Mixtape Memories with DJ Drama (Part 1)

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

If there is one DJ who has completely bodied the mixtape game in the last decade, it’s DJ Drama. The Philly-bred, Atlanta-based tape king is best known for his Gangsta Grillz brand, whose stamp is on Lil Wayne’s extraordinary Dedication series, groundbreaking classics like T.I.’s Down With The King and Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die, and collaborative tapes with everyone from 50 Cent to Pharrell. The man cornered the market on hosting artist mixtapes with his impeccable ear for beats, powerful personality, and multi-market appeal, and has become the go-to guy for rappers (and even acts like Gnarls Barkley) who are trying to create a buzz in the streets. And now, in addition to still crushing the mixtape game (he just put out Dedication 5 with Lil Wayne), he hosts his own radio show, and has a major label album deal (check for his latest LP Street Quality Music available on iTunes now).

In Part 1 of our Mixtape Memories interview with DJ Drama, we go back to his days coming up in Philly and talk to him about some of his favorite tapes, and also the first tape he ever made, which highlighted the local Philly hip-hop scene. We also follow him along through his college years hustling tapes in Atlanta, take a closer look at Southern mixtape culture, and discuss the birth of Gangsta Grillz and his signature hosting style. In addition, we revisit his early work with T.I. and Young Jeezy, and get the history behind Down With The King and Trap or Die. Check out part one below, you bastards!

Introduction to Mixtapes/Early Favorites

DJ Drama: “I’ve always said that DJ S&S Old School Part 2 was my introduction to mixtapes, because that was the first tape I ever had. I went up to New York with my sister, went to 125th Street, and copped that. But even before that, there was an article in The Source about Ron G. This might’ve been like ‘92. They did a write up on him. It was probably one of the first Source magazines that I had ever bought. It was about how Ron G was changing the game with his blend tapes, taking old R&B acapellas and using hip-hop beats, which was kind of the same thing that Puff was doing. I don’t know who actually did it first, Ron G or Puff, but I do think we owe a lot of R&B remixes to Ron G and what he was doing with those tapes.

“Then, there was a store in Philly called The Layup, which was right off South Street. It was a little hip-hop gear store, and they used to sell mixtapes. That’s the first place in Philly where I bought any tapes. It was where I’d get DJ Clue tapes, Tony Touch tapes. Some of my early introductions were Tony Touch 50 MCs, Doo Wop 95 Live, Clue Back to School. And some of the other guys that were out then, like S&S, and Chubby Chubb. And Camilo was making tapes. And then, being from Philly, Cosmic Kev used to do tapes when I was in high school, and we used to cop those. And there was another store that I ended up working at called Inferno that was on South Street. We sold mixtapes in there.

“I was a huge Clue fan in those days. I remember when Clue first broke ground hosting tapes [when he did Bad Boy Volume 1]. Those were the days when outside of the exclusives you had and how hot your tape was, your popularity came from your connections, and your store list, and things of that nature. That was when it was all about your hustle to an extent. DJs would be in touch with various bodegas and stores and just sell masters. At the time, if you were a big time DJ, you could get between $300 to $500 per master. I heard stories of Clue selling $1,000 masters, or even $2,500 masters, because the stores were definitely going to make a bigger profit off of [his] tapes. It was all about the masters game. You sold your master, and the store basically made their money from there.

“I remember the first time I heard [Biggie] ‘Who Shot Ya?’ on a Clue tape. I remember the first time hearing the Eddie F record with Biggie, Pac, Grand Puba, and Heavy D [‘Let’s Get It On.’] That was on a Clue Back to School tape. And hearing the premiere of the Method Man and Mary J Blige ‘You’re All I Need’ remix. I remember that moment on 95 Live when Busta first said ‘There’s only five years left!’ and the first time hearing Group Home ‘Supa Star.’ Crazy.”

First Mixtape

“I started making tapes in high school. I would just make them at the crib. They were tapes I would hustle for like four dollars. And they were pretty much just made from the vinyl that I was purchasing at the time, and I would make a tape of the records that were out.

