DaBaby on His Rise to the Top of the Hip-Hop Game -- And Why He Wants to Be Like Rick James

How a Charlotte MC with a talent for witty bars and marketing himself became the most explosive new voice in rap.

"I think I might jump,” says DaBaby, a mischievous smile creeping across his face.

It’s a balmy October afternoon outside, but there’s a palpable buzz inside New York’s Gotham Hall, where the 27-year-old rapper -- whose Kirk just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 -- is perched perilously on the ledge of the mezzanine, 30 feet above the ground.

DaBaby is entering the second hour of filming a three-song performance for Showtime’s late-night talk show Desus & Mero, and the production crew’s cries of “Don’t do it, Baby!” echo through the cavernous space. Relishing the view -- and, apparently, the anxiety emanating from the rapt viewers gazing up at him -- DaBaby stretches his wiry 5-foot-8-inch frame along the ledge with his legs swinging below. “Don’t worry,” he says playfully. “I do my own stunts.”

He holds everyone in suspense for a few extra seconds, then dismounts and returns to the performance area. It’s time for his last shot of the day, and he’s ready to focus. When the director calls “action,” DaBaby seamlessly shifts from jocular daredevil to fiery MC, bobbing and weaving to the beat of his punchy club-banger “BOP.” His smile is magnetic, and he knows it, flashing his teeth at each camera that comes his way before ripping into the opening verse.

Meredith Jenks
DaBaby photographed on Sept. 30, 2019 at Drift Studio in New York.

If DaBaby seems amped up, it’s for good reason. After signing with Interscope Records in late January, the artist born Jonathan Kirk quickly emerged as one of the most inventive new voices in hip-hop. In April, following the release of his debut album, Baby on Baby, his song “Suge” debuted at No. 87 on the Billboard Hot 100, ascending to a No. 7 peak by July. A gifted lyricist with side-splitting wit, speedy run-on-sentence delivery and bruising punchlines, DaBaby immediately stood out in the current trap-heavy rap landscape, where catchy ad-libs reign supreme. And what made him a solo star made him an in-demand feature, too: Just ask Megan Thee Stallion, Gucci Mane and Chance the Rapper, all of whom have recently benefited from the charm and confidence DaBaby lends to a verse (to the tune of a six-figure price tag per feature, according to his team).

“He’s really funny. The gangstas like him. The girls like him. I think he’s going to be a movie star,” says Interscope Records executive vp Joie Manda. “I think we’re just at the beginning, and he’s going to be here for a long time.”

DaBaby’s potential longevity owes a lot not only to his technique on the mic but to his knack for self-marketing. He first made headlines in 2017, when a video of him walking around Austin’s South by Southwest wearing nothing but a diaper and jewelry went viral. This May, when he got into a fight with fellow North Carolina rapper Cam Coldheart at a Louis Vuitton store, DaBaby recorded and posted it on Instagram -- and soon after, he sold T-shirts mocking Coldheart and celebrating his own “knockout.” The video for “Suge” (directed by frequent collaborator Reel Goatz) was a de facto advertisement for his high-octane charm: Flaunting fake bodybuilder muscles, DaBaby channeled the energy of Ludacris and Busta Rhymes into a hilarious three-minute ride that drove the single up the Hot 100 to become his highest charting yet.

In person, he appears bigger than in his videos, and more mature too, despite his boyish features and deep dimples. Today DaBaby is wearing a black turtleneck, Burberry sneakers and three diamond chokers, including one with an icy “Kirk” pendant -- an outfit he’s unlikely to ever repeat. (As always, he carries a duffel with extra designer duds, should he decide to make a costume change.) Purchasing -- and dispensing -- luxury fashion has become a bit of a hobby: He has autographed bags of clothing he has worn and left them for fans to find on the street, and at his upcoming Rolling Loud performance he’ll throw his Louis Vuitton belt and Gucci boots to the audience. After the director calls “wrap,” we head into his Sprinter van, where he plows through two Shake Shack burgers, though he’s not kicking back yet: He’s due for a fitting with hip-hop fashion legend Dapper Dan for the upcoming BET Hip-Hop Awards, where he will win best new artist.

To DaBaby, this level of success isn’t surprising, and he insists it was no accident, either. He grew up in Charlotte, N.C. -- not exactly a hotbed of homegrown rap talent -- living with his single mother and two older brothers, but he remained close with a father who he says helped him fine-tune his grammar. Though DaBaby says that as a kid he was an eloquent speaker and a voracious reader, he was also drawn to street life. It wasn’t until 2015 that he decided to pursue rap full time, at first calling himself Baby Jesus. (He’d abandon the name a year later, fearing the moniker would become distracting.)

