He was raised in Bed-Stuy, once the stomping ground of hip-hop standard-bearers Jay Z and Biggie Smalls, and was musically precocious as a child, but there was no guarantee that when Desiigner—né Sidney Royel Selby III—started recording music, he would become famous. Instead, something altogether more elusive and powerful took hold-at only 18 years old, beginning with his debut track, “Panda,” he was launched to the top of the charts and into the hip-hop stratosphere.
This past February, two months after it was posted to YouTube, “Panda,” with its hypnotic beat and Desiigner’s baritone, double-time flow caught the ear of Kanye West, who sensed promising talent and signed the rapper to his label, G.O.O.D. Music. After West sampled the track on a song of his own, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,” “Panda” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and set Desiigner on course for a wildly productive year. In June, he released a 14-track mixtape, New English. That same month, he made XXL magazine’s 2016 Freshman Class, and an accompanying 45-second clip of him performing a haunting a cappella version of “Tiimmy Turner,” his newest single, went viral. Early next year, he is set to release his debut album, The Life of Desiigner, executive-produced by the legendary hip-hop producer Mike Dean (Scarface, Beyoncé, Kanye West). With industry players of this caliber backing him, Desiigner, now 19, is getting a real shot at transcending YouTube buzz to develop as an artist.
Desiigner recently caught up with another hip-hop heavyweight pulling for him, Pusha T. The current president of G.O.O.D. Music, who is also known for his ’00s work in the rap duo Clipse, Pusha knows something about spotting young talent.
DESIIGNER: Yo, Pusha, what’s good?
PUSHA T: First and foremost man, I want the people to know and understand the inside track: like, Desiigner’s brilliant. For people who have never been in the studio with this man, it’s crazy to see him working. I’ve been privileged to see him in action, but even I have questions. So who inspires you, man?
DESIIGNER: Life itself, creativity itself. All types of music. I’m inspired by everything—all types of sound. You know what time it is!
PUSHA T: [laughs] Are there any artists, any particular artists that inspire you? I hear so many different things in your music, and it ain’t just rap, it ain’t just trap. I hear melodies, I hear R&B. I’ve been working with you, man, and I hear so many different things.
DESIIGNER: If anything, I would consider my grandfather. He’s a blues player. I like the old soul—you know how it is, Pusha, that old soul. My grandfather, he went by the name Sidney “Guitar Crusher” Selby; he formed that old soul, that old blues, that old rock that I put on my songs. He bluesed it out. And my pops, he was old-school, too; he played that old funk. I fell in love with that old style. You feel me?
PUSHA T: That’s what’s dope to me, because you’re so young and you have all of that great R&B. I hear great R&B knowledge in your records. We just did a record together the other day, and I’m like, “Damn, this just sounds like the R&B I love, even at 39 years old.” And I’m like, “Well, you’ve got to come from somewhere.” You’re married to that old soul, man. You put that flip on the new generation. It comes out crazy. Growing up, how did your peers respond to your musical knowledge? When I was growing up, my friends listened to music casually. They didn’t know old-school blah blah blah. That means your taste level was above everybody else’s. How did you get that across to your peers?
DESIIGNER: People would always be like, “You always act old!” People thought I was an old dude; it came with my swagger. I’m a creator; I’m into this music shit. I wanted to build it up and give it to my peers. I was a singer. I used to sing to the girls, “Happy Birthday” and all that. Did the Temptations. I always knew how to play around with my voice, make people laugh. I’d be crazy. Just my swag I guess. God blessed me. [laughs]
PUSHA T: Yeah, 100 percent. I definitely believe God blessed you. At the same time, it’s like, creativity aside man, you have an ear. What did you hear in “Panda”? When I heard “Panda” first, I was like, “This record is a smash, it’s instant, and you’re killing it.” I could tell that you felt everything you were doing on that track. What did you hear when you first heard that track? You picked this up off of YouTube. I’ve got to know—let me know!
DESIIGNER: When I heard the track, it was like a movie started in my head. It’s like, God put the words in me. The way it started, it’s like I saw the movie in my head and just wrote. I didn’t even think about it, I just blanked out. It was a zone I blanked to. And God was giving me the words. Even today I think about how I make my music, and I’m like …
PUSHA T: I feel it. A lot of people can’t tap into those feelings, and they don’t understand why their music doesn’t connect emotionally. If somebody says, “Damn, I don’t know what Desiigner said,” fine, even if you don’t know, you still feel it. Because you feel it; that’s what you give off. I feel like that really showed itself on “Tiimmy Turner.” Did you compare it to “Panda” at all?
DESIIGNER: I don’t compare my music to anything; I just try to create. I’m big on creativity. I’d do a little something, and I’d put it in between something from another track. It’s just being creative, and putting things that are right together. You feel me? You can’t put bad on beautiful sound. If it’s beautiful, it’s always going to work. I just always work on that. After I made “Panda,” I was working on another track right after that.
PUSHA T: Right. I never compared “Tiimmy Turner” to “Panda.” I looked to “Tiimmy Turner” as a new dimension of Desiigner. People heard “Panda” and fell in love with it. It showed its worth. I feel like “Tiimmy Turner” shows people that, “Damn, there’s a real dimension to this kid. There’s a whole other chamber.” You opened a whole other door. How has fame, and the notoriety on so many different levels, affected you? Do you see people differently? Do you see people acting differently towards you?
DESIIGNER: Yeah. I definitely see that people take my creativity a lot more seriously now. It’s a lot more serious, because that’s the artist I want to be. I’m an artist, I’m not a rapper, I’m nowhere near a rapper. I’m an artist, and I’m here to be creative with every step I take, with every move I make. You feel that? You know what time it is!
PUSHA T: I want people to know, we click. I feel like I’m talking to a genuine person. There’s nothing better than knowing that with everything you do, you’re having a blast doing it. A lot of artists are scared to show their true selves—how come you don’t have that fear? You’re new in the game, too. Everybody else is so afraid to be themselves. Why aren’t you afraid?
DESIIGNER: Because it’s me. You feel me? It’s me being happy and enjoying life. I came from struggle. I came from the block, where I was trapped. I didn’t want to live through that anymore. It wasn’t because I wanted to do that; I was stuck there. Every day I prayed on it. I didn’t want to deal with that. I was shot when I was 14. My mom was crying. I was like … I’m happy if I’m living. I’ve got to do what I’ve always dreamed. I have to keep going. If I have to go from planet to planet, I’ll go. I just kept it hype. I don’t care how nobody feels, because this is me.
PUSHA T: I hope you know that you win, man. Because a lot of people can’t be real with themselves and show their true selves. The album, tell everybody, what can they expect?
DESIIGNER: It’s going to be a whole lot of visuals. It’s creativity on top of creativity. Merchandise, tours … It’s going to be crazy. The Life of Desiigner, baby, that’s the name of the album.
PUSHA T: Before we get out of here, as an artist from New York—you’re from Bed-Stuy, man. You’re from Brooklyn. That’s like, dang, every great rapper is from Brooklyn, from right where you’re from or close by. How do you feel being in that line? You’ve made history, you’ve got a hit record right now. You’re a part of a winning team, in representing Brooklyn.
DESIIGNER: It feels great. I’m just here to inspire, I’m ready to inspire and put what needs to be on the map on the map. And there are plenty of others out there that don’t get the coverage—I want to give them the coverage. Brooklyn holds it down.
PUSHA T: For sure. Peace, brother.