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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A conversation with DJ Drama: the extended interview

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It's hard to believe the Aphilliates' offices are still located at 147 Walker St. -- the same place where Atlanta police arrested Tyree "DJ Drama" Simmons and Don Cannon last January on bootlegging charges.

"A lot of people were like, 'You're going to stay there? Don't you feel like it's negative energy?'" says DJ Drama, who takes a moment to talk before going on the air to host "Gangsta Grillz Radio," the 8 p.m. Friday show he co-hosts with Cannon for Sirius satellite radio. The duo broadcasts the program from a studio room in the offices. "But it would only be negative energy if I felt as if everything turned out in a negative way. I'm the type of person where my glass is always half-full. This is our home."

It's the type of attitude that has sustained Drama throughout the year: When it rains lemons, make lemonade. After DJ Drama, widely known as the uncrowned king of mix CDs, was arrested, he pressed up T-shirts that read, "Free DJ Drama." Hot 107.9 (WHTA-FM), the station that once hosted the Aphilliates' "Gangsta Grillz Radio" program Saturdays at 8 p.m., temporarily took Drama off the air. Now Hot 107.9 features the program five nights a week: Monday through Thursday at 10 and the original Saturday time slot.

When police raided the offices, they seized the master copies for DJ Drama's Atlantic Records debut, Gangsta Grillz: The Album. After DJ Drama re-recorded some tracks and commissioned new material, the album will finally drop Dec. 4. He talked about the album, his friend Tip "T.I." Harris' ongoing legal troubles (Drama is T.I.'s DJ), and why he calls mix CDs "the veins of hip-hop."

CL: This is the same space that you had last time, right?

Drama: Same space. This is where they came. We’re still here.

CL: It actually looks like it’s cleaner, and there’s more stuff here than there was before.

Drama: They took everything, so we just had to rebuild. Basically, we went out, got new stuff, and went back to work. You know, we do our Sirius show from in here, so they had taken all our ISDN lines and everything. So we just had to put everything back together and get back to work. But I’m happy to say that we’re doing the show live here. We finished up the album and everything.

A lot of people were, like, “You’re going to stay there? Don’t you feel like it’s negative energy?” But it would only be negative energy if I felt as if everything turned out in a negative way. I’m the type of person where my glass is always half-full. This is our home. This is where we built a lot of things. So for me to feel like the energy wasn’t good in here, I mean, it is what we make it. It’s back to business.

CL: Did you have any financial difficulties in rebuilding this space?

Drama: Um, I wouldn’t say difficulty. Under the circumstances that accounts had gotten frozen, and a lot of stuff was taken from us, I would say financial challenge. But we worked with it. We got a lot of support from within our own camp, the Aphilliates. We made it happen.

At the end of the day, because I love what I do, and I would do this regardless -- I never even imagined I would make the type of money that I make now -- to even be where I was this year or last year is like a dream come true. I was doing this when I was broke. I’ve seen both sides, so it’s nothing for me to keep on trucking. I’m thankful that I have that hustler spirit in me.

CL: What’s the status of the case?

Drama: The case is still pending. God bless, I haven’t spent another day in jail, and that’s the thing I’m most thankful about. Hopefully, it will be resolved in a timely fashion. It’s been a while, so I know a lot of people are still wondering what’s going on with it. I’m just happy to keep doing my thing. I’m still able to travel. I’ve got good lawyers on the team. My lawyer Ed Garland, who is also T.I.’s lawyer, he’s working productively with the district attorney. I look forward to resolving it in a manner that everyone can come to an agreement on.

CL: But it’s still going on…

Drama: It’s still going on. I have yet to be indicted or convicted on anything.

CL: Do you think you’ll be indicted?

Drama: I don’t know. I can’t say either way. In this situation, I just pray for the best.

CL: Can you speak on T.I. a little bit? What’s going on with his situation?

Drama: It’s been such a long year for us. What a year 2007 is. I was actually reading an article someone had just wrote in Creative Loafing saying that maybe the DJ Drama situation was an omen for the year to come, which bugged me out.

