Interview: Chicago's DJ L Reflects On The Problematic Evolution Of Drill Rap
Chicago's DJ L sits down with VIBE for a rare interview.
For a man of his massive physical stature, Chicago’s own DJ L is one of the city’s more elusive, yet highly influential producers. From the shadowy profile picture on his Twitter account and the fact that he's a bit of a studio rat, the Windy City beatsmith purposely keeps his profile low-key. But his work speaks for itself, and he was one of the major catalysts behind two young Chicago emcees you may know as G-Herbo and Lil Bibby. L is a calculating figure who spends his days plotting the next moves in the music business, often alongside his longtime friend, radio promoter, and manager, Blakemore.
After the release of G-Herbo’s critically acclaimed debut album Humble Beast earlier this year, it was back to work as usual. Recently, he made a rare appearance at Andrew Barber’s Fake Shore Dive 10th-anniversary party where VIBE caught up with him.
To date, L has worked with a large number of Chicago's legends and new stars, including Dreezy, Common, King Louie, Lil Durk, Lil Reese, Chief Keef, and Tink, among many others. Nationally, he has worked with the likes of Juicy J, Fetty Wap, Project Pat, PNB Rock, Lil Uzi Vert, Plies, Dej Loaf, Kevin Gates, A Boogie With Da Hoodie NBA Youngboy and more.
DJ L is known for his hard-hitting, rapid-fire snare drum loops and ominous soundscapes that not only helped further define the sound of Drill music but modern day rap as well. The producer's sound was influenced by his marching band days, trap music and Chicago footwork.
“Like Bibby used to always say when he heard my beats: 'I need the footwork sound.' That influenced me as well as playing the drums because I was in the Bud Billiken parade four times doing the band sh*t,” he explains. “It was a mix between those two sounds and the trap sound. It was the trap Atlanta sound, and two Chicago sounds, the house music, juke sh*t and the marching band, drumline sh*t. That’s why [some of] my sh*t sounds like its clashing because I’m trying to get all three of my elements in. I want the kick and the feeling of the trap with the drums from the drumline --- and then you go into the feeling and the pace of the juke music.
L, real name Londen Buckner, grew up with what he describes as a “proper upbringing." He was born in Hyde Park, a mixed-income neighborhood on the South Side, between Lake Shore Drive and downtown Chicago. Eventually, he and his working family moved farther east to the notorious 79th street in the Chatham neighborhood. By his account, he lived “down the street” from Chance The Rapper and about a mile away from a very, very young Lil Bibby and G-Herbo in the neighboring South Shore community. Like most young people in Chicago’s inner cities, it was not long until the streets came knocking at the baby-faced producer’s door at an early age.
“Chatham at that time was gangsta, but residential. You could play, you could go to the park and it was long big blocks where you could ride your bike and the police were over there and it wasn’t no problem,” L recalls. “Then you started getting to fourth and fifth grade and there’s this new sh*t called ‘G.D.’ You don’t know what the f*ck it is, I was a wrestling fan watching The Rock and now everybody’s calling themselves ‘G.D.'"
Despite this sudden change that Buckner saw among his peers, his environment would drastically take a turn for the worse after his Godmother died. He went from green grass and elderly neighbors to boarded-up apartment buildings, trap houses, and the overall horrific underbelly of the streets where a person, even a child, could be murdered at any moment. It was at that point where his innocence was lost and was forced to grow up… fast.
“I was comfortable walking to the corner store in my old neighborhood. In fifth grade, you scared, you don’t know what to do," L told VIBE. I go to the park and hoop, a ni**a might come and knock your ass out. It got real street, real fast. You realize this the f*cking ghetto and you have to get wiser quicker because you're dealing with people and seeing that everybody’s not nice. Don’t leave your basketball, don’t leave your bike because your sh*t will be gone. Chicago was really that type of city."
