Damian Lillard: In A Major Way

In 2016, Dame D.O.L.L.A. impressed basketball and hip-hop fans alike with his debut studio album, The Letter O. In 2017, he wants to begin growing his label, Front Page Music, starting with two dope Bay Area artists he knows very well.
by January 20, 2017

It’s a stereotypically rainy early December day in Portland, and the Blazers are wrapping up practice at the team facility, about a 20-minute drive from downtown. Near the end of the portion of practice open to the media, two of star point guard Damian Lillard’s cousins, Duece and Danny, arrive inconspicuously through the media entrance.

As Duece (yes, it’s spelled Duece, not Deuce) talks about the details of that morning’s flight itinerary from the baseline corner of one of the two practice courts, Danny disappears to take a phone call. Both are comfortably accustomed to being around the team, nodding to familiar faces. Soon, a wave of reporters engulfs their cousin (“Lil’ Damian,” is how Danny refers to him) for his mandated media availability, just a few yards away from where Duece is now showing off the new backpack he picked up during the trio’s last visit to New York City, which included an interview at SiriusXM’s “Sway in the Morning” (you know the YouTube clip, with Dame ripping another raw freestyle as none other than Gary Busey looks on, bewildered) sandwiched between road games against the Nets and Knicks.

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Today, the first question in Dame’s media scrum is not about the next opponent or the mind-boggling three-point shooting display he just put on to end practice. Instead, a reporter wants to know if Dame is excited about J. Cole’s new album, which was announced the night before. Yes, Dame says, because “that’s my favorite rapper.” He then coasts through 10 or 12 minutes of the standard basketball stuff, before his allotted media time concludes with another music question, this time about his newly formed label, Front Page Music, Inc.

Such questions from otherwise bland basketball beat writers are a daily occurrence for Lillard now that he is—in addition to one of the best PGs in the NBA—a well-respected mainstream MC. Perhaps unbeknownst to the pool of local reporters in front of him, though, is the fact that the first two artists signed to Front Page are lingering just a few feet away. And, in a few moments, they’ll be posing with Dame for the photos you see in the pages of this magazine.

Damian Lillard is, by profession, a basketball player. One who is averaging career-highs in points (27.3) and rebounds (4.7) per game to go with 5.8 dimes a night and a career-best 45.6 field goal percentage. He’s on track to lead Portland back to the playoffs in the ever-competitive Western Conference and earn his third All-Star appearance in the process. (Though if we’re keeping it a buck, this year’s ought to be his fourth time getting the nod, as he rightfully notes on his song “Bill Walton”: “All-Stars, I should have three by the name.”) In the Blazers’ last game before our shoot, Lillard the basketball player put in light work against the Indiana Pacers at the Moda Center. Twenty-eight points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals and just 1 turnover, part of an easy blowout victory for the home team.

Damian Lillard the basketball player is not “approaching superstardom,” as he’s often feted in long, gaudy feature stories like this one. He’s already there. I trust

that as you read this, you don’t need a step-by-step explanation of just how good Damian Lillard is as a basketball player.

But Damian Lillard is not this month’s cover subject. Dame D.O.L.L.A. is.

D.O.L.L.A. (which stands for Different On Levels the Lord Allows) released his debut studio album, The Letter O, in late October, with a list of features that includes Lil Wayne, Juvenile and Jamie Foxx. The album, so titled as an homage to Oakland (where he grew up), Ogden, UT, (where he went to college) and Oregon (where he plays now), debuted at No. 119 on the Billboard 200. It earned praise on social media from peers in both of his worlds, from LeBron James to Casey Veggies.

That dozens of NBA players in the past have made forays into hip-hop with varying degrees of critical reception and mainstream success never gave Dame’s project pause. Instead, he studied how his predecessors moved, and figured the best thing to do was simply to be himself, unapologetically.

“I think some just try to fit in with being a rapper. Like, completely take on a rapper persona,” Dame says, without mentioning by name any current or former NBAers turned rappers. He’s now sitting in a folding chair at the free-throw line on the Blazers’ practice court, having swapped his practice gear for jeans, a pair of adidas Dame 3s and a fitted long-sleeve tee with his winged “D” logo on the sleeve. “For me, I haven’t tried to do that. I know that I was never in the streets, I was never a bad person, I was never any of that. I worked hard, I went to school—I had some scuffles, and I got in some trouble. I just try to share my reality. I don’t try to take on something that’s not who I am, and I think there’s been times where an athlete might—to be respected, they might try to take a different route with their music. That was the one thing I didn’t want to do.”

The list of NBA players who have put out singles and freestyles for fun is basically endless. Even for Dame, that’s where this all started: his #4BarFriday movement grew from a hashtag into a community. But releasing a full, studio-quality album has opened him to scrutiny from the music world, and, given the platform and scope of his voice—he has 3 million followers on Instagram alone—he’s going to great lengths to prove he’s no gimmick.

