Clearly, Lil Uzi Vert is not afraid of heights. By now, you’ve heard the story, watched and re-watched the footage or wasted minutes of your day perusing memes inspired by the diminutive rapper’s 20-foot leap from atop the stage into the crowd at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami. For fans, it was nothing they haven’t seen from the Philadelphia-born, ATL-dwelling rapper. Uzi’s limit-pushing stage antics, eye-catching (and sometimes controversial) fashion sense, lack of filter, and penchant for putting out quality music at a relentless rate has some dubbing him as a “superstar.” In fact, this very site has made the case for Uzi’s superstardom being legit.
Back in 2015, DJ Drama and Don Cannon signed Uzi to their Generation Now imprint with Atlantic Records. As they’ve done countless times in the past, the legendary DJs/producers have been helping Uzi fine-tune his sound and navigate the music industry. If Uzi’s increasingly improving discography and rabid, exponentially growing fan base are any indication, they’re on the right track.
“When we found him, he didn’t have a real situation going,” Cannon says. “He was doing things on things own, trying to get his music on. I felt like with our supernatural abilities we could take him out of here, and that’s basically all it comes down to. There's not really a master plan to it. We just know what we can do with people that are passionate enough and have talent.”
Internet trolls be damned, Drama and Cannon wholeheartedly believe Uzi’s destined for greatness. The two musical spirit guides opened up about what makes Uzi tick, older generations hating on his music, and why the 22-year-old’s self-proclaimed “rockstar” status might be warranted.
You guys have given the Midas touch to artists before Uzi, but what in particular made him different?
Don Cannon: He just has a wide range of ways to rap. I didn’t think he was just a normal Philly battle rapper. And even if they’re not from Philly, if they’re from Ohio, Chicago—when you learn somebody has a wide range there’s no cap on what you can do with them. I think that’s what it boiled down to. It didn’t have to be him being from Philly, it’s just the fact that he can do multiple things: he can rap, harmonizes and sings good, his selection of beats are great, he takes things into his own hands with social media. He’s also willing to push with us; he’s not just going to be relying on our backs to carry him the top of the mountain. He’s pulling his weight in the gym as well.
I don’t believe in mumble rap. When I was young, they tried to box out Das EFX, they tried to box out Ultramagnetic MCs—it’s just a term in rap. Every time artists turn the page in rap it’s always going to have some kind of criticism. – DON CANNON
So how involved are you guys with Uzi’s day-to-day? What’s the current relationship like?
Don Cannon: The working relationship is easy. I thank God that he’s a workhorse. He goes in every day, and he tries to record four to five songs a day, if not more. With our working relationship, it’s me going in—not only as a producer—just being an A&R ear to make sure he has a enough material to go over and listen to finish his daily goals, which is to get a certain amount of songs done. From my perspective, I’m just in there making sure that he’s getting the songs done and actually building around the skeletons that he makes so we can put out the right projects.
DJ Drama: I pretty much let him do his thing creatively.
And how does that work? I don’t get the sense that you guys tell him what to do…
DJ Drama: We have a working relationship where I kind of let him do what he does creatively and then I listen to the finished product.
Don Cannon: Like I said, we’re formed as a concierge service like Shaq did with Dwayne Wade. It’s like, “I’m here to help you become a champion.”
How do you guys respond to the term “mumble rap” and Uzi being thrown into that category?
Don Cannon: I don’t believe in mumble rap. When I was young, they tried to box out Das EFX, they tried to box out Ultramagnetic MCs—it’s just a term in rap. Every time artists turn the page in rap it’s always going to have some kind of criticism. I think the criticism comes from rap being so competitive and changing so many lives, they’re always trying to coin it something different every single time: Trap music, EDM, rock-rap. Then you have hardcore hip-hop when Mobb Deep and everyone was coming in. Then we had the jiggy period. They just need to put some kind of name on what’s going on for the time period of rap. That’s just us as culture.
DJ Drama: I think every generation gets criticized for something, especially when you’re rebellious with your sound. I think the more and more with Uzi’s artistry and peoples’ respect he’ll grow out of that term and box. I remember Lil Wayne being criticized early on in his career. I think we’re just breaking the tip of the iceberg of what people can come to and have seen with Uzi’s talent and his work. Those terms don’t really bother me because I see beyond it.
