We meet the world’s most exciting new rapper at home in Detroit to hear how she’s making macaroni of the haters
The roads that surround Detroit’s Central Collegiate Academy don’t do much to dispel the city’s dystopian reputation. Walking down the unfortunately named Tuxedo Street, lines of neat residential homes are punctuated by boarded-up buildings, burnt-out apartment blocks, and fields of grass where family houses once stood. Every so often, a Tannoy announcement shatters the neighbourhood’s ghostly silence, barking at students who have forgotten their hall passes.
Entering the old gothic school through a metal detector at the front door, inspirational quotes and images of African American heroes like Obama, Ali and Jordan beam back at you. Slogans like “You can prevent gun violence: a hug is a handshake from the heart” grip the walls of its quiet corridors. In the staff room, rapper DeJ Loaf’s IBGM (I Been Gettin’ Money) crew are hanging out, waiting for their most famous member to turn up. As a reward for the school rising out of the PLA (Persistently Lowest Achieving) rankings for the first time in 20 years, Principal McGhee has arranged a surprise live performance of DeJ’s crossover hit, “Try Me”.
In less than a year, DeJ Loaf’s hardcore tale of Michigan street life has taken her from being a local mixtape maven to the undisputed Queen of Detroit, with Drake quoting her verses on Instagram, and Wiz Khalifa, E-40, Remy Ma and more creating their own remixes. Following the viral success of “Try Me” and its accompanying Sell Sole mixtape, hometown demigod Eminem recruited DeJ (it rhymes with ‘beige’, BTW) to sing the hook on his thunderous posse cut, “Detroit vs Everybody”. Kid Ink then asked her to do the same for his DJ Mustard-produced banger, “Be Real”, and Nicki Minaj was just happy to jump on stage and be “DeJ Loaf’s hype man”. They’re now about to go on a stadium tour together. In a city synonymous with grim news, the story of Deja Trimble’s rise to the top is a long overdue fairytale, particularly for the kids of Metro Detroit.
“All of our students fall below the poverty line to qualify for a free lunch and 90 per cent of them don’t have a father in their life either,” says Principal McGhee, waiting for his special guest to arrive. “DeJ comes from a similar background to these kids and is aspiring to higher levels. It’s like that lyric by Tupac: she’s a rose that grew from the concrete.”
On the walls behind him are framed images of idyllic beach islands with words like ‘success’ Photoshopped across the turquoise waves. McGhee himself is wearing a snazzy pair of electric-blue loafers, although he insists it isn’t a deliberate tribute to Ms Loaf (she got her rap name from being obsessed with slip-ons as a kid). By the fire escape, IBGM member Adubb Da Gawd snaps everyone back to reality. “Detroit is not going to be that beautiful, but it’s going to give you what is real. And if you ain’t ready for real, don’t come. It’s always been the number one murder capital because of its high crime rate, but when you live around that you just adapt to your surroundings. It’s all about what you make out of that situation, like DeJ.”
“There’s a rebirth happening here,” says Drey Skonie, the clique’s green-eyed poster boy. “We’ve rioted in the city before. You can’t really fuck with people who are going to riot.” The conglomerate’s co-founder, SayItAintTone, echoes the sentiment. “We’ve got that underdog mentality. It really is Detroit versus everybody.”
A flurry of activity erupts by the fire escape and DeJ appears behind Oba Rowland, an IBGM rapper and former bouncer. She looks tiny by comparison, especially when flanked by her gang of burly blokes. McGhee greets her and leads everyone down a blue corridor, through a nursery classroom and into the wings of the auditorium. The school can accommodate 2,000 students, but only 500 are currently enrolled, and the hall is half-empty. Yet once “Try Me” erupts out of the PA system and the 24-year-old makes her unannounced appearance, the piercing sound levels from their screams more than make up for the diminished numbers. As the students rush the stage, jousting with their smartphones in the air, DeJ wades into them, rapping, “Let a nigga try me, try me, I’m a get his whole mothafuckin’ family, and I ain’t playin’ wit’ nobody, fuck around and I’m a catch a body.” The kids lose their collective shit, shouting the words, hugging her and smiling in pure disbelief.
After the song finishes, DeJ remains embedded in the crowd for 20 minutes, signing CDs and taking selfies with them all. Principal McGhee isn’t worried about her lyrical content or its potential adverse effect on the students. “You have to be able to delineate,” he says. “The world is filled with lyrics. Those individuals who worked at the financial market when we had the collapse, they took a lot more than a lyric will take.”
Following a tour of the school’s recording and photographic facilities, DeJ jumps in her manager’s Escalade with Rowland and her little brother, Cameron, and sets off in search of some BBQ. As they pull out of the car park, students sing at the blacked-out windows. “The energy up there was pretty cool,” she says in a tiny voice, so laid-back it’s positively timid. “Just to see those kids go crazy was great. When I hopped down off stage, it made them feel like they could touch me, put their arms around me and rock out. I come from the same place they come from. If it happened to me, it can happen to them. You gotta follow your dreams.”