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“We always hear about basketball players rapping, so it wasn’t anything that I took serious,” says Charlamagne Tha God, national radio and TV personality and co-host of “The Breakfast Club.” That is, until a few friends sent him the links to Dame’s original freestyle on Sway’s show in 2015.

“Yeah, he got bars,” Charlamagne admits. “The thing is, I always wonder—are we grading these guys on a curve, though? Like, does he have bars because he’s NBA All-Star Damian Lillard? Or does he have bars just because he’s simply nice? From a straight skill level, he’s skillful with his flow. He’s not just doing it because he don’t got nothing better to do with his time, one of these multi-millionaires who’s got a lot of idle time in the offseason when he’s not practicing.”

Everyone that worked closely on The Letter O raves about Dame’s professionalism. And the overwhelming consensus from the album’s various producers is that he was ultra-focused. On the basketball court, that’s what we’ve come to expect from Dame. Making music is a horse of a different color. But by all accounts, his comportment in the studio was consistent with his work ethic in the gym.

“They switched the microphone at one time, mid-song,” recalls LIKE, the producer on “Misguided” and one-third of the L.A. rap crew Pac Div. Dame didn’t even flinch, he says. “He did a few takes and it was a wrap. He didn’t need much. He was on point, the flow was on point, the punctuation, everything was on par. He was definitely open to constructive criticism, but you know what, honestly, he didn’t even really need it.”

“A typical artist, they like to come in, kick back for a second, chill, sometimes they’ll smoke or whatever, and then they’ll get to work,” notes Swiff D, who produced “Loyal to the Soil” featuring Lil Wayne. “But as soon as he got in there, we shook hands and went straight to the studio. I’m sitting there and the beat comes on, and I’m anxious to hear what he does, because just off the type of beat it is, it’s like, he has to flow all over this record. As soon as he started spitting, I could tell the passion—he’s serious. He had bars, bars, bars, bars. I was like, OK, this is gon’ go. For sure, this is gon’ go.”

Whereas normally an artist on the level of a Lil Wayne might respond to a feature request from a rookie rapper by mailing it in, Swiff—whose producer credits include work with Dr. Dre, Snoop, ScHoolboy Q and 50 Cent—says on the contrary, the quality of Dame’s verse inspired Weezy’s. “Wayne came and bodied that track, because he actually thought that what Dame did was tight,” he explains. “If he got on a song with somebody that had no bars at all, I’m sure he probably could have thought to himself, ‘I don’t have to go as hard.’ That alone tells you, he’s showing us that this is good enough for you to bring your best as well.”

Dame has dreams of collaborating with Common, Andre 3000 and Mary J. Blige in the future, too. “So when I’m done with it and people talk about my NBA career, I’m going to be able to go in my mancave or whatever and say,

‘On this album I did a song with Mary J. Blige, and my mom used to play Mary J. Blige in the car when I was growing up. And in my neighborhood everybody liked 400 Degreez and I did a song with Juvenile.’ And I can just say, I had this NBA career, but I also did these songs with people that I’m a huge fan of.”

I grew up ’round love but we had a slower start

Hooping on the tree and fighting at the park

Lucky we had guidance, we was more blessed than others

We was the deepest family, nobody had more cousins

—“Loyal to the Soil”

Depending on who you ask and when you pinpoint it, there were upwards of 10 members of the Lillard clan staying at their grandmother’s house in Brookfield, the neighborhood in East Oakland where Dame grew up. There, daily battles with his older cousins made Dame stronger, whether it was basketball on the makeshift hoop hung up to a tree outside, or on the football field, or the baseball diamond.

“I’ll still give him 20 right now, give me a basketball,” Duece insists, scrunching his face up and looking over at Dame. He quickly flashes a smile. “We always had that competitive nature in our family. But the same thing applies with rap.

“This was something our whole family did. I’d have a rap and he’d be like, ‘Alright that’s cool, let me let you hear this, though,’ and we’d all go back and forth. He was always rapping. He was rapping long before he was playing basketball.”

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Brookfield Duece is the oldest cousin, eight years older than Dame. Since he was the first to get his driver’s license, it was often Duece’s duty to drive Dame and his brother Houston around when their mom was busy. “In the car, he’d just be playing his own music the whole time,” Dame remembers, laughing. “We’d be like, Man, turn the radio on! The whole time he’s rapping his own songs and saying every word.”

Citing 2Pac and his mother as his biggest musical influences, Duece describes his sound now as “street conscious, emotional, reflective music with trap sprinkles.” And he says studio sessions with his cousins are “same as the basketball court: you score, I score.”

