Magazine Feature

Desiigner on His Difficult Past and How His No. 1 Hit 'Panda' Gave Him a Way Out

Dustin Cohen

“I got new cousins calling me. It’s like, I have a cousin named Nate now,” says Desiigner, photographed May 10 at New York’s Space Ibiza, of his instant fame. 

"I got broads in Atlanta," the opening line to Desiigner's Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 "Panda," is simple, memorable, irresistible -- and not totally true. "I've never been to Atlanta," he admits sheepishly. Barely old enough to be called a millennial, the Brooklyn ­rapper born Sidney Selby III, 19, cites a more prosaic ­inspiration: a girl he met on Facebook. "We never met in person," he says. "She just said she was from ATL, so I was like, 'All right -- I got broads in Atlanta.' It's real life, you feel me? I put real-life shit in my songs."

Most of the boastful imagery in "Panda" -- women in far-flung cities, "pockets swole" with money, ­luxury cars -- is only just ­becoming reality for Desiigner: After Kanye West sampled it for his The Life of Pablo album, "Panda" hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in April, spending two weeks at the summit (it's now No. 2). On a cloudy late-spring ­afternoon, Desiigner, who still only has his learner's permit, is perusing cars at BMW's Manhattan ­showroom with his manager and a Def Jam rep. The song is, after all, inspired by a white BMW X6, whose grill makes it look like a panda (he first noticed the car while playing Grand Theft Auto V). Clad in a slim-cut black leather jacket, the 6-foot-5 artist commands attention even without his onstage antics (at South by Southwest, he vomited in the middle of a song -- and kept performing).

Watch Desiigner Read His Wild 'Panda' Lyrics

Though he's new to the charts, Desiigner has been around music his whole life. His grandfather, the first Sidney Selby, earned the name "Guitar Crusher" performing with acts like The Drifters and The Isley Brothers. Time spent in church choir and school plays helped him develop as a performer. "I always saw myself using my voice. I was the ladies' man -- I performed 'My Girl' in the cafeteria. I was David Ruffin in The Temptations," he says, also citing Jade's 1992 single "Don't Walk Away" as an early favorite. "I sang for years. I used to sing in the subways -- I didn't see no other way out."

"Out" means out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Desiigner grew up. He was raised in the Louis Armstrong Houses, a public housing development a short walk from the Marcy Houses -- made famous by former tenant Jay Z -- and the street where Spike Lee filmed Do the Right Thing in 1989. Desiigner's block, Lexington Avenue, is also named Timothy Stansbury Jr. Avenue, after a 19-year-old Louis Armstrong ­resident was killed by police in an accidental ­shooting in 2004. "It's not the place you really want to be," he says.

Desiigner: The Exclusive Billboard Shoot

Now, however, Bed-Stuy is one of New York's most rapidly ­gentrifying neighborhoods, and local hustlers, once ­lionized by ­Brooklyn legends like The Notorious B.I.G.Big Daddy Kane and Lil Kim, include ­realtors flipping million-dollar brownstones. "Things change," says Desiigner. "When people are like, 'Why are these white people walking around this black hood?,' I'm like, 'Why aren't they?' If it ain't bothering nobody, they can do whatever they want! They're in the hood to make it better."

Desiigner was shot at age 14 -- he's vague on details, but says it compelled him to pursue music with more urgency. Getting advice from his brother-in-law, who told him to "design" his name, and his little sister, who suggested adding the extra "I," he embarked on his rap career. His first trip to the studio ­produced the now-scrubbed-from-­YouTube "Jackie Chan," on which he cheerfully raps unprompted: "I'm ­chopping the bricks like I'm Jackie Chan."

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Yeezy Season 3
Desiigner (left) with West in February.

"Panda" started coming together in late 2014, when a friend came across the beat on YouTube by then-unknown producer Menace. "We cooked it up in two days," says Desiigner. He bought the beat for $200 and self-released the song last December. A few million YouTube views later, West flew him to Los Angeles in late January to play Pablo's "Father Stretch My Hands," which incorporates a large chunk of "Panda," in a car outside of LAX, with paparazzi snapping away. Weeks later, he signed to West's G.O.O.D. Music and stood alongside West at Madison Square Garden in New York as "Panda" became part of one of the year's biggest albums. For the song's video, West and Desiigner did ­doughnuts in an X6 on the same streets where Desiigner grew up. "The work ethic behind everything Kanye does is crazy," he says. "It's greatness. He told me, 'We're not just rappers, we're artists.' "

Desiigner's out-of-nowhere No. 1 has been controversial in rap circles, though: His deep voice and triplet flow bear an unmistakable resemblance to those of Atlanta hip-hop heir-apparent Future. "Nothing bothers me [about the criticism] -- it's my funk, it's my style," he says in what has become a standard retort to the questions about their ­similarities. Future, for his part, sarcastically called less-than-enthused attendees at one of his shows, in Syracuse, N.Y., in April, "Desiigner fans."

Desiigner Skips Rented Limo, Takes a Rolls-Royce to Prom Instead: Watch

Joking or not, Future may have been right: after all, Desiigner's following is growing exponentially. "I can't step outside my house now -- everybody knows my face," he says. "I got new cousins calling me. It's like, I have a cousin named Nate now." Meeting girls on Facebook is no longer an option. Desiigner's personal page was shut down when he refused to verify his identity with the site. "They were ­asking for too much information," he says ­cryptically. "I got to be more careful and more focused with my surroundings, because ­everybody wants to reach out to me, and I don't know if it's good or bad."

His enthusiasms mostly are directed toward what's next: His first mixtape, Trap History Month; first album, The Life of Desiigner; a high school diploma (he's working with a tutor); and his first tour later this year -- which, although he's no longer in touch with his muse there, will feature a stop in Atlanta. One other inspiration for his hit hasn't been left behind, however. "I want to do a big donation to the pandas for all the panda lovers out there," says Desiigner. "They're an endangered species -- that's real-life shit."

Additional reporting by Ben Detrick and Jonathan Peltz.

This article originally appeared in the June 18 issue of Billboard.