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How D.R.A.M. is injecting positivity back into the charts

The man with the biggest smile in music on why we haven’t heard his best shit yet, the evolution of ‘trappy-go-lucky’ and ‘Queen’ Erykah Badu

The last year has been incredibly good to the man with the biggest smile in music, but it’s 2017 that keeps the grin plastered to the face of D.R.A.M. For the artist also known as Shelley Massenburg-Smith, time spent working in a call centre and circulating the then-slow burning hit “Cha Cha” on the 757 Virginia party circuit are behind him. Now, life’s illustrated by the breakout “Broccoli” with pal Lil Yachty, a Grammy nomination and a sparkling world tour.

What lies ahead? “Tour, tour, tour, TOUR! Honey? Tour. More tour,” he tells me in the office of Atlantic Records, after a big hug and a chat about our respective dogs. D.R.A.M.’s golden doodle, Idnit (as in, ‘isn’t it cute’), couldn’t join him on the European leg of his tour because of micro-chipping issues. Idnit appears on the cover of Big Baby D.R.A.M., a sun-dappled debut album roguishly navigating melodic rap, P-Funk homages with Erykah Badu and vibey R&B to craft its own style: “trappy-go-lucky”. Badu – or ‘Queen’ to D.R.A.M. – described him as a mix of George Clinton, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and D’Angelo.

On the eve of his London show at XOYO, Dazed sat down with D.R.A.M. to talk Kendrick, memes, the queen and professional smiles.

So, 2016/17 has been great for you. Rewinding ‘Cha Cha’ – how fast did it all happen?

D.R.A.M.: We were sitting on it for the whole of summer, building up the buzz in the 757 (Virginia) area, making people come to our events just to hear it. We didn’t release it online, we did it 80s-style. Then it just took off when I dropped the mixtape. People were waiting so long to be able to listen to that song by themselves and not have to go to an event and shit like that, so it started going (snaps fingers) fast.

Was music always a part of your life?

D.R.A.M.: Yeah, ever since I remember I was singing and stuff, I started coming up with my own lyrics at the age of 13 and never stopped. My mother sings. My grandfather used to hold a really good baritone note. I was listening to all types of music, oldies but goodies. Coming into an age I discovered The Fugees and The Score, fucking crazy. Then Blackstreet. As I got older I started digging with Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield. What really hit the nail on the head was when I stumbled across funk. Like, truly, going deep into it – P-funk, the renaissance movement, whatever you want to call that shit. That felt like it was just setting me free.

Your records are so distinctly you. What’s that evolution been like?

D.R.A.M.: I let the beat speak to me, you know what I’m saying? Then I come back and respond to it when I feel it should be said, how it should be said – should it be sung like joke-ishly? Should it be sung seriously? I pretty much let it talk to me, talk back to it, then we form my own little language.

We’re never gonna give you all the tricks out of the hat straight up – that’s why I’m so pleased the album was received as positively as it was – y’all didn’t get the shit yet. Over time, I’ve just been finding other people to work with and having a real network of people that I fuck with. My keyboardist who tours with me did so much on the album.

The beginning of ‘Broccoli’ is fast becoming iconic.

D.R.A.M.: As soon as that note comes on everybody know.

“I live and breathe this shit, it’s not a fad, I don’t put on a costume. I like to smile, I guess you can put that shit to it, but I don’t really think I have to customise myself to get attention” – D.R.A.M.

You talked recently about that track with Lil Yachty, and how it was only ever meant to be a Soundcloud thing. How important is the internet sphere for you?

D.R.A.M.: Extremely. I just feel blessed that I’ve been a success on both ends of the spectrum, (on the) internet and commercially. Internet is the source, the internet is the streets now. All the hip kids will get it three weeks before everyone else. And I mean, that’s where I started – SoundCloud.

And the album has a really amazing roster of collaborators – Young Thug, Erykah Badu... Do you enjoy collaborating?

D.R.A.M.: Yeah, I do. If I have a real respect for your shit and want to fuck with you then hell yeah, it makes it ten times better. I’m not gonna front – I’ve done features where I don’t know the motherfuckers from Adam and Eve, but if the song is likeable then boom, boom, boom – I did that a couple of times. The ones I really savour are the organic ones.

With Queen (Badu), we’ve been friends now for about a year, we relate to each other on so many things and shit, and then when we got in and started working it was just like water. It’s just a preview of what we have to come, we’re coming out with our EP.

The album crosses so many genres, so it’s not fair to just describe you as a ‘rapper’, right?