“When I get bored with something, I’m done with it,” he says matter-of-factly, chewing his burger. “Running around in the streets started feeling repetitive. I just felt like I mastered it.” Performing at “hole-in-the-wall spots” around Charlotte, he earned admiration for his dynamic stage presence and husky delivery, eventually attracting the attention of South Coast Music Group CEO Arnold Taylor, who signed him to the independent label and production company in 2016. (Manda and Interscope Geffen A&M executive vp urban operations Nicole Wyskoarko signed DaBaby to Interscope in a joint venture with SCMG early this year.) “We had Petey Pablo and J. Cole [from North Carolina], but we didn’t have anybody in Charlotte,” says Taylor. “He’s fearless.”

The following year, DaBaby proved his work ethic, releasing six projects (including four installments of his Baby Talk mixtape series). Then, last November, he dropped the Blank Blank mixtape, his best, and smartest, release yet: Instead of overstaying its welcome with a lengthy tracklist designed to gain streams, the project’s tight 10 tracks showcased his natural humor and charisma. “I haven’t seen too many people in life work like him,” says Manda. “He’ll do 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and then ask, ‘What else should I be doing? I feel like I’m not doing enough.’ It’s not like he uploaded a song to SoundCloud or put a video on YouTube and it went crazy overnight. This guy really built this from the ground up.”

Whether he can sustain that momentum may depend on his actions outside the studio. Shortly after Blank Blank’s release, DaBaby was shopping with his family at a Huntersville, N.C., Walmart when, he alleged, two men threatened him with a gun, and in the ensuing altercation DaBaby shot and killed one, a 19-year-old. He claimed self-defense and in June was only found guilty on a concealed weapons charge, receiving a sentence of one year of unsupervised probation. Then, in September -- four months after the Louis Vuitton store confrontation -- DaBaby punched a concertgoer who he says tried to steal the chain off his neck at the Prime Festival in Lansing, Mich.

“At the end of the day, any legal situation that I got going on, I wasn’t in the wrong,” maintains DaBaby. “And I’m the type of person, if I ain’t wrong, I’m gonna stand on that. I don’t lose no sleep at all with having shit going on. I just let the work overpower the shit.”

And right now, that’s what seems to be happening for him. Kirk, a heartfelt tribute to his late father, is a commercial hit -- all 13 tracks have cracked the Hot 100 -- and DaBaby’s name has swiftly become synonymous with chart success far outside the core hip-hop universe: Major pop stars like Lizzo, Post Malone and Lil Nas X have roped him in for remixes of their own hit records in the hopes of driving them further up the ranks. And DaBaby already has his eye on a future beyond his own stardom: In 2018, he started his own independent imprint, Billion Dollar Baby, to which he has signed Stunna 4 Vegas, Rich Dunk and 704Chop.

“I’d bet the house on me every time,” he says with a shrug. “I do it every motherfucking day -- and I ain’t been wrong yet.”

Meredith Jenks
DaBaby photographed on Sept. 30, 2019 at Drift Studio in New York.

In “Old Friends,” you rap, “Since ’94, I knew I was going to be a millionaire.” You weren’t even 5 then. Did you always foresee this level of success?

I just had that mindset to never settle. That’s a credit to my pops, too. He used to say “the sky’s the limit” every time we talked. “Never be complacent, always strive for more.”

It has been six months since his death -- where’s your mind at?

When it happened, I didn’t really have time to grieve. I was getting on the bus to start the tour, and the very next day I found out [he had passed]. So I went straight from seeing him at the damn mortuary to the show -- not knowing what the fuck happened, because it wasn’t like he was sick that I knew of.

Trying to drop this album and dedicating it to him, the cover being a baby picture and the shit being on billboards in Times Square, being able to tell the world my story -- and they’re so interested, too? Like the whole world is interested in how influential my pops was to me. This shit right here been more therapeutic than anything.

Clearly he was a strong influence. What did you inherit from your mom?

The way I make something out of nothing, I got that from my mama. That’s 100% her. Staying happy through the struggle, staying close to family and shit, I learned that from her, because if we didn’t have shit, you couldn’t tell. She was still throwing parties at the crib, inviting the family and the whole neighborhood. Anybody who goes broke, she gon’ take them in and let them sleep in her crib. Having that good heart and hustle -- those are the traits that I got from my mama.

Have any lessons from the street helped you in the music industry?

Not taking shit personal. Business is business. Do my own thang. Knowing how to deal with people. And just knowing how to move, you get what I’m saying? In the streets, you gotta know how to watch out for the police. But rap is really more dangerous than the streets, for sure.

Why do you say that?

You’re so accessible to people. Everybody in the world wants to be you. That’s the reason why it’s dangerous in the streets: N----s want what you got. And now I got way more, and the ability to get more. If I go and do this show, I’m gon’ get $100,000 after whoever takes their expenses out. They don’t know that there’s a bunch of overhead -- travel, paying staff and all that other shit -- but it’s still a lot of money and n----s are aware of that. You gotta show the money when you become a rapper. I can’t wear a hoodie every day and act like I don’t know no better, you get what I’m saying?

Meredith Jenks
DaBaby photographed on Sept. 30, 2019 at Drift Studio in New York.

It’s a full-time job, right?

