How Shelley, Formerly Known as D.R.A.M., Found His True Voice

The year 2018 might as well have been a decade ago. Pandemic languishing notwithstanding, things move quickly these days. The musician formerly known as D.R.A.M., or Big Baby D.R.A.M. depending on who you asked, knows this better than anyone. Born Shelley Massenburg-Smith, he was at the forefront of a generation that rose to quick stardom thanks to platforms like Soundcloud. His singles “Cha Cha,” and the Lil Yachty assisted “Broccoli” were, for a time, inescapable. But the fame that accompanied his early rise didn’t come without its drawbacks. Over Zoom, Shelly tells me about the lifestyle that almost sent his career in a completely different direction. “My lifestyle didn’t match the music that I was elevating and creating,” he says. “I was in a crazy headspace, just getting fucked up.” 

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Last January, following an intervention from the people in his life who cared, Shelley checked in to rehab before returning home to get his life back on track. Just as the pandemic hit, he found inspiration to take health and fitness seriously, refocusing his energy inward and becoming more thoughtful about his diet and exercise. He even lost over 50 pounds. The global shutdown was a nudge in the right direction for Shelly, who became something of an amateur chef during the pandemic. “I found two new passions in the midst of one of the worst times in life, our planet’s history in general,” he says.

The period of isolation also gave Massenburg-Smith, who now performs under his first name Shelly, time to think deeply about his music. His introduction to the world as a rapper was something of a red herring. Shelley’s voice, a powerful croon reminiscent of golden age soul, places him closer to the genres of funk and R&B than rap. He’s even gotten the co-sign from Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton. 

Now, on his new album, the self-titled Shelley, the musician formerly known as D.R.A.M. is ready to introduce himself properly. Though he tells me the songs have been complete for some time, it’s clear that the person Shelly is today is the only version who was ready to share this music. And it makes sense, Shelley can best be described as a grown and sexy album. It’s R&B that’s confident and assured and most of all respectful. 

Shelley spoke with Rolling Stone about coming into his own, and why he doesn’t want to only be remembered for “Broccoli.” 

Tell us where you’re at now and what the journey’s been like since you put out your debut album.
Oh, man. It’s been a crazy journey, to be honest. 2016, the album dropped. “Broccoli” was already a bona fide hit at the time. I had “Cash Machine” too, they were so big. But if you actually listen to the debut album, the majority of what I feel like fuels what I do is what is showcased entirely on this new project. I would say I locked in and started recording it around 2018. I did so much touring in 2016 and 2017. I was on Kendrick’s tour, and that was amazing. Then I was recording and I knew where I wanted to take my music. I knew I wanted to make this, that I wanted to separate and elevate my sound.

But looking at it in hindsight, I wasn’t even really able physically or just in my lifestyle, I don’t feel I was able to give a real representation. My lifestyle didn’t match the music that I was elevating and creating. I’m going to be simple and plain, I was in a crazy headspace, getting fucked up, to be honest. I was able to do all the wild shit while being under the radar about it. That started to take its toll. It gets fun, you know, and it’s wild. You’re on the road and everything is coming in. But when you’re sitting down and everything has moved past you but your vices stick with you, that’s when it turns really, really wicked. This music that I made is so important to me, it’s a beautiful thing, but it took time for it to even be able to be presented and for me to attach myself to it. I’m blessed to say that since January 6, 2020, I haven’t taken a drink or done any drugs or whatever. I was very, very rockstar-ish in my choice of substances and things of that nature. But I’ve let all that shit go and really felt like that was the entry to now. I’m starting to see things clearer and give myself a fighting chance. 

So this is right before COVID started. Was it hard?
You have to find your own prophecies out of things. I had to go to rehab for a couple of weeks. That was a real thing. It got to that point. When I got out, at that moment, maybe a week or so into it, that’s when the COVID started. So everything shuts down. So even though I’m strong-willed and it’s like if I don’t want to do anything I’m not going to do it, literally everything shut down anyway. And it’s just me and my lady. Me, my lady and our dogs and we’re in a house. The moment I stopped messing around with all this stuff, she stopped messing around with all that stuff. So we have our own support system. I have my own little foundation inside of my own personal living space, which I didn’t have. It wasn’t apparent back in 2018. It’s just a blessing to be at this point, especially when we’re speaking lifestyle-wise. I look in the mirror and I can’t believe it. I’ve never been slim like this. I was a fat boy since fucking preteens. 

