In early January, it was announced on Twitter that Pusha T and DJ Drama are working on a Gangsta Grillz project. It broke hip-hop Twitter due to Pusha T's successful year with his solo album It's Almost Dry and how well-received Drama's Gangsta Grillz project with Jim Jones alongside other releases in 2022. The Gangsta Grillz series is now known as a legacy piece in the vast history of hip-hop, but how did it gain the notoriety it has today?
The Clark Atlanta University alum helped curate a Southern sound when the Southern rap scene wasn't monolithic. Unlike the other regions like West Coast hip-hop being centered in California and Northeast rap being centered in New York, the South blended sounds from Texas, Georgia, Virginia, and Alabama. The rap scene was trying to distinguish itself from the historic jazz and funk sounds of New Orleans, Louisiana, and Richmond, Virginia. The Gangsta Grillz series unified artists from different regions to create a pillar in the culture they could call their own.
While at Clark Atlanta, he met two other Philly native DJs, Don Cannon and DJ Sense. They would form a trio known as the Aphilliates collective. His first mixtape under the name DJ Drama was Jim Crow Laws back in 1998 which hosted Southern acts such as Three 6 Mafia, Outkast, and Mystikal. It was well received all throughout the streets of Hotlanta and it would foreshadow the success of his Gangsta Grillz mixtapes.
DJ Drama discussed how he changed the mixtape game for the south in an interview with RedBull Academy with Nah Right. He said that the south didn't want to hear any new music at the time and just play what they know. He wanted to take a different approach to where he shoutout artists on the tapes they're rapping on and boast exclusives like his influence DJ Doo Wop and his 95 Live mixtape series with Busta Rhymes, Mobb Deep, and Q-Tip.
Before the phrase, "mixtape", became a loosely known term for people to just name what a project is like how people call an album an LP or EP without knowing what classifies an EP from an LP or a mixtape, mixtapes were used as a promotional tool.
Rappers would rap over other rappers' beats or create free content so they can distribute it via CDs at low prices. When Drama became notorious for mixtapes, this was before the blog and streaming eras were a thing. Mixtapes were distributed hand in hand, which made it easy for under-the-table money and word-of-mouth promotion was the way people vocalized something trendy before social media. A major con to the mixtapes was sampling issues, which can create legal issues.
His early successes with T.I.'s Down With The King back in 2004 and Jeezy's Trap Or Die in 2005 set the bar for the iconic Gangsta Grillz Album to drop in 2007. In 2006, the Aphilliates collective signed a joint venture deal with Asylum Records, so at that point, they had the label support that many would die for in the industry.
In January 2007, officers confiscated thousands of mixtapes from the Aphilliates studio in Atlanta and threw Drama and Don Cannon into the Fulton County Jail. The officers seized four vehicles, about 80,000 mixtapes, some sound bites from The Gangsta Grillz Album, and some recording equipment from them. To learn more about the raid, listen to the NPR Interview here.
How DJ Drama risked everything to uplift uprising artists and promote exclusives for the mainstream artists became a thing of legend. The mixtape game came to a dead halt after the arrest and Drama even blamed himself for the cause of it. However, Atlantic was more than hyped to promote and release the album. The notoriety from the lockup built excitement for the project and even greater support for Drama and Cannon.
Despite the setback, The Gangsta Grillz Album was released in December 2007 and peaked at 26 on the Billboard Top 200s chart.
Although he wears many hats including an A&R role, he still releases mixtapes from time to time. In 2022, he worked with the likes of Jim Jones on Gangsta Grillz: We Set The Trends, Snoop Dogg on Gangsta Grillz: I Still Got It, The World Is Yours: Gangsta Grillz by Badda TD, Snofall with Jeezy, and several other artists.
In the modern day of playlisting curators somewhat playing the DJ role for releases on streaming platforms, DJ Drama carries the nostalgia of the showmanship of the DJ. There's a nostalgic feel when you hear DJ Drama's or Don Cannon's name drops. His emphasis on setting the tone for the mixtape with whatever artist he collaborates with is something that these curators can't do as genuinely today.
For that, the culture thanks DJ Drama and Don Cannon for being martyrs of the mixtape era and making history in Souther hip-hop culture.
PS: Many would think Call Me If You Get Lost is an addition to the Gangsta Grillz series, but it's not. In this Complex interview, Drama discussed how the album had the Gangsta Grillz influence, but it was mainly a Tyler, The Creator-directed project.
Written by: Jay Guevara. @justinhisprime on all social media.
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