“From there, I started to get into this little hip-hop click. And my status as a DJ was very light. Very, very light. But I started to hang around a couple graffiti artists that were involved in the Philly scene, and Bahamadia was my next door neighbor at the time in West Philly where my dad lived. I was around The Roots in those early days in different aspects, and befriended Questlove, Black Thought, and Malik B at different times.

“My first tape that I would consider on the radar is a tape I did called Illadelph. It was in ‘95, after Doo Wop did 95 Live, and I pretty much just bit his whole format. I went around to all the local Philly MCs that I knew—Malik B, Bahamadia, this group called 100X, Black Thought did something on the next one I think, and all my friends that rapped—and I just let everyone freestyle on the tape. Then, I would go into the new records that were out. I think at the time AZ just came out, he was hot. Bahamadia was on [EMI], the same label as AZ, so she got an early copy of his album [Do or Die]. And she gave it to me, and I wound up using a couple of those [songs on the tape]. That was probably my first time having an exclusive. Wu-Tang was hot. Raekwon, Mobb Deep, [and those type of artists were] probably on the tape too. That was my first tape I sold a master for. I sold my master for $100.”

Early Mixtape Hustle/Philly Hip-Hop Scene

“I would hustle them myself. I lived in Germantown, and there was a spot on Chelton Avenue that would sell mixtapes. So I would hustle them there, and in school. And this is a time where I was pretty much just dubbing them myself with a regular tape deck recorder, printing up the covers at Kinko’s, and my graffiti friends would make my covers for me. For the freestyles, I would play the record, they would rhyme on the microphone, and I would record it on the tape. Then I would take those, record them all together, and put them on one tape. Then when I did the actual mixtape version of it, I would go all the way through with no stopping. If you messed up, you’d have to stop and start over from the beginning.

“I got the name DJ Drama in ‘95. I had a friend named Hakeem, and a friend named Bakari [pictured above], and Bakari’s last name was Drama [pronounced Dra-may]. Hakeem would always call him Drama. Bakari used to sell mixtapes on Broad and Girard, and I used to hang with him there when he was grinding. But he wasn’t a real DJ. He had a stand, and sold mixtapes and incense. He was hustling. So I was like, ‘Yo, let me have that name. Shit sounds hot.’ So that’s how I became DJ Drama. It was kind of given to me.

“I started to have a little rep within a small hip-hop community circle. There’s probably a small sector of folks that remember DJ Drama in Philly at that time. I never was big or known as a mixtape DJ in my Philly days. I was a kid, coming up, and learning the ropes. And it was kind of an in-crowd with the hip-hop scene in Philly. Everybody that was somebody in Philly definitely knew me, whether it was The Roots or Bahamadia or whoever. Our hip-hop scene was only but so big, so everybody was in the same circles. But I was nowhere near where Cosmic Kev was when it came to mixtapes and DJs in those days. He was the man. Kev was the Philly DJ. He made it outside of Philly as a mixtape DJ, and used to have tapes in New York.”

College Mixtape Hustle

“I moved to Atlanta in ‘96, and went to Clark Atlanta University. When I moved, I tried to change my DJ name to Jedi. I always felt like drama was too common of a word, and that I wasn’t going to be able to make people correlate drama to DJ Drama. So I used to try and switch my name. So that whole first year I came to Atlanta, I was trying to use the name DJ Jedi. I wasn’t really doing mixtapes. It was my first year at school in a new environment, and I kind of fell back. But I was definitely DJing. I met my man DJ Sense freshman year, and all of freshman year, I was the CAU DJ. We did all the house parties, we DJ’d in the cafeteria. I had a DJ battle, and got my ass bust by Ludacris’ former DJ JC. I was a college DJ.

“And I was an East Coast type of guy with my taste. When you come to school, particularly in a place like Atlanta, you’ve got so many people from so many places. So I had to relearn how to DJ, and it made me much more of a worldly DJ than I might have been [if I stayed] in Philly. You had people from California, and people from D.C. that wanted hear go-go, and people from the islands. You got your people from Atlanta that want to hear A-Town shit. Then there’s people from New York. So you gotta learn how to please a bunch of people.

