DJ L
DJ L

Interview: Chicago's DJ L Reflects On The Problematic Evolution Of Drill Rap

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.

WATCH: G Herbo Discusses Debut Album ‘Humble Beast,’ Tupac And Conversations With Fans (Watch)

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.

LISTEN: Lil Bibby Keeps It G “For Real” (Video)

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."

WATCH: Chance The Rapper To Joe Budden: “I Am The Culture”

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.

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Faze Clan, 100 Thieves, And How Hip-Hop And Video Games Collide With Esports

“I got game like Genesis.” – Lord Finesse, “Yes You May (Remix)” (1992)

Smugly sophisticated, succinct but vivid, Lord Finesse managed more in five words than this author ever could. Then there’s The Fresh Prince, who gave us, simply, “Ever since I was younger, I was into video games” on 1988’s “Human Video Game,” complete with Ready Rock C’s beatboxed rendition of the Donkey Kong theme. Of course, Biggie immortalized the poshness of a multiple console array on “Juicy,” a lyric inevitably recited at the mere mention.

Prescient though these men were, none could have predicted that Rockstar Games’ 2013 offering Grand Theft Auto V, itself emblematic of this marriage of worlds, would become the most profitable entertainment title in history. It raced to $1B in sales in just three days and has since surpassed $6B. Or that video games would out-earn all of Hollywood’s offerings and all record label projects, combined—now eight years and counting. Or that, according to the Wall Street Journal, more people watched other people play video games than they did the entirety of the 2017 NFL season.

The math is mind-bending. And few are as qualified to unlock it as Kevin Mitchell, who launched an esports program within the Sports Communications Department at Emerson College and also a pre-college initiative for high schoolers interested in esports careers. Last year, Mitchell founded the College Esports Expo (CEX), the first of its kind; year two saw 300% growth. CEX panels discussed ESPN’s first-ever Collegiate Esports Championship (CEC), a March Madness-esque national championship for gaming set to premiere this May; the fledgling Evergreen Conference, an esports league comprising the eight Ivy League schools; a Learfield IMG merger that Mitchell claims “will reshape the college esports landscape” by elevating merchandising, sponsorships and media rights to the level of D1 athletics. Meanwhile, more than 200 national institutions offer scholarships for varsity esports. And major schools like NYU, Syracuse, George Washington, and UC Irvine–“the Harvard of esports,” says Mitchell, with 400+ members in its esports club and an on-campus gaming arena–are diversifying their esports curricula.

Mitchell boasts not just game but guile and grit as a veteran of the music industry, hired by Bobbito Garcia at Def Jam and mentored by Lyor Cohen. Along the way, he earned several Grammy nominations and created a Washington, DC-based internship program that counted Young Guru, Delante Murphy, and Kevin Liles as participants. He also singlehandedly pressed up the white labels for ‘90s anthem “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz. But it was his oversight of Shaquille O'Neal’s record label TWIsM that bore fruit.

“It was ’96. I was on set at a video shoot for ‘Man of Steel,’ off the Steel soundtrack, and I beat Shaq at Tekken in front of Ice Cube and B-Real,” Mitchell grins. “Shaq got pissed and joked that he didn’t want to pay me. That’s my earliest recollection of hip-hop and gaming—that and playing Madden with Snoop in the ‘G Thang’ era.”

Long removed from boyish bravado, Mitchell, who acknowledges that he’s “more of a practitioner than an academic,” serves as director of business development and strategic intelligence for theater company National Amusements—looking for opportunities between seemingly disparate worlds. When he first started placing songs into the Madden and NBA Live franchises on behalf of EA Sports, he knew he’d found his lane – it turns out that hip-hop and gaming aren't as different as they may seem.

“There’s a high level of authenticity required with gaming; it’s not anyone trying to be something they’re not. That was always a staple of hip-hop. Also, the power of both seemingly came out of nowhere, driven by a fringe component of society: Latinos and African Americans from the streets who didn’t have an outlet and gamers holed up in their basements with nobody paying attention to them," Mitchell explained. "...Now, both disciplines have become borderless and diverse, and they leverage the internet—streaming for gamers and SoundCloud for rappers. They also share management inefficiency. Think about all those regional record labels that emerged then imploded; a few people did well while a lot of the talent suffered. Esports is no different. ... Those in the gaming space are not equipped to lead others because they’re used to thriving independently.”

