“The Music Is Embedded in Me:” An Interview With Dru Down

The Oakland legend talks about his long career, 2Pac, “I Got 5 On It” and the other music icon in his family, father Bootsy Collins.
By    May 13, 2021
Photo via Dru Down.

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From Too $hort to MC Hammer, 3X Krazy, Luniz, Mistah F.A.B. and Souls of Mischief. Shit, even Damian Lillard. The list goes on. The City of Oakland, California, aka “The Town,” has a long history of generating great rappers.

Insert East Oakland’s own Danyel Robinson, aka Dru Down, into the mix. In 1994, when East Coast legends Biggie and Nas dropped their first albums and dominated the hip-hop airwaves, Dru Down exploded on the scene with his West Coast classic, “Pimp of the Year.”

The pimp anthem was produced by fellow Oakland legend Ant Banks, featuring his trademark funky beats and the widely sampled, “Seven Minutes of Funk.” “Pimp of the Year” became an instant hit and Dru Down paved his way to the Mt. Rushmore of Oakland rappers. The song stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for 24 weeks and Dru’s hypnotizing voice, which effortlessly grinds through Ant Bank’s track like a circular saw, became the definitive representation of the pimps and hustlers Dru grew up with in Oakland. The song dropped yet another pin on the Oakland hip-hop map, and continues to stay in rotation. It’s not unusual to still hear the opening line, “Give it up, give it up, give it to me!” coming from cars as they pass by bumping heavy bass and rattling trunks.

But before he made it big, Dru was born in 1969 to a mother who passed away when he was just three years old and a famous father who didn’t know he existed. He also lost the step-father and grandmother who helped raise him. He was left to follow the lead of those he grew up with on the streets of East Oakland – pimps, drug dealers and hustlers.

Growing up on 50th and Vicksburg, one of the roughest areas of one of the roughest cities in America, Dru lived the life he rapped about. If a gun fight popped off in the infamous Village area, it was likely Dru Down that drew down. Those Shirley Temple curls Snoop rocked at the 1994 MTV Awards? Dru Down was sporting those way before Snoop, because that’s how pimps styled their hair and Dru was in the real-life business of managing, marketing and peddling prostitutes.

He did some dirt, for sure, but like many in his position, he was also the victim of a corrupt Oakland police force and a biased judicial system, getting locked up at just 15 years old for attempted murder and robbery. He was placed in a juvenile prison facility for three years when he should have been in high school. The Bay Area’s Rites of Passage correctional program promised to train wayward youth like Dru and have them out in three months, ready to start a positive new life. For Dru, three months turned into three years as he spent his time fighting and working out. The rehabilitation program was really just an exercise program as he boxed, hiked and ran nine miles each day.

In and out of trouble since being released from his first sentence, music has been the one consistent that’s kept Dru above ground and away from a lifetime behind cement walls. It also helped him connect with his illegitimate father, legendary bass guitar player Bootsy Collins from Parliament-Funkadelic.

Dru’s career was halted by two more prison terms, one in the 1990s and another 3-year prison sentence in 2013. But he has recently reignited his music passion, and in 2018, dropped the first of three consecutive albums.

His fourth in four years is set to release on May 28. The G-funk beats that slapped on some of his early classics like “Pimp of the Year,” “Can You Feel Me” and “Rescue 911” are still present on his upcoming album, “Livin Legend (God Willin) Part 2.” The follow-up to 2020’s Part 1, Dru Down’s latest LP features Krayzie Bone, Keak Da Sneak and the Luniz, among others.

With 20 albums under his belt, Dru can look back knowing he’s made a major impact on the rap game. He’s collaborated with the likes of 2Pac, E-40 and his famous, once non-existent and illegitimate father. He was featured on the classic “I Got Five On It” remix, dropping the opening verse on what is inarguably the Bay Area’s greatest rap song ever.

It’s nearing a 30-year career now, which, based on the challenges and obstacles he’s faced, is a miracle in itself. Couple that with the fact he’s still dropping the kind of gangster shit possessed only by those bred in East Oakland, and you can see why the Bay Area considers him a living legend.

