DJ Drama’s well deserved victory lap

In one of the quieter moments of J. Cole’s new Dreamville mixtape D-Day, DJ Drama chimes in with a little self-enhancing commentary. It’s not new. For decades, Drama has filled breaks from mixtapes screaming at his own greatness. He is very good at it and he has established slogans – “and so we are off!” – which trigger floods of Pavlovian endorphins in rappers of a certain age. Right now, however, Drama is actually being a little too humble: “Every time you hear my voice, I think of Mount Rushmore!” And there are only a few places available! I don’t know what Mount Rushmore Drama is about here, but if it’s about the Mount Rushmore of mixtape DJs, then Drama’s place is safe. Mixtape-DJ Mount Rushmore might just be the face of DJ Drama four times over.

DJ The Fuck Drama, Mr. Thanksgiving, started making rap mixtapes in Philadelphia as a teenager, and he started making specifically Southern rap mixtapes after he arrived at Atlanta University at the end of his career. 90s. At the time, mixtapes from people like DJ Clue were very popular on the East Coast, but that specific style of band hadn’t really migrated south yet. (Houston had DJ Screw, whose mixtapes were even bigger than the Clue tapes in New York, but the Screw tapes were something else entirely.) The drama applied the DJ Clue model to Southern rap, and within a few years, his Gangsta Grillz the series was a big deal. I used to buy tapes from this guy in Baltimore who had a table that was sometimes set up in a particular corner, and I took each Gangsta Grillz band that guy had, with DJ Smallz’ Southern Smoke bands.

With Young Jeezy’s Tha Streetz Iz Watchin and Trap or die in 2004, Drama got into the business of single-artist mixtapes that were basically just full street albums, full of crazy beats and triumphant ad-libs. From there, Drama and Lil Wayne did the Devotion series, and their first two tapes together were some of the best pure rap albums of the mid-2000s. Drama was hugely important in the rise of Southern stars like Wayne, Jeezy and T.I., and it also did an extremely prominent with tons of artists from across the rap spectrum: Gucci Mane, Pharrell, Meek Mill, Little Brother, Jeremih, 2 Chainz, Lil Boosie, Rich Homie Quan, countless others. In 2014, Sheldon Pearce undertook the insane task of ranking of 150 different drama tapes for Deadspin; You might be interested to know that Katt Williams and Metta World Peace both have drama tapes.

Drama’s mixtapes became so big that he made himself a target. For years, mixtapes have existed in a sort of legal gray area. They ignored all the copyright rules, but they were good for the music business. The mixtape circuit made stars out of the likes of 50 Cent, so mixtapes were allowed to flourish, often bearing the “promotional use only” stamp. People were selling mixtapes, but those who were selling them were, more often than not, bootleggers. (My guy in Baltimore certainly didn’t have the official copies.) But Drama started passing around his tapes, stocking them at Best Buy, putting UPC codes on them. In 2007, federal agents, acting on advice from the RIAA, raided Drama’s Atlanta studio. The cops hit Drama with RICO charges, confiscated all of his gear, and cleaned out his personal bank account. At the time, Drama was himself a major artist. It didn’t matter. Those charges were eventually dropped, but this classic mixtape style was essentially shut down.

The drama remained, and he continued to make mixtapes, but those tapes were moved online, to sites like Datpiff and Livemixtapes. Drama also co-founded the Generation Now label with longtime collaborator Don Cannon, and they’ve signed big stars like Lil Uzi Vert and Jack Harlow. The drama never became a dominant and ubiquitous cultural presence like its former contemporary mixtape DJ Khaled. Instead, he just kept making moves. And while Drama’s tapes aren’t confined to a single historical era, the sound of his voice instantly conjures up memories of the mid-2000s mixtape heyday. That’s probably why Tyler, The Creator – himself a product of the end of the mixtape era – recruited Drama to shout ad-libs all over his album. Call me if you get lost Last year. Call me if you get lost is a love letter to rap music in all its forms, and the presence of Drama gives it a certain electric energy.

