If you’re a hip-hop head that was around in 2004-2009 during a revolutionary time in mixtape evolution, you more than likely came across a Gangsta Grillz. DJ Drama’s well-established mixtape series began with T.I., who was the first to allow him to take a collection of songs from one individual artist and make it a street album. Drama would add his sermons and bells and whistles to the tracks as the mixtape host, charging up the listener’s experience. Distribution was hand-to-hand and promotion was word-of-mouth, growing Gangsta Grillz’ allure as a way to certify your buzz in the streets. Drama has done tapes with Lil Wayne, Jeezy, Gucci Mane, Cam’ron, Pharrell, Little Brother, and too many others to name. The “Gangsta Grillz” tag is now timeless.
Thanks to Tyler, the Creator — who teamed up with Drama in June 2021 to execute the perfect album with a mixtape feel with his Billboard 200-topping Call Me If You Get Lost — the Gangsta Grillz series is having a revival. Give credit to Dram, who has stayed dropping Gangsta Grillz sets even before Tyler paid homage, but this current moment shows the excitement over artists wanting that stamp of approval again. It wasn’t too long ago that Jack Harlow teased a Gangsta Grillz with his song “Ghost,” and to see the likes of Benny the Butcher, Fat Joe, Jim Jones, Dreamville and Snoop Dogg all get one in with the veteran DJ makes it feel to fans like they’re reliving the golden era of mixtapes.
In fact, on the latest Billboard 200, two Gangsta Grillz projects — Youngboy Never Broke Again’s Ma’ I Got a Family and Jeezy’s Snofall — are new entries in the top 10, at No. 7 and No. 9. But the career achievement has unfortunately come the same week a dark cloud has emerged over hip-hop, as Billboard‘s conversation with Drama falls on the same day that news breaks about Migos member Takeoff’s death in Houston.
Below, Drama discusses Takeoff and his relationship with the Migos, the impact of Gangsta Grillz, his chemistry with Jeezy, DJ Kay Slay, his next Gangsta Grillz offerings, and his advice for younger DJs.
I don’t know if you heard the news about Takeoff. How do you feel about that right now?
I think I’m still kind of processing it. You know, just waking up to the news. It just feels like a never-ending cycle. I don’t know if it is getting worse. It feels like it’s going from every three months to every month to every other week. He was a figure in hip-hop. I was just thinking about it earlier, if you look back at the last four or five years, everyone that we lost is literally 33 and under.
It’s like these young Black men who haven’t even lived a fraction of their lives. We all know Takeoff when it comes to the Migos. He’s the most laidback of the trio. In a sense, he’s the backbone and minded his business. Stayed out the way. It just sucks, man. And it’s just sad.
You and the Migos had a Gangsta Grillz in 2014. Solid Foundation.
Yeah, we did a QC, Solid Foundation tape. My history runs deep with the Migos. I was introduced to them probably 2011 before they were signed to QC. I actually took Takeoff and Quavo to New York. Their first time ever going to New York was with me.
Yeah, I took them to a label meeting. I took them to eOne about potentially signing. We had a meeting with them. And yeah, the first time they ever went to New York was with me. And the first time they ever did Birthday Bash was me bringing them out during my set. I have a lot of history with those guys. I’ve known them for over a decade. When I met Takeoff, he was 18, 19. We did the tape together, Solid Foundation tape. It’s a sad day.
Are there any stories that you want to share about it? When you stamp someone with a Gangsta Grillz early in their career, it’s a big deal.
Me and Migos, we’ve had some disagreements at times. And one instance being on The Breakfast Club and talking about Atlanta. Quavo was vocal at the time because I didn’t mention their name. I think I said Thug and Future and a couple other people. And I didn’t mention Migos. We had a little back and forth, but it was literally because of that they were saying they are the culture, and hence naming their album Culture. I think because of our back and forth, they went on to name their album Culture.
I got nothing but love for those guys. My condolences to his friends and his family. It’s a tough time for the city, for sure.
So at this point, what do you value more? Is it the street validation from Gangsta Grillz or the mainstream recognition?
I think it all means a lot to me. I’ve had conversations recently just about like [being] the hottest I’ve ever been in my career. You know, just in the thought of barbershop talk. People are like, “Nah, when you did Dedication 2, you were on fire in the streets.” “’06-’07, this time.”