I think Uzi wants any and everybody that comes to see him to have a certain feeling when they leave there. Those are superstar traits. – DOn CANNON
I feel like there’s a lot of older guys in hip-hop jumping on Uzi, Lil Yachty and Playboi Carti, saying these young artists don’t know or respect their history. For example, the internet made a big deal of Uzi refusing to rap over a DJ Premier beat…
DJ Drama: I think some of it is a set-up in a sense. In the early 2000s when fucking Roc-A-Fella was going to see Funkmaster Flex, he didn’t throw on “The Message,” he wasn’t throwing on Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel beats. It’s unfair to the youth in a sense to put them in this box. It’s not like [Ebro] threw on Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” which their generation would know. They didn’t grow up on Premier. And it’s not to take away any respect from Premier. Hip-hop is almost 45 years old. Run-DMC was kicking down doors and looking at shit like, "Fuck how y’all are dressed. We’re going to dress like this." I think because of the world we live in, the fixation with social media, and outlets, more pressure is put on them. Let them niggas do what they do. Time will tell. Those who belong in this sport are going to last, and those who don’t won’t be here.
You guys have both said you think Uzi is a superstar. What makes him a superstar? State your case.
Don Cannon: I think part of being a superstar is taking all risks, being able to perform without restrictions, making music without restrictions. [It’s] something natural. It’s a glow, from a looks standpoint. But I basically judge my superstar statuses from where is this person taking music? Sometimes in rap we make it “neo-soul,” we make it “mumble rap.” I hate when we split it up because there’s no boundaries in rap. We didn’t come this far in rap music to have certain boundaries where it’s like, “Yeah you make this type of music.”
When we first started doing shows—I did his first couple shows—we would throw water to get the crowd hype a little bit. That wasn’t something we made up, that was something I’ve done on tours before and I just knew that gets people hype. Then we moved to running through the crowd, and that’s what everybody does. Then you got somebody like Uzi, he might just jump off the stage or jump off the scaffolding. He’s taking his tour to another limit to show his showmanship. Moments like that is the difference between a superstar and someone just rapping and doing a show. To me, I feel like he really enjoys pleasing a crowd more than he enjoys performing. I think Uzi wants any and everybody that comes to see him to have a certain feeling when they leave there. Those are superstar traits.
DJ Drama: Superstardom is not something you can create, it’s just a natural thing. The kid has the personality, he has the presence. He has the rebellion in him. He’s young, he’s gifted, he’s talented, and he’s smart.
Where were you guys when he made that 20-foot jump into the crowd during Rolling Loud, and did your hearts stop? It became a dope meme, but it’s like how do you just make sure the kid’s staying safe?
Don Cannon: We were making a change in the show with the DJ because we had some special guests. The normal set we changed a little bit, so I was working on that set. By the time I looked up, he was in the crowd. People were like, “You didn’t see that?!” My second chance seeing it was on social media.
I mean was he OK afterwards?
Don Cannon: He was good, and it’s funny because we know him as a rough type of artist. He’s running, he’s jumping, he’s hopping over fences. He’s athletic so he’s doing a lot of stuff. There’s no doubt in my mind—unless somebody was hating, moved out the way and let him hit the ground—that he was going to be OK.
There seemed to be a lot of confusion about whether Uzi’s with Generation Now or Taylor Gang and you guys spoke on this and confirmed he’s still with the former. He’s reached a point where it seems everyone wants a piece, so how do you guys handle those overtures from other artists? In the NBA, I believe they would have called that tampering…
Don Cannon: I mean we have a lot of strong relationships and we know that to the masses it looks different, but internally when you talk to people about it and how we’re moving along we’re cool with it because we know the truth. If was 23 years old, 24 years old, I might’ve gotten upset. Me and Drama have built so much over the years that now it’s like that doesn’t really bother us. We’re supposed to form partnerships. In business, we’re supposed to all work together. I wouldn’t dare be mad if Jeezy came and gave me CTE chain even though we built Aphilliates. I would love for it to be that, instead of us destroying the culture by fighting every five minutes. Sometimes you have to make a statement for other purposes. It doesn’t bother me and I know it doesn’t bother my colleagues.