“After my freshman year, when everybody went home from school, I stayed in Atlanta. And I remember right before school started sophomore year, I had a piece of paper, and I wrote down all my goals, and things I wanted to get accomplished. And [one of those things was that] I wanted to get back into my mixtape shit. So I made like five or six tapes—a neo-soul tape, a East Coast hip-hop tape, a reggae tape, and a classic R&B tape. I made the tapes in my room, got my covers designed, and went to Kinko’s and printed them up. And I would go to campus, and set up on what was called ‘The Strip,’ and hustle my tapes. I would set up on top of the green trash cans, and I had this portable yellow Sony radio. While people were walking to class, I would be like, ‘Hey, can I interest you in a mixtape?’ [Laughs.] Playing shit, showing them the playlists, smiling at the girls, just doing whatever [to make a sale]. I would make like $50 or $60 on a good day, and that was alright money for me at the time.

From ‘96 to 2000, I basically spent my time as a college DJ. I was on my backpacker, Lyricist Lounge shit. I would DJ at poetry slams, and those type of [gigs]. I was never in the mainstream clubs. But I kept on my mixtape grind, and those were the years in ‘97 and ‘98 when mixtapes turned into CDs. So I bought myself a CD recorder, and paid like a $1,000 for it, which was like $15,000 to me at the time, and I would dub my own CDs. I got a 4-track, and the tapes started sounding better. My neo-soul tapes started to become really popular, [the series was called] Automatic Relaxation.”

Atlanta Mixtape Culture/Post-Grad Mixtape Hustle

“The culture in Atlanta was a little different. There were flea markets, and Big Oomp’s [record] stores, and a store called Earwax that you could definitely get mixtapes from. Big Oomp pretty much had a hold on the market. In the late ‘90s, when it came to mixtapes, Big Oomp and DJ Jelly were the mixtape game. Period. Oomp had a bunch of stores, and he would sell music as well as Big Oomp and DJ Jelly mixtapes, and they would murder the game. But for me, the only way you were getting a DJ Drama mixtape back then is if you came on the Clark Atlanta University campus. I wasn’t moving in the city like that. I was [the DJ on campus doing all the big events].

“After I graduated, I was working as DJ, doing parties and clubs and weddings, and making enough to pay my bills. Just working. And I elevated my mixtape hustle, and started going to different campuses like Georgia State, and would set up on campus and hustle my CDs. At this time, I had people start designing my covers, and I would hand out various CDs to industry folks I would run into. Now, I was making on a good day like $300 to $500 selling mixtapes. And there was a reggae group in Atlanta called Unity Sound, and I would hustle their CDs and stuff like that too. So I started to be more in the city with my projects.

“There was a store called Tapemasters, my man Marco used to work in there. And I would try to sell my CDs in there, but I would get blown out, because I was making East Coast CDs trying to compete with Whoo Kid and Kay Slay and Clue, and no one was checking for me because I was getting beat to the punch [by them having the exclusives before me]. So my senior year of college, I realized that I needed to make a South tape. And that shit flew like hot cakes. The first song ever on the pre-Gangsta Grillz DJ Drama South tape was ‘Bling Bling.’ That was like ‘99. And Marco was like, ‘You need to focus on your neo-soul tapes, and your South tapes. That’s where you have niches at.’

“Big Oomp and Jelly had the game on smash still, though. There was no competition when it came down to it. But they had a certain style to them, which was very Southern. They didn’t wanna hear no new records, no talking, no exclusives, no freestyles, none of that. Just play the shit they know. I took a different approach, and went totally against the grain. I started talking all over my tapes. Playing new shit. I came from an era where DJs used to do shout outs on tapes to the artists on the songs, different stores they were hustling tapes at, and their homies and their crews. So I would emulate that.”

Gangsta Grillz

I had the opportunity to have a stand at the Hot 107.9 Birthday Bash, and I needed a new title for a Southern tape. And I was playing around with words, and said Gangsta Grillz. My man DJ Sense said, ‘That sounds cool,’ and we stuck with it. My first one was terrible. I spelled [Grillz] with an ‘S,’ we had a guy with gold teeth on the cover. It was rushed, but it was the first one.