Speaking of thriving, one needn’t look much farther than Drake, Travis Scott, and gaming phenom Ninja, the most followed–and most profitable, cresting half a million dollars a month–user on all of streaming platform Twitch. Those three, plus gaming aficionado JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, lifted the virtual roof off Twitch in March of 2018 when they teamed up for a game of Fortnite.

“That was the ‘man on the moon, shot-heard-round-the-world’ moment in esports,” attests Mitchell. “It’s akin to hip-hop’s moving from the uptown clubs to the downtown clubs. That day, hip-hop went to Union Square. I’d always anticipated that moment because of my exposure to hip-hop, but I couldn’t exactly predict how or when it would take place. If you could write a script of how these worlds would intersect, it would be that.”

The threesome would prove no one-night stand. Later in 2018, Drake would join Scooter Braun as co-owners of esports team 100 Thieves, along with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. And the NBA affiliation doesn’t stop there. Incredibly, there is a full-blown, sanctioned NBA 2K League: 21 NBA franchises drafted teams from among the world’s best NBA 2K players. It’s the first official esports league operated by an American professional sports association.

The synergy isn’t lost on the ballers. Says Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons, himself an avid gamer: “The overlap between hip-hop and esports is so dynamic because a lot of these artists are still in their teens and mid-twenties. So the crossover is easy to see: when they aren’t making music in the studio or performing in front of thousands of people, hip-hop artists are locked in playing a video game. And, from the other side, esports is a good way for gamers to meet their favorite artists or athletes; not only are they fans of our work, most of us know gamers by name and we are fans of their work as well!”

One such famous fan is Lil Yachty, now a member of the mighty FaZe Clan, far and away the world’s most successful esports brand. FaZe is a fascinating case study, for it combines 24/7 pro gamers with online personalities dedicated to creating content. Consider the work of FaZe Blaze, who as a preteen created and uploaded Call of Duty montages and now, via his FaZe affiliation, speaks of how blessed he is to have played GTA with Mac Miller and to call Schoolboy Q a friend. Fittingly, Blaze is releasing a wholly self-produced and performed hip-hop album called Playing Games. Blaze’s words ring true to any artist: “My best friends today are people that I met playing online; we all have the same passion to create. All of us are open books; we understood from very young ages that, if we were going to do this YouTube thing, anything in our lives can and will be made public. And because we’re so open with our audience, they connect with us on a much deeper level. It’s the sort of connection you make with real friends, close friends, even siblings. On the other hand, critical feedback can be hard. You’re not going to make your best stuff every time. But somebody else’s opinions shouldn’t change what you do, how you do it, or, ultimately, who you are.”

Whatever FaZe Clan is doing, it’s working: FaZe tallies a combined social reach of 210M, 21 times larger than that of the aforementioned 100 Thieves. In fact, FaZe was ranked #2 on Bleacher Report’s 2018 Power 50 Shake it Up list—two spots ahead of Drake. And FaZe’s social engagement numbers trump the Kardashians’. Not convinced? Prior to his induction and totally unsolicited, Lil’ Yachty was habitually tweeting, “FaZe Clan or no clan.”

Yachty reflects on those no-clan days. “I got my first Xbox in kindergarten. I was 5 years old. Faze Clan is the best gaming group in the world, plus I had been a fan since high school. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? Esports is going to the top. Major. It’s getting much more respect and I’m all for it. And hip-hop and gaming will continue to intersect because artists are younger and younger these days. There’s always a need for games and music.”

Yachty and the aforementioned Smith-Schuster, who in the offseason actually lives in the FaZe house in the Hollywood Hills, are among the group’s more visible assets. So too is FaZe streamer Tfue, who boasts the most-watched Fortnite channel on Twitch and whose 6M+ monthly viewer hours actually outpace Ninja’s. But the machine behind FaZe is no less impressive. CEO Lee Trink once helmed Capitol Records and Virgin Records. And the director of business development is none other than Clinton Sparks, the Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter, and DJ. Known best for his forward-facing ventures–writing and producing for everyone to Lady Gaga to Pitbull, winning ASCAP Awards with DJ Snake–Clinton has long pushed the culture from a number of leverage points, e.g. his stint as director of marketing at Karmaloop. There, under the purview of founder and CEO Greg Selkoe, he helped turn Karmaloop into the biggest streetwear E-commerce website. So, when Selkoe sold out of the ‘loop and assumed presidency of FaZe, he insisted that Clinton leave his native Boston and bring his magic dust to La-La Land.