As he grew older and transferred into an Afrocentric charter school, Butler developed his cultural awareness as a black man and a much deeper understanding of why his community was the way it was (while maintaining good grades throughout). By the time he attended his freshman year at Hales Franciscan Catholic High School he saw the city for what it really was as he rod the local CTA buses.
“That bus ride showed me how real Chicago was on my own. They were throwing ni**as through the bus stops, it was gladiator school,” said Butler. "You was either a goofy or a man. Anybody who was a savage and tough all the time, their asses are in jail, they’re not here to talk about it."
Throughout his life, he has always been one with music. L started off as a drummer at his local church and elevated his craft by participating in various local marching bands in elementary and high school. While figuring out what would the “pro” level for being a drummer, he came to the conclusion that being a producer would take him to the next where he wanted to go.
In a rare interview with VIBE, DJ L discusses what inspired his sound, how he discovered Herbo and Bibby, the issues he feels drill rap has created, the uncertain future of rap as he knows it and much more.
How did you first meet G-Herbo and Lil Bibby?
I had came back home from [The University of Illinois] and I was doing something important that day. My blood brother [Ace Boogie] seen me when he was riding by and he was like, “Yo, hop in the car”. I hopped in the car and he played me Herb rapping. I was trying to sell beats on the internet at the time, and I was trying to get my brother to put some money into it. He was like, 'man well if you work with my shorties, these are some little homies that I know that’s like my little brothers, I’ll get down.' He played me Herb’s “Ya’ll Don’t Really Hear Me Though” freestyle. He had about 50, 100 n*gga’s in the background. They had guns and them dudes were just like woah. It was hard. At the time, however, I wasn’t initially impressed even though he was rapping.
The next day, my brother comes down and says he could finance my website. He pulls a fast one on me and plugs the phone into the speaker and plays Herb's video. They had a loft downtown near Milwaukee St. They’re playing the song and at the time his name was "Lil Heroin." They’re playing the sh*t through the speaker and I’m like damn, what the fu*k is this? He played that sh*t through the aux cord, “I don’t f*ck with no snitch, No Limit gang,” I was like oh my God, take me to meet this ni**a tomorrow! He took me to meet him the next day, and I pulled up on 75th and Euclid. Herb came out and hopped in the back of the car. I was acting like I was somebody at the time [laughs].
Now Herb, he obviously ain’t the G-Herbo rapper we know now, he was trying to get something cracking. At the time, I don’t know how good the kid is so I asked him to spit something for me. I’m in the front seat, and he’s in the back, and we’re both tall as hell, we’re crunched up in my brother’s small Ford Focus rental. Herb rapped for like 45 minutes straight, just straight bars and I was like "oh my God". I felt like I found Jay-Z!
Keep in mind that I didn’t know who Bibby was at the time either. The first person that I called was DJ Hustlenomics because he had just done Chief Keef’s first mixtape Bang. This is June of 2012 so we had rode to 78th and Vernon. Herb rapped for another 45 minutes back to back. I’m just introducing Herb to everybody I know so the next man I called was Spaceman Music. I called him and Herb rapped for another 45 minutes [laughs]. Anybody who saw that could attest that he was crazy. For him to be that young, 15, 16 years old, it was crazy.
Herb was telling me he had other n*ggas that rapped and said, 'One of my homies is locked up, he gets out tomorrow. One of the guys I be rapping with his name is Bibby. He’s just as cold as me.' That’s how Bibby came into the fold. So now, anything they’re playing I’m really listening to. They played me the video for “Do This Sh*t For Ya’ll” and I was highly impressed by it. All this sh*t that everybody felt about Bibby’s voice, I didn’t get that at first. I was just stuck on his look, like “This n*gga’s look is fu*king crazy, he looks white!” I was like, this ni**a looks white as sh*t! We finna get rich! I felt like I hit the jackpot. So now I got him and felt like I had two for the price of one in the first three days from being home from school I made a decision at the time that I was gonna make it happen this summer or I was going back to school --- and I won.
