They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but Shelley Massenburg-Smith, the singer-rapper known as D.R.A.M., seems to disagree. His single “Cha Cha” landed him a deal with Atlantic in June after it became a viral hit, buoyed by clips of Beyoncé and Drake jamming to it. But then, in July, the latter released “Hotline Bling,” which samples Timmy Thomas‘ 1972 soul hit “Why Can’t We Live Together” to create a similar groove. Apple’s Beats 1 station originally premiered “Hotline” with the subtitle “Cha Cha Remix” — unlike the official version that’s scaling the Billboard Hot 100, which credits Thomas as a co-writer but not D.R.A.M.
“I feel like my record got jacked,” D.R.A.M. (which stands for “Does Real Ass Music”), 27, tells Billboard, reiterating a series of tweets he posted earlier this month. “And it’s not just me. People been comparing ‘Cha Cha’ and ‘Hotline Bling’ since it came out.”
Drake himself appeared to acknowledge the similarities in a Fader interview. When asked if any legal action against Drake was planned, Atlantic declined to comment, but D.R.A.M. seems focused on moving on. “I’m always about what’s next,” he says. “I’m way more of an artist than just ‘Cha Cha.'”
Early fans know as much from 2014 mixtape #1EpicSummer, which along with the Latin flair of “Cha Cha,” is peppered with house, arena rock and lots of soul. “I come from an older generation,” says D.R.A.M., a military brat who was born in Germany and moved around before settling in Virginia. “I was raised in the church, so my soul got attached to soul music.”
Through “Cha Cha” producer Gabe Niles, D.R.A.M. met co-manager Nigil Mack (a former Universal Motown A&R rep known for signing Kid Cudi), who helped secure the Atlantic deal. On Oct. 23, he released EP Gahdamn!, executive-produced by Chance the Rapper collaborator The Social Experiment. D.R.A.M. is now opening for Chance on tour, hoping to put the “Hotline” snafu behind him. “All I’m trying to do is spread love — love of music and love of good vibes.”
Listen to D.R.A.M. and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of Billboard.