DJ Drama: Gangsta Grilling

posted December 07, 2007 12:00:00 AM CST | 10 comments

You cant say the word mixtape without mentioning DJ Drama, the man making Gangsta Grillz tapes synonymous with successand tribulation. Rewind for a moment to a year ago. The self-professed Clue of The South, popular in his own right, agreed to appear in The New York Times Magazine forat the timea relatively minor feature entitled Hip Hop Outlaw. Little did he, or anyone, know that within a matter of weeks, the feature would make international headlines as news of the FBIs seizure of 80,000 CDs and his arrest turned the Philly native into a household name.

Press fast-forward and we learnin an exclusivethat he has yet to be indicted by the Federal Government for that same headline-grabbing violation of the RICO statute. Though hes not in the clear by any means, the delay may signify brighter times for the deejay as he releases his first studio album. However, interestingly, we also learn that he has yet to speak to his similarly situated friendand currently indictedCEO, T.I., in person about his own struggles with the Feds. The deejay insists that it isnt personal, saying instead that the timing of their schedules just havent lined up.

But before addressing these issues (and then some) we decided to take it back to where thing all began: The Gangsta Grillz mixtape. How exactly are they made? Is there really a science behind releasing them? Can he show us why are they light-years ahead of the competition? Drama delivers living up to his name, answering with exclusives galore.

HipHopDX: I know the album droppedand well talk about it laterbut before we get started Ive got a quick question about "The Art of Storytelling pt. 4. Are you gonna get Slick Rick on pt. 5?
DJ Drama: [Laughs] Well, we'll see. Like, I did something [pauses]. We did Slick Rick already. So if we do something [with him again] we've gotta do something different.

DX: What I want to do is focus on the Gangsta Grillz mixtapes for a little bit, to get a kind of a background story on them from the ground up. So lets pretend youre about to make a new Gangsta Grillz tape. What's the first step that you go through?
D: I mean, the first process really is normally with the artist, you know, coming up with a concept for the tapeyou know, a direction and everything. Going over some beats, go back and forth, and [choosing] some beats for that artist to pretty much get a script together of how the tape is gonna go. A lot of the rest from that point is in the artists hands [before] turning everything into me and letting me work my magic.

DX: And do you have any creative process that maybe you go through personally to get inspiration or anything like that?
D: Generally, I've got to listen to the music in the car the majority of the time; you know what Im saying. I hate. [Pauses] Ive never liked it when artists email me music. I always tell them, "Send me everything together on a CD; Let me get everything at one time, you know what Im saying, so I can really rock to it.

DX: And what do you do to determine what artists you want to work for a set tape? Is there anything behind that?
D: That's all in the planning and scheduling. With a lot of artists, we'll be talking for a long time to get the project in motion, and it'll come about. I track them down or they track me down.

DX: Now, you've worked with a lot of artists. This may be a clich, but who haven't worked with that youd probably want to collaborate with down the line?
D: Scarface is probably the main one that'll come to attention.

DX: Okay. Now say you've got step one locked down. What's the next step are far as making that tape happen?
D: Step two would be like us going over some music or going over a concept [or] idea for the tape. When thats finished, we then put it together.

DX: As far as producing the actual artwork and label workare you doing that on your own? Or are you coming out of pocket?
D: No. I leave the professional work for the professionals. But the artwork is handled by the artist. I give him the direction then he goes on and does his thing.

DX: Okay. Now as far as distribution goes, how is that handled? 'Cause you're on different level from most other deejays, Im thinking you're not going to the trunk of the car and just handing them out anymore. Right?
D: Nah. But I would if necessary. You know promotions. Once you've got the machine, you know you've gotta get it out as much as possible. I'm not above handing out free CDs myself, making sure that everybody gets one, you know, signing them and doing whatever it takes. It's all about getting the music to the people.

DX: Id like to shift gears just a little bit and talk about the media coverage you've had this yearwhich has been the most for any mixtape DJ that I can think of. How has that affected your own drive to just keep on working?
D: It was intense, man. That shit made me so much more hungry because I wanted to be able to overcome the adversity just to really be in the history books so early on in my careerin my opinion. I've [still] got a lot to accomplish basically.

DX: You ever feel like your back was against the wall?
D: Yeah. my back was against the wall but I prevailed. You know what Im saying. The strong will survive.

DX: Definitely. And when you say, prevail what exactly does that mean? I'm not trying to put you on the spotbut what's your definition of prevailing?
D: I spent a day in jail and Im out here doing my thing, Ive traveled the world, been on a bunch of magazine covers, my album is in stores. It's a beautiful feeling.

DX: Speaking of which, you were in the New York Times Magazine. What was that like?
D: That was crazy. We had actually started that interview before the raid. I was doing that interview in December, so it was somewhat interesting. My grandma reads that magazineits a whole nother level right there. Senators and all types of people read it. It's a blessingit's a blessing to just get to this point in my career.

DX: Now, you started that interview in December, but if Im not mistaken this whole situation happened in January. Is that right?
D: Yeah. It was weird because I was uncertain at that moment in time what was going on with that piece, but it came out in a very positive light. So I came to the conclusion that she was just a journalist doing her job.

DX: Okay. So we did stage two for the tapes. What's the next level after that? Say youve gotten them pressed and made. What do you do after that?
D: Then what happens [are] a lot of phone calls, a lot of hand-to-hands, a lot of just moving and giving it to the people. That's just half the battlethen you've gotta make sure everybody has one.

