Known as "The Mixtape King", DJ Drama's 'Gangsta Grillz' mixtape series helped solidify him as one of Hip-Hop's most prolific DJs. We had a chance to chat with the infamous DJ about the evolution of DJ culture, his 10 best mixtapes, and what he has in store for the Day Party Series attendees at this year's #EssenceFest.
Essence: Let’s take it back to the start of the Gangsta Grillz mixtape series. Can you tell me what inspired you to create that series?
DJ DRAMA: I used to make all types of mix tapes When I was in college because in between classes I would kind of hustle my own mixtapes. I would have East Coast Hip-Hop tapes, Neo Soul and Reggae tapes. At some point I was like, I have to do a Down South tape so I made one and it went like hot fire! When I got out of school, the opportunity presented itself for me and my business partner DJ Sense to have a booth at one of the early birthday bashes for the radio station—it was HOT97 at the time, but I needed a new name for The South tape. I was looking for a concept and I was sitting on my couch and I said, "Gangsta Grillz". Then, Sense was like, "that sounds dope.” So, I went with it and we did a tape. From there, after I graduated from college my day to day, my hustle was like going to different schools and selling my mix tapes. I would go to Georgia State, I would still set up in the AUC and sell my tapes. So, Gangsta Grillz became my South series.
Essence: What has been your most memorable moment while building your mix tape empire?
DJ DRAMA: I’ve had a lot of big moments. You know, getting arrested for bootlegging and racketeering under the RICO law, which is the same law they locked Al Capone up on. That was pretty cool [Laughs]. I’m a kid from a middle class family, who went to college and had never been locked up before in his life. They turned me into the poster child for the mixtape world at that time. It was definitely a moment in Hip-Hop history. It changed a lot of the mixtape culture. It made me infamous and more famous than I ever was. People knew me in Hip Hop but that just put a new precedent upon it. That was a real pivotal moment for my career. Under pressure there are those who may fold or may have not been able to recover from an incident like that. It’s been 8 years since [the arrest] and my career has been quite successful since then.
[Also,] getting a record deal with Atlantic Records and actually putting out not one, not two albums, but I am about to be on my on my fifth album. [That] is quite a feat for a DJ also.
Essence: When is the next album coming out?
DJ DRAMA: This summer.
Essence: What can the attendees of the Essence Festival Day Party Series expect when you are on the 1s and 2s in New Orleans?
DJDRAMA: Definitely, the shots are on me! I’ll be playing DJ and bartender. We’re all going to be like family in that thing. Essence Festival is just that vibe. We’re going to have a good time man. We just going to come [and] celebrate and I’m rockin’ from beginning to end. [I am] going to take everybody on a musical journey.
Essence: In just short of 10 years or so, we’ve seen a shift in the culture with DJ’s emerging to the forefront more so than in the past as artists in terms of being recognized as artists. Do you think that this trend is a lasting one?
DJ DRAMA: Definitely. I mean, I can take it even further. I grew up watching Jazzy Jeff. He, to me, is the greatest DJ of all time. If not him, Jam Master Jay then Kid Capri. To me, those are legends that made their names and were able to take their brands and become worldwide stars on their own.
Then, another generation came along when Clue and Flex were putting out albums, getting endorsements and deals and [their] brands became larger than life. I watched those guys. Then, in the last 10 years, myself, DJ Khaled and DJ Envy took those places and became some of the most known and watched DJ’s, especially in Hip-Hop culture.
Even now, I am looking at the torch being passed watching people like DJ Mustard who’s becoming a staple in Hip-Hop and so forth. There [are] youngsters like Mustard who once said, “DJ Drama was like God" to him. Each generation has those key figures. I’ve definitely been one of those. It’s a blessing to me because I came up studying the culture. I was a fan of people who are now my peers.
Essence: Do you feel urban DJ’s can reach the heights of the EDM DJ’s who have experienced an incredible amount of success, in terms of headlining festivals and things of that nature?
DJ DRAMA: That’s a tough one. To be honest, with the EDM DJ’s, it’s just a whole different level. It’s a different type of music and people respond in a different way. It’s dance music, so you gauge from a crowd that’s just as happy to be there and to dance. In our world, sometimes it’s just a little different. But, I think there are a handful of Hip Hop DJ’s that are able to do festivals and big events. Me, myself, I just went on the Wiz Khalifa tour last year. I’m able to be in front of 20,000 to 30,000 people. But, I don’t think it’s comparable. With those guys, it’s incredible the amounts of money they’ve been able to make and the [number of] people they [can] get in front of. I would hope that Hip Hop DJ’s could get to that level but there’s no telling at this point.
Essence: What would you consider your 10 best mixtapes [1 being the best]? My personal favorite is “Trap or Die.”
DJ DRAMA: Ok, let’s put that as No. 1, with quotations showing that “Trap or Die” is your favorite [laughs].
I don’t want to rank them in order, so I’ll just say nine more.
Pharrell, In My Mind
Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers 2
Lil’ Wayne’s Dedication series
All of the T.I. and DJ Drama mixtapes
Fabolous, There Is No Competition Pt. 2
Gucci Mane, The Movie
Little Brother, Separate But Equal
Chris Brown, In My Zone
Jeremih, Late Nights
Oh, and for honorable mention, 2 Chainz, T.R.U. REALigion.