By chance, I had an affordable studio for them, my brother had some money at the time. He had a car, I had my car and we had the two hottest rappers. They wasn’t quite hot yet but the two I felt like was better than everybody skill wise. But then I started to figure out the inner workings of the scene and how we could manipulate things to our favor.
I think Herb and Bibby’s coming out party was a party two DJs I knew was having on 79th and Vernon at a multi-purpose center and, man, they literally came in there 100 kids deep! They came in and did “Kill Sh*t” and “Gangway”, which is funny because they’re my biggest songs to date and the first two songs we did together. They had ended up beating the security guard’s ass and five other guards that night because Bibby’s verse was on “Kill Sh*t” and Herb was at the center. They didn’t know Bibby had a verse, too, and he didn’t have a mic. Security was telling him to get off the stage, Bibby told him he was going to rap. They threw him off the stage and it was like a swarm of bees. They tore that club up! I won’t say names but some folks outside [shot guns in the air] and was like “'No Limit b*tch!' And that let the street know that we are here --- and we are just as important as the 300 guys.
You and many other people in Chicago often call “Kill Sh*t” one of the most influential songs to come out of Chicago in recent years. How did “Kill Sh*t” change the landscape in rap?
Because it was the first song in the modern era that you could rap completely over the hook and there wasn’t a hook at all. It was the predecessor for [Bobby Shmurda’s] “Hot Ni**a” and that’s how a lot of rap is now. Look at Tay-K’s “The Race,” where’s the hook? YBN Nahmir’s “In The Mirror,” where’s the hook at? Cardi B’s ["Bodak Yellow"] didn’t have a hook at first. We started that and nobody did that for us before the modern era.
What was the rap scene in Chicago like for you around that time?
At the time, Keef and them was the reigning faction and everybody wanted to get down with them, and I was one of them. My mom worked on the school bus with Chief Keef’s grandmother, and I was trying to get some beats to him. I was in Champaign at the time so I couldn’t attack it aggressively. I was sending beats and we’re on the phone, calling each other “cousin” because our parents worked on the school bus together for so many years. But, Young Chop was with him every day. [If his grandmother had a say], I would have had all the beats on Keef because his grandmother would have said “Uh uh, you gon’ work with London!' He was f*cking with me but I didn’t have a name. I had a few King Louie placements but it wasn’t like Chop who was his man. That’s his close homie and he was recording him. Nobody was doing as much as Young Chop. Nobody was doing as much as him, and I always give respect because he caught that wave right on time.
When I saw how Young Chop was moving in that moment, I was like okay, I gotta get some land. What don’t we have? We don’t have lyrical rappers that are in this movement yet so I’m going to go get that. It’s a funny story how that even happened because, at the time, I thought King Louie was the best rapper, who I believe still is. But the problem was Louie was older, he was like 26 and sh*t at the time, and he lost touch with the youth a little bit. But when John Monopoly and all of them came back looking for the next guy, they grabbed King Louie. They did the deal with him and to his detriment, the ni**a Keef literally, a month, two months later after that. Chief Keef came down like a monsoon! There was no way to prepare for that kind of impact. King Louie to this day, his whole career hasn’t recovered from that. He came back a little when I got with him [on the T.O.N.Y. tape].
How does that relate to the eventual rise of Herb and Bibby?
When we came out with Herb, Bibby, and them young ni**as rapping, it threatened Louie and them because they were some young, rapping dudes. Everybody painted the clear distinct difference. Louie and them were really rappers though. Keef and them cool but dude could really really rap. But then you had the shorties who could rap too so now it’s like you’re getting replaced. I think that lit a fire under him because he was going crazy with the raps around that time because everybody wrote him off.
The point is, the sh*t with Herb and Bibby, we came up on a side of town that was not represented and then they had underlying ties with the streets. That’s a faction that’s outside of two warring factions, the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples, so we were already kind of had a lot of advantages. The Moes was not represented so we weren't in a situation were the B.D.s could hate because they were the ruling faction. We were on the sidelines.