D.R.A.M.: I mean, if you listen to the album from top to bottom it maybe has, like, three monotone rap verses – everything else has a melody, and more than half of it was sung from the heart, And there’s songs like ‘Broccoli’ and ‘Cash Machine’ (where) it’s not meant to be serenaded, it’s just meant for everyone to kind of get along with it. (vocalises)

I invented trappy-go-lucky – it’s like bright, sunshine-y melodies with light textures and some girth, but that low end (thumps the table) always hits hard or harder than any other trap song that’s next to it. So it’s got good vibes, makes you smiley, then it hits – trappy-go-lucky.

Have you encountered any pushback to the positivity?

D.R.A.M.: Yeah, I don’t get the flak. I’m a student of the game, they never come at me about it. They just ask me how I feel about the others doing it. I guess it’s because my real ‘breakthrough breakthrough’ was 2016 and it was a big shift in who’s being taken seriously as an artist. I live and breathe this shit, it’s not a fad, I don’t put on a costume. I like to smile, I guess you can put that shit to it, but I don’t really think I have to customise myself to get attention.

And the game doesn’t know what it’s missing, doesn't know what it needs. The game just knows that it’s gonna be players coming in and out. No matter what. The game will always be the game, but the players come and go.

Do you think the elements of nostalgia and familiarity in your music appeal to people?

D.R.A.M.: It’s because it’s everyday life, that’s how it it came about. Because I was asking niggas if I could have wifi in the room, then I goes (sings) ‘You got wifiiii?’. My first verse was all freestyle and then when Queen’s verse came up I wrote it out better than mine. That’s how it works, I’m always gonna set it up so she gets that shine as the queen she is.

And I’m always hitting people with the ‘remember whens’ – I remember shit like it was yesterday. I’m a big fan of the ‘remember whens’. Nostalgia has got to be a slight chunk of the puzzle.

And D.R.A.M. stands for ‘Does Real Ass Music’. Can you define that?

D.R.A.M.: It’s what’s true to you. Like if you wake up, fix yourself pancakes every morning – you know, it doesn’t have to do with what’s defined as ‘real’ now, like you have to be a knucklehead or a bad guy or some shit like that.

It’s just doing right by you.

D.R.A.M.: It’s just doing right by you! And if that’s you, if you a knucklehead making knucklehead music, then that’s real to you. Real to me in that way is when people can relate to it, when I have everyday conversations with people. Play your music and stick to it. When I was back home, we were always smoking in the garage, and my man Kenny would always go pee and slow the blunt process on my end. I was like, ‘What the fuck, man... but eh, when you gotta go, you gotta go.’ And then came ‘Gotta Go”. It’s organic.

Who else is a good example of that?

D.R.A.M.: Chano! Yeah, Chance (the Rapper).

You guys doing ‘Blessings’ on Kimmel is absolutely magic.

D.R.A.M.: We brothers!

Do you feel a responsibility to stick to being this happy being all the time?

D.R.A.M.: Yeah, people are like, ‘How are you happy all the time? Why are you always smiling?’ and it’s like – well, honey, I do be on my bad, quite a lot, but what I present to the public is only a chunk of my time. And this is still a profession, you have to be professional. And who wants to be in the room with somebody who looks like they mad or they don’t like your face, or where am I here? Nah, just spread the good vibes, love, positivity – nine times out of ten it’ll come right back to you.

“My favourite element of this music thing is performing it. So as much as I love recording and coming up with it, ain’t nothing beats performing it. ’Cos, bitch, I shine like my music” – D.R.A.M.

The ‘Cute’ video just came out. Do you enjoy shooting videos?

D.R.A.M.: I’m involved, I like getting the concept down early on. (Director) Nathan Smith is a beast, I really trust my team, but with videos I’ll be so nervous. I don’t wanna look stupid, or put it out there and it’s crazy as hell.

I suppose it’s that time where you can become a meme in ten seconds.

D.R.A.M.: Oh God. I’ve seen it. Like, gifs and stuff with me, already.

Anyone you really wanna collaborate with?

D.R.A.M.: Stevie Wonder! And with me and Kendrick... I had a session with him, and, man, to have somebody that meant so much to me just fucking with me like that... He’s definitely just a cool-ass dude. Very, very easy-going, mild-mannered; I really fuck with him. We had a few ideas.

Do you always enjoy touring?

Yeah, my favourite element of this music thing is performing it. So as much as I love recording and coming up with it, ain’t nothing beats performing it. ’Cos, bitch, I shine like my music.

If you didn’t have music, what else would you be doing?

D.R.A.M.: Rolling over in a grave somewhere. Bruh, I was born for this. What’s funny is with all the ‘nos’ I ever got, they turned into ‘I didn’t knows’. Well, sorry!