For me, to be where I’m at right now in 2022 off the legacy that I built and off the history of what I accomplished within the culture, to stand on all that and to be where I’m at… One of my earliest goals for when I first kind of felt like I got on, my main point was always like, “Okay, you got here. How do you stay here? How do you stay relevant?” So to be in a space where 22 years later after creating Gangsta Grillz, 30 years later after DJing as a hobby to two albums in the top 10. Or even after going from a mixtape DJ to an A&R to an executive and doubling back. It’s a very surreal time for me.
On the Billboard 200 albums chart, the YoungBoy project is at No. 7 and the Jeezy project cracked the top 10 at No. 9. At this point, does it feel good to see the Gangsta Grillz movement reach the masses at this level?
Absolutely. It feels great, having Gangsta Grillz [in the top 10]. Again, I think at this point there’s no argument that Gangsta Grillz is the most important mixtape series of all time. What I think is dope is that particularly with Jeezy, and Youngboy too — I also dropped a Snoop tape — the fact when you listen to those projects and you listen to Jeezy, the word mixtape has gotten construed in the last few years as just a word. There was no separation from a mixtape to an EP to an album. But now with this Gangsta Grillz resurgence, it adds the mixtape feel to it. It feels like a mixtape. You know, doing what I do with my personality and talking on the records and the bells and the whistles and bringing back records, the nostalgia of it is just exciting. I see a lot of people saying that was missing, and this is bringing some excitement to the projects.
What’s your process when you’re choosing to stamp someone with a Gangsta Grillz? What do you look for?
The majority of the time, they come to me. The Jeezy project is something we’ve been talking about for quite some time. It’s been in the work for over a year now — Cannon executive produced it, and Cannon and Jeezy were working adamantly in the last year on the records and the project. We discussed it even before we did the Legendz of the Streetz Tour. But the majority of the time when I do a tape, it’s the artists coming to me and saying, “Hey, I want to do a Gangsta Grillz.” If it was that easy for me to reach out, everybody would have a Gangsta Grillz.
Yeah, you’d be stamping everyone.
It’s literally, my phone rings and someone says, “Hey, I’m working on this and I want to make it a Gangsta Grillz.”
You shared something on your Instagram Stories from Sonny Digital saying that you’re not going to that next level until you got a Gangsta Grillz. Is that pretty accurate?
I mean, that’s something that Sonny said. There’s been plenty of artists that have been successful without a Gangsta Grillz. But I think coming from Atlanta, and what Sonny means — growing up for him and for most artists that come out of the city, Gangsta Grillz was the ultimate stamp.
Even if I take it back, 2 Chainz has an old line before we did our tape where he said “I’m the hottest in the city without a Gangsta Grillz.” It was like a jab and a compliment at the same time when he said that because he literally was saying “I’m the shit without a Gangsta Grillz.” He was also saying normally if you’re the shit or if you’re gonna be the shit, you have to go through Gangsta Grillz.
People sometimes even forget in 2017, Harder Than Hard, Lil Baby’s project that “My Dawg” was on, that was a Gangsta Grillz. Through the eras, I’ve always been right there to stamp the majority of the artists, particularly in Atlanta. But it reaches out even further. It’s not just a Southern trap brand like when it first started. Literally, you name it, everyone under the sun has done a Gangsta Grillz, from all facets of the culture.
Jeezy told us that you and him coming back together was like watching Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan playing one-on-one. Basically, he’s saying we get to see our favorite basketball players or boxers spar at the gym. Being in the game for so long, how does doing collaborations like this make you better?
It’s because I work off the artists. I think he’s accurate in saying that or like a Kobe a Shaq. Or a Steph and a Klay. Artists bring out the best in me in a sense and vice versa. I think it’s so funny when I see people say like, “Why DJ Drama talk over the song?” and so forth. I’m like, “Yo, the crazy part is the artist that you’re listening to tells me to go crazy.”
And it’s just like, for me — I really found my formula, or found my blueprint of how I attack the music. And I literally work off the music in so many ways. So it makes me better, because the records, the subject matter, or even the concepts — like how I may attacked YoungBoy’s project in comparison to Jeezy’s project — my tone is different. Because of YoungBoy’s direction, I’m literally taking real-life experiences that I may have and using them, based on his subject matter. In comparison to Jeezy, where if it’s a song called “Scarface” or “Most Hated,” I’m using my influences on that. Or “Street Cred” when it comes to that, [I’m using my influence] in a different light.
