Interview: Drumma Boy Talks Respect, His Legacy, and Wanting to Work With Miley Cyrus

We speak with one of the South's most prolific producers.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

Over the past decade, as the South established itself as hip-hop's dominant tastemaker, one producer was always there, working with almost all of the region's major artists. From Yo Gotti to Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane to 2 Chainz, Christopher "Drumma Boy" Gholson had one of the most diverse and underrated catalogs of any hip-hop producer in history. 

But his profile, at least in the mainstream press, remains suspiciously quiet. Compared to recent Southern producers like Lex Luger and Mike Will, who attained national fame with a comet-like impact, Drumma's rise has been slower and steadier. A low-key but consistent presence, he has become as important to the genre as the super-producers who defined its sound in the era of peak crossover in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

We spoke by phone with Drumma, who discussed his influences and inspirations, his methods as a producer, and how the economic realities of being a rap producer have changed during his many years in the industry.

Interview by David Drake (@somanyshrimp).

Do you feel like you’ve been underappreciated, relative to the amount of work that you’ve done in your career?
I think everybody in their career is underappreciated until it comes a bubbling point—as The Bible says, “the cup overrunneth.” And my cup is just about to overrun, and when you overrun, you make a spill, and when you make a spill, you make a mess, and that makes people clean up what they thought was a perfect wine glass. But they’re like, "this dude has a whole winery," It just keeps running and running. Which elaborates to me into consistency.

That’s my biggest motivation—to be consistent the longest. I remember when Neptunes had a five year run. I remember when Timbaland had a five year run. Dre—it’s been so many five year runs why not have a 10 year run? Why not double what Neptunes, Dre and Timbaland—the ones that I respect and look up to the most—Puffy had the longest run out of everybody, and is still running. He elaborated his brand into perfume, cologne, fashion, design and into development of artists and labels. It’s just a plethora... That's something I look up to. It’s all about consistency for me, and doing it all before somebody comes behind me.

That’s my biggest motivation—to be consistent the longest. I remember when Neptunes had a five year run. I remember when Timbaland had a five year run.

All of your beats have a lot of variation but they still sound like you. Is that something that you were conscious of?
I just do what I like. It seems like every time I follow my mind or follow my instinct or just follow me—this is what I like, I’m not making a beat for you—that’s how you become my fan. Because you’re a fan of my mind. Even when people talk to me or interview me you’re talking to D-Boy Fresh which I consider the artist side, the intellectual side to let you know more about me. Drumma Boy is going to let you know what he thinks musically. D-Boy Fresh is going to let you know what he’s thinking verbally. Interviews, without rhyming words, is rap, I’m rapping to you through literature right now, I’m just not rhyming. So you become more involved in who I am, and learning about me through the words that I tell you.

And you can learn what you can through my music and feel a certain emotion. A lot of people just imagine—music is the biggest imagine factory of all. So when you hear music, you’re like, “man, what is he thinking when he made this beat? I wonder what she was thinking when she sang that, I wonder what she was thinking when she wrote that. Oh man I can relate, oh man I want to repeat the words, this is a quotable.” And people follow that. I’m a leader of my own music. Even playing Beethoven, Bach, all my life. It was starting to get boring to me, because I’m playing somebody else's shit all my life. I can’t do that. I respect my dad, I love him for doing that shit, but I couldn’t be in an orchestra 39 years playing other people's music when I know, deep down inside, I want to write to the world and let them play my music. And that’s why I wanted to become the conductor and here I am—Drumma Boy the conductor. 

Some of your beats are slept-on. I always liked the beat you did for Gucci Mane, “My Shadow.”
Some beats go big, some don’t. It’s all about giving it to the world and letting them gravitate towards whatever they want to. I don’t really get caught up [thinking] "the world didn’t take this song right" or "the world didn’t gravitate towards this song like I wanted them to"—they going to like what they want to. I love it, I’m happy with it. When I made that beat I still got all of the feedback I wanted, which was making Gucci happy. That’s all it’s about for me, making the artist happy. The artist came to me like, "I need this," Gucci went in the booth like, “My shadow da, da, da,” and bam, he’s happy, so his fans are happy. So if the world makes it a number one or not, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t make beats just so I can go number one on the Billboard. I don’t make beats so I can get beaucoup amounts of publishing and what not—I just do this shit because it’s fun as fuck, and I like to see smiles on the peoples' faces I give it to. I’m having fun, and that’s the difference. A lot of guys take it seriously, like, “I need another number one,” and I’m just having fun.