“When Gangsta Grillz first started, it was a compilation CD. I would hustle them myself, and would lie to people when they asked me who DJ Drama is. I’d be like, ‘I don’t know him, I just work for him.’ Around this time, hosted mixtapes were very popular, and that became a sign of how cool you were in the mixtape game, who you got to host your tape. I wound up getting Lil Jon to host a Gangsta Grillz. So I did Gangsta Grillz 1 and 2, and then while Lil Jon was doing the drops, I fucked up and told him to say Gangsta Grillz 4. So there was never a Gangsta Grillz 3, because I had Lil Jon say Gangsta Grillz 4 on the drop, so I was like, ‘Fuck it, I gotta make it Gangsta Grillz 4.’ And that’s where the Gangsta Grillz drop comes from. That was his voice. There was a column in The Source back then that reviewed the five hottest tapes of the month. And that was the first tape I ever got reviewed.

Gangsta Grillz 5 didn’t have a host, so I used the Lil Jon drop, and it stuck. But Gangsta Grillz 6 was a big tape in Atlanta. That had all the hot songs on it. T.I. ‘24’s,’ David Banner ‘Like a Pimp,’ Bonecrusher ‘Never Scared,’ and on and on. I focused on all the South shit. The bootleggers destroyed that tape in Atlanta. They probably made thirty times the amount of money I made off it. Me, I was wholesaling them. I got my hands on a store list, and was shipping them out to stores across the country, but mainly on the East Coast, because that’s where most mixtapes were sold. I’d be like, ‘Look, my name is DJ Drama. I got this South tape, I want to send it to you.’ And a lot of stores would be like, ‘Nobody’s really checking for no Down South mixtape.’ So I’d be like, ‘Look, I’m gonna just send you a package.’ And I’d send a box of ten CDs to the stores, just so they’d have them in there. And I went to the flea markets in Atlanta. And I got my wholesale weight up from moving around the city, and hustling them myself. And at this point, I was outsourcing [to have copies made of the CDs]. I was making fair money. Enough to provide for myself.

“After that, I started to have all types of hosts. David Banner and Bonecrusher hosted 6, Field Mob and T.I. hosted 7, and Bubba Sparxxx hosted 8. Around that time, [Grand Hustle CEO] Jason Geter came to me and was like, ‘I got this idea. I want to do a whole Grand Hustle Gangsta Grillz.’ And I was like, ‘Aiight, fuck it, let’s do it.’ And Tip was definitely buzzing, and was clearly the man. And that was the first special edition Gangsta Grillz, which dropped maybe right after Trap Muzik came out. It was killer in the streets. That first Gangsta Grillz, all T.I., Grand Hustle tape In Da Streets was probably my coming of age when it came to Atlanta. That’s when the streets was like, ‘Yo, we need that.’ And I took that tape to the Mixshow Power Summit in Puerto Rico, and that was the first project that started to get into industry hands. And Shaheem Reid wrote it up on MTV. I think he got his hands on it at the Mixshow Power Summit.

Gangsta Grillz 10 was hosted by Big Boi. That was great. Amazing. That was the first tape I ever put myself on the cover of. I was like, ‘Okay cool, it’s time to show my face.’ Now Gangsta Grillz was a brand. People were paying attention. And I was on the radar. I was coming up.”

Down With The King

“In 2004, I started being around all the time, making my claim to be Tip’s DJ. And I was on the road with Lil Scrappy as his DJ. The first show I did with Tip was Birthday Bash, when he dissed Lil Flip. That’s what led to Down With The King. Tip was gung ho, like, ‘I’m ready to do a tape!’ That’s the most excited I’ve ever seen him about wanting to do a mixtape.

“So we started working on the tape. I remember Pharrell was around, that’s when he did his drop for the tape, and when I first met him. And that’s where ‘Gangsta Grillz you bastards!’ was born. And that tape was huge. That was the nationwide coming out party for me, because of the T.I. vs. Lil Flip situation. And Tip was really on the verge of being the man. And I was right there with him through the whole thing while he was recording, giving him beats, and putting together the ‘Jackin For Beats.’ He dissed Flip on that, ‘99 Problems,’ and ‘Welcome Back.’ That tape was basically dedicated to fucking Lil Flip’s career up. He even got Scarface on the phone, and got the Scarface drop talking about how T.I.’s the king.

