For an artist who still doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, singer/rapper D.R.A.M.’s effect on the hip-hop world in 2015 was pretty far-reaching. His fleet-footed “Cha Cha” single and video went viral, even getting an Instagram shoutout from Beyoncé, while genre-hopping EPs #1Epic and Gahdamn! picked up critical acclaim and online buzz that continues to swell. He also joined the Social Experiment’s orbit, touring with Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet, and the rest of the Surf crew, and made a crooning cameo on that album’s “Caretaker.” And, of course, “Cha Cha” inspired one of the biggest crossover hits of the year — a little too closely, some (including D.R.A.M. himself) would say — in Drake’s similarly samba-ing “Hotline Bling.”
The ultra-versatile D.R.A.M. is probably just an opportunity or two away from being discussed as a leading man alongside Chance and Drake, and he’s grinding hard enough to make sure he won’t miss any chances when they come. Below, the pride of Hampton, Virginia talks with SPIN about his breakthrough year — his craziest performances, his extended Social Experiment family, and his improving dancing skills.
So did you always kind of know that “Cha Cha” was going to be the song that took you to that next level?
Oh yeah, of course… We were performing [the song] before we even dropped it online, that was just, like, the talk of the town. Everyone was like, “When is the ‘Cha Cha’ record dropping?” And we thought about dropping it before we dropped the [#1EpicEP] project, then it was like, “Nah, we’ll [just] make ‘em wait.”
We knew it was going to spread, but it started getting surreal quite early because in October, Q-Tip… he supported the record, he tweeted the link out, and everything. He was like, “This ‘Cha Cha’ joint…” It was just crazy, he shouted us out on this record, mad early. And it was a blessing, man, the acknowledgement of someone of that stature that early.
So whose idea was it to get the Super Mario World sample on the track?
I could just actually say it was the world’s idea. It just came out of f**king nowhere. I mean we weren’t expecting this s**t to get to the point where it’s like, “Oh you guys gotta [clear] your samples,” blah blah blah… And once it really started becoming a lucrative thing, like, I’m receiving revenue from it… we had to compromise the original sample and come up with something that we felt like was a good replacement for us to be able to maneuver the way we do, but keep things on the 100. Everytime I perform it, I still do the original version of it — that’s what we love.
“Cha Cha,” definitely… It’s the start to the rest of the legacy. And I know it’s bold to say “legacy,” but I really do feel as though what me and the team are doing is building a legacy. We’re bringing it back to VA, you know?
Have you actually gotten better at cha-cha-ing over the last year?
Man, you know I do my own little version! I don’t know what the f**k you call it…. but I can maneuver with a girl that really knows how to [cha-cha], or whatever. But as far as saying I mastered the original cha cha, that would be a complete faslehood. But the whole song is about doing your own little thing! You know, however you feel like.
Have you noticed any difference in the number of people that were discovering you for the new EP as opposed to the first one? Like, have you noticed more people shouting you out on Twitter for Gahdamn!?
Oh, hell yeah. Most definitely because, I mean, #1EpicEP was literally just, “Songs to be added to ‘Cha Cha.’” [The 2014 mixtape] #1EpicSummer was the original project, it all worked together as a thing, but once we made the EP, we put a couple new songs out there, and then we had something to split with “Cha Cha.” But as far as Gahdamn!, that s**t… it’s a blessing, ‘cause there’s no record behind it. That’s like, you know —
Yeah… So now everyone was looking, like, “So what the f**k is next?” and it’s like, “Well, I got this Gahdamn! for y’all,” and I think I got six-to-seven times more responses — like, direct responses — from people for that than when I dropped that #1EpicEP. The profile is just building and building.
Does touring with the Social Experiment feel like being part of a community, like a family almost?
Yeah, in ways. You know, it’s like [they’re] my distant cousins. It’s got that kind of feel to it. And then whenever we link up or whatever, it’s love. And when we stay apart, we stay apart. Everyone is their own entity, but we all f**k with each other.
What’s the craziest gig you played this year?
The craziest? Well, in Minneapolis, they got this huge-ass venue, that has, like, four floors. It was three or four concerts going on at the same time and… it’s like a legacy that that whole place is haunted. There used to be a YMCA club, and, like, three kids drowned in the pool. And they say it’s haunted. There’s this weird-ass graffiti, all over the pool area and s**t like that… The crowd was lit like a Bic! They were heavenly, how about that? There’s an oxymoron for your ass.
But yeah, man, motherf**kin’ Richmond, that’s like home show. Where I’m from is about an hour and a half away from there. But I knew it was lit when I saw the sign! Like most of the time, it’ll just say, like, “Chance the Rapper.” But it said, “Chance the Rapper, D.R.A.M.!” Like, s**t! When I came out there, the crowd went so hot — like, it was real-life girls screaming at the top of their lungs. I still don’t f**king get it, bro.
And then I [ended] the set with “Cha Cha.” I was so hyped. And the way the stage was set up, the crowd was close to the stage. I just jumped in the crowd like my first real authentic stage dive. I remember I halfway did it, and now I’m being carried into it, and I never full-on jumped — turned my back and just let the folks have me and they went off. They went crazy.
You went on record saying that Drake kind of jacked “Cha Cha” for “Hotline Bling.” How do you feel he should have recognized the influence that your song had on his?
I mean, who knows? As far as that situation, I don’t even really want to talk about it — I said what I said on Twitter, and I’m at peace.
And if he asked you to do the song onstage with him, or he was in the crowd at your show, would you want to perform with him?
Time will tell, you know? You never know. The world is a wonder.
So what’s next for you? Is there another EP, or are you going for a full length album? What’s in the works for you?
Yeah, once we finish touring… spend a few days with the family [for the holidays]. Then it’s straight back to work, continuing on and building the catalog up, man. It’s not necessarily like, “Okay, this for this, that for that.” We got plenty of songs in the stash. There’s many more songs to be made.
And the next project to come out will be #1EpicSequel. That’s the real follow up for the #1EpicSummer, #1EpicEP series.
Do you have any predictions for 2016, either in hip-hop or pop or the world at large? Anything you want to see less or more of?
I predict more love and spirit throughout everyone. And the reason being is because… a lot of 666, you know, and heavily satanic-influenced things, has kind of made its way into our urban culture, quite dominantly in the past five years. And it’s just time for a change, you know? And [I’m] not saying that s**t like that still won’t survive and have a following, but it’s definitely time for some love again. And I feel like, myself as well as a few others — people like Chance, Big K.R.I.T., Raury — we work towards keeping that vibe going.