In the history of NBA rappers, there are only a handful of players who are actually all that nice on the mic.
Give credit to Shaquille O’Neal for becoming an unexpected phenomenon in the early ‘90s with his platinum-selling debut Shaq Diesel and his certified gold follow-up, Shaq Fu: Da Return. Since the days of Shaq, fans have seen more ballers dabble into the world of hip-hop. But none have earned the level of respect as Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has for his music career.
Lillard, who raps under the pseudonym Dame D.O.L.L.A., isn’t just rapping for fun. He’s serious about his craft, and maintains the same level of focus as if he were improving his skills on the court. With two full-length albums under his belt, Dame D.O.L.L.A. is hitting his groove with his new album Big D.O.L.L.A., a breezy, 10-track effort featuring Lil Wayne, Mozzy, Jeremih, and more. It’s best described as an album that truly represents where Dame is in his life right now – everything from fame to getting the bag is told through a young boss’s perspective.
Since the release of Big D.O.L.L.A., Dame has gotten support from hip-hop’s go-to tastemaker LeBron James, as well as fellow stars Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, and teammate CJ McCollum, to name a few. The Blazers point guard is taking everything in stride, hoping his third studio album is enough of a statement to put the entire rap game on notice. He’s really out here rapping. Don’t sleep on him.
On the day of his album release, Billboard spoke to D.O.L.L.A., who was calling from Portland, to talk about putting together the project, his relationship with Lil Wayne, what he thinks of other NBA rappers, and his dream collaborators. He also dishes on some Blazers-related questions for the Rip City faithful.
You’ve been pretty consistent with your music releases, dropping full albums every few years. It’s amazing to me that you’re able to balance that with being in the NBA and your responsibilities as a Trail Blazer. Where do you find your inspiration to make new music? Is it on the court or off the court?
It’s off the court. I just think the experience of being a NBA player just contributes to how I am able to stay creative as an artist. The constant travel, the constant media attention. The environments that I am always in — whether it’s awards or parties. I’m always somewhere where it’s worth noting, like it’s a situation that’s worth holding on to, where the everyday person doesn’t have access to.
I can share it in a way where I come from the different side. I come from the neighborhood. I wasn’t a child star. I wasn’t a big-time recruit. People didn’t even know me in college until literally I got drafted, that’s when people learned about me. I can tell it from a different point of view.
Do you make mental notes on potential songs? What’s your process?
Sometimes, I’ll hear something on the radio. Like it’ll be a song and the beat will be hard. I’ll just randomly think of four bars to it. I’ll type the bars in my phone and then I’ll type what beat it was to and the name of the song. And it won’t be that I want to rap to that beat, it’ll just be like the cadence and the rhythm of how I had to say the bars. I liked how I said that. I’ll hold on to that just to remember that style, that cadence. And maybe I’ll use those bars on something else.
Sometimes, I’m just keeping that creativity like, “Man, I might need to get that [somewhere]. That’s a cold bar.” It’s a bar in “Ricky Bobby” on the album where I was like, “If you ever hear I’m basic, then somebody lied/ I’m my daddy’s son, and my pop’s a vibe.” I wrote that bar down like a while back and it actually fit in the song.
You once told us Cassidy’s “I’m a Hustla” made you want to rap. What gave you the confidence to take it seriously and go all in?
I just continued to get better at it. When I first started rapping, it was like 2Pac, Mary J. Blige, André 3000, Common. It was those types of people. Just how real they were with the music, it gave me a real feeling. So that’s kind of what made me want to do music.
And then when I first started freestyling and really trying to rap as I got older, it was “I’m a Hustla,” because the beat was so simple. [Imitates beat.] You could beat box it on the bus window, on the BART station seat. We would always just go off on that beat. If we were on the computer, we would play that instrumental. Stuff like that. That’s kind of a simple beat that I can catch easy and ride easy. That’s when I first started freestyling and stuff. That was the go-to.
From there, you just became comfortable to make songs.
I just kept challenging myself. With basketball, when one of my trainers or coaches say something: “We need you to start working on this or doing that.” I don’t get mad about it. I take the challenge. I go address it. I’m like, “OK, I can get better at this. I can get better at that.”