How I won with them was that I was going to the University of Illinois, and I knew all of the frats and sororities, the Alphas, Kappas, the AKAs, I’m just knowing what kind of music they liked. From 2011-2012, it went from a lot of lovey, dovey Travis Porter, Drake, raunchy club shit, Trey Songz, college love to ni**a I’m 300. Gangbangin sh*t with the college kids.
From your perspective, how did that impact Hip-Hop?
When Keef and them came out, it completely changed the landscape of hip-hop. That made Waka and all them look crazy and he didn’t even look street no more. It was the hyper-masculinity of black males. Think about the power vacuum that came out of that. From Keef and them coming out, and this ties to Herb and Bibby as well, I was going to the college parties in the Spring of 2012 and started to feel like how a lot of people felt about N.W.A. when they had people in Middle America screaming f*ck the police.
It was like that. People from Flossmoore, Illinois and all these people from affluent communities screaming ni**a I’m 300, I’m B.D., G.D.K. --- all this sh*t. It brought the most ignorant part of the hood to your living room. When I saw that, it made me feel like this was going to open the doors for some crazy sh*t. Now, if you could bring in some kids who could tell the story of why it’s like that, then you’ll have a niche market. I knew right then and there [Drill] was going to change America because it was just too magnetic. Everybody was honoring that sh*t.
I knew it was going to be a problem because it felt like a rat race. I felt like this was going to open the floodgates for later. I felt like people wouldn’t get it then. I went immediately and attacked it early so that’s why we won.
Let’s go back to your early days for a second. How did your experiences as a child and teenager influence you getting into the music scene?
At the time, I felt like I couldn’t run from it. I needed to go to the heart or the source of who was running the streets among the shorties at the time. I felt like running away from it would just make the situation worse. Not for me necessarily, but in general. In order for me to survive, because my mom couldn’t take me everywhere [because] she’s working, I had to fend for myself, but she did a lot for me though.
I started going to the skating rink, The Rink on 87th street. That was pretty much the central location for all the kids that was on the South Side or the city period to come to --- it’s like the cultural center. If you learn the cultural center, you win. The first time I went during my freshman year, I didn't know anybody. By the time I went to my senior year, I knew everybody and everybody knew me. I was popular and I was known. Me and my friends, we’d go in there deep and we learned Chicago. I did the Bud Billiken parade three or four times, too. That’s why we as able to conquer. I had the knowledge of self and I understood the teachings of Hon. Louis Farrakhan and Hon. Elijah Muhammad as far as black people not being together. I had this in the back of my head while watching 200 black dudes jump one another one at the rink. I’m not going to take the typical approach, I can’t just say 'brother you’re not doing this right' because I was a kid. You got to have that in mind and infiltrate to be affiliated with that. I didn’t join a gang because I already knew that it was goofy, but I had to survive that. My whole goal was getting into school, getting into college. That’s why it f*cked me up when Keef and them had infiltrated the schools because it was like 'damn, this sh*t is still going on!'
How do you view what you’ve helped create in the long run?
In retrospect I feel like, would I do it all again? No, I wouldn’t because I feel like we hurt the community so bad. They might beg to differ but I think so. We’re providing, but the kids nowadays, they could say whatever they want to say. They’re not listening to the lyrical content and be like I understand. Even if they understand they’re still out here on some killing their own people sh*t. It’s fu*ked up because I don’t think we’re helping the community. We're not giving any real solutions so I’m conflicted because professionally, I could say it changed my life and opened some doors for me, even in my personal and business relationships. But, I don’t think we’re helping the f*cking community, bro.
Hip-Hop is destroying the black community... when I say that me, Herb, and Bibby make records about “doing hits," some young mothaf*cka thinks it’s cool, and their choices in life are based off what we just said.
Do you believe that the Chicago rappers you’ve worked with over the years have a responsibility to the youth?
