DJ Drama doesn’t want you to forget about his legacy in hip-hop

The Atlanta DJ and music executive talks about his new album and the state of Atlanta rap.
The Legendz of the Streetz Tour rocked sold-out State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Friday, April 1, 2022. The show featured hip-hop stars DJ Drama (above), Rick Ross, Jeezy, T.I., Trina, Dav3D and D'Myke. (Photo: Robb Cohen for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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The Legendz of the Streetz Tour rocked sold-out State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Friday, April 1, 2022. The show featured hip-hop stars DJ Drama (above), Rick Ross, Jeezy, T.I., Trina, Dav3D and D'Myke. (Photo: Robb Cohen for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

DJ Drama has a discography that’s massive and influential enough to appeal to both the Tik Tok-friendly sector of Gen-Z and the hip-hop loyalists who critique the music of the former. He’s created joint projects with nearly every notable act in the genre, from newcomers like NBA Youngboy and Lakeyah to veterans like Jeezy and Jim Jones.

But he doesn’t rest on his laurels. That’s why he wants to continue making new music and creating culture-shifting moments with artists.

“I just want to be remembered as someone who really gave his all to hip-hop.”

On his latest album, “I’m Really Like That,” the Atlanta-based DJ and music executive wants listeners to understand his legacy in hip-hop, though he acknowledges that he has more work to do to push the genre even further. The 14-track project, which dropped on March 31, boasts star-studded features from Jack Harlow, Lil Uzi Vert, Nipsey Hussle, Rick Ross and more. The album fuses a mesh of regional sounds — from southern trap to the subdued, melodic stylings of west-coast rap — showcasing Drama’s mastery of recruiting talent from any coast to fit his Gangsta Grillz flair.

Ahead of the album’s release, the 44-year-old posted social media clips of him recreating scenes from the 1992 cult classic “Juice.” He revealed that the film inspired him to become a DJ. The Clark Atlanta alumnus is widely regarded as one of the most important voices in hip-hop whose mixtapes revolutionized the sound of rap and skyrocketed the careers Jeezy and T.I. in the early aughts. Drama’s Gangsta Grillz mixtape series, which spans nearly 20 years and counting, is adorned with skits, braggadocious shout outs and high-energy performances from the hottest rappers of the moment.

“‘I’m Really Like That’ is just a statement on how I feel about my place in hip-hop, my legacy and what I’ve given to the culture and how extensively and how long I’ve been at it,” he said. “Being somebody that created the most important mixtape series of all-time (and to) go down in history as one of the greatest DJs of all-time, (I’ve) introduced hip-hop to so many legendary voices and been a part of so many movements.”

Credit: Dezmen Simmons

Credit: Dezmen Simmons

He approached the creation of “I’m Really Like That” with the same hunger he felt roughly 20 years ago as a budding DJ in Atlanta.

“I feel celebrated,” Drama said. “I definitely feel like I receive my flowers at times. There have been times when I’ve been considered the underdog, but I also thrive in that space. I don’t mind being that in a way. But overall, I definitely feel celebrated, especially more recently. It also motivates me to continue to put out dope projects.”

Drama’s career received a major boost from younger generations of rap fans after he hosted Tyler, the Creator’s Grammy-winning album “Call Me If You Get Lost” in 2021. The album debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It marked Drama’s first Grammy win.

Last week, Tyler, the Creator dropped a deluxe edition of the album titled “Call Me If You Get Lost: The Estate Sale,” which features Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky and YG. Tyler appears on “Legendary,” the opening track for “I’m Really Like That.”

“I’ve been a fan of Tyler for a long time,” Drama said. “He’s been a fan of me for a long time. We’ve always had a great rapport, but working with him on that project was really dope to see how his genius works, how his creativity works and his mind works in being an instrument. His masterpiece was iconic and special. I definitely knew going into the project that it was going to be something special. For us to win the Grammy, it was full-circle. Him pretty much making his album a Gangsta Grillz mixtape and it winning a Grammy was dope. From that, I really think it sparked a resurgence of what mixtapes used to be and people having me host their projects and just breathing a new life into Gangsta Grillz.”

Since then, he’s hosted Gangsta Grillz projects for Dreamville, Kash Doll, Symba and more. He hopes to create future projects with De La Soul and Black Thought. He’s also planning on signing new artists for Generation Now, the Atlanta-based record label that includes artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Jack Harlow.

“Obviously, I’m from Philly, but I’ve been in Atlanta longer than I was in Philly at this point,” he said. “Atlanta is the mecca for hip-hop, and to have a label based here, to come up from the mud and watch so many movements happen here and to be a part of so many things, Atlanta really changed my life. I can’t imagine what hip-hop would be without this city.”

Credit: Raymond Hagans, Special

Credit: Raymond Hagans, Special

But he admits that the city’s music scene needs to be re-energized. Since last May, prominent Atlanta rappers Trouble, Takeoff and Lil Keed have died. Since February, two influential mainstays in Atlanta’s nightlife and music scene — Michael Gidewon and Clay Evans — have also died. And Young Thug, arguably the most influential rapper to emerge from Atlanta since Andre 3000, remains in jail while awaiting trial for R.I.C.O. charges.

Drama, along with his longtime music partner and Generation Now co-founder Don Cannon, faced his own R.I.C.O. charges in 2007 for distributing illegal mixtapes in a police raid that ultimately altered the course of mixtape culture — halting its business model. Drama and Cannon weren’t prosecuted for the charges.

“It’s been a tough past couple of years for Atlanta, and it’s in a space where it’s probably never been,” he said. “It’s a city that normally shines and has a lot of love and dopeness (to) come out of it, so hopefully there’s a rainbow at the end of the tunnel. Right now, it feels like hip-hop is under attack. Hip-hop is the only art form where lyrics are used against artists in the court of law. It’s definitely an attack on freedom of expression and the art. Hip-hop has, for some time, been under attack when it comes to the law and how we present it to the world.”

That’s why he’s especially concerned with how he’s perceived in hip-hop. He doesn’t want his impact to be overlooked.

“When it’s all said and done, the things that I’ve said on mixtapes or the projects I’ve been a part of will be remembered as legendary. I really want to go down in history as one of the greatest DJs to ever do it, so I thrive to continuously put on for that. As much as I’ve accomplished, there’s so much more I want to continue to do.”

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