HITS Daily Double


It takes a lot to make DJ Drama starstruck. The Grammy-winning Philadelphia-born producer and label head, whose influential Gangsta Grillz series revolutionized the mixtape in the early 2000s, has seemingly seen and done it all. He’s worked with larger-than-life rap figures like Snoop Dogg, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Outkast, 50 Cent and Lil Wayne. He’s manned the turntables for T.I. and flipped a remix for Alicia Keys. Yet during the filming of a commercial for his latest star-packed release, I’m Really Like That, he was overcome by the presence of royalty.

“I mean, I’m standing right next to Queen Latifah, a true legend,” Drama says of his meeting with the hip-hop luminary, who was on hand for a recreation of a scene from the 1992 film Juice. It was Drama’s idea to reunite the stars. “Juice was my inspiration for becoming a DJ,” he says. “That shit was everything for me growing up.”

DJ Drama is a walking hip-hop encyclopedia whose comprehensive knowledge of the genre is all over I’m Really Like That. The set includes Tyler, The Creator, the late Nipsey Hussle, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, Gucci Mane, Rick Ross, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, Jack Harlow, Wiz Khalifa, Offset, Moneybagg Yo, Lil Wayne and T.I., among others. “It runs the gamut, whether it’s quality street rap or backpacker hip-hop. I want it to be a full representation,” he says.

Born Tyree Simmons, Drama has been an unabashed hip-hop zealot since becoming enamored of Philly’s thriving rap scene, which birthed Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, The Roots and Bahamadia, to name a few. He takes pride in the city’s unimpeachable reputation for producing great DJs. But it wasn’t until the early ’90s, when Drama started getting into the New York mixtape circuit, led by supreme spinners like DJ S&S, Ron G and DJ Clue, that he found his calling.

He took his obsession to Clark Atlanta University, where he met two other Philadelphia-raised DJs, one of whom was Don Cannon. The three would eventually form The Aphilliates DJ and artist collective.

In the ATL, Drama expanded his hip-hop palette, immersing himself in the music and culture of Southern rap. By his junior year, he’d dropped his first Southern hip-hop compilation, 1998’s Jim Crow Laws.

Drama began turning heads when he landed Atlanta’s Lil Jon to host his fledging Gangsta Grillz series. His landmark mixtapes featuring T.I. (2004’s Down With the King), Young Jeezy (2005’s Trap or Die) and Lil Wayne (2005’s Dedication and 2006’s Dedication 2) went national, transforming him into one of the most powerful influencers in hip-hop.

DJ Drama conceived his mixtapes as unofficial street albums, featuring freshly recorded material alongside the familiar hip-hop hits of the day. Soon everyone from Pharrell Williams to G Unit’s Young Buck were cranking out Gangsta Grillz projects―and Drama was reaping the rewards, pulling in north of $60,000 a month. Unfortunately, the RIAA, which had already begun cracking down on what they viewed as illicit activity, was also paying attention.

On Jan. 16, 2007, Drama’s Atlanta Means Street Studios was raided. Police took everything: computers, cars, thousands of mixtape CDs, banking info and recording equipment. Drama and partner/producer Cannon were arrested for bootlegging and racketeering, the latter charge usually reserved for violent drug and gang operations. Drama was dumbfounded. “I was just making music, and they really came at me like I was on some crime-boss shit,” he says. “I took a fall for hip-hop and I stood strong.”

Drama and Cannon were also liable for selling CDs without a name and address—a violation of federal copyright laws. The charges were ultimately “dead docketed,” however, which meant the pair would not be prosecuted.

In short order, he resurrected the Gangsta Grillz franchise, signed Lil Uzi Vert and Jack Harlow to his Atlantic-distributed Generation Now imprint and won a Best Rap Album Grammy in 2020 for his contribution to Tyler, The Creator’s CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST.

I caught up with Drama to discuss his Philly beginnings, how he turned the mixtape game upside down, plans for future Gangsta Grillz outings and other hot topics.

I’m Really Like That is your first major-label release since 2009’s Gangsta Grillz: The Album (Vol. 2). Are you relieved to finally have your long-in-the-making follow-up out in the world?

I’m excited for people to hear it, just really enjoying the moment. I’ve been promoting this album for quite some time, so I’m glad it’s finally here.

What were some of the hurdles you faced assembling such a diverse crowd of MCs?

It wasn’t easy. I had a lot of the album done and I went to Tyler in the ninth inning and told him, “Yo, I can’t do this without you.” I really wanted him to start it off, but he was in a space where he had to get some time off. But Tyler really came through in the clutch for me.

Leading off the album with the Tyler track is a nod to your hip-hop roots, given your love of boom bap and alternative acts like A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots and De La Soul.

It could definitely represent that. It could also represent Tyler winning me a Grammy and being part of the resurgence of Gangsta Grillz; it was a nod to him as far as what he’s meant to my career these last couple of years. And when it comes to my catalog, I always want to make sure I’m representing the entire culture of hip-hop.

That also means staying connected to the current hip-hop landscape. How important is it for you to be plugged in to younger artists like Lil Baby and A Boogie Wit da Hoodie?

It’s very important. A lot of that comes from my mixtape roots. It comes from me just being a student of the game, understanding that hip-hop is always evolving. Hip-hop began as youth culture and as it gets older, youth culture is still a big part of what makes it what it is. You gotta be able to embrace this generation now. They’re the budding superstars and the legends of tomorrow. I never want to be the elder statesman that doesn’t show love to the youth.

