Day 279: "Go DJ" – Tha Carter, 2004
Lil Wayne became a star in 1999, with two words—or really one word, a new one, repeated twice: "Bling Bling." But while the young rapper's stock appeared to be rising, hits are mercurial phenomena, and the reality was that people weren't as prepared to pay attention to Cash Money Records as the label's roster dropped down to effectively one solo artist. And so Lil Wayne coasted along as a mid-tier sun (or son, depending on how many times you listened to "BM J.R.") of the Sqad Up system in the rap galaxy until 2004, when, once again, he found himself exploding in a hip-hip supernova. The song was called "Go DJ," and it was a smash.
"Go DJ" is Mannie Fresh's crown jewel, the pinnacle of American keyboard music (Aaron Copland retire bitch) and digitized sound, a triumphant march of dry synth chirps and hollow, lunar beeps. It is quite literally the culmination of the Mannie Fresh sound, borrowing a hook from a line in U.N.L.V.'s 1993 song "Don't U Be Greedy" and serving as the high point of Tha Carter, Mannie Fresh's final album as Wayne's primary producer. Wayne does it justice, too: "It's Cash Money Records, man, a lawless gang / put some water on the track, Fresh, for all this flame / wear a helmet when you bang it, man, and guard your brain / 'cause the flow is spasmatic, what they call insane." And the combination, well, the combination was unreal.
In November 2005, Wayne landed his first cover story since the peak of the Hot Boys in 2000, with XXL in anticipation of Tha Carter II. "Cash Money's President Carter defies Hurricane Katrina, digs Trina and knows New Orleans will rise again" proclaims the tagline. At this moment, Wayne was beginning the run that would cement him as the Best Rapper Alive, the world-conquering pop megastar of the mid-00s. Although it wasn't apparent yet just how big he would be, it was clear he was more than the regional artist he had been in the early part of the millennium. And according to writer Peter Rubin: "the wave that's cresting right now began with the success of 'Go DJ.'"
Rubin continues by pointing out "Mannie Fresh's menacing minimalist track; Wayne's disjointed braggadocio; and the fact that his voice has developed a croak that adds old-soul heft to his trademark, flyer-than-you flow," along with highlighting the song's best set of bars ("And I move like the coupe through traffic / rush hour, GT Bent, roof is absent / your bitch present with the music blastin' / And she keep askin', 'How it shoot if it's plastic?'"). He also explains the controversy between Wayne and U.N.L.V., who recorded their own song with the line as a hook, also called "Go DJ." They accused Wayne and Mannie Fresh of stealing their song, to which Wayne responded in the pages of XXL, "They put out a song dissin' me because of that. But that's a Cash Money song, brother. I'm the president. I can do what I want."
While U.N.L.V. was understandably put out, Wayne's move was that of a conqueror, and the song did prove to be a conquest. A year before the article was published, in November 2004, "Go DJ" hit number 14 on the Hot 100, making it not only the biggest solo hit of Wayne's career to that point but also his highest performing single until almost four years later, when "Lollipop" would eventually reach number one. It also foreshadowed the unique formula that would make Wayne so successful, combining that easily chantable hook with encyclopedic knowledge of rap as an art form and a tongue-twisting, virtuosic performance to back that knowledge up. In an interview with Complex in 2014, Mannie Fresh explained the approach's unexpected appeal:
"Go DJ" was a song that was done way before. It didn't sound like that, but it was a phrase that UNLV used to say about me. They said it on one of their earliest songs, saying, "Go DJ, that's my DJ. Mannie Fresh, that's my DJ." Wayne was like, "I remember this song when I was growing up. They played it in the clubs. They used to always say 'Go DJ, that's my DJ.' Can I use that?" I'm like, "Yeah, it's basically my song." Like I said, Wayne always went back to stuff that people would forget about.
When he did the song, it absolutely made no sense to me. I thought it was going to be about some DJing shit. He was like, "Can you do the hook?" So I did the hook and the beat and I was like, "Damn dude, you just rapping your ass off on this song but you never made no reference to nothing about the DJ." It was one of them moments like, "Dude you gotta trust me too." I'm like, "I'm going to let you have this one."
Before he even did the rap, I did the hook and thought he was going to say some incredible shit about DJs. I was telling Baby, "This 'Go DJ' thing going to be big. We're going to send it to every DJ that plays our music in that market and give them their little five minutes of a fame. Send them a camcorder, let them record their show, and we're going to edit all those clips in the video." I hear the song and I'm like, "You're not talking about no DJs or none of that." [Laughs] He's like, "I think your idea is great but I don't think it's going to work." So I'm like let's just see what happens. Wayne was like, "I'm really on some rapping shit. That's what you told me you wanted, that's what it's going to be."
And that's what it was. Mannie's music was flawless, but Wayne's instincts were even better. To this day, this stands as one of Wayne's most electrifying rap performances, from the opening salvo of "Murder 101 / The hottest nigga under the sun" through lines like "Birdman / put them niggas in a trash can / leave 'em outside of your door / I'm your trash man" and the aforementioned "how it shoot if it's plastic?" (There is a regrettably homophobic line about "getting AIDS in the ass," but chalk it up to the era and youthful ignorance).
He's bursting with confidence ("and I ain't just begun / I been running my city like Diddy, you chump"), but he's rapping with such incredible energy that there's no arguing with his claims. You can almost feel him becoming a bigger star with each throat-slashing verse. The video is shot in the Mansfield Reformatory, the same prison as the movie The Shawshank Redemption, giving it a blockbuster feel and giving Mannie Fresh a chance to pre-empt all the Shawshank record-playing memes by bursting into the warden's office himself:
Most importantly, "Go DJ" remains a hit. When I saw Lil Wayne live with Drake in 2014, they did a whole segment where they stacked their smash single features against each other. Wayne rattled off massive tracks from throughout his career, highlighting just how big a star he is. The set list was dozens of songs long, most of them from just a few years prior. The starting point, though, the oldest track he played? "Go DJ," of course.
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