D.R.A.M. can vividly remember everything he did before the success of 2014’s “Cha Cha.” He recalls every dream, every occasion of wanting to create -- not only for the people he grew up with or the region he was raised in, but far beyond. The Hampton, Va.-bred artist is in a space -- perched just beyond chasing rap dreams, now facing rap realities off the strength of his most recent project 1 Epic Summer [September 2014] and its re-release as 1 Epic EP in March 2015 -- D.R.A.M.’s body of work served as his post-summer vacation project, so to speak. The shine of this new beginning is derivative of the comfort of time spent in Manhattan penthouses in the warmer months of 2014. Then, the heady studio sessions taken with industry legends and jetsetting stints around the country -- all of this is exactly what D.R.A.M. had been waiting on, so much that it was a matter of being still, being inspired and allowing the dream to catch him.
Back in February of 2014, D.R.A.M., born Shelley Massenburg-Smith, was four years removed from performing at local showcases around his hometown. He says that initially his community’s reception wasn’t the greatest, but these days, things have changed. “I went from nobody knowing shit about me, to being at this level,” he says from his cousin’s home in Virginia. “It’s been seven months. So it’s been a blessing and it’s a wonder how the internet works.” Indeed. D.R.A.M. dropped tracks sparingly leading into the summer, one of which was “$,” an ode to finding focus and getting paper.
D.R.A.M. is neither strictly a rapper or a singer, instead, he’s both, on any given song, covering any given topic. He takes musical cues from people like George Clinton and Bilal, while showing appreciation for what squads like Dipset did for hip-hop. Admittedly, “$” isn’t as light-hearted as “Cha Cha,” but it was necessary, particularly to the rapper. “I had to get the ‘$’ shit off my chest before making all the other fun shit,” he shares soberly.
One has to try and understand, D.R.A.M. first touched a microphone as a hard-headed high school kid in 2005, cutting school to hit a kiosk at the local mall peddling “studio sessions.” Once his hard-working mother caught a glance of the slip in the grades of her only child, she punished him accordingly, and he found another way to hit the mall. “I was always neglecting my jobs for music,” he reveals. “I was doing telemarketing and was like, ‘Fuck that job!’ But I’d put on a shirt and tie and tell my mom I was going to work.”
“But then I’d go to the gotdamn mall,” he adds, chuckling. “I’d record and rap battle. It was so stupid but fun. It was all cool until I was supposed to get paid and my mother was like, ‘Where the fuck is your check?’”
D.R.A.M. was always about the goal in mind, motivated, even without poring over logistics. A couple years later, he headed to college at Kentucky State University to cultivate his stardom. His vision was clear and his mind was already made up so in fact the school served as a sort of incubator for his rap career -- although he laughs at the entire situation now, spotting the naivete of youthful thinking. “I ain’t even know what the fuck what out there,” he admits. “I get out there and it was the sticks. But I appreciate that experience because when I dropped out and went back home, I was like, ‘Shit, I’ma keep making music.’”
Stubborn about his art and still pushing to create despite setbacks, there was a dark period, a spot in time where it seemed that maybe the 20-something year old -- raised singing in gospel choirs, sitting in pews most weekdays -- maybe he should find something else to do. This dream of his would not be fate after all. “2013 was crazy,” D.R.A.M. discloses that he had to take on a hustle as a photographer, toting around a DSLR camera, trying to get paid. “I was like a paparazzi. Or something,” he said, as if he was recalling a chapter of someone else’s life.
“I made a whole album that year too and it’s never surfaced but it was a dark ass album just influenced by woes and shit. I don’t know. I was just compelled to get it.”
Just over a year ago, D.R.A.M. sat down with producer Gabe Niles [Sunny & Gabe] and got to work. A$AP-affiliate VERY RVRE contributed some of their creativity as well and the buzz around the rapper grew as the months went on. Soon, people like Rick Rubin were tweeting their approval and calling for meetings. Snoop Dogg broke D.R.A.M. records overseas and invited him to the Inglewood compound. The “Cha Cha” creator says all of this without a hint of pretense either. He's aware that the epic summer he described to the world last year is only the beginning of his ride and one glittering piece of his recurring dream. “[1 Epic Summer] was set up to ride into the next summer because of when we released it. But it wasn’t a strategy. It was more like, destiny.”