Are there artists you really like working with?
What artists do I vibe with the best? I would say [it's] between Gucci Mane and 2 Chainz. Those two dudes are just fun as fuck, they’re both very energetic about their crafts and their careers. They both give you the punchlines and the quotables, but they’re lyricists. If you break down their verses, you’ll be like, “oh shit, I wonder what made him think of that.” A guy like 2 Chainz will make you laugh and make you crunk and hype all in one verse. He’ll get you pumped up, adrenaline going, and then you’re like “ohh! Did you hear what he said?" He’s a lyricist, he hits you with five or six quotables. It’s crazy. Gucci will take one topic and then run with it. You tell Gucci to rap about anything—“hey Gucci rap about some baby diapers”—he’s going to come up with some dope shit. He’ll rap about a booger in your nose and turn that shit into a smash. That’s being creative, having fun and having no limits—and those are the people that have the best careers to me. 

Lady Gaga, for instance, has no boundaries to what she can do. She has fun, she’s acting, she’s performing her shit on stage. That’s one person I look forward to working with, because we would have crazy chemistry. Miley Cyrus, she’s a huge fan of 2 Chainz and the tracks that he raps on, so hmmm, I wonder what that means, maybe Miley is coming for some Drumma Boy shit soon. We working on Chris Brown’s shit right now. All the people that I want to work with that I haven’t—like Adele and so many more—it’s just about attracting the fun. It’s just like “I heard Drumma Boy just has so much fun, I heard he has these disco ball lights in the studio, I wanna work with him.” Having fun makes people want to work with you, not just the fact that you’re dope—that’s just the icing on the cake. But the fun is so priceless, it’s not many people having fun in this industry. People take things so seriously, so I think it’s appreciated by those who should appreciate it—and those are the guys that I work with.

What were you listening to when you first started? Who inspired you to make your first beat?
When I first started making beats I was still studying Sebastian [Bach] and Mozart. I would [take] a part that I played on my clarinet in band rehearsal and then replay it on my piano, and then make a beat around it. I would just start fucking around with orchestral lines or classical—it’d be some piece that came out of this violin thing, and then I’d play it on the clarinet, then I’d play it on the piano and then I’d put the drums to it. That’s how I really started making beats. Then I’d take an acapella off the radio that was like a number one, or Yo Gotti’s biggest song, or Warren G or Snoop Dogg’s biggest songs. Like Snoop’s “Gin and Juice,” I took the acapella of that and seen if I could make another version as hot as [the original] version. I would compete with what was on the radio, just trying to mimic the mesh of smash, the mesh of kick, the mesh of hi-hats, until I got it all the way down pat.

Having fun makes people want to work with you, not just the fact that you’re dope—that’s just the icing on the cake.

Started making base tapes for high school, I did my basketball warm-ups on the varsity squad, so people were starting to get in tune with me just by my desire to learn how to make beats and the passion that I had. Definitely with the warm-ups and all the kids from different high schools coming into my school and seeing us warm up to our music. I got everybody in the crowd moving and dancing. If you can captivate the masses through one particular piece of music, that’s motivation—especially for a 15-year-old kid. I’m like, I just made a beat and the whole fucking stadium is rocking to this shit! And now everybody is like “yo Drumma Boy I need a base tape, I need a mixtape, I got $100 dollars.” I started making like $1500, $2000 a week just on base tapes just in high school. So it was huge for me, that was a big motivation.

And it didn’t get any better when I bumped into a cat named Yo Gotti. I do four tracks on The Life album, I do three tracks on Tela’s Double Dose album, I did tracks for Playa Fly, MJG. Pastor Troy called me like “I want you to come to the ‘A’ and do some work,” two tracks on I am D.S.G.B., I did “All For This Game”, I did “Pop This Pussy.” “Pop This Pussy” turned into a huge strip club track, now Block ENT, now Jeezy and all these guys are like “hey man we want some beats.” “Boyz N Da Hood”, after “Boyz N Da Hood” comes “Standing Ovation”, after “Standing Ovation” comes “White Girls” then “USDA” after “USDA” then comes "Shawty," Plies and T-Pain. And after that it’s just next, next, next it just keeps coming. 

How do you create the textures of beats?
It’s more of a happiness for me, for my ear—when my ear is happy then the beat is done. It’s real simple. Until my ear is happy I keep adding sounds, taking away sounds, I keep meshing sounds until they sound dope. Anybody with a good ear knows a good harmony. It’s like when your mom is singing in the church and you hear somebody sing a wrong note, I could always hear the person sing a wrong note. And that comes from musical training from my father. I could have written the pieces and compositions and sound scores and all of that stuff. Like I said, I could have been in the orchestra myself. So I know when I hear a wrong note. I was classically trained by 10. That part of it is real simple—textures and meshes and the combination of sounds. It’s almost like ear candy, my ears jump when they get turned on—it sends a signal, like yo, that’s dope. Everything is history.

