“It was like a new drug,” says D.R.A.M over the phone, recalling the first time he laid down a track at the now defunct Coliseum Mall in Hampton, Virginia. “That whole element of stepping in that booth, just saying what you wrote down and being able to hear it back, that was a whole other drug, man. It was like smoking weed for the third time—you never get that high the first time.“
Born Shelley Massenburgh-Smith in Germany in 1988 to a mother in the military, D.R.A.M spent chunks of his childhood in the church and the library. During the summers of ’96 through ’99, he stayed with his grandparents in Hampton, Va., leading a somewhat sheltered life. He remembers trekking to church at least four times a week, and never being able to play outside. His only source of entertainment were books and TV. “I grew up very intelligent and nerdy,” said the MC, who had a brief stint at Kentucky State University studying Liberal Arts. ”I always wanted to be that guy to raise his hand and have the answer when you expected me not to. I was on my nerd shit.”
After tinkering in a studio made him feel more at home, D.R.A.M.’s new focus was flourishing in music, not academia. “I went from being on the Honor Roll to getting F’s,” he says of his senior year in high school. “I was like ‘F–k school.’ I’m going to get the f–k out of here and I’m going to do my thing and be a rap star.”
Flip the calendar to 2015 and D.R.A.M. is doing better than good enough. With his 2014 debut project, #1EpicSummer, D.R.A.M. serves a buffet of vibes peppered with the trappings of drug use. From craving some weed sans funds on “$” to popping molly on “Mind Gone,” D.R.A.M.’s empty bank accounts and cardinal sins almost sound like a musical confession. At first listen, the gloomy backdrops paired with percussive beats are reminiscent to The Weeknd’s style of production yet unlike Abel’s body of work, D.R.A.M’s lyrics aim for a different kind of high. “I’m never getting f–ked up again,” he sings on “Never Again.”
He can credit his new-found fame, though, to his breakout hit, “Cha Cha,” a lighthearted, feel-good ode to Dominican women because he loves “the way they move.” The fun track has snatched timelines, including mega pop star, Beyoncé. On May 19, Queen Bey posted an Instagram video of her dancing to “Cha Cha” with a caption that read, “This song makes me happy!” with four dancing lady emojis. The post now boasts a million likes.
When asked how he feels about Mrs. Carter’s stamp of approval, he couldn’t be anymore grateful. “My heart stopped for about half a second,” he gushes. “I’m forever elated and thankful that she even heard it, she liked it and that she wanted to let everyone that she knew know about it.”
While his musical talents have nabbed a co-sign from Mrs. Carter and even facetime with OG producer Rick Rubin, his eclectic personality proves to be as diverse as his influences. Citing inspiration from the greats like Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Andre 3000, and Kendrick Lamar, it’s Hov who holds a special place in D.R.A.M.’s memory. “The Blueprint is Jay Z’s greatest album. And any n-gga that was born in ’88 should feel the same way too,” he says about Brooklyn’s finest.
While his come-up employs the “grind till you shine” model, D.R.A.M.’s cheery demeanor and unique take on Everyman experiences could be a magnet for blessings. “I always identified myself as an oddball,” he says. “I be saying shit just to be regular and really get some of the craziest reactions but I kind of prided myself in being unfiltered because it helped me get my shit on.”—Richy Rosario