It’s a full-on lifestyle. The people that don’t move the right way in the streets, they either go to jail or end up dead. And I wasn’t in the streets to play around -- I was never doing street shit with intentions of staying in the streets, ever. [I knew] how to deal with money -- reinvesting is imperative. Even when I ain’t have shit, I was putting everything I had back into getting here. When I had $1,000 to my name, if I got rent coming up in a week, I’m gonna spend $1,000 on T-shirts, posters, CDs and shit. And fuck it, I’m going to figure out how I’m gonna pay that rent, you feel me? (Laughs.) It was all about just stretching, pushing the envelope and making shit happen. That’s what I do. I make shit happen.

LeBron James shouted you out on Instagram when “INTRO” dropped, and you remind me of him: No matter the situation, he gets it done. Do you see that similarity?

I’m aware, but it’s just the way I’m set up. Being that once-in-a-generation, once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-an-era type of star. Like I got the creativity of a Kanye [West], the consistency of a Lil Wayne, the versatility of a Drake to make male and female songs. I’m still about whatever, like a [Lil] Boosie or a Gucci [Mane]. I’m God’s work, bro.

Earlier this year, you said you were still scared to go to the bank. Are you now?

Scared? Hell, nah. I be in that bitch all the time. That shit feels good. They don’t question me no more. [But] I swear to God, I used to be scared to go to the bank. I ain’t trust ’em. Hold my goddamn money? For what? I still don’t like ’em. Real talk: freezing my card and shit because I’m traveling -- what the fuck you mean? That’s why it’s a card -- you should be allowed to travel with it! I ain’t tripping, though. Safety first.

Cover'd With DaBaby | Billboard

You’ve teamed up with some of rap’s biggest names, and now some of pop’s, too. Does the idea of going pop scare you at all?

Hell, nah. The shit gonna be easy. (Laughs.) I feel like with me, I can’t ever just go pop. I’m still going to be me. So you can call it pop, but I would change pop. You got pop stars, right? And then you have motherfuckers like Rick James. What would you call Rick James -- what genre of music?

He’s just a bad motherfucker.

And that’s what I’m gonna be: a bad motherfucker. And with the shit I’m gon’ do and whatever lane I’m in, I’m gonna bend the rules. I’m gonna stretch it out and see what’s been done, see how to do me and how to do it differently.

From wearing a diaper at South by Southwest to making a T-shirt inspired by a fight you got into -- what’s your marketing philosophy?

It ain’t even about what a motherfucker thinks, but you never want a motherfucker to think that you let that bullshit distract you from the business. The diaper shit, that’s different from the T-shirt shit. The T-shirt shit -- I could have let that situation turn into a bad thing and become a bad look, but [instead] I capitalized off it. It’s not fucking clout-chasing [feeding off someone else’s popularity for one’s own benefit]. It’s clown shit when you don’t capitalize off of it. Anything I do, I’m doing it for a reason.

So what’s the difference between marketing and clout-chasing?

Not gaining anything from it. Not making money off it. Especially with the diaper shit, I knew exactly what I was doing, and people still talking about that three years later. They have a whole different level of understanding on it now when they see the creativity that I put in videos and how outgoing I am. They see how comfortable I am in my skin. It just makes sense. I’ve had myself figured out for the longest [time] -- it was getting y’all to figure me out, that was the task.

You’re always willing to interact with fans, whether on social media or in person, but there have been times when they tried to attack you while you’re onstage. How do you find a balance that doesn’t put you at risk?

People are unpredictable at the end of the day. It’s just the risk that I take and the sacrifice that I make: Putting myself, my career, my family’s peace of mind on the line just to do right by my fans. It ain’t no gray area: You’re either with that and willing to go out of your way to make people who contribute to your dreams coming true happy or you aren’t. I understand the artists who aren’t: No one wants people suing them and shit.

So how do you make sure legal issues that arise don’t get in the way of your career?

I seen plenty of artists fuck up every time fans walk by and give them too much attention. I don’t feed into that. It’s going back to knowing how to move in the streets. If you catch a charge, you still gotta go to court. I ain’t tripping, we gon’ keep it rocking until we go to court. You can’t sit around all day like, “Man, I’m facing this.” You pay the lawyer and trust that it’s gonna work out at the end. I just keep going to work and through time, people might see, “All right, that might’ve been bullshit.” I turn piss into lemonade and put it in a cup with some ice and make a motherfucker drink it.

DaBaby Plays 'Fishing For Answers' | Billboard

In 2018, you shot and killed a man at a Walmart, saying you were acting in self-defense. Does that incident weigh on your conscience?

Nah, not at all. From my end, it was unavoidable. It wasn’t my action, it was my reaction. At the end of the day, my family was right there. My daughter. So, hell no. I don’t lose no sleep.

What’s your relationship with God like today?

It’s [about] expressing how grateful I am, more than anything. Asking him for more lessons. I tell him to give me the chance to adapt and get right. We planned this from the get-go, me and God. I asked him for it and met him halfway. And every time I meet him halfway, boom -- it goes how it’s supposed to go.