Indeed, if looks like the Planters Super Bowl commercial, brand deals with Nike, HTC, and Nissan and collabs with Supreme and Champion are aftershocks of FaZe’s clout, then the L.A. house marks its epicenter. “At any given time, you will find guys like Post Malone, Trippie Redd, Logic, and Roddy Ricch just hanging out at the FaZe house,” notes Clinton. “The FaZe house is a thing; the Hollywood house tours actually stop now and point it out.” The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone. The home, once the sanctuary of the reclusive gamer, has become a tourist attraction.

Clinton, whose legendary Vegas parties brought worlds together, revels in the apparent dichotomy. “There's a really blurry line between what's cool and what's not cool anymore. You don’t necessarily have to run in rap circles to exist in each other’s lanes. But this move isn’t an accident; we strategically recruit and bring in people that make sense to the lifestyle that FaZe represents," he said. "It's not strictly ‘Can you game well?’ It's also ‘Do you understand culture? Maybe you're great at fashion? Maybe you're a model? Maybe you're an artist?’ So we seek out people with keen understandings of culture and lifestyle. Ultimately, my goal is to enhance and amplify the existing business and to make the FaZe brand bigger than any one player on the team, to the point of sustainability—not just in esports, but in music, fashion, business development, and new products. And I want to familiarize people not otherwise familiar with esports and get them involved.”

Clinton has stayed busy assembling what he calls a “hip-hop syndicate.” He’s currently in talks with everyone from French Montana to DJ Paul to Trey Smith to Travis Scott. On the content and business development levels, he’s dialoguing with Mark Wahlberg and Apple Music Head of Content Larry Jackson. And he’s secured investments from music executive Troy Carter–formerly of Spotify–and Yo Gotti.

“My experience with esports has been with Faze because they are in touch with the culture,” Gotti states emphatically. “My kids are big fans. The youth cares about music, fashion, and gaming and they’re all connected. I see what they are doing business-wise and I wanted to be involved. I know what it is to build a brand and FaZe not just a team; it’s a brand and a lifestyle. I’m all in!”

Indeed, the monetary aspect speaks to another unique parallel between the rap and gaming worlds—the hustle. Says FaZe Blaze: “The beautiful thing about our world today is that we have the resources not just to create, but to create revenue. We can literally generate cash, while living at home, through the internet.” The corner has been replaced with a gaming chair and a LAN line; the product, once physical, is now virtual. The end result is the same.

“Gamers are the new rock stars,” Clinton Sparks attests. “They're the new leading actor. They're the new leader of the band. They're the new major DJ. And it's only going to get better. To consider yourself cool but not see where esports is going is to be the guy who didn’t see what the internet was going to be when it was first introduced.”

Others are jumping onto the trend as well. Meek Mill announced in February that he was founding an esports team, and personality DJ Akademiks now hosts a Complex show called On The Sticks where he plays video games with celebrities (guests so far have included artists like Yachty and A Boogie, comedian Chris Redd, and baller Iman Shumpert) while speaking to them about music, gaming and more.

“Esports is Vegas when it was still a desert,” concludes Kevin Mitchell. “I see esports having the same appeal that owning a basketball team had in the Rucker Park or Above the Rim era. I see Floyd Mayweather’s team facing LeBron’s team and bets being placed on mobile phones. I see esports leagues being as prevalent as Little League and AAU. And I want to help athletes create a new model, similar to a ‘Déjà Vu’—make that impact that the industry really needs without getting permission. Just kicking in the door.”

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Then & Now: The O'Jays Highlight Their Rich Discography, Trump And New Album 'The Last Word'

Soul legends The O'Jays have seen a lot throughout their time in the game and displayed the state of the world through 31 albums. Their latest and final album The Last Word is no different as the trio dedicates tracks like "Above the Law" towards social injustice and callings of a love movement on "Enjoy Yourself."

For this session of VIBE's Then & Now series, group co-founders Gerald Levert and Walter Williams take a trip down memory lane with their biggest hits. It wasn't easy as the group has a slew of Top 20 Billboard hits like "Love Train," "Used Ta Be My Girl" and the stirring "Backstabbers," but the duo made sure to share how the tracks were made with spiritual undertones thanks to Philadelphia songwriting icons Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

"That song had a big fat message of love, the bible speaks of love throughout it," Williams says about their 1974 hit "Love Train." "It was an idea when we went in the studio. They had the track and we recorded the background but no verses. But [Kenny] Gamble wrote the first and second verses and we went in the studio and tried it out and went on to do the adlibs. Because of the lyrical content, you can feel where it was going."

