You can call him D.R.A.M., you can call him the name of his debut album “Big Baby D.R.A.M.” or you can call him by his birth name, Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith. But what you should never call the Virginia native — who made his bones with 2014’s Latin-tinged “Cha Cha” and 2016’s summer pop smash, “Broccoli” — is hip-hop.
That’s because D.R.A.M. worked long and hard to ensure that this debut would be as diverse as his listening habits, with "Outta Sight/Dark Lavender Interlude" sounding like 90s electro-pop, “Cash Machine” reminiscent of Ray Charles-like R&B, “Cute” coming across like dancehall reggae and "Misunderstood” sounding as grand as any Foo Fighters power ballad.
And bonus, with the cover of his album, D.R.A.M. made a star out of his adorable golden doodle, Idnit (which is short for “idnit cute?” which he is). We chat with the Grammy nominee about his album, the Virginia scene and what working on a call center taught him about artistry and empathy.
Did you learn from the job you had before you struck it big — a call center gig, both in terms of empathy, as well as dealing with people — that you may have brought into the music?
I think I incorporated the ways I thought. Then again, it wasn’t that long ago. [Laughs] I think I learned something about being considerate to the next person or the person in front of you. And maybe even the idea of passing it forward. I was always friendly and considerate, which made me more memorable. I could assure people, cater to them. With that I think it helped me. Maybe, I thought, I could get help if ever I needed to find the importance of being relatable.
How do you fit into the Virginia music scene mindset? You have Clipse, Missy Elliot and Pharrell Williams. Then you have the king and queen of bluegrass Ralph Stanley and June Carter Cash— and to say nothing of Dave Grohl and Lamb of God.
As far as the 757 area code, I am honored to represent that diverse influential pool of talent. I’m a big Clipse fan too. That’s where diversity starts for me.
Exactly, because your album touches on everything from arena rock to gospel, hip hop to jazz, all which is strangely unfocused for a debut album of an artist looking to out his hit foot forward, which would have been “Broccoli” at that point. Was diversity important to assert right away?
It was. I am all music. It depends on what mood I’m in or what everyday changes are occurring, I listen to all sorts of music, always have and I wanted to immediately reflect al of my vibes. I don’t discriminate. It was important to me that that was on the table right away. If you’re getting a chance to release music, you want to cover as many lanes as you can as quickly as you can. Show people what you got.
On “Broccoli," you say, "I was five or six years old when I told myself, 'OK, you're special.'" What made you come up with that lyric?
I remember being at my family reunions and they always had a live hot mic front-and-center where everyone did their thing. I came up and did my songs, and I knew I had something — not being egotistical — I just knew my voice was a gift so I used it. I started singing in the choir and such, and it was like, "Damn, keep running with it." Everybody knew I had a great singing voice. I did too.