Words by Lily Mercer
There are few people out there that can claim they’ve been name checked by Drake, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Kylie Jenner in the last month, but Dej Loaf isn’t most people. While the saying, “My life has changed over the last couple months,” may be commonly used, for Dej Loaf, it’s an understatement. Within the space of four months, she’s gone from an rising Michigan MC to the biggest thing since sliced bread. And the name has nothing to do with bread, in case you were wondering. It’s a leftover from her days wearing trademark loafer shoes.
The music industry is changing rapidly, post 2010 more than ever before. And 2014 is about to be the first year without a single album achieving Platinum sales. Interestingly, the most sensational artists in rap music this year have all been independent – from Bobby Shmurda to Makonnen, none of 2014’s hit hip hop songs have been released by artists already signed. [I dare you to put forward ‘Fancy’] They have, however, all signed to major labels following the triumph of their first big hit, which has lead to major success; Shmurda to Epic, Makonnen to OVO and now Dej, to Colombia. But more on that deal later.
In the case of 23 year old Detroit native Dej Loaf, her big moment came several years into her music career. Search YouTube and you can find videos going back a few years, but with it’s catchy hook and simple refrain, it’s easy to see why ‘Try Me’ was the game-changer. Constructed by local producer DDS, the sugary beat was sent to her at home where she wrote a few verses quickly, her older brother, a hairstylist, in the next room working on a client.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, she was sitting on one of the biggest tracks of the year. The openly aggressive, even violent, hook is being repeated by people that don’t even know what “catch a body” means. ‘Try Me’ spread so far that Ali Shaheed Muhammad tweeted “It’s Dej Loaf season” in response to a fan’s request for new music from A Tribe Called Quest. The video, directed by JerryPHD, sees Dej in a white muslin tunic and MCM bucket hat brandishing two guns at the camera. And it wouldn’t be Detroit without a pair of Cartier glasses to complete the look.
September saw Dej’s latest release become such a sensation that Bobby Shmurda’s ascendance looked like child’s play in comparison. Originally recorded in July, ‘Try Me’ began to pick up fans on her local circuit in Detroit. But it was Oakland, California that recognised the strength of the anthem. Dej notes, “It was catching on in Detroit, but it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do, for me anyway. The way it caught [on] was in Oakland, California; they actually picked up on it before Detroit did.” She recognises the Internet helped spread the viral success of the song, with fans reaching out directly to her via Instagram. “They started posting videos dancing to it and I started reposting them, showing the love back and that’s how it really turned up from there.”
Somewhere down the line, the track got to Pittsburg rapper Wiz Khalifa, who recognized the potential of ’Try Me’ and recorded his own verse for the song. His remix is what caught a lot of people’s attention, mine included. But the magic was entirely Dej’s and when the song was still in my head six days after the first spin, it was evident that this was only the beginning. Remixes followed, by The Lox, King Louie, Teyana Taylor, Tink, but most notable – for Dej at least – was E40. At home growing up, the Oakland rapper was regularly played by Dej’s father. His sister Sugar T, was one of the first females she heard rapping, adding to the surreal nature of his decision to remix the song. “That’s why I say Oakland and the Bay Area were the first to pick up on it. He followed me on Twitter and I was like “Wow, E40 followed me!” I grew up listening to him so it was just like “Wow!” This is the legend following me and saluting me. It was like a real recognise real thing. So we went out to his house and he invited us out and we made music.
Recent developments would leave anyone in a state of shock and Dej is no exception, saying, “It was cool, I couldn’t believe it, it’s like a numb feeling. I don’t really feel anything that’s going on right now, it’s just wow.” Since then things have continued to surprise and she admits the speed of the success does feel a little hard to adjust to. “Overwhelming, everything literally turned my life around within the last couple of months. I’ve been travelling and no sleep, I always wanted it and heard stories of it but this is really happening. I’m on a plane every other day, in the clubs every night. I’m just out here working, but everything is different now. So I’m just preparing myself and getting adjusted to everything.”
There’s a lot to get adjusted to considering the ’Try Me’ video racked up over 1.5 million views in the month of its release. Dej also reveals the latest official remix to ‘Try Me’, which happens to be her favourite. “I have one coming out with Ty Dolla $ign and Remy Ma, that’s the one that I like the most because we all went kinda crazy on there and we shot a video. Remy Ma and Ty Dolla $ign, that’s my favourite one so far.” The remix came about after Dej was asked who she’d she’d like to hear rap over the instrumental, unaware that things were already in motion. “I was out in New York and everyone’s asking me about the remix, like ‘Who would you wanna hear on the remix?’ and I was like ‘Remy Ma! That’d be dope’. I grew up listening to her, ever since she stepped in the game so I was like, ‘She’s one of the best. She can actually rap and make good music’. So we reached out to her manager, I wanted to holla at her and say ‘Wassup’ but she already did the ‘Try Me’ Remix for herself. She didn’t put it out but she was working on it. So I thought that was pretty cool, she already was on it. I was like, ‘We definitely need to meet up and put this together’. She showed love, she’s a sweetheart man!”