Are there any other producers that you’re impressed with right now?
J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League hands down, those are my favorite producers. Everything they make it seems like I love it and extremely musically. Good friends of mine. I could see myself working with them, outside of me being a producer, but me as an artist. If I was to go in with some producers that would be the first group of guys I go in with. 

What's the producer-artist relationship like these days, financially?
You look at how many producers are signed to somebody, as opposed to back in the day. You had a lot of independent producers, such as myself. So a guy like me, I’m doing rather well. But a guy who’s signed to another producer who’s signed to a label—60% of your money is already signed away, not even to talk about the other 10% or 15% you’ve got to give to taxes, not even to talk about the small 30% that you got left now you still gotta pay publishers, still gotta pay management, you still gotta pay lawyer fees—you’re going home with fucking 10%. So who the fuck is you working for? And on top of that, how much work are you getting, due to the person you signed to?

I’ve seen that time and time again. Everybody in the industry has tried to sign me and I look at the people who did sign to the people I almost signed with and I’m like “nah, I’m good.” But then another kids goes and signs to them, and he’s not even on his album! But the guy who signed him is calling me for beats. So why did you even sign to this guy and you’re not on his album? You’re his in-house, producer, but he’s still calling me! It’s really about your business and the position you put yourself in. A lot of guys put themselves in fucked-up situations, to keep it quite frank. That’s why you’re not seeing the positive residuals. It’s real simple.

I went to school for music business, so maybe that’s why it seems like another addition to what I have on, but its all about profit. Nobody wants to take a loss. You’ve got to take some of those things into consideration, like, this isn’t working for me, let me try something else. If you see yourself generating $20 million dollars a year and you’re only going home with $100,000—that should be some shit you want to fix.

My mom was an accountant, but she’s just a hustler. I get my business sense from her. Just understanding dollars and amounts, mathematics was my favorite subject growing up, all my life.

Did you have a mentor or someone that helped you in the early stages of your career with this stuff?
My mom was an accountant, but she’s just a hustler. I get my business sense from her. Just understanding dollars and amounts, mathematics was my favorite subject growing up, all my life. And a lot of people around me, whether it was my grandfather or my mother, helped me understand the importance of money, that it doesn’t fall off trees. At a young age of 13 or 14, my mom was diagnosed with diabetes. My mom and dad divorced when they had me, so I’m living with a single mother and visiting my dad on the weekends—my dad is making $30,000 a year as a clarinetist. That’s not really a whole lot of money. My mom not really cooking as much as she could, not buying clothes—I’m like, I need some Jordan’s. I need to be fresh in high school, I’m 14 and about to start driving at 15 so I need gas, I need food. I had to start hustling. I came up with something creative, as far as making beats and providing for myself.

I’ve been doing this since a young age and have since been responsible for myself. I never wanted to sign with this dude, and get a million dollars and then have him say “you know I’m the reason you are where you are.” Fuck that. I never wanted anybody to have a claim to my fame, and that’s why I took the long route. That’s why I was like, let me not sign to anybody else and do it on my own. Only reason I’m on Jeezy’s album is because I know Jeezy and he respects me. Only reason I’m on Rick Ross’ album is because he respects me, I know these guys. Birdman—I can call these guys—”What up Birdman you good?”

I earned my respect. A lot of niggas want the money and the fame side first. I came in the game and went straight for respect. Fuck the money, fuck the fame—just respect me. Because I know if you respect me then I can start getting paid, if I start getting paid then I become powerful. For me it’s not about money, power and respect, it’s about respect, money and power. A lot of people saying the shit wrong like “money, power, respect, money, power, respect.” Now you done brainwashed the whole world into some fucked up way of thinking. It is what it is.

Are there personal favorites of yours that you wish got a little more attention? Any that you’re particularly proud of?
It’s a lot of song but I feel like Chris Brown’s “Oh Yeah” could have been pumped. For that song not to have a video, it’s like, what the fuck are we doing? There's a whole lot of songs that I was shocked made it as big as they did, like Gorilla Zoe's “Lost.” Everybody was like, “man, this shit is too slow, it’s all sad.” That shit went top ten, that surprised me. It goes both ways, there’s song that you think should be bigger, and there’s songs that you think, "How did that shit do that?" “Lose My Mind,” by Plies, I just randomly gave that beat to Jeezy and then he turned it into another Grammy nomination. I was like, "I didn’t think you was going to do to that beat," it was just another shocker. But then you got “Oh Yeah” with Chris Brown, 2 Chainz and Snoop Dogg, and we don’t do a fucking video? It’s crazy.