You had a very public falling-out with Jeezy and Lil Uzi Vert. And yet you re-united with them for the new album. How did the reconciliation come about?

When you come up in this business, it’s like anything else in life—you are going to have your differences. Speaking on Jeezy and Vert, two totally different situations, we were able to move past our issues. I think we’ve all matured. Those guys are very important to my career.

Is it true that your mom purchased your first turntable?

Yeah, my mom bought me one turntable with a mixer. My grandparents got me the other one.

How’d you finesse that?

Good grades in school.

You took your East Coast hip-hop influences with you when you enrolled at Clark Atlanta University―did you experience musical culture shock when you stepped foot on campus?

It was really more of an eye-opener. It was, like, “Wow, here are all these people from all these different places who love the music they grew up on the same way I do.” I don’t know if I would have been successful so early in my career if I hadn’t come to Atlanta and gone to an HBCU. College kids are hard to please. They want to hear what they want to hear. It had such an impact on making me as well rounded as I am.

What were some of the songs that got the strongest reaction on campus?

Three 6 Mafia’s “Tear da Club Up.” People would go crazy for that one. Also Pastor Troy’s “No Mo Play in GA.” People would go wild when I played that one, too.

What did it mean for your career to get Lil Jon to host your Gangsta Grillz mixtape?

It was big. That was one of my earliest co-signs. Lil Jon is literally the voice of Gangsta Grillz. At that point, I needed a host to create some attention for the project and he really blessed me at such an early point of my career. I’ll always pay homage to Jon.

Tell me something about the impact T.I.’s Down With the King and Jeezy’s Trap or Die had on making Gangsta Grillz such a recognizable brand. Do you consider them the series’ most pivotal releases?

Yeah, absolutely. With TIP, as we were coming up, I knew he was an artist I could attach myself to; as I was furthering my career, our association would catapult what I was doing even further. I was being a student of the game, thinking about Jam Master Jay and Run-D.M.C., Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Eric B. and Rakim and Whoo Kid and 50 Cent―I knew T.I. was my guy. When people think about DJ Drama and TIP, I’m his DJ. In hip-hop, that means a lot.

And with Jeezy, it’s the same thing, in a sense. When we did the first Gangsta Grillz project, I saw the response. I heard our mixtapes coming out of every car in the Southeast. By the time we did Trap or Die, I knew we were onto something special.

This was all happening at a time when mixtapes were transitioning from just being compilations and featuring exclusives to being mini street albums. It was all happening in real time. I didn’t realize those mixtapes would go on to become classics. I was just doing what I did. You don’t realize you’re making history when you’re doing it.

In 2007, your studio was raided. How crazy was the moment you went outside to move your car and saw a virtual army waiting to arrest you?

It was insane. I took one for the culture. I didn’t have no other shit going on that I was hiding behind; I wasn’t using hip-hop [as a cover for illegal activity]. But as dark a moment as it was, it was also a shining moment. I prevailed. I made it out to a better situation.

Did you hold any resentment about it?

I never held any grudges. Nobody owes you anything. No one had to have my back. And there were people who did support me. TIP was there. Jeezy was there. There were definitely folks in my corner. Everybody that contributed to my first studio album [2007’s Gangsta Grillz: The Album] was there for me.

What I found ironic was that the same people who’d produced and delivered plaques with my name on them, thanking me for sales of millions of records, were in cahoots to have me locked up. But I think in the long run, the RIAA got it right. I think I’m well respected in the recording industry and by the RIAA. So I never took it too personally. You can’t get caught up in that because you will have a bitter taste in your mouth, and I try not to live my life like that.

How does it feel to be called a Grammy winner?

It’s a story for others to look at—a story that says always get back up after getting knocked down. It shows that when your back is up against the wall, always face the music and keep on pushing. I’m a prime example of that. The recording industry, which once was responsible for putting me in handcuffs, was now delivering me a Grammy. So who really won?

Is the mixtape dead?

Not at all. Mixtapes have always been a part of hip-hop. They are the lifelines, the veins of the culture and always will be. Just recently we’ve seen a resurgence of mixtape culture; I’ve been a part of so many mixtapes in the last year and a half, from Tyler, The Creator and J. Cole/Dreamville and Snoop to Jeezy, NBA YoungBoy, Icewear Vezzo, OMB Peezy, Jim Jones and French Montana.

I’ve shown everybody that the mixtape continues to be an art form. Mixtapes are connected to an era that could potentially be lost. DJs have a responsibility to be spokespeople for mixtape culture. I know what it did for me as a young DJ and look at where I am now: a Grammy Award winner with six albums under my belt and a multimillion-dollar label. There are so many things I’ve been able to accomplish just from being a mixtape DJ.

Are we really going to see a De La Soul Gangsta Grillz mixtape?

Yeah, we are pushing for it. I’m looking forward to getting to work with those guys. Right now they are in the celebratory phase of having their catalog finally re-released. At some point, sooner than later, we will get to work on it.

And it would be a great tribute to De La member Dave Jolicoeur, aka Trugoy The Dove, who passed away this year.

Absolutely. I’ll be right there for them waving the De La flag for Dave.