'Panda' Rapper Desiigner on Why His Mind Operates in a 'Crazy' Way and Working With Kanye West
At just 18 years old, Desiigner (aka Sidney Selby III) has a hit on the Billboard charts, a recording deal with G.O.O.D. Music, and ample time with Kanye West in the studio -- a co-sign that has brought him, as it did for rappers like Vic Mensa and Big Sean, near-instant success. After he originally dropped trap banger "Panda" (now at No. 5 on the Hot 100, higher than any single by Future -- the rapper to whom he's most frequently compared) back in December 2015, West heard the song and summoned the young rapper for a brief meeting (literally in his car) in Los Angeles, where he played a re-purposed track that would eventually become “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” on The Life of Pablo.
After Desiigner wrapped the track with producer Mike Dean and Kanye heard the final product, he decided to sign the virtual unknown to his G.O.O.D. music label the first week of February. Between the signing, announced at The Life of Pablo’s instantly iconic Madison Square Garden listening party, and the prominent sample of "Panda" on album highlight “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,” Desiigner quickly became a hip-hop head must-know. “[Kanye] ended up liking my vibe and he’s a great artist, you know. He’s a great, great artist. And we just respect another,” Desiigner says.
Before his meteoric rise, Selby was just a kid living in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. “I was a troublemaker a little bit. But I wasn’t a bad troublemaker, ya feel me?" Desiigner tells Billboard. "I was more into my own vibes. I was into my music in school, I ain’t really cared about the teaching and all that stuff." But he was always making music. His grandfather, Sidney Selby, is an accomplished blues musician in his own right who toured with The Isley Brothers and The Drifters and released multiple albums under the name Guitar Crusher. "He was definitely a big influence on me. I wasn’t really around my grandfather as a kid. But it was just his spirit every time I saw him, you know?" says Desiigner. "It was just so strong and so powerful. But it was just that feeling every time I spoke to him, he would motivate me.”
Desiigner first started working on his tracks under the moniker of Designer Royel, as Royel is his middle name. It was his little sister who convinced him to drop the middle name and add the extra I. He released some singles -- “Danny DeVito” and “On the Low” -- with Phresher, but it wasn’t until a friend of his told him to lay down a hook over a track he found on YouTube that Desiigner would reach the ears of the hip-hop world, and all-seeing-all-knowing Kanye West. That hook, layered over a Menace beat, was written about Desiigner’s affinity for the BMW X6 -- which he thinks looks like a panda. “The way my mind works is crazy, man," he says. "I don’t say crazy like in a crazy psycho way, I mean crazy in like a great artist way. I have my own way of seeing things and I look at things totally different. So when I was just looking at the X6 I was just saying that’s a panda…”
Desiigner was wrecking things in Grand Theft Auto V when he thought of the motif. “When I was making it I was thinking about The Fast and The Furious and about breaking cars and going crazy," he says. "It’s a whole bunch of action. When I make songs I think about movies, like my own movies in my head.” Now he’s working frequently at Kanye's studio. “I see him a lot right now, he’s my man and we doin’ a whole lot of things right now," he says of West. "Kanye, that’s my man.”
While “Panda” is a huge hit, there have been some naysayers in the rap community decrying Desiigner’s use of southern trap, having come from Brooklyn. In his chat with Billboard, Desiigner was tight-lipped in revealing details about his many upcoming projects (a trap mixtape named Trap History Month, the upcoming “Panda” music video) as well as his connection to the South. Yet when asked about new single “Pluto” (which he dropped a few seconds of at SXSW), Desiigner jovially sang the hook and stated that he can “probably make a mixtape about planets and shit like that. Planet rap.” Pressed on his connection to Atlanta, where Desiigner previously said he'd never been, he simply noted that he “had two broads in Atlanta.” When asked about his family heritage and to what he attributed his Southern accent, he responded, “My family’s from everywhere -- I got a big family. It’s just my style, it comes with me.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 16 issue of Billboard.