D.R.A.M. is rolling a joint and singing show tunes. “The hills are aliiiiiive, with the sound of music,” he trills, letting a touch of vibrato stroke the final note into a purr. His trademark smile, a toothy, contagious affair that crinkles his eyes, almost takes over his face. It feels like a hug.
“Oh, the melody, the robustness!” he says excitedly. “They had unmatched riffs. They make it work in the grandest way. It just fills me up.”
It’s not every day a rapper breaks out into a selection from one of his “go-to” musicals (The Sound of Music, if your musical theater knowledge is rusty). But D.R.A.M.’s rhapsody barely elicits a glance from his friends and team members gathered in a Burbank green room on this Tuesday afternoon for the 28-year-old rapper’s late night television debut on Conan. After all, this is a man of contrasts. He two-stepped onto the scene in 2014 with “Cha Cha,” a jokey song built on a Super Mario sample, but his name is an acronym for “Does Real Ass Music.” He pads around with a perma-smile plastered on his face; he coined the phrase “trappy-go-lucky” to describe his sound. Yet he is assiduous with his career and his music, taking great pains to be punctual and fretting over reviews of his debut studio album on Atlantic Records, Big Baby D.R.A.M.—which is in and of itself a rainbow of genres. Of course he loves show tunes.
“Parliament Funkadelic, my biggest influence, has a song, ‘Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?’ Why you feel you gotta be pigeonholed to not explore different ways to skin that cat?” he asks. “Skin that cat!”
Since “Cha Cha” scooted its way onto playlists, Beyonce’s Instagram and the No. 1 slot on Billboard’s Bubbling Under R&B/Hip-Hop Chart, the Virginia rapper has been doing just that. In the process, he’s not only avoided being a one-hit wonder, but also joined a crop of artists that includes Chance the Rapper and Lil Yachty in pushing the genre in a less moody, post-Drake direction.
The shift surely isn’t completely premeditated, but peddling cheery music during a tense political climate seems to be good business. #1EpicSummer and Gahdamn!, his first couple of mixtapes, were well-received, but “Broccoli,” the joyful lead single from Big Baby D.R.A.M., featuring fellow happy boy Lil Yachty, became a fixture on radio and skipped its way up the Billboard Hot 100 to No. 5. Even in a year marked by Trump, rising bigotry, police brutality and terrorism, it makes sense that Chance high-kicks across a stage to exuberant gospel music and that D.R.A.M bursts into choruses like a Broadway baby. By sweeping away rap’s paranoia and glumness to embrace the very stuff that fuels musical theater—fluffy, unfettered, sometimes corny joy—they are, subconsciously or not, offering a coping mechanism for fear. Remember, beneath the chirpy do-re-mis, The Sound of Music is about a family trying to escape the Nazi regime.
And don’t mistake the music’s merriness for immaturity. Behind the big smile is an artist who’s been on a side of the game that doesn’t get mentioned much in rap. His “before” wasn’t filled with drugs, gangs, and drive-bys. Instead, it was a more mundane existence of working dead-end jobs at Best Buy and temp agencies. When your life is on the line, at least you feel like you’re living. Watching opportunity recede a little bit each day and sensing that life is passing you by is a kind of death, too. A much slower one.
It’s 2 p.m. and D.R.A.M.’s dressing room on the Warner Bros. lot is quiet except for the buzzing of his barber’s clippers. The other guests that night—Wayne Gretzky, Ron Howard—have yet to arrive, but D.R.A.M. has been here since 10:30 a.m. A rack of clothes pulled by his stylist—a relatively new hire—includes a grass-green jacket with cartoon Tweety Bird patches on the arms. An assistant scampers in to replace empty platters of fruit, veggies and dip, crackers and cheese, setting new plates on a table in the center of the room, avoiding the odd lighter, bottle of lotion, and stick of deodorant. “Can we get more watermelon?” D.R.A.M. asks.
In his sweats, he has a bit of a jolly, day-off Santa quality, and when he stretches, a peek of his pleasingly round belly is visible. A member of his entourage replaces his cold cup of Throat Coat tea with a hot one, and he sips at it as his barber cleans up his beard. A label guy sits on a couch, asking him questions from his Reddit AMA and typing out his answers for him.
While D.R.A.M.’s upbringing in Hampton, Virginia, was humble, he’s accustomed to being catered to. Born Shelley Massenburg-Smith, he was the only child of a mother in the military. For a spell, he lived with his grandparents on a “notorious road,” and his grandmother waited on him, making his bed and his lunch.
“As one would say, ‘spoiled in the ghetto,’” he says in a rolling lilt that sounds like a lullaby. “Home was always home, a safe haven.”
"Five years ago, I was probably unemployed doing temp agency stuff. My biggest challenge was making music and making my family understand what I was doing."
Growing up, he was the “opposite of shy” and started performing early, singing in the choir at Zion Baptist Church, school assemblies or his family reunion’s “Apollo Nights.” He loved to sing, but he also loved the praise that accompanied it. “Do a poem, tell some jokes, dance, or most commonly, sing. Sing a song, get claps and family saying, ‘You did so good!’” he says. No wonder, as he recounts in his “Broccoli” verse, he’s been telling himself he was “special.”