It’s the same in music. I got a lot of cousins that do music, I got a lot of friends that do music. They would hear my stuff and they’ll be like, “Yeah, you gotta switch up your flow, switch up your voice. And do this, and do that.” I would literally go back and practice it. And I would come back with something else like, “Listen to this one.” And they’ll be like, “Yeah, but you don’t have no tempo. Like everything is the same thing, the same beats per minute. Whatever.” So I came back with more tempo. But then they’re like, “Yeah, you gotta play with the melody.” I’ve literally been getting coached by people who I play stuff and I just make the changes. I challenge myself to do it. I’ve gotten better at it through those types of experiences.
Confirmed was an album that solidified you as an MC. Two years later, we got Big D.O.L.L.A. In between that time, was there any major life changes that happened to you?
I had a son, but other than that, I just grew up a lot. Between Confirmed and now, just dealing with having money and family issues. And being the captain of my family. Relationships changing. Your friends. Just dealing with all that stuff, it kind of made me grow up. Not become somebody different, but it pushed me as far as development.
What I have been living the last two years, I became more famous. I made back-to-back All-Star games after missing back-to-back All-Star games. I got a new contract. I had a son. I moved into a new house. I found out that I like being on the water, being outside. It was just a lot of change. It gave me that time, not just away from music to where people wanted to hear stuff, but I had a chance to live and experience and have something to talk about that people would want to hear.
Your son is on the cover of the album, joining guys like DJ Khaled and Offset who showed love to their kids. What’s it like being a dad and raising your son?
It’s the best thing ever. I could go a time without talking to people. Sometimes my best friend and I, we won’t talk for two weeks. It won’t be like nothing bad. We just won’t talk. And I’ll be fine and they’ll be fine. My mom would be on the road and when she gets back, I’ll go on the road. And I won’t see my mom for two and a half weeks. It’s like fine. With my son, it is a must-see, must touch, you gotta be there. It makes it hard for me to understand how any father or mother could not want to be there one million percent of the time for their kid. It’s nothing like it. It’s really hard to put in words.
You released Big D.O.L.L.A. independently through Front Page Music. Can you explain the meaning behind your label?
I have two artists on the label – Danny From Sobrante and Brookfield Deuce. Both artists from the Bay Area. Danny is more a street conscious rapper, storyteller. More on the street side. And Deuce is more like a conscious rapper. Not as street but kind of the same. Both quality artists. Both got a great story to tell. A lot to say.
We started the label together. I funded it, but both of those guys are huge parts of my rap career as far as really pushing me to really be a rapper instead of being behind-the-scenes sending music, recording music. They kind of pushed me. Nobody [co-signed me]. Like get out there and do it. They pushed me there, so that’s kind of where it started. It’s Front Page because we’ve all been on the front page for different things, the front page of the newspaper. Good news, bad news. It’s all on the front page. With regards to the front page, you can get politics, you can get a crime scene, you can get sports, robberies, you can gossip. Everything you can find on the front page. Us three combined, you’re gonna get some of everything. That was kind of the thinking behind it.
Your teammate CJ McCollum teased your album on social media and drew a lot of buzz for it. Who else did you play the album for?
Obviously, I didn’t want to throw it out there too much so people will start passing it around and telling people, “I’ll send it to you but make sure you don’t send it to nobody” and stuff like that. And stuff ends up getting leaked. I kind of took a risk because I need people to hear it so I can get them to support it. I sent it to CJ. I sent it to LeBron. I sent it to KD. I sent it to Draymond. And I sent it to Seth Curry. I sent it to Common. I sent it a bunch of people who have influence and people that I know who listen to music for real. All the feedback was good.
I ended up getting everybody to support it, all the way from LeBron to Floyd Mayweather to Common to Pusha-T to DC Young Fly. Like everybody. Athletes. Rappers. Comedians. Actors. You name it, everybody was posting it. Once that happened, now you just see all the other athletes do it, and all the other comedians do it. It’s been a huge, huge, huge, huge buzz behind it, to the point where I’m looking at it like its big time.
Your phone must be blowing up.
And I’m not answering because I’m monitoring social media. I’ve been on social media all day just watching.
You got Lil Wayne again on this album, marking your third collaboration together. You have “Loyal to My Soil,” “Run It Up,” and “Sorry,” which is the opener. Can you tell me when you first met Wayne?
I met Wayne in 2015. Actually, you know what? I met Wayne in 2013, 2012. But we wasn’t cool like that, I just met him a few times in passing. He knew who I was and I knew who he was because he’s a huge sports fan. But we became cool in 2015 and that’s when we started texting. Chatting on the phone, sending each other music and stuff like that.
To me, Wayne is the GOAT.
He definitely in the GOAT spot, for sure.
Why do you think he likes your music?
