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How “Sallie Mae Back” rapper Dee-1 came to be

Tell me about how you became Dee-1.

I became Dee-1 at a time in my life when I was really looking for an identity, post high school. So when I went to college – I went to [Louisiana State University] – I got cut from the basketball team, and I was a star basketball player in high school and, for me, basketball was my passion. Once that got taken away from me, I wanted to find another creative outlet or some kind of way I could channel that energy I had been putting into basketball. Hip-hop, it was just a hobby at first. It was just something where you would freestyle with your homeboys in a college dorm room, you clown around – it’s really a joke, kind of – but you just have fun with it. It really kicked to me when I entered a talent show on campus. It was the first time I had ever performed live and I was nervous at first but when I did this talent show – I didn’t win – but just me performing on that stage, it really kicked to me. It was like “yo, I really want to do this” and the first thing I had to do was get a rap name. I didn’t have a rap name back then. I was just David Augustine, which is my birth name. I was like “yo, I need a real rap name,” and that’s when I came up with Dee-1.

What is your philosophy when it comes to your career as a rapper?

I think that I can relate to being an underdog in more ways than one. Even where I come from in New Orleans, a lot of us are counted out. Me being a young black man, I don’t come from a super-privileged background where its never been expected that he’s going to do great things because of where he’s from or because of the family that he comes from. I just come from a family of blue-collar hard-workers. We’ve always been the underdogs, all the way down to our football team, the New Orleans Saints. I think that I can relate to being a voice for anyone that feels like the underdog, so my philosophy is that I want to get more people to adhere to what I call living with mission vision. When I say mission vision, I’m talking about my philosophy, which is be real, be righteous and be relevant in every thing you you do. That’s what you should strive to do: be real with yourself and with others so you can be who you are and not have to be someone else who you really aren’t. Be righteous, which means keeping God first and keeping your morals and integrity about yourself, and be relevant means you gotta grind. You gotta bust your butt and work hard because to be relevant means that you have to be in the know of what’s going on and you want to excel at what you’re doing.

What were your initial reactions to “Sallie Mae Back” going viral?  Did you know you made a hit before it was released?

Yes, I did know that I made a hit before it was released. I was extremely confident in this song before it came out so, once it started to perform well, it was exciting. It was an adrenaline rush. I let a lot of people hear the song and a lot of people didn’t believe me when I played the song for them. A lot of people really didn’t believe that it would really catch on. I let people see the video before the video came out and the were like “okay it’s good. It’s nice. It’s cool,” but no one had the level of excitement that I had. It had been revealed to me, and I’m a real spiritual dude, so I knew that God was going to elevate this song to have a huge platform and that’s why I had to prepare myself, because I had to make sure I was ready mentally to handle all of the attention and the hype that comes with a song really taking off. So I’ve been very calm through this whole process and the only reason I can be so calm is that I was prepared for this.

You said you went to LSU. What did you study and how much were your student loans?

I studied business marketing. I haven’t revealed how much my student loans were to anyone because I would just rather keep my financial stuff personal. There’s something that I saw in some people’s reaction to the song. They almost felt like because I got a record deal, I had it easier than other people and that I had an easy way out of paying off my loans. It’s like, me just seeing some people’s comments about that, it really kind of turned me sour. I didn’t do this song to throw it in peoples’ face that I got a record deal or that I finished paying Sallie Mae back. I made this song to tell my story and motivate people and give people something to look forward to. Because I saw that type of stuff, I’m letting my song speak for itself and I’m not even gonna divulge into how much I – because that talks about how much I signed for the record deal and how much I got – because I used a chunk of the money to finish paying the bank so I just don’t want to open that door.

What kinds of things did you have to do as a college student to be able to make ends meat?

Oh man! Let me think. There are several things. In college I used to buy, I got hooked up with a clothing supplier overseas so I used to communicate with people in China and literally send them money from student loans and buy tennis shoes that were in demand at the time. You know like Air Force Ones, Jordans and a lot of these were knock-offs. They weren’t the authentic Jordan shoes and all that. I used to take some of my loan money and all that and buy them for cheap prices and then I would get these huge shipments coming to me in my apartment right off campus and I would sell these shoes to individuals that went to my school. [Laughs] That’s just one thing though. I had so many hustles in college, like I had so many things. That’s just the first thing to pop into my mind.

You don’t curse in your songs. Why not? Do you think this holds you back from becoming a mainstream rapper?

Correct. That’s a choice that I made. I don’t want to have any profanity in my music, yep. I do think that it puts a wall up between me and what’s going on in the mainstream, but understand one thing: I don’t want to conform or change or alter who I am in order to fit into the mainstream. I want the mainstream rap to conform to Dee-1 and that’s the most gratifying feeling in the world, when you can remain yourself and have the mainstream fit into you. And that’s what I are about more than fitting into the mainstream. If I can’t be me when I walk into the party, I’d just rather go to another club.  

Your song “Jay, 50 and Weezy,” has you praising and critiquing some of the biggest names in hip-hop, which was a big move to make. Where did the courage to do this come from?

My birth name is David and I compare myself to David in the Bible, and David had the courage to go and fight Goliath when everyone else in the army was afraid to fight Goliath. I look at the music industry as a Goliath that I’m not afraid to take on.

New Orleans is a colorful city. How does it influence you as an artist?

You used the perfect word: color. Color and emotion. My upbringing was very colorful. There was a lot of music, a lot of culture – just a lot of energy – and there’s a lot of passion in New Orleans and that really translates into my artistry, hands down. I’m not a very monotone just stoic, stiff rigid type of rapper.

If our readers listened to one of your tapes, what would you want them to hear?

I would want them to hear the “3’s Up EP” (it’s on Spotify and iTunes) just because I think I’m constantly growing and evolving as a man and that’s the most recent offering that gives you a realistic snapshot into who Dee-1 is.