Located in the heart of downtown Norfolk, Va., FM Backstage is a restaurant and venue space that can barely hold a hundred people, but over the years, it has become known for its raucous independent shows. Artists from all over the Tidewater region's seven cities converge here to perform and turn up. This young energy is counter culture to the advent of street rappers from the city like Young Money Yawn (who holds the ever-elusive cosign from Pusha T). There's a growing underground scene, looking to redefine the area's sound and spread some fun to the area. Enter 26-year-old Shelley Massenburg-Smith, better known as D.R.A.M., who is leading the charge with his own quirky mix of creative raps and jazzy singing. Before his Super Mario Bros.-sampling ode to Latin girls, “Cha Cha,” caught fire on sites like Pigeons & Planes, the German-born, Hampton, Va.-bred rapper/singer was more of a background guy who frequently rapped alongside his cousin, Mass. Even before he decided to take music seriously, D.R.A.M. was a natural people person, his charisma emitting an air of positivity, friendliness, and (most of the time) women. But when he hooked up with frequent collaborators Sunny & Gabe in February of last year, he went full speed ahead with his love of creating music.
D.R.A.M.'s first mixtape, 1 Epic Summer, dropped out of nowhere last year and acted as a soulful and fun-loving introduction, combining his smooth singing with a variety of eclectic and daring sounds. D.R.A.M. recorded the project in his own room, an independent space where he was able to craft on his own; creating a sound that wasn't polluted by the outside world.
Hopping out of the backseat of a ragged-looking four-door passenger car and looking more tired than wild, he swaggered his way in the direction of a few young women and an older one who were waiting for his arrival at FM Backstage. The older woman, D.R.A.M.’s mother, Gwen, was smiling from ear to ear as he fervently arranged his guest list (+10!) for the evening. This was the first time his mom had been to one of his shows, and she didn't take her eyes off of him the whole night. A fervent member of the church and a singer in a gospel group, Gwen proudly took credit as the one who encouraged his passion to sing and put him on to old school music. “I told him, your gift is singing,” she said as she stared at him pacing back and forth in the entranceway. “I always believed that they needed to hear him, and they’ll understand his talent.”
Seeing D.R.A.M.'s rise from a local phenomenon to one of the most talked about artists out currently is a testament to the hard work he's put in since the memorable summer that inspired his mixtape. In the time since D.R.A.M.'s performance at FM Backstage in December, legendary producer Rick Rubin invited him to chill and make music in L.A., and Chance the Rapper showed love and brought D.R.A.M. out at Virginia Commonwealth University's homecoming concert. He also premiered the video for "Cha Cha" here on Complex and re-released 1 Epic Summer on iTunes and Spotify as #1EpicEP. We spoke with D.R.A.M. about Virginia's music scene, the need for positivity and how he wants to be remembered.
Justin Davis is a writer living in L.A. Follow him @OGJOHNNY5.
You were born in Germany. When did you move to Virginia?
When I was like three months. I don’t know Germany. It’s just a fun fact. I don’t know the culture.
What was your childhood like growing up in Hampton?
I had a couple of friends, but I was mostly at my grandma’s house. She wanted me to be in the house, so I grew very fond of television. I watched cartoons and channels like The Box. That’s what really turned me out and got me into music. At first I would be in the choir or I’d be in the car listening to the radio, but I wasn’t really bonding to it. So I would turn to The Box.
What led you to make music?
It had to be something that God had in his plan. Ever since I could produce thoughts or memories, I knew I would do music. It’s fucking weird.
Did watching videos and seeing them on the screen get you to start gravitating toward rap?
I always been singing. I was singing in the church, but as far as rapping I didn’t really want to rap myself until “Grindin” came out. Everybody [would replicate] the beat on the lunch table. Niggas would put their own bars on it, and two bars turned into four. Four turned into eight. Then I picked it up and started writing.
I spoke with your mom, and she said she used to make you listen to everything, from gospel to R&B. What types of music did you connect with when you were younger?
Soul. It’s so crazy because I come from a older generation. The closest first cousin to me is nine years older than me. My mother’s stomping grounds was the '70s, and that shit rubs off on you. A lot of people my age were growing up to different shit, but by the time I was a kid they already had radio stations dedicated to her favorite music. So we’d ride around listening to it all day. Rap wasn’t the first genre of music I got hip to.
Did working with your cousin Mass make you take rapping more seriously?
Hell yeah. I didn’t start taking shit serious until 2010. At first my homies were rapping together, but I was really straying away to do my own thing. My cousin was like just come across the water to Norfolk or Virginia Beach to get more opportunities. I feel privileged to have a cousin from the other side that was involved in music. He’s been my main support system.
Tell me about your debut project, #1EpicSummer.