Dreams are in short supply in the D right now. Despite an economic decline that can be traced back to the 50s, it was the 12th street riot of 1967 – the result of simmering racial tensions in the city – that fast-tracked Detroit’s slide into oblivion. Urban flight took a chokehold following the 2008 recession, with homes selling for as little as $1 in 2010. The impact of the global downturn on the car industry, the city’s main source of blue-collar income, was apocalyptic. Once the world stopped buying shiny rides, there was nothing left for the workers to assemble. With no jobs to pay their subprime mortgages, a mass exodus took place, with many people unable to even afford to move their belongings. The government has left the abandoned houses standing, as it can’t afford to knock them down. Looters scalp whatever fixtures they can. Bored gangs torch the rest.
“If it wasn’t for music, who knows what Detroit would be? If I didn’t have this, I’d probably be walking up the streets looking crazy!” – DeJ Loaf
Even though she’s grown up with decay on her doorstep, DeJ stills seems pained by the state of her town. “These houses are pretty fucked up,” she says as countless charred and crumbling wrecks whizz by in the reflection of her sunglasses. “It’s crazy… crazy. I hate it, but it’s Detroit. We’re really in the jungle… People don’t live like this. Growing up there wasn’t much of a view, you just come outside and you see… that. Who knows, I could say some stuff and we might get this shithole of a world we represent back to where it needs to be. I think it can get better, I know it can. I feel like, if it wasn’t for the music, who knows what Detroit would be? Right now, the music holds it together. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know where I would be. I’d probably be walking up the streets looking crazy,” she says with a laugh, winding up the window.
Passing the Motown Museum (“I’ve never been in there,” she giggles), they pull up at Parks Old Style Bar-B-Q. It’s a small mom-and-pop spot on the city’s east side where, to gain access to the seating area, you need to be buzzed in past a security door. DeJ looks excited. “It’s the sauce!” she exclaims. Ordering her beloved rib tips, she sits at the counter with her crew, intermittently checking in on which Instagram posts her 1.5 million followers are liking. Currently, a short clip from her sassy “Me U & Hennessy” video is attracting the most heat – mainly, she thinks, because she is rocking a bikini instead of a bucket hat. It’s the first time she’s shown so much flesh. “I don’t wanna be seen as a sex symbol, I wanna be seen as DeJ Loaf,” she says with conviction. “I’m not doing it to be accepted, I wore it ’cos that’s the vibe of the song. When I came out the gate with my bucket hat on, people were saying, ‘Oh my God, I love her’, so the bikini is just extra. I always switch my style up. I was a little tomboy growing up, playing basketball with the boys and messing around with Pokémon cards and stuff. I thought it was bad to be a tomboy and used to get kind of mad when people called me one, but I accepted it for what it was.”
Her tomboy style has led to other rumours, too. Although the lyrics of “Me U & Hennessy” suggest she is straight (“Let’s make some babies, and make it official / I feel you inside, no better feelin’”), gossip folks have been tweeting that she recently stole another rapper’s girlfriend. From Hot 97 to Facebook forums, her sexuality has been dissected every which way. DeJ laughs when the subject is brought up. “It doesn’t annoy me, people wanna know what they wanna know,” she says with a grin. “I like to keep them on their toes and frustrate them. They don’t frustrate me ’cos I know what I’m doing in the night.”
As the restaurant owner takes a selfie with her, lovable man-mountain Oba Rowland proudly shows off his own “Would You” music video, in between checking Snapchat for potential hook- ups. “Before I met DeJ – and I hate to sound so sexist – I did not believe in female rappers. I was like, ‘Nope, you can’t have a female rapper.’ Then I met DeJ and that shut me straight the fuck up!” he says with a big laugh. “I was like, ‘I’m wrong!’ I even dance like her now, you know what I’m saying?! That’s crazy as fuck for me to say. She’s bossing up, for sure.”
They all grab some takeout boxes and jump back in the car to head further east towards Mama Loaf’s home, the wooden house immortalised in the “Try Me” video. If you’re not one of the 22 million people who have already seen it, it shows a typical day in the life of DeJ Loaf, starting with her morning ritual – a revitalising bowl of Rice Krispies. Casually lying next to the cereal packet is a Glock with a clip spilling out bullets onto the sideboard. She spends the rest of the video hanging out on the block with the IBGM boys, waving pistols in the air and rapping about turning bitches into macaroni, faces into pizza and the like. It’s unequivocally ultraviolent in its content, but her sweet half-sung delivery and DDS’ uplifting synth backbeat makes it one of the catchiest, if somewhat paradoxical, gangsta rap records this century. “I definitely send a message,” she says as they pull past a wrecked church on the corner of her mum’s street. “I don’t just tell people to hate and ‘go out and kill someone’s family’. I’m just speaking from my perspective. I’m protective of my family. I don’t have a gun, but I have security and people who do, and they’ve got their licences for them so it’s not illegal. But I’m not into guns, I’m into teddy bears and gummy worms and pizza.”