It wasn’t until he heard Clipse’s “Grindin’” that he decided to rap instead of sing. Up until his junior year of high school he had good grades, but he quickly went from “really being in the books” to “really wanting to rap.” Concurrently, he decided to try weed.
“I was scared to smoke. What if it hurt?” he says, taking a big drag of the joint he spent the last 20 minutes rolling—something his crew noted with laughter. “But I tried it and I loved it. Weed is my thing. I party around, but I have to have weed. If I have weed, I’m good.”
D.R.A.M. and his friends would sit in the car, listen to Juelz Santana and Cassidy, and rap for hours or head to the mall to lay down songs in the little recording booth there. The legacy of hometown heroes Missy Elliott, Pharrell, and Timbaland loomed large. “The whole area had that ‘We can do it, too’ feel,” he says.
That thought buoyed D.R.A.M. as he left for college at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky, but it couldn’t save his academic career. After a semester and a half, “struggling” and feeling “bummy,” he bailed. Back in Virginia, he bounced around odd jobs and started “fudging around” with beats, recording songs and performing in local showcases. But as the years dragged by, it started to look like his music dreams might wither.
“Five years ago, I was probably unemployed doing temp agency stuff,” he says. “My biggest challenge was making music and not feeling like I was just BS’ing and wasting my time. Making my family understand that what I was doing was building up to get to this point. I don’t think anyone necessarily saw that.”
But in 2014, he met producer Gabe Niles and recorded “Cha Cha.” On the strength of that song, D.R.A.M. quit his day job—as a member of the Geek Squad at Best Buy—and went to CMJ Festival in New York, happily leaving his skeptical coworkers behind. “They the ones that were trying to make me feel the lowest. ‘Not everybody makes it, so good luck, I guess!’” he mimics. “Man, shake my hand and fuck you.”
By the following summer, Beyoncé had danced to his song on her Instagram and D.R.A.M. had signed a deal with Atlantic. Success is the best revenge.
D.R.A.M.’s challenges these days are different. They include navigating the cougars snuggling up to him for hugs (“I think they like me ‘cause I got my grays coming in”); perfectly timing his smoke sessions so that they affect his performances just right and sidestepping the makeup artist currently waiting to apply powder to his virgin face. D.R.A.M. protests—he wants to go natural—leading to a brief standoff between him and his manager.
D.R.A.M. looks at him sideways and mutters an objection. The manager pushes back, and D.R.A.M. quickly acquiesces. By the time he walks into makeup, his smile has reappeared and he reaches out for a hug.
“I just stay on my job and be as pleasant as possible. Be as easy as possible and be myself all at the same time,” he says. “And keep it fresh! If you really want this, this is what comes with it.”
Life as an artist presents its own trials. D.R.A.M. says he is currently living in Airbnbs and cars all across the country right now, has no spare time, and gets lonely when it comes to female companionship—but he has also seen enough of life to know better than to fuck this up. He’s on time, he’s polite and personable, and he doesn’t complain.
Except for that time last year.
In July 2015, D.R.A.M. inked his deal with Atlantic. Around the same time, Drake released “Hotline Bling” on his Beats 1 radio show with the subtitle “Cha Cha Remix.” Everybody knows what happened next. Drake dropped the nod to “Cha Cha” from the title and his song flew up the charts, becoming his biggest pop culture moment to date. D.R.A.M. didn’t receive any royalties either. In October 2015, he tweeted that he felt his song got “jacked.”
D.R.A.M. has moved on from the incident now—and hey, he received a lovely tweet from (and ultimately a collaboration with) Erykah Badu out of it. The incident could have shaken a lesser artist, but D.R.A.M. has proven to be much more solid and versatile than anyone might have predicted two years ago. Big Baby D.R.A.M. shows off his keen knack for melody and array of influences, from the quiet storm stunner “WiFi” with Badu to the ebullient, Ray Charles-sampling “Cash Machine.” D.R.A.M. is at home occupying multiple roles in the spotlight and, as he recently tweeted, he’s here to stay.
“What compelled me to tweet [about being here to stay] was the responses from the people. I knew inside, but it was just a little confirmation,” he says. “It’s like, damn, yo, I’m outchea. And I know I’m never gonna stop working, so as long as I continue the wheels turning, I’m gonna stay here and keep excelling.”
His Conan performance is uplifting and joyous. Travis Barker fills in on drums and D.R.A.M. slows down the intro. Showing off his voice, he flips “Broccoli,” which has been spun incessantly for months on radio, into something genuinely surprising—this rendition is over-the-top, almost melodramatic. He belts, arms spread, and then bounces along with the song, that irrepressible smile beaming into living rooms of Americans who rarely consider happy people of color—just Trump’s vision of inner-city “hell.” When it’s over, Conan O’Brien tells him it was great. They fumble through an awkward but warm hug before D.R.A.M. dances back into the green room. Suddenly you understand why musical theater actors are always bursting into song.