I just wanted to tell niggas that I had the craziest summer that you guys could fathom. I was literally around shit that a lot of niggas from where I'm from don’t have the opportunity to see. We went to New York, and I mean really went to New York. Not Canal Street for some sneakers and fake shit. Literally inside of Karmaloop offices. This is with Sunny & Gabe. It started building up in the summer, and I was just around for it. We were around Janine and The Mixtape. The label had her at this dope ass condo in Times Square, and I’m like “Yo, this is ridiculous.” It was real. So much space where space is so limited where you have to pay thousands just to get it. Whereas an apartment in Virginia, those things run about $800.
What did you learn from Sunny & Gabe?
They showed me how many shades of grey there was in the [Tidewater area].
As far as diversity?
Yeah. Coming from Hampton, it’s cut and dry. You’re black or you’re white. When I started hanging with Sunny & Gabe, it’s way more multicultural. The [Old Dominion University] movement with [local group] RBLE. Just having fanbases of all colors and creeds. Even just riding around is a different experience than just riding around with my homies from Hampton.
If it’s my homies they listen to Young Thug or Rich Homie Quan, which is dope as fuck, but it’s just that. But if this nigga Gabe hop in and ask for the aux cord he listens to something different.
What was the story behind “Cha Cha?” Were you actually at a Latin bar with a Latin woman?
[Laughs.] The beat was festive. I let the music talk to me. I sit back and say, what can I say to this? Soon as the beat came on, I was smoking in the room [Hums the beat, starts singing the chorus] and my cousin and his girl laughed. And I said “All right, I’m doing this.” It was supposed to be a warm-up! I did it for the first time at Gabe’s birthday party and the crowd went so ham that they made me bring it back. It was pandemonium. We talked on the phone the next morning, made the song and a couple of months later...
—it blew up, and Rick Rubin started tweeting about you.
He tweeted about “Get Money,” he didn’t even talk about “Cha Cha,” and when we talked he didn’t bring it up. He acknowledged something special in me. I was honored. I was sitting in a dark room smoking weed, and I got a call from an unknown number, and it’s him! Just to know I caught his attention is dope. Ever since that day I swear I feel like part of this weight is lifted.
What weight was lifted?
Just making sure that this project goes as far as what we all feel like it should. That weight as the days go on...like, I’m cooling! When we put the project out, we just put it on SoundCloud. That’s all, and Jacob (of Pigeons and Planes) found it. That shit was perfect.
Can you describe your meeting with Rick Rubin? Did you guys make music together? Did he try to sign you?
No, [he didn't try to sign me]. I actually laid down a few references with him, though. They had band members come in with different vibes. They had shit that sounded like late-’80’s urban pop—like the shit that was playing in Coming to America, when Lisa got them $750,000 earrings and shit.
Were you nervous?
The nerves were hitting me like “Yo, it’s Rick Rubin,” and he wasn’t even there. Then he got there and all the stress went away. He’s literally...literally the coolest man on planet Earth. We’re talking and theres a break in conversation and I’d ask, “Is there anything you would want to play for me?” and he’d get excited. It was going to be a 30-minute meeting, and it ended up being six or seven hours. Just laying down references in Bob Dylan’s tour bus! They gutted that motherfucker out and made a goddamn recording booth!
So it ended up going better than you thought.
Very life-changing. Attitude-changing. My anxiety went down extremely.
I noticed you’ve been visiting labels lately. Is that your next move?
Of course. But it’s people that want to meet me, and it’s not like I’m going to say no. It’s more of a song-and-dance type thing. Labels have budgets to have you come out just to meet you. It’s nothing for them to spend $400 on travel and then meet you and say, “I’d love to hear more,” which is jargon for no. I’m lucky to have two managers that are well versed in the music industry. People may see me meeting these people, but it’s just for the ’gram, just letting niggas know I’m mixing it up.
So have you gotten closer to a situation after meeting with them?
A situation is…I would say…as close to inevitable as possible.
You can’t give it away yet?
Hell no, there ain’t shit to give.
What’s your relationship with Chance the Rapper?
That’s the homie, man. The whole Save Money crew is family. They just hit me up, asked me to come out, and on the way up they asked me to perform “Cha Cha.”
Are you guys planning on doing any music in the future?
I mean, yeah. That’s the homie. Things will come. I gotta dance around that, man. I can’t give you all the information!
Is there anyone you want to work with?
Bootsy Collins. I’m telling you, that’s what I grew up on. What’s even crazier is that when I grew into a teenager I started getting into more discographies. Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye. OutKast, oh my god, André 3000.
He’s your favorite rapper?
What do you want people to remember you by?
Remember me as D.R.A.M. “I Do Real Ass Music.” You can remember me from “Cha Cha,” but remember that D.R.A.M. did “Cha Cha.” But trust me, after a while, I don’t think that niggas will have to go through that.
D.R.A.M. is throwing a secret show in the 757 this Friday, the location is TBA later this week.