J. Cole was probably aiming for something similar when he introduced Drama for D-Day. Cole released his compilation on Friday, the day before his Dreamville Festival in Raleigh. It was a triumphant moment for Cole and for Dreamville in general, which is currently thriving far more than most rap teams built around a central star. Right now, Ari Lennox has become an R&B phenomenon in his own right, and JID is sitting in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 with his Imagine Dragons collab “Energy”. These guys have a time, and when you have a time, you pull out a DJ Drama tape

D-Day it really sounds like a drama tape too. It’s full of concussive horn loops and frenetic ad-libs and chaotic energy. The opening track hook “Stick” is mostly Kenny Mason shouting the word “stick” over and over. None of the songs on the tape are classics, but many of them are fun. The rappers together all understand what’s going on here. Cole does some soul-searching — Cole always gets introspective – but he also talks a lot of shit: “Thirsty for weight, talks too brazen / Bullet hit his mouth, at least he died tastefully.” JID engages in this same type of talk, although he always makes sure to phrase it in a complicated way: “When the Wesson squirts, it does wonders / Until you’re with the freaks in the sub- ground.” At one point, Drama starts yelling about an incident that happened just five days before the mixtape was released: “Keep messing with the Dreamville name!” Don’t pull Chris Rocked out of your socks! There’s something ecstatic about hearing Drama stay relevant while promoting his own band.

As it happens, Drama could have had its own award show moment a week after the Oscars. This last Sunday evening, Call me if you get lost won the Grammy for Best Rap Album. The RIAA has already sent federal agents to raid Drama’s studio, and now the man has a Grammy, the ultimate mark of acceptance in the music business. This price would have would have been on the Grammy show if Tyler had actually shown up to the ceremony. Instead, Tyler was on a hike and he hopped on Instagram Live to give an acceptance speech. The drama was the first person Tyler thanked: “You’re so important to rap music.”

DJ Drama wasn’t in the Grammys building either. Instead, he was in North Carolina for the Dreamville Festival. J. Cole had booked three of the heroes of the mixtape era for a special Gangsta Grillz together. Lil Wayne, Jeezy and the now-disgraced T.I. all played heavy sets of mixtape-era material. That means Lil Wayne went back to his “Swag Surfin'” freestyle while Drama played hypeman. (Drama didn’t DJ, though.)

The tragedy happened do an interview in front of the camera when he heard the news Call me if you get lost winning the Grammy. This is the kind of validation he has deserved for a long, long time. Mixtapes have now been completely subsumed into the music industry, and outlaws like Drama have joined the establishment. But Drama is not part of this establishment because he is the boss of Jack Harlow’s label or whatever. He’s here because of the excitement that still surrounds those Gangsta Grillz cassettes he made in the days of thin CD cases. Those tapes were miracles, and it’s gratifying to see Drama reap the rewards so many years later. He deserves more. Already put his face on a mountain.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Gucci Mane – “Blood All On It” (Feat. Young Dolph & Key Glock)
Young Dolph was special. He’s so authoritative on this track that Gucci, a man who’s influenced generations of Southern street rappers, seems to be operating in Dolph’s orbit.

2. Big Cheeko – “30” (featuring Mach-Hommy)
This bassline sounds like it’s stalking you through the woods late at night.

3. EST Gee & 42 Dugg – “Everybody Shoots Too”
I can’t believe we’re about to get an entire album of EST Gee and 42 Dugg ripping beats together. It’s like Christmas.

4. Freddie Gibbs – “Ice Cream” (Feat. Rick Ross)
You shouldn’t rap over a classic Wu-Tang unless you’re absolutely sure you’re going to destroy that beat. Freddie Gibbs was not worried.

5. PGF Nuk – “Waddup” (Feat. Polo G)
Chicago exercise will never die.

EVERYTHING WAS GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO