We talked with Your Old Droog about his new album, working with artists like Mach-Hommy and Tha God Fahim, and exploring his Eastern European roots in his music.
Droog in Russian means “friend.”
Last year, Your Old Droog released Jewelry, an intimate album that explored the Brooklyn rapper’s Jewish roots. Story raps like “Generations” felt real and biographical; on one track he describes a grandfather who “used to sit in his chair and stare at a map saying one day my grandkids will live in America.”
On his latest effort, Dump YOD: Krutoy Edition, released last Friday (December 4th) Droog’s ancestry returns to the foreground, but this time it’s the Eastern European side. On “Malchishka Krutoy” — as well as scattered moments throughout — Droog delivers in Russian, his first language, positing an added layer to the already dense writing.
But familial background and heritage is just one part of the album.
Droog’s knack for words — adept turns-of-phrase and illustrative detail — turned heads, but his mid-2010s arrival was marked by an ability to draw some of rap’s most unreachable talent. Recluses like MF DOOM and Edan have emerged to work with the smart kid in class. On Dump YOD he continues this tradition of collaboration; there’s a list of formidable guests, like on “Pravda,” a posse cut featuring outwardly competitive cameos from Mach-Hommy, Tha God Fahim, Black Thought, and EL-P. Everyone murders their verse. Black Thought, playing cleanup batter, laments: “Condolences and sympathy, the solar system ends with me.” Droog explains the easy impetus for ensuring his album features come correct. “You want the people you’re collaborating with to bring their A-game. The music comes first,” he told me a day after his album was released. “I’m used to people spitting their best verse on songs with me.”
For example on “Odessa,” a potent track along with one of the modern era’s best writers, billy woods, Droog says: “Met a man who had it all, said ‘I need more than that.’” It’s a fleeting line that reveals his career arch and commitment toward eschewing hollow prizes. His final product, his recent run, the artists that co-sign him — and a bag — those are the prizes.
From weird Internet conspiracy to full-time artist — one who commands respect from legends and the lyrically-minded — Droog’s been one of rap’s unlikeliest successes. It’s something that isn’t lost on him.
In 2019 we saw three releases from Droog. On Dump YOD, we get Droog’s sharpest work to date, an album packed with sharp lines like “you can’t see me like Mitch McConnell’s top lip.”So we sat down with Your Old Droog to talk about his recent gains, the role artists like Mach-Hommy and Tha God Fahim play in his new album, and how this latest chapter in his development came together.
Let’s start with the new album. What’s your favorite track on here and why?
Well, it’s hard to say. I love “Ukraine” for its personal meaning, but I’d have to go with “Matryoshka” because of the unusual song format. I’ve always been a fan of beat changes and I think I accomplished something that, to my knowledge, has never been done, with the rhyming over five beats in one track. I mean, there’s been “Jackin’ for Beats” types of tracks before but the beats would switch up pretty frequently, after a couple bars or so. I’ve never heard five separate verses on five different beats in one song before.
You’re speaking Russian on “Malchishka Krutoy.” What’s behind that?
Rapping in Russian is something I never thought I would do in a million years. Even a few years back, if you were to tell me that one day I would make a song like this, I would have never believed you. It was a challenge I accepted from myself and the process of making that song was highly rewarding and enjoyable. The track is so stupid, I love it.
This album focuses more on your Ukrainian and Eastern European roots. Tell us a little insight into your family background. What made you focus on that side of the family for this one?
It’s been a long time coming. I thought there was a story to be told. As I mentioned, this is an album I never thought I would make. For many years, I ran from my identity. It wasn’t cool to be Eastern European where I grew up. Even in elementary school here in the US, saying where I was from would immediately create tension with certain kids. They would be like, “Ew, you’re Russian?” That’s difficult when you’re an immigrant trying to fit in. All that stuff has long-lasting damaging effects on the psyche. I thought something was wrong with me because of who I am, something I had no control over. Later on in my teens, I subconsciously felt like I had to try to become someone else in order to be accepted, and survive. It took many years to overcome that. I’ve grown to love and embrace who I am and I wish I’d done it much sooner in life.
Talk about the production side and the samples that were used. What was the process of working with the producers on here like? The samples seem so in line with your ethnic roots.
Most of the credit as far as the production and sampling style gotta go to Tha God Fahim [who mixed the album.] The man is a legend and a visionary. I remember hearing his music back in 2016, 2017 and his beats were always transcendent. It was light years ahead of what was happening at the time. He was rhyming over a completely unique style of instrumental music. When we recorded the song “Babushka,” off It Wasn’t Even Close, it felt like we tapped into something special. That was by far my favorite track on the album and there was an instinctive knowing that there was more to that energy. It goes without saying, [executive producer] Mach-Hommy definitely played a huge part in that as well. Whether it was functioning in the executive producer capacity or just being a brother, he was integral to the process. Mach speaks Russian too on the low. He also linked me with most of the beatmakers on this project.
