Real As It Gets
Shelley, formerly known as DRAM, is coming off five years of ups and downs, but with new music and a new moniker, he’s ready to come clean.
Interview: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
“Let me do this, please!” says Shelley with earnest desperation, as if he’s addressing a petulant child. The 32-year-old artist formerly known as DRAM is having a stare down contest with his dog, Idnit, the 5-year-old Goldendoodle who graced the cover of Shelley’s 2015 debut album, Big Baby DRAM. Idnit is standing erect like a statue, paws firmly planted into the couch. The paws are dyed a lovely shade of shocking pink. Every time Shelley tries to speak, Idnit’s bark elevates an octave until the pup finally acquiesces and runs away. It’s been over five years since both the rapper and dog were smiling in an embrace on the cover of what was Shelley’s certified gold introduction into the music business. A lot has changed since then, as the Grammy Award-nominated artist once called DRAM is seemingly no more.
Born Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith, the rapper-singer spent half a decade in a vacuum of sorts. The success of Shelley’s debut single “Cha Cha” was the catalyst that sparked a movement, further fueled by his seven-times platinum single “Broccoli” featuring Lil Yachty. A cosign from Beyoncé only added to the fanfare, as Shelley became a household name in almost record time. Known for upbeat songs about love and other vices, the acronym DRAM (which stood for Does Real Ass Music) stopped having meaning, at least to its owner. Shelley was always “on,” whether maintaining the pressure to keep a branded smile or ramped up on drugs and alcohol. It’s a story that could have ended in tragedy, yet it didn’t.
Thanks to an intervention from friends, Shelley went into addiction remission—though he doesn’t count weed as a drug—changed his eating and exercising habits, and lost close to 60 pounds during the heart of the pandemic last year. The symptoms of success are hard to treat, but he did it and succeeded. Then, in November of 2020, he lost his mother, who the world knew as “Big Baby Mom.” The subject of her death he’s still not ready to fully discuss. The grief could have rocked him back into inertia, yet he’s staying the course in her honor. What started as an identity crisis has resulted in self-discovery. His 2021 follow-up album, Shelley FKA DRAM, arriving April 30, features him completely singing, accented with cameos from artists like H.E.R., Summer Walker and Erykah Badu, his previous collaborator on “WiFi.”
This is more than a return to his government name; Shelley is ready for his reintroduction, only this time he’s prepared for stardom and everything that it brings. Read on as the Virginia native, who is “ready for all of the opportunities and situations that come,” opens up during a Zoom chat about his new album, the battle he had with drugs, making his mother happy, shedding the excess weight and all the lessons he’s learned along the way.
XXL: How would you describe the five years in between your albums, Big Baby DRAM and Shelley FKA DRAM?
Shelley: When the debut album dropped, I was new, but I still was kind of around for a couple years, just doin’ “Cha Cha” and “Broccoli.” I still wasn’t really hip to what life was like at a top-tier level, with that much exposure, that much attention, that much going on. Everything was good. It was goin’ right or whatever, but at the same time, all these other things just started coming in. The thing is, they don’t really present themselves as signs like, “Hey, this is this issue coming right at you, move to the left or deal with it.” It just slides right in. And so, I just let things slide right in because I was on a roll.
I was on the road. I was on a ride. I was performing at the very least two times a week— flights here and there, on the tour bus, get off the tour bus, catch a flight, come back home. Boom, boom, boom… I don’t know, it came to a point where I had this crazy project, but I was sitting on an issue that outweighs anything… You can’t trump the shit that I was facing low-key, you know? So, it’s a real eye-opener when your family comes to your door and basically has that sit-down and you’re like, man, if I didn’t choose me and I chose my career first, what was I really doin’?
And when you say the “issue,” may I ask what is the “issue” that you’re speaking about?
I think the main source of the whole concoction was gettin’ fucked up, man. Like weed, I would never look at weed as a drug, but outside of weed, there’s all these other things, like I can really put it away. I could drink damn near a fifth a day. I did the powder. I did all of the drugs. I was on some real rock star shit. I think the main hold on me was the alcohol, the cocaine, you know, stuff like Xanax, that came third place. But I mean, the sleeves and the liq, they was like neck and neck.
And, you know, I’m still me and I was still me then…but it just put me in the company of some crazy shit and in the midst of some wild situations. That wasn’t really the way to go if I was go- ing to continue to be successful in this… Somewhere there’s gonna be a stop in the lane… And I’d rather just be open about it, you know, I’m saying rather than just feel like I gotta give some mysterious type of reason why I was gone. Like bro, I was fucked up, the music was done. I wasn’t in shape to even put out the change that I was going through, musically. It had to match up with my lifestyle as well.
Even though this new album was done before you made a change, it still sounds noticeably different from your first LP.
Yeah, because musically, I know where I want to take shit even if I’m in twacked out moments. It might have been something inspired from when I’m twacked out, like, I want to elevate up. I want to take my sound to where you’re gonna have to reach so far to try to emulate it. I just want to bring it to an untouchable level. I want people to see the growth and to grow with it.
The DRAM moniker got associated with so many other things, and just these few handful of records and this handful of vibes and just like, this thing that became its own persona… It really was supposed to be a credo to me, because DRAM stands for Does Real Ass Music, so when it stopped becoming a credo, and it started becoming more of a pseudo, like, wow.
When you got to the point where you were putting this project together—regardless of the static that was going on around you—what was your mindset, musically?
So, the process of making this project really happened around the process of That’s a Girl Name EP coming because I already knew, some way or another like, we’re gonna work my government into this. I didn’t really know that I was just gonna straight up drop the DRAM or whatever, but I knew that we were leading into that. You know, I love my name.
I was making these records with Josh [Abraham] and Oligee [Oliver Goldstein] over at Pulse [Recordings]. I was making records with [producer Andrew] Watt over at his spot or whatever. I was just all the way locked in. Everyone was so on board with me trying to make these heightened songs, but like, going back into the roots of things. The roots of what made certain music shine and then switching and doing different things where you get the “Best Hugs” record, “Sundress,” what have you.
Around that same time, I made “The Lay Down,” and we were sitting on that record for about a whole year and some change before we even did the video to that. Then we sat on that for a whole year and some change before we continued the rollout. I feel like it took some time for me to transition and for also the fans to realize like, there’s no turning back from this route that I’m going. So ever since That’s a Girls Name EP, the agenda was to elevate, and I think that those three songs were a good buffer from that previous world leading into this, even if we did it subconsciously.
In terms of your health, skinny legend over there, how did your mind change your body? What have you done?
I was never really like, “Yo, look at me. I need to change.” I did a little bit of lifting or whatever, some of the light shit, but then outside shut off, and you can’t do anything. I started cooking. I got into that. Then I see Sean, one of my managers, he had posted a video on his story of him running in the field with one of those things attached—not the parachute, but the weighted bags. I’m just like, “Damn, nigga, you out here workin’ out? No invites?” I’m just being funny. He’s like, “Bro, come out here.”
That was my first day. I’ll never forget, it was April 22 of last year… I stepped out there, and I had no idea what I was getting into… I could only run like, a half of a lap, but like, I started seeing everybody doing shit and I got motivated. Like, I’m not going to be the worst one out here, and I’m not going to look defeated. So, I kept coming back. Then I just started seeing results come just off of dedicating myself. It’s a pandemic, ain’t nothing else to do. You got a group of guys where everybody fuck with each other or whatever to run outside and be good. And that’s just what we did. It was just a thing. It was therapeutic… Then my body started feeling like I had to keep doing it. And next thing you know… I lost like 50-60 pounds off the strength.
How were you able to keep your mind clear after you started going through grief with losing your mom in November, because it would have been really easy to just sit on your bed with a bag of chips and liquor. But you’re still maintaining.
I will just say this one thing: I know that [change] made her happy. She knew about the life I was living, and that’s not what she would have wanted. So, that was all the motivation I needed. It still hurts, but as long as I keep on this path, I know that I’m still holding up to what she was happy about.
How was your thought process different leading up to this project versus the first?
It’s like, I can see things with a clear eye… I think my perception and my awareness of things have just gone up. I’m just so ready for all of the opportunities and situations that come. I feel like I’ve armored myself with awareness. I mean, it helped my voice clearly. I’m really ready to get back on the stage. I did this one little car lot show thing for like, a senator in Georgia and shit, man, I noticed I’m like, Damn, I got them pipes? I’m back! It was so fire. I felt like, Damn, I could really do it for the full hour.
I feel like I prepared myself with just good blood pressure. I could walk around. I just ran for damn near two miles today. So, it just has me more prepared and more ready and eager for all the opportunities that come and I’m not letting things slip through my fingers. You know, be it low grip or high ego.
What do you think is the one lesson that you learned the first time around that you’re bringing with you this time?
Don’t think that deeply into it. Don’t take everything to heart… Don’t take business personal and put them in two completely different bales.
What are you most excited about this time around?
The music. I’m so excited for the body of work… There’s so much more in store… I’m really about cementing this sound, cementing this presence.
So, no more breaks for a bit?
No more breaks for a bit.
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2021 issue including Cardi B’s cover story, how rappers are legally making money from the cannabis boom and the social justice that comes with it, Snowfall’s Damson Idris on how hip-hop impacts his life, A$AP Ferg reflecting on the five-year anniversary of his Always Strive and Prosper album, and more.
See Cardi B’s Photo Shoot in XXL Magazine’s Spring 2021 Issue