DX: I've interviewed other deejays and they've told me that the labels have had a hand in sometimes helping them out with production costs and stuff. Is that generally done with your stuff too, sometimes?
D: Yeah. All my projects are most of the time artist sanctioned, or label sanctioned, so you know labels have good checks.

DX: And to me that seems the most absurd part of the charges against you if the labels themselves are helping out these mixtapes.
D: It's kind of crazy, right?

DX: It's like cutting off your nose despite your face in a lot of ways. It didn't add up.
D: Couldnt have said it better myself.

DX: So tell me about the album a little. It's been a long time coming, I know.
D: You know the Gangsta Grillz album is pretty much like a Gangsta Grillz mixtape on steroids. You know, same formula same concept. You know it's crazy. A lot of your favorite artists are on there. A lot of good songs. You know, good music... and the key relations of what Gangsta Grillz has come to over the last two to four years.

DX: Okay, so ideally, after this drops, how long do you expect it will be to make the next full album? Ideally speaking.
D: I got a nice little three-album deal. I'm trying to get it done as fast as possible. I learned a lot on this one, so it definitely won't take me as long [to make the next]. But Im gonna be making mixtapes forever man.

DX: What are your thoughts on artist-generated mixtapes? Some have said that it hurt the mixtape game, some have said it helped. And you being somewhere in the middle of thatby being T.I.s deejay you have an interesting perspective on it. What do you think?
D: Artists making mixtapes It's really about the product and the project. If you feel as though you can put that together, more power to you, but it's nothing like having a deejay on your project.

DX: Yeah, now a lot of kids coming up now don't know the power of and S&S mixtape or the power of a Kid Capri tape from back in the day. Is that a good, or maybe a not so good thing?
D: It's a bad thing. It's like we've gotta make them take the Hip Hop SAT'S man before you can be a mixtape deejay. Or to be a deejay, you've gotta be able to pass them Hip Hop SAT's and answer them questions, and understand the power of Kid Capri, S&S, Doo Wop, etc.

We're definitely doing that [ourselves] and through my mixtapes. It's like my shit is real rap, real deejaying. I don't fuck around. I make sure to show some skill on my shit cause I got deejay in front of my name.

DX: I noticed a lot of deejays don't do blends anymore. What happened with that? That kind of disappeared?
D: [Sighs] Its just that state of mind.

DX: How influential was DJ Clue on you. If he was, in fact, influential?
D: Clue? Clue was that guy. Clue was the first deejay, if Im not mistaken, to go platinum. I think that was a major achievement, and just the success that he had as a mixtape deejay was phenomenal, and what he did with his album, and what came after that, you know a lot of people compared me to Clue, and said I was the Clue of the south, you know, the new Clue and everything. It's an honor for me because I remember the time when Clue was heavy on the mixtapes, you couldn't go nowhere without hearing Clue drop.

DX: How's your boss doing? He's had his own drama, so to speak, you know what Im saying?
D: He's good man. He's at the crib. He's kicking it. You know being a 'G.'

DX: Were you able to see him on Thanksgiving?
D: Nah, I had to work at a party in Houston, but I talked to him, he's with the family.

DX: And did you have any kind of insights with each other? 'Cause you were in a very similar situation yourself.
D: Yeah, but we want to wait to talk about it in person really more than on the phone, but we're definitely gonna get it in.

DX: So you haven't seen him yet?
D: No. I haven't been over to the house.

DX: Could his situation have affected your publicity and promotion? Tell me what were your first thoughts when he got arrested in October. What was your first reaction?
D: Man, my video was being shot the next day. It was pretty ill. It was pretty crazy. Definitely. We had a show we had to do in an hour. So that's what I was focused on, and the shoot was beautiful. You know we held it down for T.I.P. You know, cameo city, everybody came out and supported. It was a lot of fun.

DX: I know youre originally from Philly, and I noticed you've got Gillie on the album.
D: Nah, Willie.

DX: I thought you had a joint with Gillie also. No?
D: Uh-uh. Nah.

DX: I was misinformed then. It says so on Wikipedia
D: They got it wrong. I tried to change it the other day, but it wouldnt let me. Gillie cool. He doing his thing in Philly. It's all love. I respect all Philly artists doing they thing cause Phillys a tough city. You understand. That's where I come from, so I like to see everyone get money. The powers that be are already against us, so I don't come here for problems. I come here to make music.

DX: And speaking of the powers that be, you've seen the shit first hand. What would be your advice to someone who maybe gets into a future situation with the Feds?
D: You've gotta be careful, man. Make wise decisions. Make wise moves. You know, and in a situation like mine, you know I got myself into it, for whatever reason it happened, it's a true test of how do you... what do you do when your back is against the wall. You know, like I told your earlier, I prevailed. You know, it's time for you to show strength.

DX: So is the case done? Is that what you're saying?
D: The case is still pending. We've yet to be indicted. I havent been sent back to jail yet. You know Im rocking and rolling.

DX: So you got a conspiracy charge? Is that right?
D: I got a bootlegging and racketeering charge under the RICO [statute].

DX: It's like American Gangster. Its the same type of thing. What did you think of T.I.P in the movie?
He did good, man. That little niggas funny man. He got his head blown off. That's a shame. Other than that he did straight. [Laughs]

Additional reporting by Brian Gomez.

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