D.R.A.M. on His Genre-Blurring Career: 'It's a Gift and a Curse to Be Stigmatized As a Rapper'
Just before 6 p.m. on a Monday afternoon in mid-October, an insistent voice cuts sharply through the quiet of the Atlantic Records lobby. "Craig!" it booms throughout the floor, searching for Atlantic CEO/co-chairman Craig Kallman. "Where's Craig? CRAIG!"
A minute later, Shelley Massenburg-Smith, better known as D.R.A.M., strides into view and cuts the tension with a cackle. The rapper-singer with the wide, toothy smile and dreadlocks down to his navel is days away from the release of his debut album, Big Baby D.R.A.M., released Oct. 21 on Empire/Atlantic Records, and with an exclusive performance for fans at Samsung's 837 location in Manhattan set for tonight, he's ready to celebrate -- but first, there's more work to do.
Truthfully, the past six months have been one long celebration for the 28-year-old, as his ultra-catchy weed paean, "Broccoli" featuring Lil Yachty, steadily climbed the Billboard Hot 100 chart to its current No. 5 peak. There's a roguish innocence to “Broccoli," and a complete disregard for the line between singing and rapping; in some ways it recalls "Cha Cha," the 2014 slow-burning single that he credits with taking him, in just two years, from sleeping on his cousin's couch to performing on stages around the world.
Before that, however, D.R.A.M. was working at a call center in Virginia hitting open mic nights and local showcases to resurrect a stuttering music career. Born on a military base in Germany, his family settled in Hampton, Va. by the time he was seven, where he got an early taste for performing at family reunions and while singing in the local church choir. "Ever since I can remember I could sing [and] the responses would be so positive -- who doesn't want that?" he says. "And as I got older the desire to do that just got stronger and stronger."
He picked up rapping in middle school, freestyling over songs from Virginia heroes Clipse, but a series of hip-hop groups, both in high school and during his one year at Kentucky State University, fizzled out, leaving him back in Hampton's local circuit. Then, a chance meeting with producer Gabe Niles led to the two starting to work together in early 2014, which turned his fortunes around. "We're both wild cards, very carefree, good-natured," D.R.A.M. says about their connection. "We have a lot of the same beliefs, spiritually and vibe-wise -- it's just a real dope pairing. You would think we'd known each other forever."
Their chemistry resulted in D.R.A.M. -- the nickname stands for "Does Real Ass Music" -- releasing his first mixtape, #1EpicSummer, in November 2014, which included the Niles-produced "Cha Cha." The euphoric, carefree dance track blew up on Instagram and caught the attention of Beyonce, who posted a video of herself dancing to the song in May 2015 with the caption, “This song makes me happy!"
The success of "Cha Cha," however, would be bittersweet. In July 2015, D.R.A.M. finalized a label deal with Atlantic; later that month, Drake released a remix of “Cha Cha" on his OVO Sound Beats 1 radio show. Drake's take was quickly re-named "Hotline Bling," and eventually sailed to No. 2 on the Hot 100, leading D.R.A.M. to tweet one night in October 2015 that he felt he got "jacked" for his record. These days, it's one of the only topics of conversation that isn't met with his usual charm. "That's in the past, man," he says, eyes turning downward. "That's water under the bridge."
His tweet, however, was seen by Erykah Badu, who had released a remix of "Hotline Bling" earlier in the month and reached out on Twitter to offer support. The two -- D.R.A.M. calls her "Queen Badu" -- eventually got in the studio together and collaborated on his album cut "WiFi," a plaintive love story written in the language of Internet connectivity that he describes as "the intro to a lot of beautiful things" between them.
"WiFi" is one of the more tender moments on Big Baby D.R.A.M. But more importantly, it's not a rap song, despite the genre boundaries that were placed on D.R.A.M. when he first started buzzing on hip-hop blogs. "You could call it a gift and a curse to be stigmatized as a rapper," he says. "I mean, I'm big, black, dreaded, smoking a blunt while we do this interview -- you look and see 'hip-hop artist.' But when you're a singer you're doing Ellen and the world gets way broader... On the low, I sort of over-stand what's going on. You can block someone's blessings a certain percentage if you label them as something and they do more, you know?"
D.R.A.M. references Chance the Rapper, whose name belies the true definition of his craft, and who he has recorded and toured with several times in the past year. Both artists, while embracing elements of hip-hop, have little stylistically in common with the latest generation of rappers on the rise -- even as Yachty and Young Thug deliver quality verses on D.R.A.M.'s album.
The project skips between gospel-tinged soul, 1970s-style arena rock, plinking pianos and giddy-yet-unassuming boasts. Even the album cover, inspired by Cam'ron's Come Home With Me album packaging, defies any hip-hop trope: it's a close-up of a beaming D.R.A.M. and his 14-month-old Goldendoodle puppy, Idnit (short for "Idnit So Cute"), with their arms wrapped around each other's necks, which went viral when it was released. "[Idnit] uses his paws like human hands," D.R.A.M. says. "When the photographer sent back the options, we were like, 'This is the one.' And we made it the album cover."
Big Baby D.R.A.M. debuted in the top 20 of the Billboard 200 albums chart on its release, and has been met with widespread critical acclaim. Now, with “Broccoli” still rising on radio, reaching its eighth week atop the Hot Rap Songs chart and raking in the accolades -- just before his performance that night, Atlantic's other co-chairman, Julie Greenwald, surprised him with a plaque certifying the track two times platinum -- D.R.A.M. just wants fans to listen. "It's unsafe to be eclectic nowadays," he says, sitting in his SUV outside the venue. "But there's always that one. And if I shall be that one, then I shall be the best version of the one that I can be. Which is just being me."