The two also showed love for those who have sampled their work like Angie Stone and Drake. The rapper cleverly interpolated 1972's "Backstabbers" in his 2016 hit, "Fake Love" while Stone lifted the track for her 2002 single "Wish I Didn't Miss You."

"I like him, I like his message and I liked his delivery," Levert said about Drake's approach to the sample. "I like where he's going in his music. There's not a lot of profanity and cursing and saying a lot of negative words. There's a message in his music."

Often praised for their political undertones, Williams and Levert say their ability to stay consistent allowed them to make some of the most timeless music in R&B.

"It's tough to get around but you have to be persistent," Williams said. "You have to go after what you want today. You have to stay relentless and then you get action."

Levert notes that today's artists are holding back when it comes to speaking up against the political machine. "I think the younger artists are too afraid to hurt their fanbase by taking a stand," he said. "They're too afraid to offend or think, 'It's not my fight. Things have changed, we don't need to address that.' Things are not gonna change as long as you don't speak out on it. If you just keep letting things go on and you never have anything to say, they will continue to go that way."

Watch Then & Now with The O'Jays up top.

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Scott Harrison

Music Sermon: The Divinity Of Luther Vandross

“There are voices in this world and once they sing, it’s a stamp on everybody.” Bravo producer and personality Andy Cohen was asking Patti Labelle about her dear friend Luther Vandross on talk show Watch What Happens Live. “Luther’s done that.”

Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. was the preeminent urban pop singer; the essence of ‘80s quiet storm R&B. He was called “the velvet voice” and “the Black Pavarotti,” but there’s not really a male predecessor he compares to because he didn’t pattern himself after the soul men like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, or Teddy Pendergrass. He studied the divas. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Patti Labelle were the voices that fascinated and inspired a young Luther. Seeing Dionne Warwick live at the Brooklyn Fox Theater made him realize he wanted to sing. “She came on stage and just killed me; the music was more serious, the song value was more serious. 'Anyone Who Has a Heart' was a masterpiece,” he told The Washington Post. “I decided at that point that I wanted to do something in music."

The difference informs the distinction between him and most other men of R&B. Luther sang from a softer space, topically and tonally. He usually sang from a gentle, easy place. Not urgent. Not aggressive. Never suggestive. His first greatest hits compilation was titled The Best of Luther, The Best of Love because his entire catalog was love. Romantic and devoted love, not sex or lust. Adoration. And while his voice is appreciated–he’s featured on every greatest vocalist list of note–the full range and depth of Luther’s vocal craftsmanship are not. He was a writer, producer, and one of the greatest vocal manipulators in the game, as well-known and sought-after from early in his career for his vocal arrangements as his singing. The New York Times once described Luther as having an “obsession with the human voice, bordering on clinical.” Some people’s gifts are leagues beyond the old talent-plus-preparation-equals-opportunity equation. Some are truly called, anointed even. Luther was divinely appointed.

The world was officially introduced to Luther in 1981, but he was already an established singer’s singer on the professional circuit. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, teenaged Luther was part of youth performing arts group sponsored by the Apollo Theater called Listen My Brother. Their music was largely social commentary, and they performed in and around New York, including on the very first episode of Sesame Street.

In 1974, Luther accidentally landed a gig as a background singer and arranger for David Bowie. He visiting a friend in Bowie’s band at the studio, and talking about an idea to improve the hook for “Young Americans,” unaware that the singer was standing within earshot. Bowie loved the idea, hired Luther, and quickly became a champion for the young singer’s budding career. Luther handled vocal arrangements for the entire Young Americans album, and additionally wrote the album cut “Infatuation.” He also performed a 45-minute opening set of his own material each night on tour, at Bowie’s insistence.

Luther’s singing here on the far left.

Bowie then introduced the crooner to Bette Midler, who took him on tour, and Luther’s career as an in-demand background singer and arranger was underway. His study of great female vocalists helped him develop an ear that set him apart. “One of the contexts you have to understand was that the background singing has always been a female-dominated area,” Luther explained in an early interview. “I was bringing stuff on my own to the sessions that was kind of unique in terms of how to do background vocals. And later I learned never to give away anything you can sell, so I started charging for this extra bit of approach, which was fine, because by this time everyone wanted it so bad that they were willing to pay for it.”

