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DJ Drama Talks Working With Tyler, the Creator and the Golden Age of Rap Mixtapes

The iconic producer discusses his work on Tyler, the Creator’s album, and the legacy of mixtapes in rap music.

Folahanmi Olawole*

As streaming platforms continue to dominate the ways we listen to music, projects from rap’s great mixtape era are disappearing or becoming more difficult to find. With only a handful of iconic projects available to stream, thousands of hours of music have been lost to the digital wasteland. The first phase of the beloved hip-hop internet can often feel as distant as the heyday of CDs. Tyler, the Creator is as much a product of that era as anyone, so it’s fitting that he enlisted the legendary DJ Drama to act as host on his excellent sixth studio album Call Me If You Get Lost. The record is full of muscular rapping, shoutouts to Swiss lakes, and Drama’s bruising baritone boasts. It’s not a formal entry into Drama’s legendary Gangsta Grillz mixtape series, but it embodies much of the same exhilarating rawness.

“To come back with this gritty ass rap album and on top of that it’s fucking Gangsta Grillz, [that] was just so left of what anybody thought,” Drama says of the project over Zoom, a few days after the album’s release.

Recorded primarily in August and September of last year, Drama says that the record’s travel focus was partially inspired by the lockdown caused by COVID-19. Ever worldly, Tyler raps about running up his passport stamps, while Drama offers on-theme adlibs, including one particularly memorable passage about being fed French vanilla ice cream in Geneva, sans shoes. While Drama is best known for his work with pioneering trap rappers like T.I. and Young Jeezy, he also has a long history of getting in the studio with a broad array of idiosyncratic artists, from Little Brother to Gnarls Barkley to Pharrell, whose In My Mind: The Prequel was a major influence for Tyler in crafting this latest album. 

Now 43, Drama is focused on running Generation Now, his label that features Jack Harlow and Lil Uzi Vert. Drama talked to Rolling Stone about world-building with Tyler, what the term “mixtape” means today, and helping his second home of Atlanta become the epicenter of hip-hop.

What’s the reaction been like to your involvement with Call Me If You Get Lost? Do you feel like doing this has gotten the older music you worked on to a newer generation of fans?
Absolutely. Tyler’s fanbase has a wide range. There’s a piece of it that’s very familiar with me and there’s a piece that isn’t and probably kinda had to either do some research or get put on. I’m a troll in a lot of ways, so I’ll go read the comments and search my name. I see what everybody’s saying. I enjoy it. It’s funny to me. The side that’s not familiar with me reminds me of when I did Chris Brown’s first Gangsta Grillz, In My Zone, and his fanbase was like, “What the hell is this person screaming all over the music? Get him outta here.” It doesn’t bother me. 

It’s definitely full circle to what the Pharrell Gangsta Grillz meant to the culture, to a lot of people, Tyler being one of them. I was in Vegas the other day and I’m walking through the lobby and somebody screams out “Call Me If You Get Lost!” I’m used to people screaming out “Yo Dram!” or they’ll say it in Jeezy’s voice or “Gangsta Grillz,” so it’s a new way for them to pay homage. I think mixtape culture is an art form from a and time in hip-hop that unfortunately has gotten a little lost because a lot of that music isn’t available on the streaming platforms.

Some folks seemed surprised to see you work with an artist like Tyler, but the reality is you’ve always made records with left-field artists like Gnarls Barkley, Little Brother, and, obviously, Pharrell.
Rapsody. Dead Prez. You could maybe even put in a Curren$y, where I had to switch my tone to match his smoker side.I feel like Little Brother and Pharrell were the first left-of-center ones that I did. I remember, I faced some backlash when I did those. People were coming to me like, “Gangsta Grillz is a street brand. How is this gonna make sense?” For me, that was a way to pay homage to some of my roots, no pun intended. But coming up with people like The Roots and Blackstar [as part of] my backpacker roots, I was excited when I was able to take Gangsta Grillz in that direction. The ones that people don’t expect are some of the proudest for me.

I know you’ve talked a lot about how the Tyler record came together, so I don’t want to make you repeat yourself.
I did leave something out though that I’ma tell you. When Tyler first called me about the idea, when I went to L.A. for the first time, he had already taken some vocals of mine from a random tape. Respectfully, it wasn’t an A-list artist or something. I don’t know how he got it, but he took the vocals off the tape and placed them on the beginnings of what became Call Me If You Get Lost just to see how it would sound, per se.[Now] I’m wondering if any of the vocals that are on there might have been from that project. When I was listening I’m like, “Did I say that this time?”