Absolutely, because we’re making money off of it. Every time someone plays a song on YouTube, it’s money if you monetize your sh*t right --- you’re getting paid. The thing is, I feel like it’s too late now because if you really think about it, look at how Waka looked after Chief Keef came out. It was like, 'damn we’re at this point?' Look at Young Thug after Keef. Thug came out after Keef and people were like oh my God he’s wearing a dress. Now you got a ni**a in a dress sucking the muzzle of a gun. At this point, how far down the rabbit hole are we going to go? So, of course, Chicago rappers have a responsibility to the youth. You’re making money off these people and in 20 years, we’re going down a fu*king rabbit hole. We’re sending off the culture, and I don’t think it’s intelligent to do that.
In a lot of ways, the culture has literally reverted to the minstrel show days and to be honest, I don’t be into hip-hop anymore. I got all types of other sh*t I plan on getting into that’s going to help, which I can’t speak about just yet. Steve Stoute said it’s getting too random and he left in 1999. The rappers they’re signing is too random, the executives are too random, and this is his word for word quote: “In a business where it’s no determination of whose really good and who’s not, at some point that business will falter.” Because, what would the NBA be if I could play in it? If I could join the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA would be like, man, please. Because there are people in it who take this basketball sh*t seriously as far as practicing and exercising. I get a chance to play at the highest level in the culture and I’m not sh*t, then anybody can do it. And when anybody feels like they could do it, it opens the floodgates for the diminishing of the special nature of what it is.
Rap should take a lot of notes from the NBA because if you really think about it, every part of that experience is monetized. When you got that special sh*t, that’s what makes people pay! Hip-hop is not special anymore. That’s why the money is starting to dry up. It’s still money in it, but it’s too easy for anybody to get it. There’s no clear barometer as far as who’s better and who’s not. It’s like, you could be the worst point guard in the NBA and make more money than LeBron. That’s how hip-hop is right now.
What does that mean for producers such as yourself?
Even with the producers, they're are getting raped right now. You’re at the bottom of the bottom when it used to be the other way around. You used to be the head, and now you’re the tail. And it’s not because the beats have gotten weaker, they’ve gotten better. Technology has helped us make music better. It’s because technology simplified it which means more people can do it, which means it’s a dime a dozen. What do they say in business? Too much circulation makes the price go down. Period. Why the f*ck would I pay you when I have 50 other people who could do it. But, if you have that one LeBron, that one D. Rose, you’re not going to get that again. When you make something that’s so classic, you could sell that sh*t forever because people want that. People want that original recipe, that A1 steak sauce because there’s nothing like it.
The kid SahBabii, I saw a story with his producer, they reached out to him and said we got $7,000 for you” to buy the [“Pull Up With The Stick” beat]. That’s all you get. I wouldn’t even sell beats or complete rights to rappers, unless the monetary value was that great. I’d monetize off the backend. But honestly, don’t even do that. If you’re a producer, sign you a rapper. Do whatever you can. I think it’s over for producers until... if we don’t come together and do some type of union right now then it’s no way for you to eat. Don’t let all these other successful producers tell you “well we got placements." I’m not going to have my life depending on whether or not another person likes my product. Or rather, if they like it or not, trying to figure out where they want to put it out or not. That’s too much control for one man to have over your art. When Derrick Rose and them go out and play basketball, they have a collective bargaining agreement, the veteran’s minimum that you can get. So, he knows that no matter what, he’s going to get a particular minimum. Ain’t sh*t like that in Hip-Hop. The veteran minimum is "nothing ni**a, send this beat, we got 1,000 other mothafu*kas that got beats".
So, I tried to be the “Malcolm X” on the producer’s side and it ain’t get me nowhere so I don’t give a f*ck. I tried to galvanize everybody but you’re not going to get producers in hip-hop on the same page. There are too many varying levels and there’s no value in quality. How can we determine value in it? What’s a good beat anymore when DJ Mustard singlehandedly drove down the value of beats. It's not that he wasn't a good producer because he was the biggest in the game, he was coming with the simplest beats and was making more money than anybody, signed a publishing deal, then that ran out --- now what? Now Metro's the king of the hill and they're not looking for his sound anymore. It's the biggest sound right now, so what happens to him?