To celebrate the release of his new single, “What Are You Looking At,” and his new album, Dru spoke by phone to POW’s Jesse Taylor for this exclusive interview about his life and music.

What can listeners expect from the new album?

Dru Down: It’s a street album. The whole point is it’s different from Welcome 2 Dru’s World, which was all about women. So now this is a bunch of street shit. We just doing music for what the fans love.

Any particular collaborations or tracks that really stand out to you on this one?

Dru Down: Definitely. Krayzie Bone, it’s called, “Audi on that Azz.”

What does it mean to you to still be in the game, nearly 30 years now, making music?

Dru Down: Oh man, just staying in it, you know, and trying not to fall off. Getting older and getting the kids and grandkids and things like that, but music is embedded in me. I can’t stop it. Thirty years, it don’t even seem like it though. That’s the crazy thing. But what’s funny is that we’re starting back over. I was independent for a long time and I was just throwing things out there. But now I got this backup. The push is what I need. I’ve done been all around the world twice. I need to get back around the world one more time.

Let’s hit the readers with some 2Pac stories. Pac always made sure to include Bay Area rappers in his music no matter where he went or how big he got. How did you connect with him and then get on “All About You”?

Dru Down: Well, Pac used to be, ‘not 2Pac.’ He was just Pac. He was a nigga that’d wear African hats and African medallions, and dashikis and shit. That’s how he used to be. He used to be with my partner, though. My partner had a whole family and his whole family was gangsters. They just took him up under their wing. He used to always just be up on the porch around the corner from where I was raised. So, I used to always pull up in Cougars and Mustangs and Chevys with hella bitches and all type of shit, and (Pac) always be asking, “Who’s that? Who’s that?” Around that time he was messing with Shock G, too, and then he got on that “I Get Around” type of shit after the fact.

But then he ended up going to the pen, and I went to the pen. He got out the pen like two weeks before I got out. Suge Knight ended up bailing him out. And he turned into somebody he really wasn’t. Real talk. He was just trying to be hard. Because he was around all these Bloods and Crips and shit. He felt that he needed family like that. But nah, motherfucker, you from Oakland. He just got twisted, running around trying to whoop on everybody and fight everybody. And motherfuckers don’t just do that. Motherfuckers are shooting to kill.

So did you go down to L.A. and record with him in the studio?

Dru Down: Yeah, I lived in L.A. That’s my second home. When I got out the pen I go straight to Beverly Hills Hotel, because I’m about to start my album. And I see Big Syke, and he’s like, “2Pac’s up there, man, let me call 2Pac.” I already got all the information about how he got out and what’s going on with him and Death Row.

And then he comes down with his shirt off. Ain’t nothin’ but white people in this motherfuckin’ restaurant area. He comes shirt off, chain swinging. I’m like, “Man, what is you doing, man? Come on outside, man.” He just didn’t have it all, I could tell. He was just more pumped about what’s going on. He just turned into a whole different person, period. He wasn’t nothing like that (back in Oakland) when I was pulling up in my Mustangs and shit. He was just sitting down, quiet as fuck. Peeping game.

So I end up meeting with him, and he’s like, “Come upstairs, man.” At the time, I had these two hoes, these two bitches, right? They were sisters, but they were both my bitches at the same time. They sold vegetables, but they sold pussy, too.

They had two Benz trucks that were selling vegetables to all the restaurants in Beverly Hills. That’s how they were getting their money-money. And Pac wanted to fuck the little bitch, right? So we go upstairs. He let me hear the All Eyez on Me album, but it’s not all the way done. He got like six more songs to do. We were in a big-ass, top floor suite. We got champagne bottles, we just drinking, smoking and listening.

We sitting there for another hour and a half, drinking. I’m drunk. I’m ready to go lay down. Next thing you know I’m passing out a little bit. Pac is almost passed out, too. I hear a knock at the door. That nigga jumped up. He cleared the couch, coffee table and another chair. And got to the motherfucking door, excited, like, “Watch! Watch! Watch!”

The door opens. A light-skin bitch with a hood on, like she covering from the paparazzi and all this shit, right? The bitch look at me, and she say, “Hey Dru.” And just (takes off) down the hall. A barrel roll. I’m trying to look, and I know that face a little bit, and that voice. He said, “You know who that is? That’s Faith Evans.”

