On a recent afternoon, Shelley Massenburg-Smith is driving through Los Angeles, shuttling between radio interviews and marveling at the fact that so many people want to hear what he has to say. “Don’t mind me,” D.R.A.M., a longtime struggling musician who recently cracked the Billboard Top 10 with the Lil Yachty–featuring hit single “Broccoli,” says as he lets out full-throated coughs in between drags on a blunt. “I’m just having a little smoke session.”
It’s hardly surprising that the 28-year-old Hampton, Virginia, native needs a bit of a breather: The past few months have seen the perpetually smiling singer, who combines childlike giddiness with old-school-crooner charm, explode in a major way. His songs deftly blend classic funk (he cites Parliament-Funkadelic as his primary musical inspiration) with soul, R&B and hip-hop. “To be honest there’s no time to really relish in the moment,” D.R.A.M. says. “Because there’s so much more to done.”
Despite having his share of setbacks (D.R.A.M.’s breakout 2014 single “Cha Cha” is widely believed to have been co-opted by Drake for his “Hotline Bling”), the dreadlocked singer is thinking positive. It helps that in the past year he’s hunkered down at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio for a “surreal” recording session; toured with his “ally” and close friend Chance the Rapper; recorded several tracks with Erykah Badu, one of which (“WIFI”) appears on his new debut, Big Baby D.R.A.M.; and, this past summer, he even met Beyoncé, who he says connected him to producers including Mike Will Made it and Diplo.
“It’s time for the world to get a taste of just what I have to offer. Get ready!” D.R.A.M. says in a revealing interview with Rolling Stone in which he touches on his new album, why he’s always wanted to make non-cheesy kids’ music and how he’s ready to move past “Broccoli.”
The blog buzz around “Cha Cha” – not to mention the drama surrounding its supposed usage by Drake – may have given you a taste of fame. But has the success of “Broccoli” taken it to a completely new level?
Hell, yeah! It’s more than fair to say. It’s really a good thing. I couldn’t be more appreciative. I couldn’t be more content and I couldn’t be more motivated to continue on and build the legacy even more.
When did you first feel your star beginning to rise?
Just with the amount of shows I have, the amount of radio stations that want me to come in and talk and stuff like that. And then when I go and do these shows, the way people react, the way they flock towards me … it’s like the “Cha Cha” buzz times 10. It’s crazy.
Did this level of success seem realistic to you?
It felt realistic but to be honest there’s so much more to be achieved. So we celebrate, we toast, we drink our glasses, and we get our asses back to work. You feel me? I want to leave a positive lasting impression in everything that I do.
Fans may think they know what you’re about based on “Broccoli.” But there’s much more to Big Baby D.R.A.M. in terms of its sonic influences, from soul (“WIFI”) to dance (Outta Sight”) to gospel (“All That).
It’s mostly from the hip, man. From scratch. And we just put it together. I just go in there, spitball, brainstorm; we get a solid idea and we build around it. Bada-bing, bada-boom. You have yourself a record and throw it in the crate. We’re not saying, “We need this!” or ‘We need that!” We go on feels, man. Let the groove speak to you. Let the day speak to you. Let the weather speak to you. Let your mind speak to you. But definitely, definitely let the beat speak to you. If you do that then you can speak your own little language.
Your music is really unlike much else on the radio nowadays.
There was a void that needed to be filled just in regards to spreading good vibes. Almost in a sense of someone like Outkast. When they first hit the scene, they grinded, they stayed humble, and they stayed on the grind and it paid off. Their music was so unique and so different from what anybody else had to offer.
It’s about making no compromises rather than watering down your sound for commercial gain.
I’m not here to bash anybody else. I’m here to keep the wheels turning. I’m just excited, bro!
It’s hard not to listen to your music – or even look at your album cover that features a picture of you and your Goldendoodle, Idnit – and come to the conclusion that you’re a super-happy dude.
For real. Because either I do this or go back to the norm. And I’m never going back. I know what got me here. I know what’s gonna keep me here. And no matter what I go through, this is a job; this is a career. Professionalism is a key. It’s a major key. Not to sound cliché [laughs].
You toured with Chance the Rapper, have a song featured on Coloring Book and recently performed with him on The Tonight Show. What brought you two so close together?
Chance tweeted he liked the “Cha Cha” back in November 2014. He heard it, he loved it, we all linked. I started making music with his production team, the Social Experiment. We developed a business relationship. He’s a real ally in this game.
Is it crucial for you to see artists like Chance achieving success by being completely themselves?
