Photo by Richard Perkins
D.R.A.M.’s music career began in the now-defunct Coliseum Mall in Hampton, Virginia. It was hardly a place for experimentation, let alone the kind of rule-breaking rap that the rising rapper and singer has taken to making in the years since. But it was a start. “One day, my dude Key hit me up like, ‘Yo! Come over to the mall. It’s a dude here with a booth, and he’s fucking with our raps. Bring your verses,’” D.R.A.M. remembers, talking over the phone in a voice that suggests a smile. Sure enough, there was a dude, Soul, who had been stationed at the nearby naval base in Norfolk and had returned to Hampton to invest $4,000 in a middle-of-the-mall recording booth with a mic and laptop. D.R.A.M. laid down 16 bars on the song his friend Key had started, and “niggas at the booth lost it.”
Last month, nine years after that initial recording session, D.R.A.M. dropped his debut project #1EPICSUMMER, which mostly features contributions from local producers, including A$AP-affiliated beat-making group, VERY RVRE. The tape is an upbeat seesaw of raps over airy, percussive beats and singing that sounds like it’s straight out of a church choir. But as smooth as his music comes across in the tape, D.R.A.M took a long time to get to this point.
Listen to "iBG2U," a new song premiering exclusively on Noisey:
Shelley Massenburg-Smith, a.k.a. D.R.A.M., was born in 1988 in Germany to a mother who was in the military but has been living in Hampton for as long as he can remember. “Hampton was never really big on supporting open-mindedness,” he says bluntly over the phone. “It’s really old-fashioned here. It’s like one of the first cities in America, so people are really big on values, and there’s not much ethnic diversity. Everybody knows everybody.” Due to the staleness that comes with his hometown’s traditional culture, D.R.A.M. spends the majority of his time in neighboring Norfolk—the place to be if you’re into music, he says.
Despite the attitudes of the wider community surrounding him, D.R.A.M. always was grounded in a diverse range of music. “I stayed with my grandparents a lot growing up and they went to church all the time,” he says. “I sang on the choir. My mom had a little gospel group when I was growing up too. But outside of church, I was just on soul music heavy. People like Al Green, or those songs that you automatically know but never know whose song it is.”
On the phone he tells me that his favorite music ever comes from Parliament Funkadelic, which doesn’t come as a complete surprise considering that the bulk of tracks on #1EPICSUMMER in some way—if not completely—feature his resonant falsetto. “Never Again”, D.R.A.M’s promise to himself to chill on getting too fucked up, sounds like George Clinton taking a trip into the future and trading in acid for molly. He channels funk on the Junior Mafia nodding “Get Money” too where he theatrically talks shit, Clinton-style, before going back-and-forth between singing and rapping.
Massenburg-Smith started writing raps to spit over the lunch table to Clipse's "Grindin'" beat when he was in eighth grade, but it wasn’t until 2005, his senior year in high school, that things got more serious. After he and Key made their song at the mall, Soul, the recording studio’s owner, decided he liked the two so much that he started to “manage” them. Unfortunately, he ended up ruining their tracks with his mixing, and he turned out to be better at smoking them out than representing them. They predictably parted ways, and D.R.A.M. spiraled into a cloud soon after.
From 2005 to 2009, Massenburg-Smith worked at call centers, briefly trying out a year at Kentucky State University before going back to music in 2008. At that point, he started making beats and recorded close to 100 songs on a $100 mic he had bought. He picked back up, taking on the name DRAMA j, rapping punchline-heavy “real hip-hop,” and hitting local open mics.
Despite this focus, for a good chunk of D.R.A.M.’s life, rap was never even present. It wasn’t until he was home watching music videos in fifth grade that he stumbled across Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life.” “I knew the Annie song but I didn’t even know who Jay-Z was,” he says laughing on the phone. “I was watching ‘The Box’ and went to school the next day and asked people did they know about it. They just all looked at me kinda crazy because I was late on it. I ain’t know!”
That sense of being excited about something everyone else is already jaded with is what comes across as D.R.A.M.'s M.O. on #1EPICSUMMER—the guy who has since dropped the D.R.A.M.A. j name and what he describes as the “rappity rap” tendencies. “Cha Cha,” which has eclipsed 40,000 plays with limited attention, is an overload of claps, horns, congas, video game synths and synchronized “AYYYEEE’s” that come together for what feels like the perfect cookout anthem. Ascending “Cuchadoe” follows suit. On both, D.R.A.M. resembles the guy on the other end of the phone in our conversation: genuinely jolly, going from chill-to-amped in a matter of seconds, with just enough edge to make it clear that he’s serious about putting out quality shit.
“His music might not really portray how smart he actually is,” D.R.A.M.’s friend and the project’s main producer Gabe Niles says over email. “But that's cool because dude is hilarious. The guy you hear singing ‘Cha Cha’ is most likely the same person you’d imagine him being.”
D.R.A.M. credits his new, non-rappity rap exploration with sound to Niles, who is also part of the local Virginia soul duo, Sunny & Gabe. Niles describes working with D.R.A.M as “not even work,” adding, “Most of the time, a song just pops out of nothing, and next thing you know he’s singing like Bobby Womack over some kind of riff that has no business having 808s relentlessly blasting all over the track. I enjoy the fact that we are completely oblivious to any kind of ‘rules.’ It’s like two kids playing with Legos but with genres of music.” The two’s chemistry is even more commendable when you consider how simple D.R.A.M. keeps his content, which rarely ventures outside the topics of partying, getting trashed, and out-rapping the next dude.
That fun-loving side doesn’t mean that D.R.A.M. can’t change modes as needed, though. According to Gabe, there’s still a chip on D.R.A.M.’s shoulder about his rap skills. In an eight-minute track on the tape called “#1EPICRANT” he shows he can keep things traditional if he feels like it. “A lot of hip-hop out here is based on struggle,” D.R.A.M. explains, justifying his choice to keep a foot on either side of a certain sonic divide. “But with this project I really wanted to make feel-good music.” Whether D.R.A.M. possesses the ability to make “real hip-hop” or not is probably beside the point in this era of heading outside of rap’s boundaries, though. And as long as he can prove to continue making fun, exploratory music that shakes the expectation of what a rapper should be, D.R.A.M. is going to be doing exactly the right thing.
Lawrence Burney runs the zine True Laurels and likes to cha cha. Follow him on Twitter.