That’s when he fucked Faith Evans, that night. The next morning we went to Death Row, that’s when he made “Wonda Why They Call You Bitch.” That was about Faith. He fucked her just to get at Biggie. That started the feud right there.

He went to Death Row, and all of them motherfuckers, they were young, they didn’t know how to act. The Outlawz and whatnot. Rowdy, but young rowdy. It wasn’t really like shoot ‘em up, bang-bang. Pac was trying to be more hard than all of them. The problem with Pac, because of the Death Row shit, and the Bloods and Crips shit, made him harder, supposedly. That shit didn’t help him not one bit, because it really just got them all killed.

So, yeah, at Death Row, he threw me on. The song was already done. He was like, “Dru, man, go in there and say something on that.” That’s how I got on the song. Which I was like, damn, nigga should have had a verse on that motherfucker, but it’s still a practical move.

Let’s take it back a bit. Growing up in Oakland, what was that like in terms of the impact it had on the music you made?

Dru Down: You know how they say, “Bay Area”? I don’t even claim the Bay Area. I’m just Oakland. We’re the transcenders. Everybody comes to The Town and then they leave, but they leave with something they got from us. Which is cool, don’t get me wrong. We’re just the transcenders. Not the Bay Area. I’m from East Oakland, 50th. I’m born and raised. I’m a Kaiser baby.

A baby with a famous dad. Bootsy Collins. When did you know your dad was somebody who had made this legendary music?

Dru Down: I’m really like an illegitimate son of Bootsy. He actually was in Cincinnati, Ohio. He met my mom on a tour date and ended up coming to the house. Met my grandmom and all of that. My mother, she passed away when I was three. So I knew nothing about him at all. I guess that’s how they wanted it to be at that time. Until I was about 12 or 13. I pulled out some records that my grandmother had, and I pulled out a Boots record. I didn’t know what it was, and I just put it on the record player, sat in front of it and I started playing this music.

And I liked his voice when it came on. He was like [Dru impersonating Bootsy’s voice], “Oh yeah baby!” And I’m repeating him, right? And my grandmother came out of the kitchen. She said, “Hey boy, do that again.” I was like, “Oh yeah baby! Oh yeah!” She said, “Yup, that’s your daddy.” I said, “What do you mean?” And she just told me the whole story about my mom, and you know, groupies, and going to the concerts and shit.

He actually picked her. She was in the crowd screaming and yelling, all that shit, and he picked her. I know about that type of shit now because I’ve done it myself, and know how that go. He was just on and off about his business. He didn’t actually know that she was pregnant like that.

So your grandmother knew already that it was him for sure?

Dru Down: Yeah, my grandmother knew. She wasn’t going to put that out there until she thought I was ready. And then when she heard me sounding like him and looking like him a little bit, you feel me? But me and Boots connected when I went out to Cincinnati to the house. I told him the story, and he was kind of amazed, like, “Well, I guess you are.” That’s when we ended up making the song “Baby Bubba.” And doing that video for it. And since then we was in the mix.

So all those years he didn’t even know about you?

Dru Down: No. At the time, when we did the video and all that, I was about 20. Right after I got out of the pen. I went to jail at 15, got out when I was 18, so yeah, about 20, 21.

I think he might have been touring with James Brown at the time he met your mom.

Dru Down: Oh yeah, definitely. He was right there with him. James Brown’s the one who actually recognized him. He’s the one that grabbed him and said, “Boy you’re a plucker.” Because that’s what he did, he was a bass guitar plucker. And that’s how that went.

You have a very distinct voice. It really stands out. But it does kind of have that style of Bootsy in there. But it seems like over the years it’s maybe mellowed out. Listening to you rap today is not the same as listening to “Pimp of the Year.”

Dru Down: It’s more like how I talk now, the way I sound, but when I rap, it ain’t that deep voice no more. I don’t know how that happened, but it happens to a lot of artists. But we still on the same hype. The same tip.

So it wasn’t a conscious thing that you went away from that sound? It was just something that happened as you aged?