When did you have that moment when you realized you wanted to change your name?
Okay, so the name of the album was always going to be Shelley. To go from Big Baby D.R.A.M. to Shelley. It’s just like I knew I wanted to give that real representation of just me and my thoughts and how I equate my experiences through music. So that’s what the name of the album was going to be regardless. We were having a meeting and Big Bobby, he goes “Yo, you know what? I know you’ve been thinking about it or whatever, but how do you feel about, fuck it, just going by Shelley?” It’s almost like if you see my face or you hear my name, what’s the first thought you’re going to have? If it’s just Broccoli or singing and jumping around with a big smile and shit, safe to approach type nigga, it’s very, very marginalizing. It’s a box. I just wanted to break free from that and to just be myself completely, 100% unapologetically. 

This record is different from everything you put out up to this point. For one, it seems like you’re not even concerned about rapping anymore. You’re really just leaning into vocals. I’d love to hear about that
I wanted to bring to the forefront my true ability. All of the things that I was hoping to lead the people to the water, you know those records that I thought would be the thing to lead you to the water but it created its own stream that was somewhere away from the reservoir. You know what I’m saying? I needed everyone to be able to get exactly what makes a real fan of me. There are countless times that people approach me and say “Yo, I saw you live and that’s where I became a fan of you.” I work with people and shit like that and they get blown away. They’re like “I aint going to hold you, I came into this thinking oh this Broccoli. I had to dig into another folder when you played me them songs. Damn let’s get to work.” Niggas start cracking their knuckles, breaking out the fucking Junos. You know what I’m saying? What makes it such a beautiful thing is that once all of this comes out and it’s cemented, you can even go back to my first EP, to my second EP, to my album, to my third EP and you can hear the canvas of what is now the painting. We’re still working on it. This is just the first episode in this new season. I never even gave myself that chance before.

Right. And you blew up pretty fast, at least in terms of putting out music and then having a huge single out within a few years. Was that an overwhelming experience from doing things independently to touring with Kendrick Lamar?
It all started in the summer of 2014. I’m already a grown-ass man, you know what I’m saying? Probably 26 at the time I broke out. I lived and experienced life as a struggling grown young nigga. I had odd jobs, sleeping on the couch. I lived with my boy Gabe, I knew him around the local music scene but we never really connected. I reached out to him, he was doing amazing things with this group Sunny and Gabe. I reached out or whatever, long story short, we end up making music. That summer, I heard this little beat, this little sample. I was at my cousin’s house, we were just smoking in the back and I heard “I like to cha cha.” Everybody just started laughing. I sent it to him, he sent it back, things just went up from there. I was running around trying to do little local shit for five, six years before that I like to cha cha shit, we were previewing it and playing it around at parties, it would erupt and everything like that. I mean, when it went, all we did was just put it out on SoundCloud. The area was fucking with it so hard that it made it a potent thing in just the 757 area. Then it stretched out to the DMV. Man, it just started doing it’s own thing, it created its own path.  It made its way from Q-Tip to Rick Ruben to fucking Snoop, all the way to Beyoncé. Her post of herself dancing to the record, that catapulted shit. You know what I mean? It was just like I literally made that record, the whole project, sitting on the edge of a twin-sized bed into a $100 microphone with a fucking Macbook that had so much spyware and dust in the back. 

What do you make of that experience now that you’re a couple of years older?
I just feel like that was God’s doing. That was the universe all coming together. It was a clear representation of why I felt like making music was my purpose and why I felt like this talent was given to me by God. Like how I don’t remember learning how to sing. Ever since I can remember I sang. I felt like I was made to make music. You know? People say time and time again that the cream rises to the top. With that being said, that’s why I’m so passionate about this new music and I understand that it’s a completely different direction. So I’m taking nothing that Big Baby D.R.A.M. had on the table, I’m leaving it there. I’m starting off as a brand new artist. 

