Most know Damian Lillard for his skills on the court as an All-NBA point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers. But he’s been steadily proving over the last few years that his skills on the mic are just as lethal as his pull-up jumper. He’s been rapping since middle school, and a few years back, he popularized the #4BarFriday series on social media, inspiring everyone from LeBron James to Draymond Green to kick a rhyme. He really captured eyes and ears, though, with his 2015 freestyle on Sway in the Morning — the video has six million views to date — and Lillard, who raps under the name Dame D.O.L.L.A., has been releasing songs for free on Soundcloud ever since.
His latest is evidence that he’s still just scratching the surface of what he’s capable of as an artist. As part of Yourstru.ly and adidas Originals’ “Songs from Scratch” project, Dame teamed with the Grammy-winning Raphael Saadiq — who also served as a producer and writer on Solange’s A Seat at the Table album and appeared on Netflix’s Luke Cage — to create the track “Hero,” an autobiographical, inspiring and soulful collaboration.
Billboard spoke with Lillard and Saadiq about the creative process, their upbringing in Oakland (Saadiq actually knew both of his parents before meeting their son), Dame D.O.L.L.A. signing to a major and his plans for a solo album.
“Hero” is both very personal and uplifting. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
Lillard: In a lot of my music, I try to make it powerful and have a message to it. I walked in the studio and we talked, and we didn’t really have a direction. [Raphael] just kind of sat down, his nephew was on the piano, and he’s sitting there making a beat from scratch. I’ve never seen that before.
He was making a beat and I started automatically thinking in my mind, then I started writing in my phone, and he was like, “Alright, get up on the mic and start freestyling.” I got up and started freestyling. After I messed around on the beat a little bit, I sat back down and they kept playing the beat, I started writing. He took his time with [the production], and I wanted my words to say the same thing. I wrote my verses, and he made the hook based on what I wrote. That shows you even more how talented he is.
Saadiq: The hero [concept] just popped out. Really the most important part of the song to me is you don’t want to come off too preachy. For the 20 kids that may get the message, [the song is] just saying you should try. You have to try if you want to get somewhere. Listening to Damian playing basketball and being competitive in that arena, people didn’t even know he was gonna come up and be as good as he is. That means there were a couple of summers where he was like, “Nah, I’m gonna go in the gym and work on my game.” That’s why I wanted to put that message out there that you should try. He loves hip-hop so I didn’t want to take it out of hip-hop and make it just a message song. But at the same time, it’s important now for us to try to sneak that in there a little bit.
You mentioned getting robbed at gunpoint in the third verse. Can you take me back to that experience and what it was like?
Lillard: It was life-changing. Growing up in Oakland, I was around tough people,and I knew what people were capable of, but it [had] never happened to me. Where I went to high school, I had to get two busses to get to my school. We only had one gym, but we had a freshman girls, JV boys team, JV girls team, varsity team so we were the last team to practice. So after practice, it would be 8 or almost 9 [at night] and I had to catch two busses back home. I had to change busses at the Eastmont Bus Station, and I was standing there and the bus station was empty.
I was waiting on my bus and three dudes walked up. They told me empty my pockets, and I sized them up. They weren’t big dudes so I was like, I’m gonna take my chances. They was like, “Empty your pockets” and I was like, “Nah, that’s not even how it’s gonna go.” As soon as I said that, one of them reached out and grabbed my backpack. I yanked it away from him, and he broke the strap on my bag. When he broke the strap on my bag, I pushed him back a little bit, and as soon as I pushed him, he pulled a gun out and pointed it at my head. When that happened, I just froze. Like, man, even if he accidentally pulled the trigger right now, he’s gonna blow my head off. That was one of those moments when I realized how serious it is out there. How at risk you are growing up in a place like that. It made me sharper; it made me more alert. I had a different appreciation just walking around and living and being free.
Saadiq: I’ve been robbed at gunpoint, too, in Oakland. A couple times, actually. One time I was on my way to a concert when I was a youngster and these guys came and said, “Give me your ticket.” I was like, “I don’t have no ticket.” And this dude pulled his coat back and he had a huge gun on his hip. I knew I had to give him the ticket. I was like 12 years old.
[Damian and I] had some of the same variables, walking down the same paths. It was easy for me to take [the song] and make it something positive. That’s why I was singing on the hook that there’s a lot to learn, and made it something positive, like how he made it positive.
I can tell how important Oakland is to both of you. When it comes to giving back, what do you feel your role is?
Lillard: I feel my role is to be the hope and to have an impact on the youth. That’s my primary responsibility — giving the people hope, and having that impact on the youth with my presence and the influence that I can have.
Do you remember the first time someone said you were their hero?
Lillard: I have plenty of kids come up and say that since I’ve been in the NBA. The one that probably meant the most to me was in the beginning of this summer. My nephew, who’s seven years old, always comes to my house ’cause I got the video games, the hoverboards, the swimming pool. He’s always coming in my room, asking a million questions. He’ll see me playing a video game and be like, “Uncle, you weak.” He’s never shown [him looking] at me like a hero. He’s like, that’s just my uncle.
This summer, I started to see a change in him, like, “My uncle’s an NBA player, my uncle’s in a video game, my uncle can rap.” He came in and was like, “Uncle, I’m gonna play basketball at Weber State. I’m gonna get drafted by the Trailblazers and I’m gonna learn how to rap. Just like you.” He was basically telling me, I wanna be like you; you my hero. It was different because I spend a lot of time around my nephew, and he had never said nothing like that. I was like, that’s pretty cool that my nephew don’t gotta look up to nobody else. I appreciated that moment.
In the behind-the-scenes video, you address anyone who may be critical of you doing music because you’re in the NBA, by saying that President Obama finds time to hoop so you can find time to do music. What are your aspirations musically? Where do you want to see it go?
Lillard: Just continuing to do what makes me happy. It makes me happy to see the reaction of people like, “Oh, he can rap.” That does something for me, outside of what I do every day. Just continuing to do something outside of basketball that makes me happy and clears my mind. And also use my music to create a platform where I can help other aspiring artists. My stuff comes from my real story and what I think. It ain’t to get people to like it and say, this is a good song to play in the club. That’s not the music that I gravitate towards.
Saadiq: I feel like [Dame] could go anywhere. He has a huge platform by default that he loves hooping but at the same time, people love him — he’s a likeable guy. In video gaming, he could be all over that medium [with his music], put his music in his own commercials. I think he could go far because he’s actually got really good flows and he opens up the arena for actually good MCs in the NBA to mix with regular MCs. I think everybody needs peace of mind. If that’s his peace of mind outside of hooping, I think it’s genius.
Dame, there were reports earlier this year that major labels were trying to sign you. Is there any truth to that?
Lillard: There were talks with labels but I don’t need a label to front me money nor do I need a typical record deal. I’m not gonna go on tour and I’m not gonna sign up to be under somebody’s wing. It just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. It really was more about the distribution if I wanted to do something using that platform. A lot of times I don’t think it’s real beneficial for artists, especially somebody that’s financially stable.
A lot of fans are curious if there’s an album on the way?
Is there a timetable for that?
Lillard: Just wait on it. [Laughs]