Do What I Want
Twenty years into his career, DJ Drama keeps his beloved mixtape series Gangsta Grillz alive as one of hip-hop’s great cross-generational creators.
Interview: Peter A. Berry
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Spring 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
It’s hard to pinpoint an all-encompassing snapshot of mixtape culture, but a pile of old Gangsta Grillz CDs is pretty close. Since creating the franchise at the dawn of the blog era, DJ Drama’s carved a legacy as rap’s ultimate hype man, teaming up with some of hip-hop’s biggest names to elevate street albums to an art form.
Raised in Philadelphia, Drama, born Tyree Simmons, was inspired to become a DJ after watching Omar Epps play a teen DJ in Ernest Dickerson’s 1992 film, the cult classic Juice. After learning how to work turntables as a youth, Drama left Philly to attend Clark Atlanta University, where he met eventual longtime business partner Don Cannon. In 1998, Drama released Jim Crow Laws, a debut mixtape that began the trek that took him to stardom.
By the mid-2000s, Drama had become a proverbial household name for street rap, with artists like T.I., Jeezy and Lil Wayne teaming up with him for various projects. Drama’s hoarse, guttural shouts, knack for inventive one-liners and penchant for collaborating with artists on the brink of superstardom helped crystallize his status as a hip-hop icon. In 2013, he took his talents in a new direction, founding the record label Generation Now alongside Don Cannon and Leighton “Lake” Morrison. Since then, the label’s signed multiplatinum-selling artists Lil Uzi Vert and Jack Harlow, certifying itself as an industry powerhouse.
Drama has been in exec mode, but that hasn’t stopped his DJ grind. Dating back to 2021, he’s hosted projects by Jim Jones, Symba, Dreamville and, most prominently, Tyler, The Creator. During his career, Drama has had his ups and downs—in 2007, he and Cannon were arrested in Atlanta and hit with RICO charges for selling copyrighted materials—but the DJ has managed to make his career a continual acclivity, one culminating with the moment Tyler, The Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost LP won the Gramophone for Best Rap Album in 2022.
During the April release week for his new album, I’m Really Like That, Drama, 45, speaks inside his room at New York City’s Times Square Edition hotel in Midtown Manhattan. The Grammy-winning artist discusses his legacy, dead rapper dream collaborations, Generation Now and more.
XXL: I’m Really Like That is out now. Why release a new album at this point in your career?
DJ Drama: I actually started working on that album sometime after Covid, you know, loosely. Generation Now, the company, as a staff, we were just laying out our projects and my album was one of them. And we started to slowly work on songs. And just in the last like, I don’t know, maybe six, seven, eight months, as a lot of things were revving up. I was at a point in my career where I felt energized. I started to really put my all into it, and began to really dive in, and completing the project and really feeling like now is a great time to put a project down.
You’ve released a lot of great projects over the years. What is it to you that makes a classic mixtape?
That’s a great question. Obviously, an artist that makes great music, sequencing is very important, what people hear at the very top is very key. Just the sequencing and the flow of the mixtape. When it comes to, to me, like what I lend to it with my personality and my talk game and how I approach the record. The creative things that I say, the bells and the whistles. The Gangsta Grill drops, the sound effects, as well as just little tricks of the trades of maybe running a record back and giving it some energy and creating that excitement.
I always compare it to like being a chef. People bring me their turkey at Thanksgiving, and it’s their turkey, but I use my oven and my seasonings. I know exactly the degree to cook it on, 425. And when I present it, it’s the most delicious turkey you’ve ever tasted in your life.
You’ve been on the pure DJ side and the industry executive side. What’s been more difficult: building up a mixtape series or a record label?
It’s hard to compare because there is no Generation Now if there’s no Gangsta Grillz. So, just even when you asked that question, it made me reminisce about the days literally of me sitting in my one-room duplex, putting CDs in the cases and putting the covers in there, closing it, doing another one, closing it. It’s insane. To that degree, to like where I am now, where it’s now I have a full facility compound in Atlanta, a staff of 30. A fully functional label.
So, they both were complex in their own ways, but one led to another and, obviously dealing with artists and other personalities is a complex thing because I can’t just go off my own schedule or my own feelings or when I’m ready to get to work. I’m dealing with other people, and I’m invested in their lives, and their lives are invested within me. So, their success is my success in a sense.
None of it is easy. Putting together an album, creating a successful artist. I like to think that we may make it look easy because of the successes, but it’s a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of dedication. It’s a lot of just like 25/8 days, 25 hours, eight days of work and grinding it out. Thankfully, the payoff has been quite well in my situation or in our situation.
Another thing that comes along with running a record label or any company is giving guidance to and just tapping in with the artists on your roster. Lil Uzi Vert has said he’s gotten sober, and he recorded The Pink Tape while sober. What are your thoughts on that? Did you have any conversations with him about it?