Hip-hop artists, musicians and entertainers have had legal problems for many, many years. But it’s clear that this is a year when a lot of people’s situations were put on the table. I’m including T.I., Remy Martin, Prodigy, myself, and even Michael Vick.

But as far as Tip goes, it’s a very serious matter, and we’re dealing with it as that. I talked to Tip today, actually. He was in good spirits. His kids were at the house, and I could hear his son in the background. He was being daddy. I think he was reading me something on the Internet about the “security guard/informant,” and some inaccuracies and his developments and what they are.

I can’t say where it’s at with it as far as on the legal side. That’s more of a lawyer conversation. I’m just glad my man is in good spirits. He’s not behind bars, and house arrest is better than that. He’s been through a lot himself. A lot of people in his position, with his fame and his success have overcome situations like this or bigger.

I’m staying positive. I’m glad that at least my project is ready to go so I can ride for the team and represent, be out there and be vocal, and shout my homie out, and make sure that at the end of the day, Tip is a man and a human being. You can’t judge a human being on one action. You have to judge everything about them, and take the good with the bad, however it may come.

CL: Who is T.I.’s team?

Drama: As far as Grand Hustle, it’s just that -- the hustle is grand. It’s so storybook for me to become DJ for Grand Hustle because, me being from Philly, Philly breeds natural born hustlers. [T.I. and I] came up together. And, of course, Jason Geter, in his role as T.I.’s manager and president, handles daily business and gets a lot of things going. There’s a lot of artists on Grand Hustle that represent and do their thing. We’re just out here to win.

CL: You’re mostly known for the mixtapes. Do you still make them?

Drama: Yeah, we still do mixtapes.

For a while, the mixtape game definitely took a … I call Jan. 16 the day the game changed, and it was a devastating day in the mixtape world. I feel like a lot of that happened on my shoulders and that I have an obligation to speak out in the support and benefit of mixtapes as it represents for hip-hop. I feel like mixtapes are the veins of hip-hop. So many movements come from mixtapes. So much money the industry generates start from that street level and start from the mixtapes.

The mixtape game, slowly but surely, is coming back to life. I’m doing my part. I dropped Gangsta Grillz 16, Gangsta Grillz 17, I did a tape with Jeezy, and I did a tape with Block Entertainment. It’s slowly but surely coming back to life.

CL: Would you say that you’re still a mixtape DJ…

Drama: Definitely, proud to be.

CL: …or are you more than that or something different from that now?

Drama: Well, I’m a lot more. You could call me a lot of things. You could call me an artist. You could call me an executive. I’m on the radio six nights a week now, so I’m a personality. I’m a dad. So I’m a lot of things.

But for me, it’s important that I became famous from being a mixtape DJ. I was doing clubs, and I used to do 89.3 and 88.5 way before I was ever on Hot 107.9. I did whatever it took. I was a grinder and a hustler, but mixtapes is what got me to this point. I stand proud to be along the lines of Brucie B, Ron G, DJ Clue and Green Lantern. I feel proud to be a mixtape DJ.

You know, being a DJ, I’ve studied all facets of the DJ world. You’ve got your battle DJs, your party DJs, your radio DJs. But it was always something about mixtape DJs. That was the lane I wanted to go. I’m thankful for where my career has taken me because of mixtapes.

CL: You’re about to come out with the Gangsta Grillz album. Can you talk about that?

Drama: Dec. 4, man. It’s a great feeling. Boy, did I pick the right name by calling myself DJ Drama? I don’t know if I set myself up or what!

But I feel good, man. It really feels good. Dec. 4. Obviously, earlier this year I had a release date. A lot of that release date was built off of the controversy that happened, and I think even my record label got hype off of it …

CL: Wait, because Gangsta Grillz was originally scheduled to come out last year, right?

Drama: It was originally supposed to come out last year. I wasn’t ready. The album wasn’t done. It was close to being done, but it wasn’t done.

