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For us, anyway, DJ Drama stole the show at the Video Music Awards. Not with his over-the-top shout out that kicked off TI and Young Dro's performance (PS the children's choir in multi-colored Dro logo tee shirts was a beautiful thing), but in a random crowd shot that showed Drama arms-folded and vaguely scowling next to Christina Aguilera and her little husband, like "Damn, girl - why are you taking all the armrests?" YOU GOTTA GIVE THE IPOD KING HIS SPACE. For F40, we asked eight artists to name some of their inspirations, influences, and current favorites, who we then went on to feature individually. Young Jeezy picked Drama, and talked about how the ATL-via-Philly DJ "made [his] tapes more exciting" and helped put the Snowman "on a different level." No doy. DJ Ayres interviewed Dram for the issue, and you can read their full Q&A after the jump.
What was it like where you grew up in Philly?
Mom lived in Germantown around the Hollow. My Dad lived in West Philly in the Bottom, next door to Bahamadia. I used to go back and forth between the two of them. It was a whole lot as a child, having to go back and forth between two households. My dad was a grassroots political organizer. He was traveling a lot—to Eastern Europe during the cold war, to Bosnia during the ethnic cleansing, to Berlin when the wall fell. He brought me back a piece of the wall. My mom was a school teacher. She taught in some of the roughest schools in Philly.
When did you start DJing?
I started in 9th grade, when I saw Juice. Philly is known for its DJ culture. You know Cosmo, Jazzy Jeff, Miz. DJ Ghetto was killing it back in the day. I wouldn't eat lunch, I would save my lunch money and go down to Armand's and buy two records a day. I used to run with a bunch of graffiti writers and one of them made me a mixtape cover. I did a tape called Illadelph when I was 15, that was my Philly version of Doo Wop's 95 Live. That was when having freestyles on the tape was the shit, so I had Malik B, Dice Raw, Bahamadia, and this group called 100 X. I didn't start DJing for Bahamadia until years later.
You moved to Atlanta for college?
Clark Atlanta University (CAU). I knew wherever I ended up going, I would do my thing, and I just ended up in Atlanta. Getting down here was starting fresh so I had to get in the loop. I was pushing tapes on campus in between classes. I wound up running into some niggas from Philly that happened to be DJs. Before we even formed the Aphilliates, it was DJ Sense and DJ Drama.
What were you spinning?
I was doing everything. I would do a college party where I was DJing for a strictly down south crowd, then I would go over on a Wednesday and DJ at a poetry reading at Ying Yang cafe [now Apache Cafe] and play a lot of Erykah [Badu], a lot of Blackstar. That's what a lot of people who know me for one thing [Gangsta Grillz] have confused about me, "Dram was soul and then he just went over to being a gangster." The thing about me is I've always been versatile. I mean you're a fucking DJ, every DJ does it, for real for real. You know your crowd. I did weddings, I did house parties - whatever you have to do to get bread, you do. I knew my music so I could play for any crowd. There's still a crowd who knows me for doing Automatic Relaxation, a mixtape series that was more neo-soul. You would find Common, Slum Village, Jill Scott when she first came out, India Arie. Coming from Philly, our musical background is so deep and we have so much range. Taking it back to Philly International, then on the gangster side with hip-hop. In Atlanta I had to please so many different people, there was people from so many places that wanted to hear their shit, that I had to be on my Ps and Qs.
What did you study?
I studied Mass Communications: radio, TV, film. I wanted to go into filmmaking, I wanted to be a director or an editor. My sister is a documentary filmmaker and she got me into it. She has a documentary now called No that's about rape in the black community, that's about to break through. Her name is Aisha Simmons. Go to www.notherapedocumentary.org. My last film experience, I went to work as a production assistant on Baby Boy, the John Singleton film. I didn't like being a production assistant starting out at the bottom, I already had a career as DJ Drama. I had a quick speaking role in ATL. I'm DJing a house party for Big Booty Judy. When you see Buffy the Body, I'm in her house. I just did another movie, this movie called Step Show that's about to come out, in which I had a much more significant DJ role.
Will you keep doing movies?
My shit with movies is I want to be on the other side. I want to make them, I don't want to be in them. I want to make good pictures. I want stuff that's real life. If your name's DJ Drama you gotta try to get at least one Oscar! Aphilliates just got our label deal with Asylum, I want to get that going before I go over to the movie side.
How did you get with TI?
I had DJed for Bahamadia, I did a stint for Slum Village, I did Scrappy. TI did a freestyle for [my] mixtape in 2000, and we always had a good relationship. We was building and working creatively together. Then when I was doing Gangsta Grillz, he and Field Mob hosted Gangsta Grillz 7. Then we was like, Lets do a whole project together. It was Gangsta Grillz with PSC and Tip, and it was like a mini album. Niggas was doing that on the east coast, but in the south in the mixtape format it was kind of new. That was the second step in branding [the series], because Tip was so hot in the street, it broke a lot of ground. Up until that point, [Gangsta Grillz] 4 hosted by Lil Jon was the first step getting in stores and branding Gangsta Grillz.
Are you influenced by other mixtape dudes?
I'm a Green Lantern fan. When it comes to Green's creativity, he's in a league of his own. I give props to Whoo Kid, Clue, Kid Capri, people like that.