We did have some conversations about that. Me, Cannon, Lake and Vert, about that personal journey. Obviously, it’s not something outta respect for him I would want to share the insight on how he feels or what it was like for him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something that he touches on on the project.
I’m super proud of him and I’m sure that for him, being able to approach the music from that aspect was eye-opening and something different, something that a mature Uzi, who’s at a different stage in his life and his career, is able to accomplish.
Have you noticed a change in the music?
Yeah, I noticed a change. Again, Uzi is quite secretive about his work. So, I like to leave the mystery to him and let him share it with the world. But, from what I’ve heard, I would attest to that.
On the subject of Generation Now artists, what’s up with Jack Harlow? When is he dropping some new music?
He’s in the studio now. He’s gearing up. We’ll definitely see new music from Jack this year, for sure. [Editor’s note: Since this interview was done, Jack Harlow dropped his third album, Jackman, in April.]
Who are some up-and-coming artists you would do a Gangsta Grillz project with?
I’ve had the conversation with Stove God [Cooks]. I would love to do a project with him. I think a GloRilla Gangsta Grillz would be fire. Maybe even like Ice Spice or maybe Lady London. So many dope females out there. Obviously, a lot of people have always wanted the EST Gee Gangsta Grillz. Don’t get me started, so many people. I mean, would love to do a Brent Faiyaz Gangsta Grillz. It is endless. I think that’s one thing that’s dope and potent about Gangsta Grillz. It’s a platform and cross-generational.
A De La Soul Gangsta Grillz tape is in the works. What’s the status of that?
It’s not that far along, to be honest. There’ve been a lot of conversations, especially between me and Pos[dnuos], something that we’ve talked about for the last, like two, two-and-a-half years and really trying to bring it to fruition. Pos told me early on about the day when they were bringing their catalog to streaming platforms and the plan and the goal to, after that happened [was to] start working on the Gangsta Grillz. And obviously we lost [De La Soul member] Dave, but it’s something that we’re both still very excited about and still very gung ho on completing.
Who are some late rappers that you would have liked to do a Gangsta Grillz tape with?
S**t, f**king The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac. I would’ve loved to have gone back in with Nipsey Hussle, did another Crenshaw. That would’ve been amazing. Imagine Crenshaw 2. Imagine a Tupac Gangsta Grillz. ODB.
In March, it was reported that DatPiff was going to be shut down, and obviously, many Gangsta Grillz mixtapes have been streamed off the platform. Do you ever worry about your music being lost because of something like that?
I do. There’s a whole era of hip-hop that, because it’s not available on streaming platforms, if we were to lose a site or platform, there’s an art that could potentially go lost, you know? I think it’s very important for us to preserve that. And it’s just even in my goals of going forward, of trying to bring some of these projects to streaming platforms to give more ears and get more listeners to, and more accessibility to some of this music, that only exists in a certain space that if you’re not familiar with, you wouldn’t even know is there.
That was a big fear when I heard that rumor or just in general. I can think about how many projects of mine are out there in the world, but not as accessible to just go on an Apple or a Spotify or a Tidal and be able to find. A lot of it lives on places like DatPiff. We’re talking about a good 10, 15, maybe 20 years of music and of projects that potentially could go lost if we don’t preserve it and don’t embrace it and give it a chance to live on. And that is a scary thought to think about.
What are some of the things that you and Generation Now have coming up?
I got a bunch of Gangsta Grillz projects in the works. I got some really big ones that, you know, is going to f**k some s**t up. We’re working on a Generation Now compilation. We’re in the process of signing some new artists. I have some other ventures in the works, avenues that I’m taking my brand in, direction by a podcast that I’m working on that I’m gonna officially announce very soon. I have a book deal on the table. Just recently, [I’ve] been getting into narration.
You’ve accomplished a lot over the years.
I think my legacy and my accomplishments are my motivation to continue because of so many things that I’ve been able to do and just continue to challenge myself to continuously put out new s**t. That’s the mixtape DJ in me. I’ve always been addicted to new s**t. Yesterday was dope, but watch what I’m about to do tomorrow.
Check out additional interviews in XXL magazine’s spring 2023 issue, including the cover story with Lil Durk, conversations with Key Glock, Coi Leray, Joyner Lucas, Fridayy, Lola Brooke, Luh Tyler, Destroy Lonely, Blxst, Curren$y, Finesse2tymes, Vic Mensa, Toosii and actor Tyler Lepley, plus a look at how famed hip-hop attorney Bradford Cohen helps clients like Drake and Kodak Black beat their cases, veteran photographer Johnny Nuñez tells the behind-the-scenes stories of 10 of his iconic hip-hop photos, six rappers from six different eras—Melle Mel, MC Shan, RZA, Lupe Fiasco, B.o.B and Cordae—discuss the change in hip-hop over 50 years and a deep dive into the city of Memphis becoming a breeding ground for new rap talent.