Many people appreciate what I do. When it is all said and done, people will be discussing how I will attack the music. Just recently, I did Westside Gunn’s project, 10 — the last song “Red Death” and I’m literally talking about movie franchises. What I’m doing is I’m comparing the Hitler Wears Hermes series to the best movie franchises of all time. The only thing I’m not doing is make my s–t rhyme, but I’m literally giving bars out.
On “MJ Jeezy,” you say Tha Streets Iz Watching is Off the Wall, Trap or Die is Thriller, and Can’t Ban the Snowman is Bad. Can you break that down for me?
Again, that’s me playing off Jeezy with the song, you know? That’s a true story for him, as far as him going to Florida and him being called Michael Jackson Jeezy even before the rap. When I was listening to the song in comparison, it’s like, “Okay, here he is comparing himself to Michael Jackson.” So what better way for me to break it down, saying Tha Streets Iz Watching is Off the Wall and Trap or Die is Thriller and Can’t Ban the Snowman is Bad.
When I think about the projects and I think about hip-hop, they really add up that way. If Thriller is Michael Jackson’s most heralded album then Trap or Die is Jeezy’s most heralded mixtape. Off the Wall is still noted as a classic just as Tha Streets Iz Watching is. When we came with Can’t Ban the Snowman, people were hungry for it just as when Bad came out. People couldn’t wait for the follow up to Thriller. And then at the end, I go and compare myself to… if he’s Michael Jackson Jeezy, then I’m Quincy “Drama” Jones.
I want to jump to the Snoop Dogg project because “I’ll Holla Back” has Kurupt and “Lit” has Daz Dillinger. Did you have anything to do with getting Tha Dogg Pound back together?
That was me telling Snoop when we were talking about I Still Got It, you can’t be in the space of saying “I still got it” and not have the original Dogg Pound Gangstaz. That was what a lot of us [were] introduced to Snoop, Daz, and Kurupt early on, as [DPG]. I felt it was only right to have those guys on this project.
And then the first thing you say on YoungBoy’s project is you’re “Jeffery Dramer.” That s–t was wild.
I think that’ll definitely go down in my top ten craziest things. I saw a lot of reactions to that. But I love it. It had a lot of shock value on it. I actually did it over the beat, and then YoungBoy took the vocals and made it a cappella, which made it hit even harder. It’s a creative license. I’m a fool when it comes to the nicknames.
In your opinion, what has changed about the audience when dropping a Gangsta Grillz during the LiveMixtapes/Datpiff era versus the streaming era?
I think the fact that these projects are on DSPs, it reaches a lot more people these days in a lot of ways. The Datpiff/LiveMixtapes era came after the physical era. Mixtapes were always a certain segment of hip-hop that were kind of hip to the new s–t, or came from a certain demographic of hip-hop, and now…
The crate-digging kind of people.
Exactly. And now, we’re literally touching everybody. At the same time, there’s new fanbases that I am being introduced to that may not have been familiar with Gangsta Grillz. Tyler [,the Creator] introduced me to a whole new fan base in a lot of ways. Even me this summer, I was on tour with Wiz [Khalifa] and Logic. I would walk out for my first set and they would be chanting my name. These are kids that are 18, 19, 20, that were born when I first started making Gangsta Grillz. When I play Tyler or I play “Stick” off the Dreamville project, they are getting familiar with me that way.
Or my daughter’s friends. My daughter is 16 and her friends are going crazy off the NBA YoungBoy tape. And she sent me a group chat with them, like, “Wow, we touched the hand of somebody who probably touched the hand of YoungBoy.”
Just recently, with the Snoop, the Jeezy, and the Youngboy, there’s an older demographic that has the nostalgic feel of being around when Trap or Die came out and reminiscing in that feel — and there’s a younger demographic that are excited to see me and somebody like a YoungBoy tap in. Even like this year or last year alone, from Tyler to [J.] Cole to Symba to you know…
You’re also adapting to the streaming world, with projects with OMB Peezy and Badda TD. You know the artists that are getting the most streams on these platforms.