Then it was supposed to come out at the beginning of the year. Then the raid happened. Then after the raid happened, I was everywhere, my face was all over the place. The record label said [claps his hands], “Hey, let’s come out with an album!” But [the police] had taken the hard drives from us. So I had to get on the phone and get all the pieces back and make new songs.

We did the song “Feds Taking Pictures,” basically building upon what the situation was. That was a wink to, you know, not feeling like I had been defeated, just to show my guns and keep rolling.

I had a [Gangsta Grillz] release date of May 15. Then I had June 15. Some situations happened … there was a DJ that popped up in Chicago that said he had the rights to the name DJ Drama. So I was in a position where I was going to have to change my name if I came out back then – either “Drama” or “Dramatic.” So we were dealing with that.

Then Tip’s album [T.I. vs. T.I.P.] was ready to come out [July 3]. And, rightfully so, all the powers that be put their effort into his album, which I totally respect with him being the moneymaker around the building. I hopped right on board, and we did what we had to do to make sure that T.I.’s album was right. And I kept working.

“Feds Taking Pictures” did well, but we never got to shoot a video for it. But I think it was a good song, and it was an ode to the situation.

CL: It had a lot of underground buzz, right?

Drama: It had a great underground buzz. It basically wound up being my street single. Then, while Tip’s album was moving, I kept working.

I think the one thing I’ve been asked about before is, “Damn, they missed the buzz! It was so popping then! Blahzay blah … Why didn’t you come out when the raid happened and everything?”

Realistically, everything’s meant to be. The one thing I want people to understand is that raid wasn’t the beginning of my story, and it’s not the end of my story. For me, that was just a chapter. That was history, it’s part of what happened, it’s part of my legacy, but it’s not what I’m going to be remembered for. I don’t need that hype to come out, because I’ve got a loyal fan base, I represent the streets, and when you come from the streets, and you build a movement, you’re always going to have that movement.

That’s what record companies need to understand. Time and time again this year, we’ve seen these [artists with] big songs be such radio hits, and then [the artists] dud when they album come out. I mean, God bless, this is my first album, and I have no expectations of record sales. But I know I have a core fan base. And it’s not about me, DJ Drama, it’s about Gangsta Grillz, and Gangsta Grillz as a brand.

For a long time, I was speaking into existence “Album coming out Thanksgiving.” Then we wound up getting a date close to Thanksgiving [Dec. 4]. It’s like a week and a half later. That’s good for me, and I’m excited. It’s fourth quarter. There are superstars on the album.

“5,000 Ones,” the single that I have out now, is a lot bigger record than “Feds Taking Pictures.” Though I love both of them and they’re two different records, I think this record is more suitable for the mainstream. But my album is still quality street music.

It’s funny, man. For this whole year, despite everything I’ve been through, I never wished anything went different, because I learned from it, and I keep on moving.

CL: What role do you play on the album? Do you produce a lot of the beats, or are you an executive producer?

Drama: I’m an executive producer. I’m the face in a lot of ways, you know what I’m saying?

A lot of people put in a lot of work for this album, especially DJ Sense and La the Darkman. They executive produced the album along with me. We basically sat down and mapped it out.

You know, I don’t rap. I could call myself a co-producer, but I’m not necessarily sitting there on the drum machine. We have an in-house team, Detroit Red and DJ Cannon, as producers. We also got a lot of outside producers: Jazze Pha, Drumma Boy, Khao, and the Runners. The artists that’s on the album: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Lloyd, Young Jeezy, T.I., you know what I’m saying? It’s basically my canvas, and I took all this paint, and I put it together. I feel like it’s my Chronic, with all due respect to Dr. Dre, and I would never want to put myself on his level, but that’s how I went into it.

There was one point when I didn’t even know if I wanted to put my face on the cover of the album, because it’s not so much about DJ Drama as it is about Gangsta Grillz and Gangsta Grillz as the brand. I feel like I’m George Lucas and that’s my Star Wars. At the end of the day, I’m thankful that I get a lot of credit, but a lot of people deserve credit for this album. A lot of people put a lot of work into it, all the artists, and all the producers, so I’m happy to be able to present it.

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