DJ Drama: Inside the DJ Booth
All DJ Drama wanted as an aspiring turntablist was to see his name in print. “I used my lunch money to go buy records downtown,” he tells The BoomBox. “And when I was in high school, they used to promote all the parties through flyers. I remember all the DJ’s names being on them and I’d be like, ‘Man, I’ve got to get my name on a flyer.’ That was my goal.”
One could say he bypassed and smashed that goal years ago, since becoming one of hip-hop’s most influential figures. “Really, it was the movie ‘Juice’ that inspired me to deejay,” he recalls. “From there I was basically trying to convince my mom to buy me a turntable and a mixer. That’s when I began to make little mixtapes.”
At age 13, Mr. Thanksgiving, as he calls himself, took cues from DJs like Miz, Jazzy Jeff, Ran and Cosmic Kev. Then, just a Philly-bred up-and-comer, he worked towards learning the fundamentals first, spinning for hours in his bedroom. Drama practiced on records like Heavy D‘s “Who’s the Man?” and Brand Nubian‘s “Punks Jump Up.” He studied tapes that featured sets from Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the X-Ecutioners. He also began sparring with local DJs — Ghetto and Seoul, to name a few — in order to keep his skills sharp.
Drama was hooked. When asked about the number of records accrued over the years, the Apphilliates founder says he isn’t certain. “I haven’t carried records around in a long time,” he admits. “So truth be told I don’t know. Maybe 30,000.” So it’s safe to assume there’s no more crate carrying for DJ Drama? “Not at all. I’m not ashamed to say that,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve carried my crates. I’ve paid my dues.”
Those dues were paid in the late 1990s, when Drama moved to Atlanta to attend the esteemed Clark Atlanta University. His stay lasted beyond graduation once he saw that he could make headway in the South’s fledgling music industry. He became known for the smooth sounds of Electric Relaxation mixtapes. However, even with his growing success, he was having a rough time of it.
He was close to packing his bags and returning home to Philly feeling defeated until he finally made some impact with his Gangsta Grillz mixtape series. The project was built on the bars of two of Atlanta’s hottest rappers, who were then lesser known acts. That’s when Drama knew he had something special.
“I guess it was just before things really popped off,” he explains. “I mean, I had been working at what I was doing for a long time so it wasn’t until like, just before the [T.I.] and Young Jeezy tapes when I realized, ‘I’m on to something. It’s about to pop.’”
The DJ was absolutely right. The tapes — T.I.’s Down With the King (2004) and Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die (2005) — flooded Atlanta streets and put Drama in the conscience of the commercial side of the industry. Here was a DJ based in the South who knew what a street banger sounded like.
Since then, the Gangsta Grillz brand has only grown immensely and Drama hosts tapes for everyone from dead prez and Jean Grae to Jeremih and Teairra Mari. He also has four studio albums, including his most recent release, Quality Street Music, through E1. The title is a phrase coined on one of his earliest mixtapes with Jeezy. Quality Street Music is a wink at his humble beginnings in Atlanta and a way to introduce the masses to artists he respects, whether they’re “street” or not. The tracklisting includes Meek Mill, Fabolous, Cee Lo Green, Roscoe Dash and Travis Porter, among others.
“It all depends on how you define ‘street,’” DJ Drama states. “‘Street’ could mean the opposite of radio so I don’t look at it like everybody on the album has to come from, represent or make ‘street music’ per se.
“Quality Street Music is a brand in itself and I just wanted it to be a well-rounded album,” he continues. “With that being said, I went for variety and a lot of artists that I really felt were the best in their craft and what they do. There are songs on there that don’t necessarily have the most street artists on them, but with quality street music, you’ll hear it on the streets before you hear it on the radio.”
That’s been Drama’s motivation from the start — giving the streets something fresh to bump. He does that consistently and has moved beyond local streets, spinning all over the world. He says that traveling is the best part of his job, naming Australia, Hawaii, France and Spain as his favorite spots. But South Africa holds a special place in his heart.
“I’ve been going there for 12 years,” he reveals. “The first time I went was in 2000, which was before the ‘DJ Drama fame.’ And it’s been a really good place for me. I just enjoy the culture and the people and even that music industry.”
“Everybody knows I had an M-16 pointed at my head and got locked up for selling mixtapes,” he elaborates. “That turned into… I’m not gonna say ‘a good thing’ but it kinda worked in my favor and made me more famous than I already was.”
More than anything though, DJ Drama’s proudest achievement in his career is the very first one he earned. “I would have to say just, really, getting my name on the flyer,” he says, still excited by the notion. “I mean, that was my goal and I accomplished it.”
Top 5 Songs to Rock a Party
1. “All I Do,” Stevie Wonder
2. “Whatchu Know ‘Bout That,” T.I.
3. “Golddigger,” Kanye West feat. Jamie Foxx
4. “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It to Me),” Jay-Z feat. Pharrell Williams
5. “Flipside,” Freeway feat. Peedi Crack