Back in April, DJ Drama, record executive and creator of the influential Gangsta Grillz series, was given his first Grammy. He won the “Best Rap Album” Grammy as the host of Tyler, the Creator‘s 2021 album, Call Me If You Get Lost, where the Atlanta DJ’s trademark shouts served as the connective tissue between horrorcore callbacks and slab-worthy symphonies. Though some have argued over whether it’s technically a Gangsta Grillz entry or not, Call Me If You Get Lost — and Dreamville’s D-Day — prove the lasting resonance of Drama’s mixtape run, which is evidently still inspiring the rappers who grew up waiting for pages of his tapes to load on Kanye to The, Neptunes.org, and DatPiff (which is somehow still fully operational after all these years).
Both projects send up a proper salute to a pillar of 2000s hip-hop, who played no small part in breaking down the barriers between regional styles and their respective fanbases during rap’s broadband upgrade. Shakily propped up by blogs, upload sites, and grey legal areas, it was the wild west of web-based music discovery, and Gangsta Grillz quickly became one of the most reliable guns in the game. Between 2004 and 2007, Drama hosted dozens of tapes for rising and top-billing rap stars, many of which went on to become as celebrated as the studio albums they tended to support. In the following years, rap shook off its dependency on supplemental mixtapes between major label titles, but there’s no denying the impact mixtapes — especially those hosted by Drama — had during this time, generating some of the best music of the decade.
As Drama and his wildly influential series gain some long-overdue institutional acknowledgment, there’s no better time to look back at the grailed and overlooked tapes that comprise the golden era of Gangsta Grillz, which brought needed form and vigor to an era of rap that was dangerously veering toward shapeless.
Though it eventually settled into a framework that mostly spotlighted the talents of a single artist, for a while Gangsta Grillz was a series of compilation tapes devoted to the sounds booming out of car stereos in the South. And it’s hard to think of a more comprehensive exposition of the region or era than Gangsta Grillz Vol. 6. Hosted by Killer Mike, Bone Crusher, and David Banner, the 2003 mixtape contains the rumbles of a post-Dungeon Family vanguard stewing in a pocket of the country that would soon crash the whole of the rap landscape. Furnished with steel-toed freestyles, big-ticket singles like “Never Scared,” and an assortment of exclusives from rising regional stars, Vol. 6 shows the South in multitudes and teases the decade of dominance ahead.
Back when he was at least figuratively “young,” Jeezy flipped a stellar mixtape run of his own into a frenzied bidding war over his debut studio album. Def Jam eventually earned the ink and the culminating moment arrived in July 2005 with the release of his breakout solo project, Thug Motivation 101. But the momentum started with Jeezy’s sophomore tape under the Gangsta Grillz banner, Trap or Die. Anchored by the anthemic horns of “Get Ya Mind Right” and the tape’s booming title track, the tape kept the buzz around Jeezy swirling between albums, and remains a quintessential totem of mid-2000s Atlanta rap.
There will probably forever be a debate over which of Lil Wayne‘s Dedication mixtapes takes the crown. It’s not the type of discussion diehards dip into with levity, but it’s one that’s gotten easier to settle as time moves on. Essentially a repackaged version of Young Money: The Mixtape with a handful of remixes and all of the Drama drops you can bear, the series-starting Dedication isn’t exactly a gamechanger in the grand scheme of things. But it did firmly establish a winning framework for Gangsta Grillz, along with Wayne’s dominance in a rap era bound only by its upload speeds. And it’s a delightful thought experiment for anyone that might have wondered how Wayne’s unhinged galaxy brain would pair with productions from The Roots, Salaam Remi, Alchemist, and The Neptunes.