Keeping the mood light in those sessions is Danny from Sobrante, resident comedian of the group. He has Duece and Dame cracking up throughout our photo shoot, and when we ask him to spit a few bars afterward, he delights his cousins by responding with, “Do Beyoncé sing for free?”

“I have always been a magnificent storyteller,” Danny says of his style, “a person who is daring and not afraid to say stuff that other people may have been scared to say.”

Here, in the Blazers’ sprawling practice facility, as Duece and Danny flank Damian and a camera flashes every few seconds, it’s hard not to think about the fact that Lillard’s five-year, $140 million contract with the Blazers means he could afford to do this music shit all by himself. Maybe ink with a major label as a solo artist and record during the summers. He is, after all, the star of all this.

Which begs the following question: Why bring your cousins along for the ride?

“It doesn’t make sense for me to try to start a label and sign artists just as a favor. I’m doing it because I really believe,” Lillard says, steadfastly. “Them two not just being family, but being artists who I believe in their music, I feel like it’s only right that I do something like this, and we start this together and build it up together.”

That doesn’t mean he’ll be easy on his artists, though. And they know it.

“What’s good about Dame being the boss, the CEO of Front Page Music? He’s a real fair person,” Danny says. “He’s gon’ give you as much rope as you need. You either gon’ rope the cattle or hang yourself.”

Where Dame’s music career goes from here remains to be seen. He promises to continue putting out music every summer (“It might be a mixtape, it might be an album. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll continue to put music out”) but also envisions taking that “CEO” title to heart.

“I see myself growing more on the business side than anything else,” says Dame. “I’ll always write music, but that might mean, if I like the look of an artist, but maybe his lyrics could be better or something like that, maybe I go after him, because he’s got the right kind of swagger about him and the confidence and all that, but I’m on the business side and maybe I could be writing for him, and lead his career that way. I definitely see myself more growing into that side of it than just trying to be a full-fledged rapper.

“We’re going to learn as we go,” he continues—the “we” being Dame, his business partner A&R Derrick “Lottery” Hardy and Front Page—“and just try to make it unique, different than the typical label, where it’s beneficial more to the artist than it is to me because I’m not in a position where I need to gain anything from the artist.”

Once the sitdown interview portion of our shoot is over, and I’ve asked all the questions I came prepared with, Dame has one for me.

“What’s your favorite song off the album?” he asks.

Coming from most other pro ballers, this might just be polite cross-talk as they wait to be de-mic’d. And rappers, well, after a long shoot, few would stick around for any longer than they absolutely had to, let alone for the musical opinions of a basketball writer.

But Dame is, remarkably, genuinely curious. I respond, rather immediately, with “Wasatch Front,” the second track on the album, and the one that stands out most notably for its storytelling as it relates to Dame’s basketball career, detailing the ups and downs of his time at Weber State. He says he wrote the song in the Notes app on his phone (as he did every song on the album, save for “Plans,” which he wrote out on old school pen-and-pad because his phone died) during his annual summer retreat back to campus in Ogden. He says the memories flooded back so vividly that he wrote the whole song in one sitting, and then he pats himself on the back for the “Girls call me MCM, I’m tryna be Jerome” line in the track’s hook. “How many people you think picked up on that?”

Dame laughs. “It’s a lot of lines throughout the album where I’m like, Man, that was cold.”

Still, he says when he listens back to the album now, every so often he’ll catch himself wishing he’d written a different punchline to a rhyme, or altered his cadence just a hair. The kinds of revisions afforded to artists who spend years mastering a project down to every ad lib. He recorded The Letter O over just a few months.

“At the end of the day, I know that I do this for fun. But I also put the right amount of time into it. Obviously, I’m not going to just put out no bad product. When I’m getting whatever the criticism might be, from people that critique the Drakes and the Kendrick Lamars and Chance The Rappers and everybody else—when they critique my stuff, that lets me know that they’re looking at my music as if I’m one of them. That’s a step above what athletes usually get,” Lillard says. “I also know in my heart that this is not my primary job. I’m doing this with half the amount of time and half the mindspace to put into it than the people that’s doing it for a living.”

“If he took some time to really focus on music, I feel like he could go a long way,” says Cardiak, a co-producer on “Thank You,” which features Marsha Ambrosius. “I understand that he’s doing ball and all that right now, so it’s probably more like a hobby type of thing. But if he were to take it more serious, I feel like he would go far in this rap shit. I think he would kill it.”

$K, who produced “Bill Walton” and three other tracks on Dame’s album, puts it more succinctly: “He’s hip-hop, bro.”

Abe Schwadron is the Managing Editor at numberFire and a former Senior Editor at SLAM.

Portraits Atiba Jefferson