The video is set for release any day now, “Shout out to Jerry PHD, he shot the ‘Try Me’ video and the remix. He’s one of the best in the city and he’s only 17.” Also responsible for the photographs on these pages, JerryPHD is responsible for all of Dej’s recent visuals, including ‘We Good Over Here’, the second track on the ‘Try Me’ video. The track displays a far more mellow side to Dej, as she displays more of her rap skills than shown on the sing-songy ‘Try Me’. She reveals plans to reshoot the video for ‘We Good Over Here’, revealing, “We was just trying to keep the people on their toes about it, because everyone’s kinda on ‘Try Me’, so I wanted to throw them off with that record.”
Though shot in a similar setting to the ’Try Me’ video, ‘We Good Over Here’ displays a more ostentatious side, with a black Lamborghini casually placed in shot. At one point, someone’s laid across it. Dej doesn’t reveal the owner but says, “We had people from the city bring their cars out and it was crazy.” She explains the different thought process behind the double video, “In the ‘Try Me’ video, I tried to keep it not too flashy. I wanted to keep it in my old neighbourhood, the projects I stayed at. I dressed myself – I just put on all-white. Everything came out right, I wanted to keep it natural and simple but still a little interesting. So with ‘We Good Over Here’, the lyrics matched the tone of the video. I was telling everybody we’re good, you know me and my team are good.”
There are YouTube videos out there by Dej Loaf from 2012 and 2013 that have racked up almost 100,000 views but there’s a clear line between those videos and her latest ones. Though the music was good, she admits, “I never really liked shooting videos in the beginning because they were low quality.” We can expect to see many more visuals coming later down the line as she reveals, “I have so much more music, I’m trying to release a video for every song.” Having just released her mixtape, ‘Sell Sole’, she’ll definitely have ample opportunity to release all those videos. ‘Sell Sole’ feels like the climax of Dej’s 2014 but considering its October release, you can expect many more developments to follow before the year is over. The mixtape features Birdman and Young Thug, and Dej’s comments that Thugger has suggested they work on an EP together made the hip hop world rejoice.
Considering her tough-talking lyrics on ’Try Me’, many were shocked to see what an attractive and stylish young woman Dej Loaf is. I ask if anyone’s surprised when they meet her after hearing about her willingness to ‘catch a body,’ she laughs, “Definitely because I’m so small and little, people are like, ‘Are you really out here doing this stuff you talk about?’ and I’m like ‘No but I’m around it and I know about these things so…’ They’re definitely shocked. Why do people think I’m like a little boy or something? It’s so crazy. But when they see me they’re definitely
shocked.” Anyone familiar with the city of Detroit will know that it’s a tough place, yet it’s also known for some of the most soulful hip hop in the United States. Observing that it’s the home of J Dilla, but also Trick Trick, it’s clear that she’s merging the soulful and tough-talking sides of the city once more. Speaking on Detroit’s influence on her music, she reveals, “It’s real life. I try not to lie in my raps, in my music period. A lot of people from the city, they see what I did when I had an East Side scene and a West Side scene, cus I wanted to really share that.” She refers to the inclusion of groups from two rival sides of the city, that normally wouldn’t be seen in the same video. Her decision united the warring sides and showed harmony in the city. “This is a good place. I knew the video was gonna do what it was gonna do because the song had already reached levels that I didn’t think it would reach. So I thought this will be a good look for the city, let me bring the East and the West together somehow. We definitely shot them on different sides, at different times but I just wanted to do that for the city. Everybody did rock with me, they can’t really deny what I’m doing now on either side of the city. I’m good everywhere.”
She admits to feeling more inspired by Detroit itself than by the city’s music scene, as the experiences have undoubtedly shaped her life a lot more. “The tone of my voice is just that, but my surroundings, being around my city definitely helps me out with my music a lot. I haven’t been many places so I write music in my box room. Different experiences cause me to write just like that, being in my city it’s just crazy. Detroit you hear about it all the time, these things are happening, not just in my city but in a lot of cities. I just spoke on it with a song like ‘Try Me’, It’s just about protecting yourself and being aware.”
Before talking with Dej Loaf, “caring” never would have crossed my mind as a term to describe her; but it’s hard to ignore. Her soothing voice and calm character make her loveable personality even more evident. And that’s before you find out she once trained to become a nurse. She dropped out after a few semesters, but it confirmed her passion for music, as she recorded her video ‘College’ on campus back in 2012. “I was in school for nursing, I just kinda liked the idea. I don’t think I was passionate about it, I just thought I would be a cool nurse. It was something as dumb as that, I think I’d be cute in a nurse outfit. I’m big on doing what you love to do, don’t just do something cus it sounds cool or looks cool. But I was going to school for nursing, I said I was gonna go back for music but I never did. I’m not sure what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for music cus I don’t see it any other way, it’s the only thing I ever saw. I had a couple of jobs that didn’t work out, I hate working so I’d probably be somewhere in a hole if I wasn’t doing music honestly.”