The same thing happened to me. I signed a publishing deal, and when my advance runs out, then what? Then you’re looking outside of hip-hop. I’m not looking at rap, I don’t see where the money is at. I am not looking at hip-hop for long-term stability anymore. When you get to 2019, when the hammer really hits, then what?
It’s not about dope lyrics anymore. That’s the battle I tried to fight with Herb and Bibby, but [fans] don’t care about real rap so it’s like a losing battle. Maybe the core hip-hoppers do and some young people, but the majority of pop music is as simplistic as possible. Like, people always want to say that “all this stuff is going to exist in hip-hop and people are going to do them and it’s going to be different,” but it’s too much of the other sh*t. It’s too easy to make a drill record, a trap record. 21 Savage is a direct combination of the musical influence and energy of Lil Reese and Fredo Santana and to an extent --- the drill movement as a whole with an added Atlanta bounce. He’s more commercially successful than any artist Chicago artist from the drill movement, with a possible exception of Keef. How could he take that style and get on with it? But nobody wants to say the sh*t because everyone wants to be “politically correct."
I can see some similarities too as far as their Fredo’s menacing swagger and Reese’s distinct cadence and flow, but just so I understand, are you saying that he bit those two artists?
I’m not coming at 21, I love 21’s music and I play "Nothing New" every day. I’m just saying that if you don’t think that’s a direct copy and plagiarism of, but maybe I’ll rephrase that. Maybe that’s what inspired that [the same way] Waka Flocka birthed Keef, which birthed [21’s style]. [Atlanta] went back gangsta after Chicago assumed the throne of making the most vulgar hip-hop in the country.
For me personally, I continue to make rap music in the lanes that are open. Like the female lane, I think that’s wide open right now. I feel like you can still come in there and make something special. That’s why the OGs are coming in and trying to do the female rap think like how 9th Wonder got Rapsody. But the male rap game? Man, listen if you’re trying to be a male rapper, you’re better off trying to play basketball and go to the NBA. And that’s like a 1 in 10 Million chance your ass is going to make it. You’re better off doing that because you still have to have physical abilities. It’s still some type of barrier to get in that. This sh*t, it’s too many people and way too demographics. It’s too many niches in this sh*t.
I think female rap is still volatile and it’s still forming because look at Cardi B. She’s the Jackie Robinson of this sh*t bro. The only hip-hop that I really care about right now is female rap.
What can fans expect from Bibby’s Free Crack IV?
Gangsta Sh*t. This is us getting back to—well, me and Bibby never did anything exclusive. It’s funny because we did a sh*t load of tracks but never a whole project. He still has other producers on there but I did the majority of the tracks. So, it’s like how me and Herb did Ballin Like I’m Kobe. I think we gave a lot of cautionary tales and I think it’s the best Bibby project since his inception because I’m involved (laughs). Went for more turn up and if that’s what the fans then we’re giving the people what they want. They don’t really want to be rapped to but he still brings it home with the spittin’ and we know he can rap. But I think if you listen to Herb’s project with Southside, it’s turned up like this is.
Bibby's actually putting out an EP before that called 4Real. It's going resurgence of true street rap and we're providing nothing but street anthems that will prompt our resurgence of Chicago as the capital of street rap in hip-hop.
Lastly, what do you want your legacy to be in hip-hop when it’s all said and done?
Just somebody who was able to change lives, man. And changed my own. I want people to put me in their top 4 among the best producers to come out of Chicago. That’s about it. But, I was mainly inspired by my mother, my brother Ace Boog, my big homie Peanut G, and my life partner Asha. These are the people who shape me thus far and I wanna inspire people the same way they inspired me.