Did it surprise you at all that Tyler’s big point of influence was the Pharrell tape? Tyler has always been big on Pharrell and The Neptunes so, in some ways, it makes a lot of sense.
I think it made 100 percent sense and I get it because of what Pharrell represented at a time to a legion of people as an artist that’s kind of off-center. I’ve heard through the years about how important that tape was to various people. So when we first linked up, around the time when he put that tweet out or when I went to his show, I had done an interview with Odd Future the first time I met those guys. He had told me then, but I think it makes perfect sense and then the way that tape sounds, how gritty it is, and the production that Pharrell chose to rhyme on. It’s just a real mesh. I think so many worlds collided and it raised a generation, including Tyler. 

You’re totally right, it was grittier. Pharrell came really hard on it, so it makes sense that this was a return to a certain grittiness and brash rap style for Tyler.
Exactly. I think that one of the things that people loved about the mixtapes in the 2000s when it became what it became was that it was no holds barred. You could get away with a lot of stuff that you may not be able to on your album album. You could just kinda spaz and be carefree and experimental. For Tyler after IGOR to show his love and pay homage to hip-hop–you never know what direction he’s gonna take it in, so to come back with this gritty ass rap album and on top of that it’s a fucking Gangsta Grillz was just so left of what anybody thought. It was an eye-opener. The types of beats he’s rapping on, with “Lumberjack” being an old Gravediggaz sample, it’s just so reminiscent of what Skateboard did on the In My Mind prequel.

How did Tyler bring you into the whole world of the Baudelaire character and the luxurious lifestyle that he references on CMIYGL?
A lot of it was conversational. We were in the studio having conversations with him even just on some rap shit. Tyler [can be] flashy in his own right, but I don’t think he gets brought up in those conversations about style and jewelry and cars. He’s not on Instagram necessarily flexing like the majority of rappers out there, but he’s very content like, “My bank account looks the same, probably better than a lot.” 

I’m always taking mental notes, so when I went into the booth I was taking things that we would talk about, like being in Geneva, watching this view from the lake, and looking at the mountains. I really wanted to take people into his mind and his world of where his flex is or him really wanting to put fucking big truck wheels on the Rolls-Royce with the bike rack. He was telling me, “Yo, I’m gonna do this.” He’s wild. And then there were a couple of parts where I would go in and be talking and he’d be like, “Yo, say this. Try this.” And then I’d say it and he’d be like, “Oh my god, it’s fucking perfect.”

I’m curious about the “CORSO” video. What was shooting that like?
It was dope. They told me to bring a suit, outside of that it was just like, “Cool.” [LAUGHS] The concept of the video was fire and the way it was shot was pretty much one take all the way through from the beginning scene of him sitting at the table to coming around and doing that. So we shot it multiple times, but always all the way through. Outside of me coming and working on the records, I never had the music until it dropped, so before I got there I wasn’t even sure what song we were shooting and then I didn’t even remember my parts until I got there. I had to get those right off the top, which was fun just learning my own parts right on the spot.

Someone like Tyler keeps things pretty close to the chest.
Absolutely. And I’m not gonna front, I did the same thing before I started interviews. When [my publicist] Jason first approached me about doing interviews or even when Complex called, I was like, “Before I start talking, let me just make sure it’s cool to even tell this side of it.” And I respect that, I love that. He wants to allow people in when he wants to let them in. I’m a firm believer. I’m not gonna break the code. I was in Vegas this weekend and we went to Drai’s and I saw Wayne was performing and Lil Twist was there. We were talking and busting it up and he said, “Yo, the Tyler shit is crazy. Wayne was listening to it and he said, “Tyler went crazy. He’s got Drama on there like it’s one of my old shits.’”

With Generation Now, you guys were put in an interesting position because of the timing of Jack’s explosion with “What’s Poppin’.” Looking back now, how do you feel about the way you handled that?
It was a gift and a curse in a lot of ways. It was a blessing in disguise for the success of “What’s Poppin’.” But then, obviously, it was like 1.) I can’t personally be out and play my artist’s hit record and feel like the man in the club and 2.) we can’t even really watch him go perform the record. You know, that success was also able to keep a lot of things afloat. Jack had a meteoric rise last year. We chose to put the album out at the end of the year, which I still think was one of the greatest bodies of work hip-hop-wise that came out last year. So yeah, some of it worked out and was planned and some of it honestly we got blessed and that’s how it came about.