DeJ may prefer to distance herself from firearms away from the vocal booth, but, as with so many people in Detroit, her life has been tragically moulded by them. Her dad was shot dead when she was just four, leaving her mom to look after their three kids alone. On Sell Sole and her first mixtape, Just Do It, his death regularly crops up as the defining moment of her young life. “My dad was murdered in ’95,” she says, after grabbing a chair on the porch of her mom’s house. “When he got killed, my mom was distraught. She had to look after us three on her own. She couldn’t really focus, so we stayed with my grandma for a couple of years. We moved back in with her when I was six, and that’s when life got back to where I needed it to be. I always wondered what it would be like if my dad was still alive. Would I have been shy, or even doing music? That definitely had an effect on my every day, how I perceive the world. Every child deserves both parents.”
“Last year, I was sitting on this porch and didn’t have a dime in my pocket. I was losing it. So now, being able to just do what I want is amazing. I want this to last forever” – DeJ Loaf
Whether they’re dead, in prison or just absent, fathers are a rarity in Detroit’s ghetto communities. This is a city raised by single mothers, and Mama Loaf (or Latrice Hudson, as she prefers to be called) is one such superwoman. Walking into her house, there are no Desert Eagles perched on top of the fridge, but there are enough packets of Fruity Pebbles, Oops! All Berries, and Lucky Charms to kickstart a cardiac arrest. Balancing on the mantelpiece, a huge funeral wreath spells out the word ‘ROOSTER’ in capital letters. “That’s my mom, Rooster,” she says delicately. “I miss her so much. She was DeJ’s bestie too, you know. They had a big relationship. She used to call DeJ a grandma, ’cos that’s how laid-back she is.”
Latrice once had ambitions of being a model and did a few hair shoots, but then life got in the way. Looking out of the window, she puffs on a Newport. Over the road is yet another blackened shell of a home. “Someone cocktail- bombed that house,” she says, staring blankly at it. “It caught the house next door, too. I ain’t understand why they would tear one down but not the other. It almost makes me feel safer now, considering the drama that was on the block. There were thieves breaking into people’s houses – they even stole my dog. It looks horrible out there, but you know, somehow I feel safer ’cos of it.”
Her new dog Rossie, or Bad Butt as she calls it, yelps for Mama’s attention. DeJ bought it for her, but they’re still working through some issues. “If someone stole that one I wouldn’t put up any reward signs,” she laughs. Her youngest child, Cameron, comes out of his bedroom, which also doubles as DeJ’s clothing bank. His single bed is hidden behind piles of clothes and sneaker boxes. Wearing a t-shirt plastered with the “Try Me” artwork, the 20-year-old reveals how close his big sister was to throwing it all in and becoming a nurse. “People broke into the car, stole her backpack and all her rap stuff. She was gonna give up, but I was like, ‘Nah, you can’t stop! Don’t stop now, keep going!’” he recalls, propping up the kitchen bar. “I was incarcerated at the time, on 24-hour lockdown. When I called home two months later, my momma was so excited – DeJ had signed her record deal. That just made my day. I went to my room and shed a coupla tears like, ‘Wow.’ It was crazy. It amazed me. People never used to listen to DeJ’s music and now everybody’s listening to her.”
On the sofa, Latrice proudly shows off pictures of her and “her little twin”, and talks about how their lives have changed in the last year. “I’m loving it,” she says, occasionally taking a sip from a mini-bottle of Merlot through a straw. “It’s her dream come true. As long as she’s happy, I’m happy. When she left here yesterday, oh my goodness, the block wouldn’t stop. Kids were riding up the street snapping pictures of me as I was sitting on my porch saying, ‘That’s DeJ Loaf’s mom!’ It’s amazing... but different.”
Outside, her baby girl has changed into a black satin jacket with IBGM’s ‘Streets Is Watching’ slogan emblazoned across the back. Fittingly, neighbours start emerging from their houses, working up the courage to come over and ask for a selfie. Others show their respect by blasting “Try Me” from their trucks. Passing motorists do a double-take, not quite believing that one of the world’s most exciting new rap stars is chilling on a porch in their hood.
Over the road, a deflated birthday balloon flutters in the wind, stuck among the seared branches of a tree. “I can’t stay around here,” she says, looking up as it struggles to free itself from its wooden prison. “The code to the streets is to keep it real and stay, but I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna go somewhere where I can have a clear mind and write beautiful music. This isn’t a view, to me. I’ve always felt like that. Life is better than this. I wanna wake up different. The world is bigger than Detroit. Last year, I was sitting on this porch and didn’t have a dime in my pocket. I was losing it. So now, being able to just do what I want and be in this position is amazing. This could all be gone tomorrow, so you gotta appreciate what you have. I don’t wanna ever let it go. I want this to last forever.”