At a time when the South was carving out a trill and trap-happy lane in rap, Little Brother was breaking local molds and crafting a come-up out of the East Coast’s mostly abandoned boom-bap legacy. And while it was by no metrics a critical darling upon release, the group’s 2006 Gangsta Grillz entry, Separate But Equal, makes a lot more sense in retrospect. It served as both an underground stamp for the recovering backpacker in Drama and a regional co-sign for Little Brother, who was getting boxed out of radio rotations by the sudden spotlight on more chart-friendly Southern acts. Thanks in large part to the growing sophistication of the internet music exchange, Seperate But Equal enjoyed a second life on forums and upload sites, where it’s still almost exclusively available in its original non-“Drama Free” form (and it’s held up well). Mostly handled by soon-to-be-former member 9th Wonder, the project’s production is classically crisp and soulful. Phonte puts on a clinic in versatility and Big Pooh is sturdy as ever. The project lives on not only as the final dispatch from LB’s full founding line-up but also as a silver lining during a particularly dark and sterile point in rap’s corporate upswing, signaling the broadening of an indie hip-hop movement that was becoming increasingly led by label system dropouts scorned by the majors.
As mixtape and general music distribution made the jump to servers, rap was suddenly under siege and defending itself from the perpetual threat of leaked material. Approaches to combatting the exploited creaks in custody of unreleased recordings varied greatly. When Lupe Fiasco’s debut album, Food & Liquor, leaked ahead of its 2006 release, the Chicago rapper scrapped the whole project before eventually dropping it with an entirely new tracklist. But some barely put up a fight. Fresh off a starring role in ATL and a string of hit albums, T.I. was a perfect target, as he was readying the release of KING, his third studio album for Atlantic Records. In early 2006, roughly half of the songs recorded for KING surfaced on internet back channels. But instead of shelving the album, the Atlanta rap star incorporated the songs into an aptly-titled tape with a number of hits and features that went on to become one of the most notable titles in his catalog, every bit as regal as the album that would follow in the months after its release.
After a few years of soldiering in the G-Unit army, Young Buck had a double-platinum debut album in Straight Outta Cashville (and all the buzz in the world at his back). As he readied what would become his second album with the 50 Cent-led imprint, the Nashville rapper reunited with Drama for a towering 20-plus track blend of southern trap and deceptively gritty chipmunk soul loops that became a winning formula for the mixtape series. The project not only sustained the hype around Buck long enough to squeeze out another RIAA certification for Buck The World, but also produced “Thuggin’ Til My Death Date,” which remains one of the best Gangsta Grillz cuts to date.
It may seem like a distortion at this point in his career, but in 2006 Pharrell still felt like he had something to prove (at least to himself). Despite being the go-to hit-maker of rap and R&B’s elite, the seasoned and successful-beyond-measure producer was very much operating with a chip on his shoulder as he plotted the first steps as a breakout solo artist, culminating in the release of his debut album, In My Mind, in July 2006. As a warm-up for the star-studded set under his own imprint, Skateboard P teamed with Drama to investigate and expose his influences in music and fashion on In My Mind (The Prequel), threading his own air-tight wordplay and cadences into timeless instrumentals from Wu-Tang Clan, Eric B. & Rakim, Ice Cube, and more.
Thanks to the “old school” leanings of Pharrell’s tape, a path was officially cleared for non-Southern rap vets in the Gangsta Grillz universe, and Ghostface Killah — on the tail-end of a mighty-as-hell solo run — was a natural candidate for the series. In late 2006, the Wu-Tang legend took a victory lap with Fish N Chips, gliding over polished chops and scratches from Mick Boogie, who compiled some of the rapper’s sharpest performances into a no-skip 31-track sequence (including 9th Wonder’s ultra-rare and endlessly-replayable remix of “Never Be The Same”). If you ever pondered how or why conscious rappers like dead prez and Rapsody eventually released their own Gangsta Grillz installments, look no further.
While most rappers spent years developing a following before landing their own Drama-hosted tape, Gangsta Grillz is effectively the singular point of origin for Rich Boy’s career. A year before storming the charts with “Throw Some D’s” and its posse-wrangling remix, the Mobile, AL rapper set the stage for a massive 2007 with an incendiary introduction via Bring It to the Block. Brash and unreasonably confident, the tape serves as Rich Boy’s audition for the mainstage, earning his keep with neck-cranking exclusives and fierce freestyles over battle-tested beats.
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
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