I think the meaning of what is and isn’t a mixtape has gotten diluted in recent years. Sometimes, it feels like artists use the branding of a mixtape a little cynically to create something that doesn’t have the same stakes as an album. What do you think is the place of the mixtape in hip-hop nowadays?
I think people do use that term because, in some ways, it’s fear of what the response is gonna be. As you said, there’s less pressure if you call it a mixtape than if you call it an album. I think, overall, the mixtape from the era that I come from is kind of a dead art form in a lot of ways. It had to take a backseat to streaming and playlists. The closest thing, to me, for what a mixtape is is probably the playlist. I think that’s one of the dope things about Call Me If You Get Lost. He really brought back that mixtape feel. 

I think that for some, on the nostalgic level, it’s like, “Damn, it would be dope to have that feeling again.” DJs and mixtapes used to really be the outlet for people to get to the music before they may have been big stars or people were necessarily paying attention to them. With the direction music took from the blogs to the mixtapes to streaming, it wasn’t as necessary for the DJ to be all over records or look for that brand instead of looking at a playlist. I was the last of the Mohicans in a lot of ways and that’s where a lot of the argument would come when I would talk about being the greatest mixtape DJ of all time or Gangsta Grillz being the greatest series because I was the last at the top of the food chain.  It would be dope and exciting if we could take the concept and do a Dedication-type tape where someone is taking the beats of the moment and rapping on them and be able to still put it on DSPs. It’s possible. Nicki just proved it. Wayne’s done a couple of them. Drake put So Far Gone back up a couple of years ago. I’m working on a couple of things myself as far as bringing some of the old projects back to DSPs and everything. I think there’s still a place for it and everything, but I’m also the way I am and I didn’t get caught in–I was the man then and now I could very well have ended up in a bitter space since the art form that I was king of is no longer relevant. But, I saw the changes coming and I started to change my business to stay consistent and stay relevant. I’m always one that’s gonna speak proudly for mixtapes and mixtape DJs because without that I wouldn’t be here. It literally is the reason I am who I am and a lot of the things that we have now with our success with Generation Now was built off my mixtape hustle.

Was there a specific moment where you realized you needed to begin shifting your focus away from mixtapes to other endeavors? The raid comes to mind, but was there anything else?
I started to notice from 2013 or 2014 on that every year I was doing fewer mixtapes, so by the time 2016 came, [it was] a time and space where I was probably doing one a month for either a big artist or just somebody who would wanna come through and was trying to get on. I already had a bunch of other things going, I started my job at Atlantic, I was putting out studio albums and building my studio. I just always looked at it as a way to branch out. I never wanted to put all my eggs in one basket, so I definitely saw some of the signs. 

You have Generation Now, and you still drop the occasional Gangsta Grillz. When you’re looking at new artists, how do you decide if someone you like is right for a mixtape or signing to one of the labels?
I try not to overthink it a lot of times. As much as I trust my ear, I also challenge my ear. There are things that I think are hot, but I also have to remind myself that my ear as a 43-year-old man from Philly means I’m not gonna hear it all or be correct about everything. I’m pretty open and
I feel like I keep my ear to the streets and keep myself grounded. When I’m out and about and people wanna work, I say, “Here, take my number.” To this day, I give my number to 30 people a day if I’m out. The worst thing I’m gonna do is not answer or tell somebody
“No.” I feel like that’s the best approach for me.

Among the things you’ve been ahead of the curve on in rap, one has really been Atlanta itself. Now being a longtime resident of the city, what do you think of the way its place has grown in musical culture?
It’s been one of the biggest blessings in my career. I can only imagine where I would be if I hadn’t moved to Atlanta when I did. It’s been one of the things that has also made me not be able to leave through all these years. I would love to move somewhere where there’s a beach and I can have my toes out, as I said [on “HOT WIND BLOWS”], but the sauce has always been here. It’s a city like no other. I feel like the run in hip-hop from Atlanta is the most dominant run ever and just to watch how many movements and how many stars come from the city and come from humble beginnings and turn into what they’ve turned into, it’s just different. It’s been a hell of a ride for me to have moved here from Philly and be embraced by the city and to consider it my second home. It’s unexplainable.

From Rolling Stone US