How are your CDs selling?
I do big numbers with my tapes. With every tape, with bootlegs included you're not seeing nothing under 50,000 - 75,000. Coming back from Japan and seeing how the Pharrell tape is doing, with the bootlegs and all, I'm almost certain I'm doing over 100,000. But there's no way to tell in the mixtape game. I always thank the bootleggers on every tape because I've been planning on doing an album for years. With my tapes getting out there, that's more people talking and more buzz and more places you go to. With the internet and downloading, there's no telling where your shit is at. I'm always the type of nigga that's like, it's great promotions. Whether or not a DJ sells it or not, it's your business card, you know what I'm saying. If you can get somebody to pay for your business card then so be it, but I was the same dude, every time I would go out I would give away as many CDs as possible because it's important.
And you do radio too.
I do Shade45 and I got Gangsta Grillz Radio, nothing but exclusives, Saturday nights on 107.9 in Atlanta. All new music, with all the Aphilliates.
How has being TI's DJ affected your career?
With TI, it gave me a artist where we could build our brand together and make each other more powerful. That's my Fresh Prince, that's my Guru. He got a powerful DJ that could stand on his own, and I got an artist that I knew was going to the top. It gave me leverage to build my personal career. That's what I had been working toward.
Has the beef between Gillie the Kid and Lil Wayne put you in an awkward situation, since you do shit with both of them?
The industry is very very very sensitive. Real talk. You have to make very wise moves. I understand the situation that Green was in. As a DJ you are a medium. When you are associated with an artist it changes the playing ground. Even with me, I work with TI, and I work with so many artists that I have personal relationships with them. I want to get money with everybody. It puts you in a position, you have to be diplomatic, but you have to be loyal. Loyalty means everything in the game. I'm not doing a Gillie the Kid tape. Me and Gillie were doing the tape months before what is now going on. I'm a real dude and I fuck with Gillie and I fuck with Wayne, but in no shape, form or fashion am I going to get involved with something that doesn't have anything to do with me. I'm not gonna co-sign what's going on with that. It's my decision at the end of the day, and like I said I fuck with both homies but I don't want to get in the middle of it. I choose to fall back.
You must have pretty thick skin to read all the comments on your XXL blog.
You have to read [the negative comments] because it's there whether you look at it or not. It's a good balance to MySpace, because MySpace is just like head all day. The only shit I have a problem with is the motherfuckers who call me a culture vulture. I want to smack the shit out of those motherfuckers. The only time I've ever posted a response was when I forgot to put Jam Master Jay on my DJ list, I had to add him. But that culture vulture shit, how dare you, if you only knew what I had to do to get where I'm at, how dare you call me that! There's people on there who think I'm white, so they have a problem somehow with my use of words or what I do, then you have people that have a problem because I'm in the South, and you have people who have a problem with the type of hip-hop they think I represent.
My movement was built on real hip-hop. When crunk was the hottest shit out, I never wanted Gangsta Grillz to be a crunk tape. I was making South mixtapes but I wasn't making crunk tapes. That's why I had Tip and Big Boi - you know, the artists that I chose to fuck with were people who I felt to be very lyrical. Being from Philly and growin up on east coast hip-hop made me somebody who was very into lyrics. Living in Atlanta and basking in the culture I realized how vibrant hip-hop was, lyrics and everything, and I felt like it didn't get it's just due, so that was something I really wanted to push forward and I'm happy with where hip-hop is today. Even someone like Jeezy who's not seen as a lyrical person, but people know him as an artist in that realm. It's good to see where the movement has become now because I feel like I was a part of it.
Fans are fickle. You know, before Blueprint there were a lot of people that didn't fuck with Jay-Z for the same reason, there was a lot of people that didn't fuck with Lil Wayne, you know he's stepped his shit up. It takes time, sometimes you gotta convince people.
Do you think it is weird for the other guys in your crew, that you are so much more in the spotlight?
All I'm doing is bringing light to the Aphilliates. It's a team so we all play our positions. Where one is weak, the other is strong. I don't take credit for everything I've done; it's everything we've done. Most movements have a front man. I'm comfortable in that position. It brings everyone forward. We got a label deal. A lot of that was based upon me being out there the way I was out there. Obviously our music spoke for itself. On Trap or Die, I put everyone's drops on there, because Jeezy’s movement was already so big, I knew that tape was going even further, so it was important to me that we pushed Aphilliates forward. Me winning means we're all winning. It's almost like a Dipset thing, where before people was looking at Cam, now they're looking at Jimmy and Juelz to walk their own paths. It makes the Dipset movement more powerful. Now people are like "We fuck with Hell Rell!" They got an Urb cover and Cam wasn't even on it. We move in the same way. When I'm official, I can fall back. We're a family, we've been with each other so long.
Who all is in the Aphilliates?
Sense, Cannon, Jamad, Jaycee, Ox Banga, Lil Larry, Infamous, and Amanda Diva. We got two artists now, Willie that Kid and The Replacementz.
And what's up with the album?
On the Gangsta Grillz album, we got Tip, Jeezy, Styles P, Lil Wayne, Pharrell, a few surprises. Half the album is in-house production. We got AMG Studios, it's 3000 square feet, office on one side and A and B studio rooms on the other side. We got 6 employees, and Sense and La handle a lot of the business.