Over the years, Luther sang with Carley Simon, Chic (“Everybody Dance”), Average White Band, Chaka Khan, and Roberta Flack, who chided him for getting too comfortable as a background singer and encouraged him to finally put a demo together. Due to his own intimate relationship with excellence in backing vocals, Luther was famously known to always use the top talent in the business for his albums. A read through the personnel of his catalogue will reveal names including Cissy Houston, James Ingram, Darlene Love, Tawatha Agee (lead singer of Mtume), premiere professional backing vocalists like Fonzi Thornton, and Lisa Fischer, who Luther pushed to get out of her comfort zone and record as Flack did with him.

During a recording session for Quincy Jones, Luther was introduced to a commercial producer, who then helped him break into the jingle-writing business. He’s always been credited with his ability to write an infectious hook–that talent was honed with jingles.

Before Luther took the solo leap, he tried the group route. He briefly had a deal as part of a group called, appropriately, Luther. They recorded two albums, but neither made any noise. Then, he joined disco group Change as their frontman and had two hits, including one of my favorite mood-boosting, make everything right anthems.

Luther had a little money in his pocket from commercials and background singing, and from writing and producing a song for the Broadway musical-turned-major motion picture The Wiz.

Oh, you didn’t know Luther wrote “A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice)”?

He had the means to record and produce his demo himself, and assembled what became his career dream team. While in the group Listen My Brother, Luther met pianist Nat Adderly, Jr., son of jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley and nephew of saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. As a session singer, he met bassist Marcus Miller and recommended him to Gladys Knight, and the two bonded while on tour. He recruited them both to put together the songs that eventually became Never Too Much, and they were key contributing architects to Luther’s signature sound.

Miller is responsible for those slappin’ basslines that were prevalent in Luther’s early work, and for most of Luther’s uptempo cuts. “I never had any official responsibilities with Luther because we used to just work,“ Marcus shared in an interview, “but I felt like one of my (unspoken) responsibilities was to make sure Luther had tracks on his album that could be played on the radio during the day time.”

Adderley’s genius came through in Luther’s trademark covers. In Luther’s case, “remake” is a more apt description than “cover,” because he and Nat would take the original songs apart, stretch them out, invert them, slow parts down, add sections, reverse some sh*t… it was a whole different composition when they were done. The lush string and woodwind arrangements in Luther ballads are Nat’s handiwork. Incredible piano flourishes and solos, also Nat.

When both Miller and Adderley worked on the track, magic ensued, starting with Luther’s forever-a-bop solo debut “Never Too Much.” Coming out of the funk band driven ‘70s landscape, labels were doubtful of Luther’s smooth solo style. Epic finally took a chance, and it hit just as popular urban music went through its next evolution, which happened to be right in Luther’s sonic pocket.

“Luther, Marcus Miller and I had a real musical connection,” Nat has said. “We saw stuff the same way. We thought of things in the same way. When we came together, we really learned about each other and fed off of each other.”

Luther knew who he was as a singer and an artist. He wrote and produced the majority of his early material, and continued to co-write and co-produce through most of his career. He was clear on what worked for him both vocally and formulaically. Marcus Miller shared, “One of the things I used to hear him say was ‘I don’t need to compete with any other singers. Other singers sing hard, high, and with a lot of riffs. That’s not me. That’s not my thing. I’m just going to style these people to death.’” And he styled us to death, honey. Luther was the king of melisma and dramatic effect, but without oversinging. Where most vocalists would build towards a climax in the song, Luther’s structure was often reversed. He’d start easy, build during the middle, and come back to a soft, light, but emotional close.

This careful, deliberate singing was part of his genius. There’s a reason Black folks yell “Take your time,” to soloists when they’re in their bag–mastery isn’t rushed.

As I mentioned before, Luther was also a transformative cover artist. Would straight Deebo your song – that was his song, now. And artists didn’t even mind, because he elevated it so incredibly. Some of Luther’s biggest hits are covers: “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” (The Carpenters and Aretha Franklin), “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Dionne Warwick), “Since I Lost My Baby” (The Temptations), “Bad Boy/Having a Party” (an interpolation of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party”), “If Only for One Night” (Brenda Russell), “Creepin’” (Stevie Wonder). He was a repeat offender with Dionne Warwick’s material from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, jacking not just “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the song that blew him away at a young age, but also “A House is Not a Home”–on the same album. And she didn’t even care, look at her.