Speaking of Mach, tell us about your relationship. What’s your favorite song of his?
Mach-Hommy is a multi-faceted genius. He’s a one-of-a-kind artist, creative thinker, and businessman. Working with Mach is easy. We’re not new to this. We both have a similar immigrant background, we know what the fuck we’re here for. My favorite Mach song? Too many to name. His discography is full of classics. Matter of fact, Fete Des Morts is now out on all streaming services.
Was there a specific process in finding these samples?
Man, it’s just a matter of doing the work. There’s trial and error involved but once you know what you want and the stars align, you can put up numbers. I definitely knew what I wanted in terms of the sound. [Producer] Argov, from Israel, reached out after Jewelry dropped and he was incredibly inspired and hungry. He had the advantage of being in Israel and having access to a vast musical library. Once he knew the sound I was looking for, he kept sending beats. Many, many, many beats. He didn’t get discouraged. A lot of these beatmakers with half a name will send a supreme plate of mid and feel some type of way when you don’t select any of their soulless nonmusical garbage. The same goes for the so-called “producers” with a name, they’re actually the worst. Argov and Messiah kept sending stuff. They got placements, and I’m very happy for them.
Some of your albums have very little guests and some have more. Why did you decide to feature who you did?
All the guest spots happened naturally. Phonte has been showing love for a while so I shot over a reference track with a verse open and he sent it back the next day. As I was wrapping the project up — I mean, literally, days before turning it in to get mixed — Black Thought DM’d me out of the blue on [Instagram] saying he wanted to give me a verse. Once I got his verse back, I remembered El-P originally being in the mix to be on the song so I circled back to make it a full-fledged posse cut. “Pravda” was originally just myself, Mach, and Fahim.
What is your favorite guest spot on Dump YOD? You somehow managed to get everyone’s best verses.
billy woods. That motherfucker murdered that shit. He overachieved, he exceeded what was needed and kept going even further beyond that. I’ll be honest with you, I’m just concerned about the final product being great. I don’t care about who got who on the record or any of that corny teenage debate talk.
I read that you practiced early on by battling dudes in your neighborhood. Talk a bit about how that went down and if you have any memories of that.
Yeah, I started battling in Junior high school. Not just in my neighborhood, but in other neighborhoods as well. It was just the training ground. The same way young basketball players compete, brush up on technique, and measure their individual progress against others. It’s the same with rhyming. I remember battling dudes who were older and a bit more seasoned with different styles and that’s what taught me to be better. It inspired me to be a more complete MC. I don’t know. The shit just motivated me. Like, “OK, I gotta step it up. I gotta learn how to rhyme on a beat. I gotta write more. I gotta step my vocabulary up. I gotta incorporate a little more humor.” Then, when I got to be about 17 years old, I got bored with all of that and moved on. It was the parable with the raft. I started living life. I like music; I like girls. I’m not trying to be rapping in men’s faces.
Your whole anonymity thing didn’t start on purpose, but it does seem to fit your seemingly lowkey personality. Are you more open to “fame” now, or are you even more deterred by it?
What’s fame? Everybody’s famous today. Your grandma’s lit on Instagram. I might be in her DMs. I’ll tell you this, though, the unfortunate thing is a lot of the people who cut the checks still care about fame so an artist like myself has to find ingenious ways to navigate that. I’m gonna be more than wealthy regardless, though. If I could just continue to get wild bags and remain lowkey, I’ll take that any day over being popping or “relevant.” I was never the attention-seeking type. I wanted the fan’s attention to be on the work and music so much that I purposely kept myself out of it early on and that backfired on me because the losers were only interested in the person behind the music.
What were you doing before you started rapping? Do you remember what that transition was like?
I was waiting for Lyor Cohen and Julie Greenwald to magically appear in my bedroom and help facilitate my childhood dreams of becoming a famous rapper. No, seriously, I wasn’t working a real job but I had other ways of getting money. I took another crack at community college in fall 2013 and once I realized how pointless that was, I took whatever money I had, went to the studio and recorded the Your Old Droog EP.
I read that you meditate. Talk about what that does for you and your music.
I think it’s important to take some time to clear the mind from the incessant chatter in one’s head. Good mental health should be a priority for everyone, especially during these times.
Final question. What’s worse than a corny rapper?
Being a rapper is corny.
David Ma is a veteran music journalist whose work has appeared in The Source, Wax Poetics, The Guardian, Red Bull Music Academy, Passion of the Weiss, Nerdtorious and others. You can follow him at @_davidma.