This past summer, rapper Dej Loaf (real name Deja Trimble) quit her janitorial job at the Chrysler plant in her native Detroit, unsure of the future. But after she uploaded her singsong track “Try Me” to SoundCloud in July, the track became one of 2014’s few viral anthems, thanks to Drake quoting its lyrics on Instagram. Since then, the 23-year old has become hip-hop’s freshest phenomenon: in addition to signing with Columbia in October, “Try Me” has been remixed by a laundry list of rappers including T.I., Remy Ma and Wiz Khalifa. And the song itself is percolating on the charts, moving from No. 67 to 64 on the Hot 100 dated Nov. 15.
After releasing her Sell Sole mixtape last month, serving as the follow-up to her 2012 debut mixtape Just Do It, the red-hot rapper, who uses hardships like her father’s death and severe asthma as fuel, will next be featured on Eminem’s Shady XV compilation (due Nov. 24) and is currently at work on her major label debut, releasing in 2015. While in New York City in late October, Dej Loaf spoke to Billboard about how she got so big, so fast, and why “Try Me” isn’t the start and end of her budding career.
“Try Me” popped off really fast, in part due to Drake posting its lyrics on Instagram. Did you have any idea that your record was already having that kind of impact, where someone at Drake’s level was listening to it and quoting you?
I had no idea. Everything that was happening was just like, “Oh really? How did that happen? How did he hear that? How did she see that?” Stuff travels so fast, man, it’s like word of mouth so it feels good you know when you got Drake quoting the lyrics. One of the best in the game period.
Were you always a Drake fan?
Yeah I man, who’s not? I feel like if you don’t Drake music, you’re a hater. He makes good music. Some people just come in and make great music. Drake is one of them—he hasn’t fumbled yet.
What did you grow up listening to? Did you grow up in a musical household?
My dad used to play music before he got killed—I was four years old when he got killed. I think that had a lot to do with it. I remember a lot of things the music he used to play the first song I learned how to rap was 2Pac‘s “Wonder Why They Call You Bitch” and E-40’s “Captain Save a Hoe” — not “Captain Save a Hoe,” “Sprinkle Me.” I’m like two or three years old rapping those lyrics. I remember all that vividly. I think that had a lot to do with it. After he got killed, I was just into music.
You started writing around nine years old. How would you describe that early stuff? Are you embarrassed by it now?
Definitely, it’s terrible! [Laughs] I still have some of my old books, and I was like, “What was I talking about?” Third grade, cussing. I never recorded it, but I’m reading the lyrics. It was just talking about embarrassing stuff. Like in the fourth or fifth grade, rapping like some of the stuff I can’t even read now, it’s like, I write different now. I used to just write bar for bar, long paragraphs and essays, so it’s different now. But I got better over the time.
How do you see yourself fitting into the Detroit sound?
We got different flavors, everyone has their own porch. You’ve got the guys, Doughboyz Cashout, then you have artists like ZelooperZ, you have my artist Oba Rowland. It’s just different, everybody got different flavors, everybody got their own porch, but they express how they express. But it all kind of all makes sense ’cause that’s their story, ’cause they tell it how they tell it. So yeah, I’m telling it how I tell it from my porch.
That’s kind of what I took away from 2012’s Sell Sole. It’s very personal and you talk a lot about your family.
[I] told everyone my business.
More recently, the stuff that I’ve heard hasn’t been as personal as that in a way that you’re talking about your family and getting very particular.
That’s where I was at that moment. 2011-12, I had written that 2011-10. I was in college, I had graduated high school in 2009, went to college a couple semesters. That’s the music, it’s like a diary. That’s where I was at the time. Now I’m at a place where I’m not in college. I’m just in my home and I’m seeing different things and I’m feeling different ways. It’s all about the time, you know.
Even sonically too, I feel like you moved away from what you’re doing before. Is that conscious as well?
I literally make music about what’s going on, so the thing is everything is real. I’m not ashamed that I was going to college and I was rapping about that, because that’s what I was doing, that was the truth. I was going to college, I was wearing sneakers… I was struggling a little, you know, college kid, that’s what that tape was about. So now we have this and I’m in a different place where I’m just free. I don’t work, I’m still struggling, but it’s a different struggle… But I didn’t do it on purpose, it was all about what I was doing. I knew I needed to turn my music up. Make it better.
“Try Me” is still blowing up and so many people are hopping on it. What’s it like to have all these people want a piece of what you’re doing?