“Another crazy part of that tape is [one of the last songs we did for it] is a Don Cannon-produced record. I had an acapella from T.I., and I wanted to make sure my man got some shine. I told Cannon to give me two beats, so I chose one of the beats to put it on, and that’s T.I. on a Don Cannon-produced beat. But the actual beat is Young Jeezy and Jay Z ‘Go Crazy.’ That was Cannon’s first look as a producer. Just to go a few steps forward, me and Cannon were DJing a party, and we played that record like eight times in a row in the club. And that’s how Jeezy heard that beat, and chose to use it for Thug Motivation.

“I think Atlantic made five or ten thousand copies and put them out. But I was doing it a lot myself, too. That tape was hot in Atlanta. It was in demand. That tape was selling like hot cakes in Atlanta. At this point, I’m good. Down With The King, I’m in there.”

“Jackin For Beats”

“T.I. Freestyle” (Prod. by Don Cannon)

Tha Streets Iz Watchin

“I’d never got paid for doing a tape up to this point. Definitely not. The first time I ever got paid for a mixtape was Young Jeezy Streets Iz Watchin. This was later that same year [after Down With The King came out]. At this time, Jeezy is Lil’ J. His manager Coach K lived around the corner from me and Sense in the Fourth Ward. He would give me $100, and I would make him show tapes that he would go perform with. Lil’ J put out an album called Come Shop wit Me.

“I did my first Gangsta Grillz party in Buckhead at this club called Fuel. T.I. performed, Bonecrusher performed, Killa Mike. Fabolous was there chillin’. After that party, Coach K and Jeezy said, ‘Yo, we want to have a meeting with you.’ So we went around the corner to a restaurant. And they were like, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but the streets fuck with you. I don’t know if you noticed the type of niggas that was in that party, but they were some street niggas that fuck with you!’ But I don’t know nothing about that. I’m a DJ. [And I didn’t grow up in Atlanta, I grew up in Philly.]

“So Jeezy was like, ‘I got this campaign. I got this movement I’m about to pop. This is what I’m about to do. I got a vision. I need you to fuck with me. Boom.’ But at this point, there was never a Gangsta Grillz with an unknown person on it. So I got paid $1,000, and he had all the music and was ready to go.

“The reason people were paying attention to that tape is because it was a DJ Drama Gangsta Grillz tape. They don’t know Young Jeezy at this point. He got the deal from Def Jam when we started working together on the tape. It all happened simultaneously. Jazzy Pha and Coach K took him up to Def Jam and he got the deal. That’s when Jay Z was there, and Shakir [Stewart] was there. I wasn’t even prepared for what was about to come.”

“Air Forces”

Trap or Die

Trap or Die, that was just one of those moments. We all knew shit was about to change. Everyone knows who Young Jeezy is, and who DJ Drama is, because of Trap or Die. We put a DVD out with Trap or Die, The Raw Report. That was the first time anyone ever knew what I really looked like. But it was a phenomenon, from the moment it dropped. Jeezy was it. He was the streets, and I was right there a part of it.

“Around the time of Trap or Die, instead of me shouting out stores, or my friends, I turned [my shout outs] into speeches. It was time for me to do something different. I feel like I definitely put a lot of personality and creativity into the talking game when it comes to mixtapes. I made it shit people remember. I say it on Trap or Die, ‘Every street nigga’s not a rapper, and every rapper’s not a street nigga.’ And I remember 2 Chainz, back when he was Tity Boi, was one of the first people to be like, ‘Yo, the shit you be saying on the tapes is crazy.’”

“Trap or Die” ft. Bun B and Slick Pulla

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Photos via DJ Drama’s Instagram and The Diggers Union.

Previously: Mixtape Memories with DJ Green Lantern (Part 1) | Mixtape Memories with DJ Green Lantern (Part 2) | Mixtape Memories with Tony Touch