Another song, “Beat It Up” with Trey Songz and Gucci Mane, that was his number one hit. That song was in the top 100 without any push, without any radio! And this was at the same time Trey Songz had come out with his album, so why the fuck are we not shooting a video? That song would have went number one. That was just me in the studio with Trey and Gucci, I leaked it and put it out and the label never jumped behind it and took advantage. I think they did the Swizz Beatz single, “It’s Gucci Time,” instead of this, and I was like “Wow.” Definite mistake.

What do you find most annoying or frustrating about the industry right now?
Sometimes people think they know too much, and they have to do it their way. And then they learn that they should have listened. I don’t know too many guys that listened to me and lost or didn’t succeed. Now I’m starting to get that recognition, that what I say goes, because what I’ve said has made so many people money now. So that’s one thing that feels good about having power of word and power of decision. It was like, “Who is this young kid? He just makes beats," or "Who is this guy Drumma Boy, I’m going to still do it my way.”

Rick Ross listened to me. I think he did “Speedin” first with R. Kelly. Then he finally came back with “Boss,” that blew up. Came back with another single, then another single, and then he was going to do “Luxury Tax” with Jeezy and Lil Wayne. But I told Rick Ross, “If you really wanna win, drop this 'Here I Am' record featuring Nelly and Avery Storm instead of 'Luxury Tax,'" and he listened to me. The fucking fifth single on the album, and the album sales go up! This is the fifth single, not the first single! It hit top ten or top five. And immediately, he’s like “Yo dog, I appreciate you,” and my mom called me like “You getting big, listen to you! I like that son.”

This song, it had the little church vibe, a little bit more bass, a little bit more grown and sexy track. But guess what? Am I in the video? Like “yeah man I’m going to have you playing piano in a white suit!” Am I in the video? And Cool & Dre my dudes, these my niggas. They been in two of my videos that I ain’t even been in! You in “Money To Blow” but I’m not in the video! So I feel like niggas is denying me the opportunity to be seen. But that’s what motivates me as an artist. Like man I’ll shoot my own videos, and invite you niggas out to my video, so now you come through my shit. And if I forget to invite you out, "oops, my bad."

It’s like the motivation of Kanye. You ain’t even know who Kanye was until he started rapping! I heard stories many times about Kanye playing beats for Jay and he’d pass them off, playing songs for Jay like “hey, hear my rap shit,” and Jay would be like, “I just want to hear some beats, man.” Now this nigga’s forced to do a whole album with Kanye—Watch The Throne, like you can’t deny fucking heat, you can’t deny dopeness, you can’t deny that shit. So I just keep coming and that’s motivation for me to do my own thing.

What are your upcoming projects looking like?
We working on Clash of the Titans, I’m working on Welcome To My City Volume 3, I’m working on a project strictly for the strippers with a guy named Young Dolph out of Memphis, Tennessee. And these are all projects with me as an artist. As far as a production tip, I’m working on Chris Brown, Young Jeezy, 2 Chainz. Doing a lot of work with Atlantic-Warner since the new merger, so B.o.B, just did some stuff with Tech N9ne, doing some stuff for Lupe. Doing some stuff with Tip, and whoever is ready to work. I think Atlantic-Warner has a whole plethora of artists that they need work on, so I’m going to focus on that for the next couple of weeks, and then keep moving around.

What do you find as a challenge for rapping that you weren’t expecting when you switched from just doing production?
Nothing, it’s just all a grind. I’ve started all the way over, I’m in the street promotions, handing shit out myself—it’s more personal, people are fucking with me even tougher because of the fact that they see me promoting my own shit, not having a big head, and staying humble. We just did the Matrix Radio, Shade 45, I’m going around setting up interviews and setting up what I can on my own, in the midst of having several artists under me. It’s almost like Russell Simmons and Def Jam and LL Cool J, all you saw was Russell, LL and the radios. And he built the label off of one artist. I got Young Blue—top 100 on the charts right now with the record “Gohead”—first official artist signed to the Drum Squad. It’s moving. We’re just starting from the bottom, working our way up to the top again. That’s what people don’t understand, they don’t want to work, and fortunately for me, working is fun. 

Do you have a favorite rapper?
Warren G and Snoop Dogg, Real simple. [Raps the opening lines of "Regulate."] They made me want to rap. And Nate Dogg made me want to sing—on some harmony type shit, not some Tevin Campbell. [Sings Nate Dogg's part from "Regulate."] Warren G was a cool cat and I consider myself a cool cat, real down-to-earth, and I get hype when I need to. Snoop and Warren G are definitely my lane.

RELATED: Drumma Boy Tells All: The Stories Behind His Classic Records

Latest in Music