DESIIGNER IN NEW YORK, JULY 2016. PHOTOS: JAMES RYANG. STYLING: MAC HUELSTER. GROOMING: LINDA SHALABI/SEE MANAGEMENT USING DIOR HOMME. PHOTO ASSISTANTS: DAVID MACEDO AND SHEN WILLIAMS-COHEN. BARBER: ANWAR ISAACS. SPECIAL THANKS: MILK.
At a time when our country seems more divided than ever, in comes 19-year-old emcee Desiigner with a track that’s taken summer hostage with its love-it-or-hate-it appeal. Brooklyn native, Sidney Royel Selby III, turned his love for white and black BMW X6s into a rampant street single (“Panda”) that’s since soared into the collective consciousness with the help of Kanye West sampling it on The Life of Pablo‘s “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2.” Selby’s rambling drawl and indecipherable hooks have garnered him comparisons to Atlanta trap star Future, but it’s also gotten him something Future has never had before—a single at the top of the mainstream charts.
We speak with the rapper on the eve of his “Tiimmy Turner” release, as he sets out to become more than a one-hit wonder—rather, a divisive, disruptive superstar.
MARCUS HOLMLUND: How did you get your name, Desiigner?
DESIIGNER: I got my name, Desiigner, from my brother-in-law. I took what he said and decided to use it. He was like, “Yo, bro, you got to design your name.” He said I should put my real middle name on it, so it’d be “Designer Royel,” and I was running with that for a second. I thought it looked a little long and so did my sister, so she said I should take off the “Royel” and just add an extra “I” and the rest is history. We makin’ history now, you feel me?
HOLMLUND: Your grandfather was a professional jazz musician and you yourself played saxophone throughout high school. How does the blues factor make it into your sound as an artist now?
DESIIGNER: Actually, if you listen to the vocals on my grandfather’s records you will hear we sound similar. We both sound kind of dry. We have a dry voice and we both love harmony—he was a man of harmony, I’m a man of harmony. I think it just runs in our blood. Everybody in my family sings. We were either in a choir or there was something going on at home where we were singing. I was “that singing dude.” At school I’d be the dude singing to the girls, always up in the auditorium, in the lunch room singing Christmas carols, in the halls between class. I was always singing, and same thing with my grandfather. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, you know how that goes. It just runs in my family. Music always lived with me, like a family tradition.
HOLMLUND: When do you start emceeing?
DESIIGNER: I was always making remixes to lil’ songs and if I didn’t know the words, I would make up my own words. Sometimes I’d fuck with my voice and do funny voices in ‘em, too. I would do weird things because I loved the sound of the songs, just to be creative. I love the sound before I love the words. My first time behind a mic was at thirteen. It was almost like I was training for that time since I was born, because after that I never left.
HOLMLUND: Is there a certain song you remember that changed your life?
DESIIGNER: Honestly, the song that changed my life was the probably the first song I cooked up and recorded, “Jackie Chan.” Every time I’m in the studio it’s another step to success. But, the song that changed my life the most was “Panda” because it actually did change everything for me. I wouldn’t be speaking to you right now if it wasn’t for “Panda”. I grew up on everything, though. I listened to old school, my big sisters would play the reggae [stuff], I even remember loving the song, “Don’t Walk Away” from Jade. I listened to everything, man. I love all types of music. I’m influenced by it all. I’m just a lover of all things musical.
HOLMLUND: People have been comparing you to other artists since the get-go. How are you different?
DESIIGNER: My style, my funk, my performance, my charisma. The way I deliver my songs. That’s what makes me different. I stay humble. The second you see me on stage doing my thing, you know I’m not like the rest. I stay crazy.
HOLMLUND: You bought the instrumental to “Panda” for 200 dollars. How did you actually find it on YouTube?
DESIIGNER: My homies and I were in the crib and we were smoking a whole bunch of weed, you know, playing GTA [Grand Theft Auto], when my boys started playing a track on the computer that caught everybody’s ear. I was always the one that cooked up the hooks in the hood, so, my boy asked me if I could cook up some flavor for the beat and I said, “You know, give me two days.” The beat was right there on YouTube—a real Lloyd Banks type beat, and two days later, I gave it to y’all.
HOLMLUND: You never actually met the producer of the song, Menace. Do you still speak with him?
DESIIGNER: We speak to this day; we have our little conversations. He’s on his platforms and I’m on mine. He might even be on the album soon; maybe we’ll even do an album together or something. I’m a man of process. You know how that goes.
HOLMLUND: How do you get in your zone to record?
DESIIGNER: It’s easy. I just smoke my weed, man, and enjoy life. I speak on what’s life. My zone is living. While I’m living I’m in my zone. I don’t sleep—I promote, fuck, no sleep, drink, get rich. When I say get rich I don’t mean by money, but by platform. I mean getting better when I say get rich—bettering my life. That’s how I move. It’s about living your dreams… You only dream to wake up and make them come true.
HOLMLUND: So, when you talk about the cars, the money, the violence on your records, you’re not per se addressing any of it—they’re just metaphors?
DESIIGNER: Yeah, it’s not all about violence. Like when I talk about choppers, I don’t talk about them all the time to be violent. I talk about them because that’s the vision I see. That’s the movie I see. That’s the movie I’m making with my sound. Behind this beat or behind this creation, that’s just what I see. I’m an artist. I see choppers, I see helicopters, I see drugs, I see liquor, and in some songs, I don’t see that: I see water, I see fishes. I could all of a sudden be talking about something entirely different because that’s the story the beat is telling to me. The beats speak to me. To me, the beat has the loudest voice… I see it that way and that’s how I’m able to put words up on top of it. The story, for me, always comes first and foremost from the beat.
HOLMLUND: Your music definitely sounds cinematic. Do you have a favorite film?
DESIIGNER: [The] Fast and the Furious. But I also play games. Grand Theft Auto is a perfect example. My music fits perfectly into that mold. I see movies and games in my head and I deliver it on the track. It becomes the soundtrack to my life.
HOLMLUND: When listening to your records there is an undeniable trap influence. And, as you said, the beat plays a major role for you when you’re in the booth.
DESIIGNER: The trap is the beat and the beat is the music, and when it comes to music, I don’t discriminate. I love music, period. Just because I’m from Brooklyn doesn’t mean I can’t feel the trap, the grind. My trap is real life stuff—and I talk about real life stuff in my music—so it just means grind harder. It’s just a grind mode with a positive mood behind it that makes people get up and make moves for the positive.
HOLMLUND: Your debut album is in the works. Is there anyone you’re dying to collaborate with?
DESIIGNER: Being on Kanye’s [G.O.O.D. Music] label has already been great, so honestly, I would love to work with anyone out there that’s creative and can vibe with me—could be a bird down the block—anyone who feels me, I am willing to work with.
HOLMLUND: What do you want people to feel when they listen to your work?
DESIIGNER: Emotion. Energy. Greatness. I want them to feel the flow, feel everything I’m delivering to them because I’m givin’ ‘em all I got.
FOR MORE ON DESIIGNER, VISIT HIS FACEBOOK.