Dej Loaf is a refreshing artist, especially being a female in the world of rap. Historically we’ve always had females that were feminine and able to rock a mic but in the last decade, they’ve fallen by the wayside in favour of females whose twerk skills are far better than their lyrics. Even more depressingly, the biggest stars have often resorted to surgery to attract a male fan base. So when a female appears that’s able to be herself and make good music, she deserves to stay. It’s a bonus that she also has a face as angelic as Dej, plus cute style that can be recognised by both females and males. There hasn’t really been a female in that realm this popular since Remy Ma. She’s as much a sex symbol as a master of ceremonies, and undefinable by the terms female MCs have been categorised in the past. “Thats what I tell people all the time, you really can’t put me in a box like, I’m undefined and I wanna keep it that way. I don’t wanna walk around like, “Yeah I’m a female rapper and we have to stick together.” I’m just gonna make good music and hopefully the people like it. And they will like it, I’m not begging people to like it. I feel like a lot of females do that. They look for things and I’m not looking for anything, I’m just making, I’m creating, thats all. I’m doing it.”
On ‘We Good Over Here’, Dej raps, “I been the shit and that’s word to my fucking mom,” as footage rolls of her standing alongside her mother. Their close relationship is evident, and with her only daughter doing what she loves, she radiates pride. Dej admits, “She’s happy, she know’s this is something I been wanting since I was little. I don’t do no wrong in her eyes so she’s definitely happy, she’s ready to just travel with me, like “where we at next?” I’m happy that she’s happy.” Dej’s mother is obviously a huge inspiration on her, having raised Dej and her brothers single-handedly after the murder of their father when she was only four years old. I tell Dej about Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that those who lose a parent in childhood are forced to overcome hardship at a young age and eventually achieve greater things. Dej reveals, “That always stayed on my mind, I wish I had my dad with me to this day. But like I say, I’m moulding myself into who I am today. Even with losing my father, my mom raised me and my two brothers. I was always like a self-centred person, I didn’t always do what people wanted me to, I did what I wanted to. I made smart decisions, I wasn’t perfect but I avoided a lot of the trouble that I could have got into. Things as simple as just having kids at an early age, I avoided all of that by just writing music. So to this day, that’s something that’s always been with me so I knew what I wanted at an early age. I knew I wanted to be successful. A lot of people say they want to be successful but it’s like you have to really live it and breathe it, you have to know, speak it into existence and do the things to get there. I talked to so many of my peers back in the day, everybody like “I wanna be rich, I wanna be famous.” They didn’t make the right decisions and looking back at it, you see where everybody is now, where they were. It’s definitely a blessing to be in this position, to be legendary.”
Now she’s on the brink of becoming a certified recording artist, things are happening fast for Dej. A few months back, she was a cleaner at the Chrysler car factory, scrubbing the floor with a wire toothbrush. The experience was her breaking point, as she reveals, “I’m the type that I didn’t care about money, as long as I had enough to get me through the month. [But] I was like I can’t do this, I didn’t feel right getting up early in the morning to get there and clean up for people. It just didn’t feel right and the stuff they had us doing didn’t feel right. I was over it.” Fast forward a few months and the legends that she admired once are jumping on her track. With the immense success finally sinking in, Dej is still in shock, “I think a lot of people are more happy than I am because I’m numb to a lot that’s going on right now, because it’s really crazy. It’s like, really that just happened? Cool. My family members are like beyond happy.” When asked to name a highlight of the last six months, she doesn’t select the time
Drake commented on her Instagram with her lyrics, but the moment she was in a room with superstars. “When we first started with the ‘Try Me’ run, we went to LA. We were with Big Sean actually, you know he with Roc Nation and we got invited up to the Roc Nation suite and we saw Jay Z and Beyonce. And I was like, ‘That’s crazy’, because they were within touching distance, I was like ‘Wow’. So just being in that area, I didn’t even get to meet them and say ‘Hi’, but just being in that area it’s not even just Jay Z, it’s Timbaland, everybody. Just being in that place you know you’re on to something. I’d rather be around this than back home around this. It’s told me that I’m onto something, take advantage, let’s get rolling.”
The morning after our interview, rumours swirl that Dej Loaf has signed to Columbia Records. I reflect back on her response to my question about whether she’ll stay independent; “I wanna make sure my team is good at the end of the day, we’re trying to take it to the highest heights of them all. So whichever situation is good, whoever believes in me cus you know the people around me believe in me and I believe in myself.” And with that said, you know that whatever decision she made was the right one for her.
Originally published in Viper Magazine’s Autumn/Winter 2014 issue.