When your SoundCloud throwaways are catchy enough to set the charts alight, you’re onto something special. Chris Kelly meets D.R.A.M., one of 2016’s breakout stars and a true son of Virginia’s impeccable musical lineage.
The music of southeastern Virginia’s 757 area code has driven the sound of hip-hop, R&B and pop music for nearly two decades. Missy Elliott, Timbaland, the Neptunes and the Clipse all hail from that patch – a fact that wasn’t lost on the youngins growing up when folks from their neighborhood dominated the airwaves.
One of those kids was D.R.A.M. – born Shelley Massenburg-Smith in 1988 – who recalls “how original the sound was and how it set itself apart from everything.” Those artists would loom large in the imagination of the 757, but would also show that making a difference in the music industry was possible. “In the words of Pharrell Williams, ‘You can do it too,'” D.R.A.M. says, adding with a laugh, “I just believed it, and went and killed it.”
D.R.A.M. has been killing it for two years now, and he’s a fine addition to the 757 lineage. Since breaking through in the fall of 2014 with ‘Cha Cha’, the infectious, Super Mario-sampling single that inspired Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’, he has moved from strength to strength: featuring on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and scoring a number one hit of his own with the Lil Yachty-assisted ‘Broccoli’.
“When I think about things in hindsight it’s like damn, damn, damn”
And like his 757 cohorts before him, D.R.A.M. is finding success with a sound that is distinctly his own. From ‘Cha Cha’ to his recently released debut album Big Baby D.R.A.M., it’s clear that he’s not content to follow the template set by recent singers-who-rap (for the record, he doesn’t even consider himself a rapper). Instead, his big, bold voice recalls the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and Bootsy Collins, whether over beats influenced by contemporary rap and R&B or more classic sounds.
That voice – rich as molasses and heavy with vibrato – has been honed through a lifetime of on-the-job training. “Everything since I can remember, I’ve been singing,” he says. For three years during his childhood, he stayed with his grandparents and “practically lived at church,” singing in the children’s’ choir, mass choir and men’s choir. “My peoples never really had any negative thoughts about me singing, they always encouraged it.”
While church provided a platform for him to sing, the core influence of his music would be the gospel of Parliament-Funkadelic thanks to their “no rules, no holds-barred, good vibes” approach. In 2009, D.R.A.M. was actually able to link up with George Clinton, showing off his knowledge of the rarest, deepest P-Funk cuts. “Man, you really a Funkateer,” he recalls Clinton telling him, “because that ain’t never been on the radio.”
Clinton isn’t the only legend with whom D.R.A.M. has communed. A highlight of Big Baby D.R.A.M. is ‘WiFi’, a slow-motion jam featuring Erykah Badu. Asked if he could have ever imagined that he’d literally introduce Badu on one of his records, D.R.A.M. lets out a big laugh. “Hell naw!” More surreal than collaborating with the soul legend is the friendship that ensued. “We talk to each other with FaceTime. It’s to the point where I’m used to it, but when I think about things in hindsight it’s like damn, damn, damn.”
But it’s not just the chance to work with his heroes that drives him: he’s also found a musical community that is pushing and pulling R&B and hip-hop in new directions. Chief among them is Chance the Rapper’s Social Experiment crew: Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet), Nate Fox and Peter Cottontale, musicians who share an eclectic, throwback approach. Fox had been sending him beats “back when [he] was broke” – the Cottontale-produced ‘Caretaker’, which first appeared on Surf before being revised for D.R.A.M.’s Gahdamn! EP, was recorded on a $100 microphone. “[Those guys] are my paisans, as the mafia would say.”
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected ‘Broccoli’ to be a #1 rap song for eight weeks”
Eclecticism is the watchword on Big Baby D.R.A.M.. The album bounds from the woozy, Segal-produced ‘Get It Myself’ to the funk-rocker ‘Misunderstood’ to chop-and-screw influenced balladry – and that’s only in the first three tracks. D.R.A.M.’s appeal is that he’s a man for all seasons, whether it’s the Ray Charles-sampling ray-of-sunshine ‘Cash Machine’ and the kawaii sing-along ‘Cute’ or the vintage soul of ‘Sweet VA Breeze’ and boom-bap throwback ‘Monticello Ave’.
“I’m always trying to straddle the line ever so gently between experimental and new but also refreshing and nostalgic,” he says. “I mesh new things and old things so that I can be me all at once.” Even his earliest music, ‘Feel Like This’ (released as Drama J back in 2009) embraces this new-meets-old approach, with it’s ‘90s sex jam vibes but contemporary synth work. “What stayed the same [since then] is that inspiration will hit me from any angle,” he says. What has changed is his newfound collaborative spirit, going from doing everything by himself to working with other producers and artists.
Opening up his process resulted in his biggest hit yet, ‘Broccoli’. Over a beat that mixes speaker-rupturing bass with an infectious melody, D.R.A.M. shares the stage with Lil Yachty, a rapper who is practically antagonistic in his rejection of the music that came before him. For D.R.A.M., it was important to follow-up ‘Cha Cha’ (and the ensuing ‘Hotline Bling’ controversy) with a legit hit. “It shows growth on paper. ‘Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t lie’ is a real thing,” he says. “It really feels good to be back with a stride, stronger than before,” especially since ‘Broccoli’ was conceived as a one-off for SoundCloud. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected it to be a #1 rap song for eight weeks.”
D.R.A.M. is now living his wildest dreams. Big Baby D.R.A.M. is his unfiltered vision for soul music, one that embraces the eclecticism of the 757ers that came before him. Making it allowed him to work with contemporaries of all stripes, and even a legend. But he’s not done, musically or otherwise. Because while he regularly FaceTimes with Erykah Badu, he still hasn’t connected with Taina star Christina Vidal, the Puerto Rican (not Dominican) who inspired the hook of ‘Cha Cha’. But as he says, “I know I’m gonna catch her in these streets.” After getting this far on some advice from Pharrell, anything seems possible.
Chris Kelly is on Twitter
Watch D.R.A.M & salute review Desiigner, Skrillex and more new tracks in Singles Club