I know he said that he really respects that I do my music without trying to come out and be like somebody else. Or do it behind an image and stuff like that. He just appreciates that I am who I am. I rap like the person that I am, and not like some persona, trying to sound like what people want me to sound. And he said he just respected the quality about it, and the realness behind it. To hear him say that, I was like, man. You know, there’s people out there that’s at the top of the game that’s respected that way. It told me, “You can do it this way. This is a respectable, solid way to do it.”
Do you think other NBA rappers are like that? Not truly themselves and playing into a persona?
I wouldn’t say I think it’s a persona, but I think when a lot of artists like that play sports [and] comes with music, I think they rap like they’ve seen other people do it. Like, basically, imitate a style of a current artist or something like that. I think you see that a lot. I’m not saying everybody, but usually what athletes do, when we hear the hottest music come out, you sing they songs, you sing it like them. You’re comfortable with it. You’re confident in it because you’re a fan of it. So when you make some music, it sounds like that cause you do what you feel like is good. Instead of having your own identity about it. I love Wayne, but I don’t try to rap like Wayne.
Overall, when I’m listening to the album, I feel like you’re in a happier place. You’re talking that talk on several records like “Check,” “Beach,” and “Money Ball” featuring Jeremih. Did you consider any feedback from Confirmed before making this?
I didn’t. When I actually started recording the album, I wasn’t even planning on recording an album. I was just like, ‘I got a lot to say.’ So I wanted to start recording some stuff. The engineer that I used for the last three-four years, I called him and I was like, ‘Come meet me in Phoenix.’ Cause I was training in Phoenix for the week and they had a studio set up in my Airbnb. I would do all my training in the morning and I would just come back to the house. He would be in there ready. He had people sending him beats and sending him a bunch of stuff. I would just go in there and we would be there all day until midnight, 1:00 before I had to go to sleep to get ready to work out. It was just me and him.
I had a bunch of people involved in my first album, The Letter O. I had a bunch of people involved with Confirmed. And the studio was always full of people and people having a good time and kicking it and everybody having input in the creativity of what I should do, what I shouldn’t do. And I was listening. This time, I took control of it. This is what I’m going to do. This is what I think is the direction…. me and [recording engineer] Nate really A&R’ed the project by ourselves. We recorded it by ourselves. I was just sending out snippets of different tracks to people and everybody was liking it.
I like that approach. It’s more personal to you.
Yeah, it was better for me, too, as you see. It just turned out just different.
Before I let you go, I asked some friends from Oregon to send me questions for you relating to basketball and the Blazers. The first one is if you could play with any previous Blazer, who would it be?
If I could play with any previous Trail Blazer, I would play with Brandon Roy.
We know Dame D.O.L.L.A. as one of your nicknames and Lillard Time. There’s also Logo Lillard. Nicknames, they capture the personality and greatness of basketball players. Which one do you associate more with and why?
I think Dame D.O.L.L.A. I really like Logo Lillard. I really like my rap name though. My coaches on the Blazers call me D.O.L.L.A. My college roommate called me D.O.L.L.A. People really call me that. And it stands for Different on Levels Lord Allowed, so it’s something that’s carried [throughout my career]. People call me that.
What are your goals to become one of the best Trail Blazer in the franchise? What’s your criteria for being the best and what do you want to achieve?
I want to be the best Trail Blazer ever. And I think, it’s bigger than basketball to me. I think, obviously, you have to have the numbers to back it up which I am already on track for. I’m second in points. I think I am top three in assists. Free throws made, three pointers made, I’m No. 1. Like I’m up there as far as the stats. I think just continue to win. We’ve had three 50-plus win seasons in my seven seasons, one that wasn’t a 50-win season was a 49-win season. I’ve been All-NBA four times. I was first team All-NBA. I’ve been on four All-Star teams. Played in the Western Conference Finals this past year. I hold the [team’s] single-game scoring record. All these records, like everything. I just think an MVP, a championship.
But what I do around the city, I am actually heavily involved in the hip-hop scene in Portland. All the communities in Portland from the suburbs to the hood. I’m involved. And it’s not like I’m paying for stuff, I’m giving my time. I think when we talk about the best Trail Blazer ever, all of those things should be taken into account. And I’m on top of it in every area.
I’m representing the city. A lot of the best players that played here, that are considered the best players, didn’t want to play here and eventually left. Once I got on, I wanted to play here. I enjoy living here. I think I’m right there. I just got to continue doing what I’m doing and finish it off right.