he rode his lane and he followed his niche. I don’t think there’s enough DJs that respect the culture or take a pride and passion in the art of the mixtape. That goes in from the packaging level, to the quality of the CD, the skill on the CD, the mic game, the exclusiveness. I don’t put mixtapes out just cuz; I have a purpose out there. There’s an elite group of others out there doing what I do, and there are some new jacks coming up as always. I still think there’s some good in it, but just like everything else in hip-hop—just like everyone thinks they’re a rapper, or everyone thinks they can make their own label, everyone wants a mixtape.


HipHopCrack: You had a blog with for a while. How did that happen in the first place, and why aren’t you there anymore?


DJ Drama: It happened because my man Brendan (Brendan Frederick, online editor) over at XXL, when they revamped the site, he came to me and was like, “I want to give you this outlet to get out there and be a blogger, and write what you want to write.” I’m glad I did it, because I wasn’t aware of the internet hip-hop culture, as far as the bloggers or the chat rooms and all that stuff. Because I started doing that, I got put up on it, as far as the forums and all that stuff. It’s a whole ‘nother culture that I got to see. There’s a lot of geeks on there, there’s a lot of nerds, there’s a lot of haters. But at the same time, they’re real fans of hip-hop, so it’s interesting to read what they talk about. I put up my comments every time I got the chance.


I don’t do it anymore because I really wasn’t that consistent with it, and I think they wanted someone at XXL to be more consistent. I had my hands full in a lot of different areas; I wasn’t the greatest blogger, to be honest.