What kind of music has always inspired you?
Soul, like all of the greats. Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Isley Brothers, you know what I’m saying? As a teenager, I was really into digging into discographies. What started everything that started me really digging into everybody’s shit was The Love Below. Andre 3000’s The Love Below. I can clearly hear the influences. It was just like man, this is the greatest, this man is the greatest. I went through Outkast’s discography. Then, the moment that everything took off is when I came across Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton, the genius that he is, the true reason why I like all the artists that I like. They were clearly musical descendants of his. You know what I mean? I’m blessed to say that I’ve met and worked with George Clinton. He’s told me that I’m a Funkateer. 

Thinking of P Funk and all of the oldies, people listened to the whole album back then. Do you feel like with this new project you want to bring back that way of listening to music?
Yes. I want it to cleanse the palate of what is considered an R&B Soul album in a sense. I’m not making a parody of a time, I’m making something inspired by the time in order to make something that has a timelessness to it. I just really wanted to make beautiful music that’s digestible, as you just ride with it. I wanted to make something that you lived with, not lived for or whatever. You feel able to conversate over this, feel free to clean the house and sweep and drive on long drives and study and make love to this. I literally want this project to enter your environment like sage would.

R&B today tends to hover around darker and moodier energy. This album feels like a departure. It’s more optimistic about being in love with.
My whole thing is that there is room. Now when I say there is room, I mean just like there is a lane in the masses that connect and gravitate to the darker sides of things, myself included, I love dark shit, it’s just when I express myself, no matter even if I’m talking about something sad, it just comes out in a feel-good way for some apparent reason. I feel like there is room and there are people in this world that would like to have that in their palate, have that in their Serrato. Even if it’s just four or five songs. If you want to dissect the project, you want to live with the whole project. Just to be able to have that available to you and for me to be able to bring it to you in my way, I felt like that was the most important thing. Not really acting on or capitalizing on a time, just literally doing what I do and it falling into place.

And all the collaborations on the album come from women.
Yeah, it’s only women. There is just that magic, man. I mean, I am just so, so delighted to be able to work with talented females. I just feel like that chemistry, the way that I connect, you know what I’m saying? My girl was saying something about how women are down to explore with you. A woman and a man on a record together, it’s like my goodness. Think about “My First Love,” Avant and Keke Wyatt. It’s like “what the fuck?!” That’s what drives me. Ever since 2014, me making records with women, it just always felt like something that wasn’t really being done and being done in the best way that it can be, like a real togetherness, harmonies together.

So You lost a bunch of weight, and you’re physically at a place that you haven’t even seen yourself at. What’s it like to go on stage and have people seeing you like this for the first time?
At first, it was crazy, I’m not going to hold you, like watching myself in motion with this different look or whatever. It’s different when it’s every day, it’s just happening gradually, but like sitting back and looking. Now it’s almost like I’m used to looking this way. When I look back at some of the promo footage that was shot back in the end of 2019, it’s like wow, damn, that was me. It was just like looking back at that shit like damn, I’m so glad that I gave myself this fighting chance in all of these aspects. Be it intentional or not, I think even the way I look making this music helps translate more.

Do you feel like just having a healthier lifestyle, the way it makes you feel internally, does that translate into singing?
Yeah because my breath is crazy. The way that my lung capacity, I always had a big lung capacity I would guess because as a kid I could hold my breath underwater, I’d sing long notes, guzzle down water, and shit like that. I never really could run. Now I can run a whole two miles straight, no bullshit, then just continue on and do some other shit. The first time I really felt it for real was I did this show where they sit in their cars or whatever. It was for the Senate vote in Georgia, a great thing that Democrats came out victorious. I was a part of one of those shows on those campaigns and I had like a 15, 20-minute set and I picked the more vocal records and just felt comfortable moving around. You know what I’m saying? I never moved around that clear. I stepped off the stage good, not feeling like I’m about to die.

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