At first I was like, I don’t like remixes. We were making calls getting remixes shut down, because we were still trying to grow mine and it’s like, “How dare you?” I’m not used to being in the industry, I don’t know how it works. I’m used to making my music and it’s my music. So it was different for me to have people just singing my songs. Especially when they didn’t reach out, it was just different. But it feels good reaching out and saluting me. Like Wiz [Khalifa], he’s like, “Yeah, I love this, I listened to this for like two weeks straight, let me hop on it.” How do you say no to Wiz? Other people kind of just did it, other people tried to do it and didn’t even put my hook on it. It’s like, “You’re not doing that.” It’s very personal, my music. It’s mine—make your own. But I just heard there’s been 500 different remixes by 500 different rappers, it’s like really? They said this hasn’t been done in a long time, a beat or a song where everybody wants a remix. I don’t remember the last big song that just everybody wanted to remix so bad. ‘Cause I personally don’t remix songs, I never was into that. I did a couple but that wasn’t my thing.
Did you ever think that this was gonna be the song that took on a life like that?
No not at all. The name of the beat, DDS, originally was called “Good Life,” so makes a lot of sense now.
It’s kind of like foreshadowing, in retrospect.
I was just in my room rapping it, going crazy, and I didn’t know it was gonna be changing my life.
One thing you said: you called out Interscope and Def Jam and said you’re not signing unless it’s you get a million-dollar deal. So in terms of coming to Sony and Columbia, what attracted you to this situation?
They came correct, they showed that they care. They showed great hospitality and just out of everybody, it made sense. They’re looking at it in the long run. And I’m looking at these plaques on the wall: Beyoncé, Pharrell [Williams]… They’re my label mates. But that made the most sense to me. I just wanted to be in a situation where people actually care and it’s not just about “Try Me.” ‘Cause one record is just one record, and it’s deeper than that.
You released Sell Sole shortly after signing to Columbia. What’s next?
Sell Sole is a mixtape of songs I’ve been working on for the last – who knows, since I dropped the last mixtape. I wasn’t able to drop my music how I wanted to ’cause I didn’t have the proper resources to put it out. I’ve been holding on, sitting on a lot of music, so I’m dropping that along with a lot of new stuff too. So we’re gonna put all that together in one, it’s called Sell Dole. It’s like a sequel to Just Do It in a way ’cause Sell Sole is built like the sole of a shoe. It’s gonna be dope.
Who do you wanna work with next?
Jay Z. I wanna work with Charlie Wilson. I worked with E-40, I got to do that… Beyoncé, Pharrell, Lauryn Hill… I just like to make good music so if it makes sense, let’s do it.
Women in hip-hop have had a tough time breaking into the mainstream over the past decade. Looking at the state of hip-hop in 2014, what’s your perspective on the state of women who rap?
I think it could be stepped up a lot. I’m happy for my position that I’m in ’cause I’m definitely gonna set my mark in the game. Nicki Minaj definitely has been holding it down for quite some time now. I like her music, she does what she do, and she does it well. She’s one of the very few female rappers who actually makes good music, you know what I’m saying? She’s stamped. And when I say stamped, I mean she’s good—she’s already a legend, she can sit down today and never do nothing again and people will remember her forever. A lot of female rappers, I don’t know… I always say they come in the game and they expect a lot. They look for things, they look for like, “Oh yeah, I’m a female, I need respect.” And I think if you approach the game like that, it don’t help much. “Oh yeah, women empowerment,” ’cause that’s how they gonna treat you. You gonna hear ’em complaining, like, “It’s hard to be a female rapper.” No, it’s not. You just gotta make good music. You make good music, people gonna give you back what you giving them. I don’t think it’s about being a female or a male… I think people been using that for too long. I think it’s, let it go. I think that’s why female rap isn’t what it is, ’cause they use that so much. It’s like a crutch. Just saying it’s hard being a female—no it’s not. It’s almost like they complain. I’m not complaining. I make music for guys, girls, babies, grandmas, aunties [and] uncles.
Do you see that a lot of female fans are embracing you?
Definitely. I get more love from the girls—I’m not gonna say more than the guys—but the girls definitely going crazy and it’s always good to see. That’s my thing, ’cause a lot of guys don’t listen to girls’ music. They’re not gonna ride around in the car listening to certain females. So I try to make music that the guys can ride along too, the girls, you know. Just kind of keep a balance.
I feel like on social media a lot of guys ride hard for you in a way that a lot of guys probably wouldn’t be caught blasting something like Nicki’s “Your Love.” Why do you think that guys are gravitating towards you?
I don’t know… ’cause its real music. It’s relatable. It’s not just for females. I’m just doing music for females. I’m not just like, “Oh yeah, let’s do this, we’re women.” No, this is for my guys, this is for my ladies, this is for my babies. You gotta keep the balance.
What do you hope people take from your records?
It’s my music, it’s like real life. If you can relate to it, relate to it. Put your hands in the air, wave ’em side to side. Just understand that what I’m doing hasn’t been done and if it has, not in a long time. I just wanna be legendary.