Damian Lillard Tells Us Why His Music Deserves Rap Fans’ Attention

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The 2019 NBA season starts in just a few weeks, but the fireworks have already begun, both teasing the sparks to fly and maintaining the last vestiges of summertime. Of course, I’m referring to the incendiary battle rap tracks traded between the NBA’s reigning best rapper Shaquille O’Neil and his heir apparent Damian Lillard, which showed that some rivalries can play out across arenas and generations as the pair of rapping ballers worked to settle the debate of which is truly the best NBA player to pick up a mic.

Shaq has already laid a strong foundation for his claim, but in recent years, Lillard has also put in his fair share of the groundwork for his own stake at the top. He’s independently produced and released three albums, The Letter O, Confirmed, and most recently, Big D.O.L.L.A., and has become the head of a burgeoning indie music empire. His Front Page Music record label is the current home to Dame’s releases, as well as those of cousin and signee Brookfield Deuce, whose America’s Orphans debuted earlier this year as well.

And much like his forebear and current rival, Dame D.O.L.L.A. — as he prefers to be called when exercising his lyrical muscles rather than his physical ones — has seen his music career grow in esteem. He’s a real rapper, capable of earning the respect and musical contributions of industry heavy hitters like 2 Chainz (who appears on “Anomaly” from Confirmed, Lil Wayne (who has so far popped up on all three of Dame’s albums to date), and Mozzy (a fellow North California veteran who destroys his verse on Big D.O.L.L.A.‘s “Baggage Claim”) and holding his own alongside them.

His weekly Instagram freestyle competition, 4 Bar Friday, garners hundreds of entries each week and has built its own lasting, vibrant community, with whom Dame regularly interacts. It’s safe to say that his interest in rap is no passing fancy or temporary distraction from his Portland point guard duties, as some fans and detractors have suggested. With his name buzzing and his new video, “Money Ball” featuring Jeremih, Front Page artist Danny from Sobrante, and songwriter Derrick Milano, in development, I stopped by the set of the shoot in East Hollywood to find out more about Dame’s plans for his music, his label, and what it takes to be — in the words of one Pusha T — a legend in two games like PeeWee Kirkland.

So what’s the concept behind Big D.O.L.L.A.?

The whole idea behind it was just to embrace the new level of my life, the financial situation, living situation. Things I like, stuff like that. Just addressing the changes. Having a sign now, being able to elevate the people around me, like my family, and being able to open up opportunities for them and just like letting people in on a different level of life for me. You know what I’m saying? To where it was almost like not getting outside of myself, but giving them a different side of what they had known. Where it was like a little bit more flexible, a little bit more flavored than they’re used to getting, you know more than I give off. It was like, all right, let’s give them something.

From the first album to the new one, have you noticed a change in the way people react to “Oh, Dame can rap?”

Yeah, I think from the first one it was more like, “Oh he can rap. For all the basketball players he can really got bars.” And then the second one it was like, “Okay he’s serious. He really wants to do music.” And this one it was like people respected it for the music and not just having bars. They actually liked the songs. I’m seeing people on Instagram and on Twitter and just constantly playing it over and over. It’s music that they really like rocking with and not just, “Oh let me give it a listen.” They’re fans of the music. So, I think that’s been the biggest difference.

Philip Cosores

So Uproxx has a podcast, People’s Party With Talib Kweli, and in a recent episode with Jemele Hill, Kweli asked her who she thinks is the best basketball player rapper.

I think I saw that clip.

She said Shaq at first, but then she was also like, “Damian Lillard has bars.” So, what does it mean to you to be like placed into that level of canon of with someone like Shaq?

I think that just lets you know that they take you serious as being an actual artist. And that’s a step outside of, “Oh for basketball player he’s doing this or that.” You understand? They’re actually respecting the music and that’s a step up. Obviously Shaq is the pioneer, the one that did it and went big and had a lot of shine on him about the fact that he was doing music. I’m trying to come behind that and do the same thing with the gold and platinum records and all that stuff.

You also make it a point to include your close family and friends on your albums — which is something that I think a lot of rappers do, but it doesn’t always feel like they get behind it as much as you do, putting them on your songs and providing this sort of independent support instead of waiting for the “big” label to approve their singles and the like.

It’s not hard to get behind it when they’re able. If I had people around me that did music and I didn’t believe in them as artists, I’m not about to put you on my stuff. I think if you got people whose stuff you know is tight, good artists, and you believe in their stuff and you don’t give them that opportunity to get on the platform or be heard the same way that you’re being heard and you ain’t trying to help them, then them ain’t your people. It’s a no-brainer for me because I believe in what “they” don’t. I believe in their ability to make music. So it’s easy, easy go.

You actually just did a track with a bunch of Portland people as well, Wynne’s song “The Thesis.” How did you guys make that happen?

Me and her, we always text and she’ll send me a beat or a song she’s working on. And on that specific one, she just was telling me about the idea of it. Like basically this is going to be a bunch of like local artists paying respect to her city and getting everybody to do a cipher-style song. She was like, “I think it’d be tight because you like the adopted son in Portland. I think it’d be tight for you to finish it off.” And I was like, “Cool, let’s do it.” I went to the studio, I sent it and that was that. And then I was downtown in Portland one day and she was like, “We shooting in Pioneer Square,” and I just pulled up down there and shot the video with them. I think of stuff like that as a way of paying your respect.

Let’s get into the basketball questions. This season of course, I’m sure you’ve gotten your fair share of questions about the player movement. And it seems like you were really one of the few guys who stayed home, stayed where he was. What do you think of the player movement this season, how do you think it will affect the next upcoming season, and what teams are you excited to play?

I think the player movement is exciting as an NBA player and a fan. I’m just like a fan watching to see who going where and who going to team up with who, I’m watching for that same stuff as if I was a fan, but [as a player] I don’t really care. I’m not going into the season like, “I can’t wait to play this team or that team.” We all going to have to bang heads at some point. Somebody’s got to win, somebody’s got to lose, and life is going to go on.

Philip Cosores

Do you have like your own wishlist of who you wanted to get in Portland?

I wanted Kevin Durant to come to Portland.

Do you want to take the rap career outside of the NBA, when your playing days are over?

I just love to do music, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m not looking at it like, “Oh, I want to do it until this time or that time.” When I’m ready to be done with doing it, I’ll just be done with doing it. It the same as basketball; I love to hoop, so whenever I decide I’m done playing, that’s when I’ll stop playing. But I’m not looking at a certain age where I’m like, “Alright, this is where it’s going to end.” I’m just doing what I enjoy doing.

Big D.O.L.L.A. is out now via Front Page Music. Get it here.