Nah, absolutely. Again, I’m just trying to touch as many years as possible. Again, it’s exciting that this Gangsta Grillz resurgence is happening. [Funkmaster] Flex said something to me one time when we were just talking about the different eras of mixtapes and the various times of people having their reign. To have him tell it, it’s like — for me, since I became the top of the food chain in mixtapes or became the mixtape king, nobody has come along and taken that crown from me. That’s quite the statement, especially coming from someone like Flex.
Even thinking about my run when it comes to mixtapes with all due respect to others that came before me, no one has had the longevity and run that I’ve had. From ‘05 to 2022, I’m literally going on 20 years. People have came and had the crown for time periods — but again, Gangsta Grillz is still the hottest brand in mixtapes in 2022, as it was when it was first introduced.
When you were coming up, did you ever imagine you would get a Grammy for the mixtape series?
Never in my wildest dreams. I’ve done so many things I never imagined. And it’s just like, again, it’s so surreal. Even on my Instagram, I showed one of my original tapes that I made. And to think going from that to winning a Grammy off a mixtape series. Off of something I just started out of love. It really is, “Sky isn’t the limit.” I always say, “Sky is what we stand on to reach the beyond.”
On top of that, just beyond having the last couple years of success, thinking about the success of [Lil] Uzi [Vert] and Jack [Harlow] and Generation Now. On top of that, the individual success that I am having… It’s really a dream come true. It’s beyond a dream come true. I think a lot of it really comes down to the passion and the dedication I have to hip-hop and the culture.
Earlier this year, you released a single called “Forever.” What did DJ Kay Slay mean to you?
Kay Slay, he’s the culture. If you go back to his appearances in Style Wars as a graffiti artist to what he did for the mixtape game and being the Drama King. And even that, us sharing the name Drama. Kay Slay is a giant in hip-hop. Sadly, we lost him earlier this year so when I was doing the “Forever” record, it felt only right to dedicate it to Slay. Specifically, it being such an East Coast, New York record. That was just me paying homage to somebody who was a giant in the mixtape game before me. And having KRS-One there as well, it was me just saluting Slay and giving him his flowers.
Last time we spoke was when you were releasing Quality Street Music 2. Are there any thoughts on a Quality Street Music 3? Is it too early to talk about?
Nah, I’m naming my new album I’m Really Like That. I thought about maybe making it Quality Street Music 3: I’m Really Like That or I’m Really Like That. I don’t know if it is going to be Quality Street Music 3, but I am in the process of finishing up the new album and that is the title.
So, who’s next on the Gangsta Grillz list? Is there anyone you want to throw out there?
We got some things coming. Definitely Icewear Vezzo. Me and Meek [Mill] got something coming. Me and Lil Wayne have something exciting coming next year.
Is it Dedication 7?
I won’t say what it is. Definitely me and Wayne have something exciting coming next year. Dave East project is coming. And to be honest, my phone has been off the hook with projects. To be honest, there’s no telling how we are going to end the year.
Personally, I hope you and Fab do something together. Like a There Is No Competition.
That would be exciting. Me and Fab have definitely talked recently about getting back in.
With your whole career and how it has matured over the years, what advice do you have for the younger DJs just trying to make it?
You know, definitely be a student of the game. Study those who came before you. I think the thing about being a DJ is the majority of us get into it because of our love for the music. And trust the process. Find a niche, find a lane. For me, I studied all facets of DJing, whether it was battling DJ, regular DJs, party DJs. The Mixtape DJ was something that I always focused on. I knew that was my niche. I went full-throttle. I manifested a lot of things. Early on, I would say “I’m the king.” Manifesting a Gangsta Grillz album way before it was even time. Just put things into the universe and a lot of things I manifested or put out in the universe wound up coming true.
I would tell younger DJs, before you necessarily reach out to the hottest artist in the game or the hottest DJ or what have you, look to your left and look to your right and build movements around you. When me and T.I. or me and Jeezy were working, we were all coming up together. We created movements together. Find a rapper that’s within your city or within your stratosphere, and create movements with them before you necessarily go after the A-listers and try to make a mixtape or a song with them. Come up with those around you. Those are the real ways of really making movements within the culture.