Back when DJ Drama was just Tyree Simmons, a ninth-grader at Central High "running the streets of Germantown," his sister took him on a trip to New York, where on 125th Street in Harlem he bought his first mixtape. It was 1992, when mixtapes were cassettes. "DJ S&S; Old School Part 2," he remembers. "I listened to that mixtape every day, inside out." Simmons, who looked up to guys like DJ Clue and Doo Wop-two legendary New York mixtape DJs making names for themselves-put out his first mixtape while still in high school. It was called Illadelph, and featured freestyles from Black Thought and appearances by Dice Raw, Malik B and 100X. He hustled his tape on Chelten Avenue, where he sold maybe a hundred copies for $10 apiece.
Now at 27, with more than 150 CDs under his belt, DJ Drama is running the mixtape game.
His Gangsta Grillz series is the hottest mixtape brand in the South. Vibe Magazine named Gangsta Grillz the Mixtape Series of the Year for 2005, while XXL crowned the Gangsta Grillz Trap or Die edition hosted by Young Jeezy 2005's Official Bootleg of the Year.
At Radio One's First Annual Dirty Awards last month, Drama took home DJ of the Year as well as Mixtape of the Year (for the GG series). His Atlanta-based Aphilliates DJ crew (whose three founding members are from Philly) have two popular radio shows: a Friday-night slot on Eminem's Shade 45 on Sirius, and a Saturday-night show on Atlanta's Hot 107.9.
Drama's released about 20 Gangsta Grillz mixtapes this past year alone-working with artists like Project Pat, Lil Wayne, David Banner and Paul Wall. The Gangsta Grillz Respect the Game DVD came out last month, and Drama recently signed a deal with Atlantic Records to make an album using his mixtape format, but with major label money.
No surprise then that Drama's got the biggest names-from godfathers like Bun B to new legends like Young Jeezy and even icons like Pharrell-wanting to work with him. "I'm still such a fan of the game that working with these dudes is unbelievable," he says.
Atlanta 1996: A Shift in Hip-Hop
After graduating from Central High, DJ Drama moved to Atlanta in 1996 to attend Clark University, where he hooked up with Philly DJs Sense (from Mt. Airy) and Don Cannon (from East Falls).
"Just the fact that we were from Philly and that we was all into music, we pretty much clicked right away," he says. That's how they came up with the Aphilliates name.
In Atlanta Drama had to adjust to the different music culture. "In Philly it was hip-hop-that's what we did," he says. Atlanta DJs had a rep for being prominent on the mike; Philly DJs were known for their turntable skills. For Drama it was the best of both worlds: "I was learning how to really rock the crowd, but having that skill from Philly."
He'd arrived just in time to watch the South musically transform itself right before his eyes.
"When I got here it was Master P's turning point, when he started to rule the world. And from there it was Lil Jon, Ludacris, Cash Money. Atlanta almost felt like a little New York for me because I saw everything firsthand."
What DJ Drama witnessed was the Southern takeover of hip-hop, a shift from East Coast lyricism to down-South buck-crunk beats, and he was at the epicenter.
"Atlanta is a staple in the music business at this point," he says. "You go to Philly and New York and you hear D4L's 'Laffy Taffy'-that's not one of my favorite songs. I don't really want to co-sign that song. But it's amazing that something that has such a local Atlanta sound is so big universally."
Still, none of the founding members of the Aphilliates ever planned on making Atlanta home. "I'm a Philly dude," Drama says. "Even after I got out of school there was a moment when I thought I was gonna come home. I got real close to it. Then shit just started to take off."
|Let me see ya Grillz: The Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy tapes were two of DJ Drama's biggest this year.|
First South Mixtape: Jim Crow Laws
Once shit started to take off, the mixtape game was forever changed.
"There wasn't a real big mixtape movement in the South," Drama says, describing Atlanta when he first got there. "It was completely different. There was one name-DJ Jelly-that was it. When you wanted a CD from Atlanta, you had to go see DJ Jelly and Big Oomp. They pretty much ran the South. And if you needed some chopped and screwed, you was going to see DJ Screw in Houston."
Drama didn't start out making down-South mixtapes. "I was doing a lot of backpacker shit, like Mos Def/Talib Kweli-type shit." But just as he was making reggae and R&B; mixtapes, he knew he had to do a South tape. In 1998 he put out Jim Crow Laws, which featured a lot of Cash Money, some Three 6 Mafia, OutKast and Mystikal, and some other local artists in Atlanta.
While adapting to the Southern sound, he held on to his up-North style. "The mixtape game in the South had a certain style-they had a lot of blends and no talking. They didn't really play new music. They played the hits people wanted to hear. They didn't talk on the tapes. It wasn't like freestyles and shit like that.
"I was pretty much the first person to have hosts on mixtapes. A lot of the shit I was doing down here was just emulating what niggas was doing up top, and what I was accustomed to. But because nobody was doing it down here, it was something new.
"Basically plain and simple: I took an up-North format, put it on a South tape-again, using the best of both worlds-and that shit took off."
Challenge: "There's No DJ Drama of Philly"
"It's not like we down here and don't nobody know we from Philly," Drama says. Still, he's not in Philly as much as he'd like to be.
But that's about to change. After planting roots in Atlanta and building a mixtape movement in the South, Drama and the Aphilliates are ready for a homecoming-not to live here, but definitely to work. He's been working the brand up North, doing tapes with New York rappers Jae Millz, Saigon, Juelz Santana and Busta Rhymes.
"I see Philly has a little mixtape game, but it ain't what it needs to be," Drama says. "I really want to come home and definitely make our stamp in it. We stand tall on the fact that we're from Philly. We definitely rep the South and everything, but I lived in Philly for 18 years of my life, so coming back home and doing what we do is only right."
With so much talent in Philly, Drama's got plenty of artists to choose from. He's been talking to Gillie the Kid, an underground rapper from the Erie Avenue section of North Philly who's hot in the streets, and he likes Peedi Crakk (who now goes by Peedi Peedi). "And I'd love to do a tape with Beanie," he says. "That's definitely an ultimate goal for me."
As Drama sees it, the door's wide open.
"I know people adore mixtapes in Philly, but I don't see any DJs really doing what they need to be doing. Like right now I can honestly say there's no DJ Drama of Philly. If some Philly DJs get mad at that statement, then so be it, 'cause I'm telling you now-I'm about to come home and smash it."