There are plenty of artists who have benefited from working with DJ Drama. The Philadelphia born DJ has redefined the way mixtapes are sold and branded through his Gangsta Grillz series and helped propel the careers of many of hip-hop’s biggest stars including T.I., Lil’ Wayne and Young Jeezy.
Born Tyree Simmons, Drama tapped into the Southern mixtape market in 2000 while he was attending Clark Atlanta University. In April 2003, the young entrepreneur formed the Aphilliates Music Group, which includes Drama and DJs Don Cannon, Sense, Jamad, Jaycee and Ox Banga. For the next four years the DJ collective flooded the South with their mixtapes, working with a slew of rappers. T.I. noticed Drama and recruited Mr. Gangsta Grillz as his DJ and also signed him to his Grand Hustle imprint on Atlantic.
Drama was arguably the mixtape king when the drama really popped off on January 16, 2007. Atlanta’s Fulton County Police raided the Aphilliates office and arrested Drama, Cannon and 17 others for illegally distributing mixtapes and violating Georgia’s racketeering laws. The company's assets were frozen and their recording equipment, computers and CDs were confiscated. The turn of events shook hip-hop and changed the mixtape game forever.
But all that isn’t stopping the self-proclaimed iPod King from releasing his first major label LP, Gangsta Grillz: The Album (Grand Hustle/Atlantic Records), on June 5. The album features production from Don Cannon, Just Blaze, The Runners and guest appearances by T.I., Diddy, Lil Jon, Outkast and Beanie Sigel. XXLMag.com converses with Mr. Thanksgiving about his controversial arrest and upcoming album.
Can you describe the scene when the police raided the Aphilliates office?
I was in my studio [getting ready] do an interview. Me and [Don] Cannon had stepped outside. It was about 5:30 PM [the day] after the Martin Luther King holiday. We walked outside, next thing you know, two Tahoe’s pulled up. Out of the first Tahoe, about six or seven officers jumped out with M-16’s screaming, “Get on the ground!” I was pretty good under the circumstances until they took my ID and said I was one of the perpetrators. My stomach just dropped. They took me to the car and said, "You’re arrested for bootlegging and racketeering.” They took me downtown after that. They told me [the charge] was under the RICO law. I was in shock, a little stressed, but lucky enough I didn’t spend that long in jail. Really, the only thing I was concerned about was getting bail, making bond and getting the fuck out of there! Me and Cannon were the only ones arrested. Reports [say] they detained 17 people, but all of those people weren’t even employees of ours. They were grabbing anybody hanging out in the street. Then again, they reported confiscating 81 thousand CDs. I know for sure there were no damn 81 thousand CDs. If I had to estimate, I would say there were about 25 thousand in all.
When they raided your office, they took the hard drive with the material for Gangsta Grillz: The Album. How big of a set back was that?
After the raid, I was left with nothing. I got a phone call from Atlantic [Records] and they were like, “Drama, anything is good publicity, can you finish the album in three weeks?” At the time, they knew my hard drive was gone, but you have to stay on your business. So I sat down with the Aphilliates and said, “Let’s go back in and get [this] done.” We pretty much started over. I got in touch with some of the artists that I worked with [prior] and did some new songs. I got some people producing some new songs for me and [now] the album is better than before.
Will your major label album differ from your mixtapes?
I don’t really look at it as different. I keep my same formula. I don’t believe in changing what works. But everything I’ve done on other tapes was practice for my album. This isn’t people sending me songs to put a compilation together. We A&Red almost every song by ourselves. We put the project together. So those [people] who know how I put the other Gangsta Grillz together will ride to this like the others. And the people who aren’t familiar with Gangsta Grillz mixtapes will be like, “God damn, what have I been missing?”
After your arrest, did you feel slighted by people who didn’t come to your defense?
I’ve been asked before, “How did you feel about the lack of support in the industry or rappers coming out and supporting?” At the end of the day, that ain’t what I’m here for. I wasn’t waiting for nobody to come out and support me or say “save DJ Drama.” I just feel [the arrest] lets niggas know this is who DJ Drama is. [Now] watch what I do. That's just a point to prove that I’m going down as one of the greats. I was on top in January . I was the mixtape king. I was on the cover of XXL [with T.I., B.G. & P$C]. It was a lesson to never get comfortable. You can never put your head down. You have to stay hungry, which I have done anyway. It’s funny, because if it happened to anyone in the game, I’m glad it happened to me. I still say proudly that I’m a mixtape DJ.
What’s going on with this Chicago DJ saying you stole his name?
What we have going on is mo money, mo problems. There is some no name DJ from Chicago who called my record label and told them he uses [the] DJ Drama [name]. That is the hold up. I might have to do my Notorious B.I.G. thing and come out as DJ Dram. We’re figuring it out now, but I ain’t trippin’, everybody knows who DJ Drama is.
How has the mixtape game changed since your arrest?
It’s definitely changed. One of the largest mixtape websites is no long there. A lot of people are concerned. But I think there is some good to come of this. The RIAA and the music industry are going to look at what we do and understand what we bring to the game. I think the mixtape game will grow from this. People have to know that without mixtapes, hip-hop would not be what it is. DJs help these people sell a lot of records, including myself. I just want to be able to move forward and move the culture forward.
After everything you’ve gone through this year, you don’t seem defeated.
Yo, look at all the press I got. You can’t pay for that type of publicity. I look at it as a challenge to prove I’m one of the greats. If you look at all of the greats, they evolved from adversity and came out on top. Look at Puff’s situation, losing Biggie or earlier on with the stampede at the basketball game. T.I.P. lost Philant [Johnson]. Look at 50 after getting shot. He could have gave up and said, “Fuck this rap shit.”