He’s made no bones about hating having to do interviews, called rap “a facade” and can’t stand the “industry” side of the business. How do you help him navigate that part?
Don Cannon: If you think about it, we work so hard in hip-hop as artists, DJs and producers to prove to people that we are the shit and then you do all of the stuff and you’re still not the shit. It’s up to the people to see if you are the shit. You can have criticism all day. You get on the Internet and they say, “Aww fuck Drama and Cannon—they light-skinned! They’re ugly! They don’t deserve to be in hip-hop.” If we go and do a line like, “Well fuck y’all back,” it’s just stirring up shit that ain’t supposed to be there. You gotta work hard, and can’t worry about people talking about the shit you’ve got on your feet, how you posed in a picture or what this person said about your music, why they don’t like you.
Superstardom is not something you can create, it’s just a natural thing. The kid has the personality, he has the presence. – DJ DRAMA
There’s also been chatter about the status of Uzi’s album, Luv Is Rage 2. Can you bring us up speed on where you guys are with the album....
Don Cannon: I think with me and Drama, musically, we’re very detailed. If we’re going to stand by anything, it’s that we continue to keep everything so detailed to the point that if they carry on past us that they know that, “Damn they taught us how to cover every inch of every piece of music, every piece of this project.” That’s what we stood on. We never just put stuff out like, “Here, put it out!” Even in this day and age I run into kids and there’s songs that are distorted. Something in me, and I know with Drama, is still telling us, “Make sure this is the best product.” Not just song-wise, but making sure every snare is right, every hi-hat is right, every skit is right because that carries you on. If I can teach any artist anything it’s, “Yo, sonically, this is what’s supposed to be.” I’ll tell them sonically this is what my ear hears because truthfully that’s what people call Cannon and Drama for—sound quality. Drama was the biggest voice in DJ mixtape history in my opinion, and it’s the texture of his voice and the stuff that he said that makes things so important and profound. Then there’s certain details in the music that I produce that gives it a warm feeling, the detail and sound that people come for, so why not bring that to the world?
So then I’m guessing you both had to laugh off his whole some “old person” slowing up the album comment. Both social and rap media had a field day with that one...
Don Cannon: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean shit. You know how this goes, man. Everybody wants to make comments. You’ve got to let him speak how he feels. We’re just doing what we’re doing in helping him get through it.
Do you each of a have personal favorite Uzi song or performance moment that sticks out to you?
DJ Drama: That’s hard one because it’s like watching him at every level. I remember the feeling I got when I took him on his first tour, Boys of Zummer, opening up for Wiz Khalifa and Fall Out Boy with me. Watching him go from performing one song to being on his own tour and being in front of 300 people and having that crowd in a frenzy to him being rooms with 2,500 and then going on to festivals. I remember the first time I met him when he came on my bus when we were on the road. Me and Cannon had already spoke about wanting to invest in the kid and he came on the bus with that same kind of energy and personality that he has now. Looking back on it, we’ve had so many moments. It’s amazing to see how far he’s come.
Don Cannon: I always round it up to the first show he did at SOB’s. That was my moment of truth because we spent so long doing music and developing the best songs. We recorded 300 songs when the first Luv Is Rage came out. We went to SOBs in New York it was like, "OK he’s got lot of respect in New York." We went there and to see them go crazy it was like, “Oh shit!” I could kind of see where he should be going now based on how they were going crazy.
You call him a superstar, but Uzi constantly refers to himself as a “rockstar.” Is there a difference? Does he have a Hendrix, Morrison and (his favorite) Marilyn Manson appeal?
Don Cannon: I mean originally, the definition of a rockstar is a person that’s performing rock music but in later years it turned into the definition of somebody that’s living a certain life, a wild life with no limits. I wouldn’t dare go to Nas’ concert and expect him to jump in the mosh pit. [Laughs] That’s just not what Nas is doing. I grew up on Nas, love Nas, but I want to hear him rap and learn something from his stage performance. Now, you’ve got somebody that’s so wild that’s going run through the crowd, throw shoes off, throw water—who knows what’s going to happen next? Those are the rockstar antics that I feel like people are coining him for. I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon. I think he’s just going to continue to do incredible things and become the person he wants to become.