Most certainly. I was also motivated by one of the pioneers of doing their own thing: George Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic. Also huge kudos to the great Bootsy Collins and the legendary Garry Shider, a.k.a. the Diaper Boy. They were very loose and free with the way they did their thing and that’s always how I wanted to go about it. Ever since I made the 1Epic mixtape that had the “Cha Cha” record up on there, me and [producer] Gabe Niles, we released all our inhibitions and just went at it. Trappy Go Lucky!
At what age did you start to believe music was your calling?
Ever since I can remember, I wanted to do music. I really started taking it seriously when I wanted to showcase my sound to my peers. So I would do local nights and events and things of that nature and build it up. Things didn’t start really kicking off until I linked with my boy Gabe Niles. We started making music at the top of 2014 and it’s been history ever since. Me and him did a lot of dope stuff together and we still do. He’s one of the executive producers on Big Baby D.R.A.M.
Growing up in Virginia, it must have been inspirational to see musicians like Timbaland, Missy Elliott, the Neptunes and Clipse making it big.
Oh, hell, yeah! I’m a product of seeing that as a kid, as a preteen, as a teenager, as an adult. With how far they’ve gone, we always felt like we could do it too. But it’s really beyond that. It’s my lifestyle. Legit, they’ve been such huge influences in the game.
From “D.R.A.M. Sings Special” on Coloring Book to “Cute” on your album, it’s obvious you take joy in making kid-friendly music.
I’ve always wanted to make music that the children can get loose to that wasn’t cheesy. Just growing up loving musicals and things of that nature. The way “Special” came about is that me and Donnie Trumpet were talking and he was getting into making children’s music and I said, “Man, I always wanted to do that. Play me a beat you’ve got in mind for that.” And he played the “Special” beat. I’m like [sings], “You are so special” And he got up right quick and got the handheld mic and we got to chopping from there. And several months later it landed on Chance’s project.
You performed the song with him and Chance this summer at the Taste of Chicago.
That was an experience like no other. Just coming out and seeing the whole city in all of its glory. All nations. All creeds. I was walking back trying to get an Uber across the street and people were running after me. I was like, “Wow!” They were legit running to me? [Laughs]
Is it weird for you to have obsessive fans?
It feels good. I’m a big advocate of etiquette. Sometimes people just get wild and crazy and it’s all too much. And it gets a little overwhelming at times. But overall you just smile through it all. Because, look: I’m thankful that I’m creating this much emotion for anybody just by me making music and putting it out there for the world to hear. So it’s always a blessing.
I know you worked at Shangri-La with Rick Rubin. Tell me about that experience.
The thing is, Rick gives you the space. I was out there for a 10-day session and he popped up maybe three times. He just wanted to hear what’s going on and he gives emphasis on things he likes rather than things he doesn’t. Just being in that atmosphere, literally it’s a musician’s paradise. You’re living in paradise, in the lap of luxury; whatever you need is available to you musically. There’s like 10 guys in all black and they’ll get you whatever you want to eat; they’ll drop 30 minutes just to get you food, man. It’s a most surreal experience.
I take it you were there recording for what became Big Baby D.R.A.M.?
Yeah. But we were really just out there getting a vibe of what it’s like to make music in L.A. at its fullest extent. We had all of our musician friends up there and we would just have jam sessions. A few ideas made its way to the album that were birthed at Shangri-La, but overall we were just finding our way.
You were trying to catch a vibe.
Yeah, man. And the vibe was definitely caught.
It must have been quite the ego boost when Beyoncé shouted out “Cha Cha” on Instagram last year. I hear you subsequently met her?
I did. And it was legendary. It was like meeting a real-life icon, a real-life living legend. It was back in July or something like that. I can’t really go into full details. I’ll tell you this, though: She’s been singing my praises and just telling people that they need to work with me. Just in regards to my artistry, my writing. She linked me with Mike Will. He hit me up and told me that she told him to hit me up. As well as the homie Diplo. Two superstars from two different walks of life that deal with her on a daily basis that she plugged me onto. She’s the bomb.
And you also worked with Erykah Badu. She even went so far as to sample “Cha Cha” for “I Am Cel U Lar Device.”
We’ve been really good friends for about a year now. We got to link up and make music together in the spring of this year and “WIFI” is just the introduction to what me and her about to offer in the full extent. It’s just the beginning of something fresh. I’m really excited for everybody to hear that. It’s got that classic vibe and that new vibe mashed together. It’s a unity. And in the time and era where so many people from the golden generation have issues with the new generation and vice versa the fact that there’s this unity that’s living and breathing is really dope.