D.R.A.M. Is the Funk-Loving Musician Rewriting Hip-Hop's Rules
Just as anyone today with a camera phone can feasibly call themselves a photographer, so too can anyone fluent in music apps feasibly call themselves a musician. Which is why it’s harder than ever today to make a name for yourself in the music industry—let alone birth a genre of music that is wholly and unmistakably your own. But it can still happen—and if you want proof, just look to Shelley Massenburg-Smith, otherwise known as D.R.A.M.
Having grown up in Hampton, Virginia singing in his church choir and ensconced in the ‘70s soul music his mother grew up listening to, D.R.A.M.’s sound is far from what the average singer/rapper is making today. Notably more lighthearted than his Virginia-raised predecessors like Young Money Yawn, D.R.A.M.’s music is apparently part of a “growing underground scene” that’s rewriting the rules of Virginia-bred rap. In fact, more times than not, he’s not even rapping, but rather singing in his characteristic lulling, crooning, almost sedative falsetto, which is captured in top form on “D.R.A.M. Sings Special,” a song off of Chance the Rapper‘s 2016 album Coloring Book. When he is rapping, it’s that rare, natural sounding kind of rap—the kind you could imagine him emitting in his sleep.
At 27 years old, D.R.A.M. is by no means old, but certainly older than when most of his musically inclined compatriots got their starts. His icons live in the soul and funk genres of the ‘70s, and he references them with an old-school-level, refreshing frequency. “I’m deeply inspired by funk,” he told me, citing Parliament’s “(You’re a Fish & I’m a) Water Sign,” from their 1978 album Motor Booty Affair, as the single song that’s inspired him most, before offering up a little nugget-sized sample. D.R.A.M. has even gotten to recently work with one of his heroes, George Clinton, for which he’s supremely grateful: “To be able to talk with [him] about his own record—it’s a blessing,” he told me. But just when you think you’re about to get schooled in the history of funk—just when, that is, you think you’ve figured him out—he starts telling you about the “remarkable” experience of working with the supreme being of rock, Neil Young, before talking up his fellow, trap-heavy peers like Lil Yachty and Wintertime Zi.
And that’s kind of the point; talking to D.R.A.M., it’s axiomatic that he never wants to become the type of musician who can be easily categorized. Hence #1EpicSummer, D.R.A.M.’s first album on which he samples the Super Mario Bros. anthem “Star World” by Koji Kondo, The East Side Boyz, Michael Jackson, and Lil John. Also, his name—D.R.A.M.—which stands for “Does Real Ass Music.”
“People who seek out something that’s different than the norm gravitate towards my sound.”
He prides himself on the fact that his music is both “real” and “different.” “People who seek out something that’s different than the norm gravitate towards my sound,” he told me. And while he knows that this type of sound can, as he put, “take time to gravitate to” (barring “Cha Cha,” which was an instant hit), there’s no doubt in his mind that it’s worth it.
Well, D.R.A.M. need not worry about being pigeonholed; on top of his rare old-school references and borrowed beats, on top of his bringing falsetto into hip-hop, he’s also exceedingly funny—and not merely because of the stark contrast between his vocals and his lyrics. His content, alone, often sounds like prime masturbation material for Andy Samberg.
On “Fax,” a track from his second album, Gahdamn!, D.R.A.M. sings about Ubers with commendable gusto, and a Dracula-sounding lilt that would honestly fit right at home in an Adam Sandler movie. And don’t even get me started with “Broccoli,” a track he released this past April that features Lil Yachty and the type of parent-friendly word association (broccoli = weed) that would make any kush fiend feel much better about their habit. The song is teeming with rhymes that will make you keel over—whether in a broccoli-induced haze or not. Rhymes like, “I don’t smoke if it ain’t fuego / I just sauce ‘em up like Prego / Fettuchini with Alfredo,” and “Couple summers later I got paper / I acquired taste for salmon on a bagel / With the capers on a square plate.” If I’m not mistaken, that was just a reference to smoked salmon—or as my childhood rabbi would call it, nova—and most likely the first one that has ever appeared in a rap song alongside phrases like, “Said that I can get that pussy easily.”
It’s this rare balance of playful and trap, sweet and raunchy, that sets him apart from the rest—that gives him his edge. By the time the photo shoot with him had wrapped, he had named each and every puppy according to their distinct idiosyncrasies: “The white one is Baby Chachi,” he told me. “Um, Baby Trap, the little toy Yorkie…kept running from me and I’m like, ‘Give me something to fuck with!’ And then Little Champ…he’s a scrapper, like, ‘I’m the one! I get all of the little burger bites!’ And then you got Skip. Skip’s gonna go around and get his.”
And it’s this rare, naughty-yet-nice balance he manages to strike that also drew in such a massive, indefatigable crowd last week for his set in Milk’s JamRoom—marking the fourth installment of the Google Play Music x Milk JamRoom partnership. Ever-turnt though it may be, the JamRoom, as a general rule, does tend to get increasingly turnt as the night goes on. Last Wednesday, though, was different. By the time we got downstairs at 8pm to hear, first, Theophilus London spin, and then the main event, D.R.A.M., the room was already overflowing with influencing humans, coated in a thick hot yoga-like air, and with a line to the bar so vast you’d think we were releasing a new Wang x H&M collection.
By the time D.R.A.M. took the mic, I felt like I had, in this relatively short period of time, relived my two formative college years. I was sure it was at least 2am—if not spring of 2008, when the percentage of water in my body was outweighed by that of vodka. Yet according to my phone, it was only a chilling 9pm—a mind-blowing fact, sure, but also entirely indicative of D.R.A.M.’s unquenchable, magnetic force.
One could chalk this up to the fact that he has that febrile, crowd-rousing energy typical of most emerging artists, but then you remember that Queen Busy Bee herself sought him out—along with Rick Rubin, Erykah Badu, and Snoop Dogg—and you realize it’s more than that. Then, you spend some time with him, and find out that he was gifted an Extendo from “Uncle Snoop,” who apparently said “Here you go, nephew” when handing it to him, and you realize it’s, like, a lot more than that.
“Man, when you play live it’s just you, unadulterated, in the moment. I live for that shit.”
D.R.A.M. is the type of guy who was born with music coursing through his veins. His nature is conducive to performing—something that, as he told me before his set, can be “a prison cell for some people because there’s no take two when it’s live.” But for him? “Man, when you play live, it’s just you, unadulterated, in the moment. I live for that shit.” And, to be honest, we live for him living for that shit too.
Photographer: Christine Hahn
Creative Direction: Paul Bui
Art Direction: Kathryn Chadason
Styling: Ronnie Hartleben
Grooming: Deanna Mellusso
Check out more from D.R.A.M.on Google Play Music.
Stay tuned to Milk for more from the Google Play Music x Milk JamRoom emerging artists program.