Luther’s capabilities as Mr. Steal-Your-Song also translated to his strength as a duet partner. He knew how to blend voices so perfectly, he was outstanding when paired with another strong vocalist. Luther produced Cheryl Lynn’s 1982 album Instant Love, and took the opportunity to use a Tammi and Marvin classic to showcase the singer’s strength beyond uptempo dance hits.

One of my favorite Luther duets and covers is an album cut with the tragically uncelebrated Martha Wash. Their version of the torch song standard “I Who Have Nothing,” is a little heavy on production in some places, especially the early ‘90s R&B sax, but their voices are perfect together. And the breakdown at the end? Whew. All the feels. All of them.

But Luther could also do very sweet and simple arrangements, like his duet with Gregory Hines. This song always makes me wish Gregory had done more professional singing after he left musical theater.

Don’t get it twisted, though, Luther specialized in controlled vocals, but he could act a fool when he wanted to. Especially when playing off the energy of another singer, like his dear friend and my favorite Auntie, queen of extra just because she can, Patti Labelle.

Jenifer Holliday and Luther messed around and pushed poor Paul Simon out of his own damn song.

Luther was a balladeer of elite caliber, but he’ll also get an uptempo jumpin’, literally. When Aretha’s career was in a lengthy lull and facing the challenges of a new musical era, Clive Davis called Luther to write and produce for her. Luther, who once called himself an "Arethacologist," was thrilled to work with one of his biggest idols and inspirations. But Luther was a very exacting producer; he would tell vocalists specifically what and how to sing. Auntie Re wasn’t playing that at first, and even stormed out of the studio at one point, but the end result was her biggest hit in seven years.

Luther himself has several cookout and red cup party classics. Tunes that me, you, your mama and your cousin can dance to. That’s part of the beauty in Luther’s music; there’s no content too mature–or too immature–for anyone. While recalling Luther, Marcus Miller remarked, “There is no greater feeling in the world than walking down the street in New York City and hearing a Luther song blasting in the street.” I can personally confirm, as someone who’s heard Luther blasting while in these New York City streets.

What I don’t believe is acknowledged enough is Luther’s longevity. A 20-year career is a rare feat for any artist, but especially for a core R&B singer who started in the ‘80s. Luther did have pop hits–“Here and Now” was one of the biggest wedding songs of the ‘90s–but he was always a core R&B artist, and always stayed on brand and on topic. He was somewhat inactive in the latter ‘90s after ending his contract with Epic Records; he released one album with Virgin records in 1996, but it’s not usually included in his definitive material. Whispers and speculation about his health began, as he’d spent much of the ‘90s going up and down dramatically with his weight. But he made a fierce return in the early aughts. His final two albums, with Clive Davis’ J. Records, were two of the biggest in his career, with material that was relevant and contemporary without sounding contrived.

This song makes me want to put on some white linen and go on somebody’s boat ride.

As secure as Luther had always been in his artistry, he still felt overlooked as a writer and producer and longed for critical recognition beyond R&B. Out of 33 career Grammy nominations with eight wins, only two were in the Pop category. It wasn’t until his final album, 2003’s Dance With my Father, that Luther earned the elusive Song of the Year nomination and subsequent win he’d been longing for, for the album’s title track. But he also suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2003, before the project’s release. Since he was unable to shoot a video, artists who loved him stepped in with their children or parents as a tribute. Warning: this video may cause severe allergy flareups.

I have no doubt that barring health issues, Luther would at minimum still be touring. He was one of the most thorough live performers I’ve ever seen, with production simple enough to keep the vocals as the centerpiece, but extra enough so you were visually entertained as well (lots of sequins). Luther was touring in 2003 until his stroke (do yourself a favor and listen to his Live at Radio City Music Hall album, his last live appearance), and was scheduled to perform at Essence Festival that year. Can you imagine Luther at Essence Fest?

When news of Luther’s death broke, my mother and I–both huge fans–were driving to a family reunion, and we played and sang along to his music for about four states. I still play Luther when I need a boost, or when I want to burrow deep down into my feelings. When I want to go into chill mode, or when I want to dance around the house. Luther is all-purpose. He is all-emotion. He is everything. He was a gift.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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