Dru Down: Right. Plus, there’s Dru Down, and then I have my other alternative, who is Jackrabbit the Bugsy. That’s my other side. That’s what I cloak him in.

How did growing up in East Oakland inspire your music? Was there anybody out there you were listening to that inspired you as you started putting music together?

Dru Down: I didn’t really listen to nobody but the Geto Boys and Scarface. Too $hort every now and then. He was always in somebody’s deck. That’s when I made “Pimp of the Year,” was in Dangerous Music in Too $hort’s studio. And we ended up falling out at that point.

Yeah I remember you did a diss song about him, right?

Dru Down: Called “Mista Busta.”

Did you guys ever reconnect or just kind of left it as is?

Dru Down: We reconnected. A lot of stuff happened, though, which people don’t really know. He had to move out of town. He had to go, you feel me, to get around that. But he’s still in Oakland, representing there. We don’t even go back that far to where we have to trip out there. I’d been going to his shows, he’d pull me up [on stage] and play the “Pimp of the Year.” I’d start doing shows with him and all types of shit. Let bygones be bygones.

But then I end up telling this story on the internet and it was just about back in the days. I was saying it how it was back in the day like 25 years ago. I was saying it just like that. And I was chasing this nigga and he jumped in a limo, and I was like, “Bitch ass nigga.”

Someone ended up hearing that and tried to flip the whole thing to where we funking right now today. They tried to twist it and make it come back. That’s not how this goes. I’m just telling the story. And then they edit it to where it seems like I’m talking about it today. But really I’m just telling a fucking story.

What about the name, Dru Down. Where did that come from?

Dru Down: I used to always carry guns. I was a gunman. Before Dru Down, it was Droopy, because I used to sag a lot with two .45s at my hip. From Droopy, nobody used to actually just say Droopy, it was, “Droop!” Which sounded like Dru. That’s how that came. And then “Down” came with The Town, because I was always down with whatever. I just put the two together and “Dru Down.”

So was your first involvement in rapping with “Ice Cream Man” and bringing the Luniz in? How did you connect with the Luniz, known as LuniTunes back then?

Dru Down: They were the LuniTunes for a minute until we signed with majors. And they couldn’t use LuniTunes no more, so we had to just go with Luniz. And, I had another dude in the business at the time by the name C-Note. That was Chris Hicks, he was the man of C-Note Records. The CEO.

We used to grind together. So I was getting a lot of dope from him and taking it back to the block. So he was the man in two ways. Plus, he was also at Dangerous Music. That was what introduced me to $hort and Ant Banks. That’s how I ended up doing “Pimp of the Year” at Dangerous Music. Then he ended up finding the Luniz and introduced them to me, and I just took them up under my wing.

And that led you to being on probably one of the most famous rap songs of all time, opening up the “I Got 5 On It Remix.” How did that come down, just from your relationship with the Luniz?

Dru Down: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s automatic, being in lab all the time, and when we trying to do a remix, I’m the first to jump on it. It was a lot of recording separately, but me and Luniz always did our own thing together. I think Richie Rich and Spice 1 were the only ones who came and did their thing with us. Then we had to go to 40, to Vallejo. And Shock G, rest in peace, man.

Because of your relationship with the Luniz and his connection with them, did you work with Shock G over the years at all outside of the remix?

Dru Down: No, I never worked with Shock G. But Money-B, their crew, they were all my boys. Shock G is still my partner. But we just never really worked on music because he was always overseas or doing something. He was actually a different breed, too. It just didn’t match at the time, but we was still partners. I was on some real gangster shit, and he was more about getting a bitch’s panties. I was selling pussy and he was buying it. That’s how that went. But he was our guy, man. He definitely was a good guy.

Then you got into movies too. You did Original Gangstas and a couple other things. How did you get into acting? What led you there?

Dru Down: Well, my manager hooked me up with the acting. Ended up having dinner with Fred Williams, Pam [Grier], and all them. But I only had one line in that movie at the time, that’s the crazy thing. I did the church thing, where I sung and told the reverend to have a nice day.

That was the only part I had when I got there. I didn’t have no other part in this role. The director looked at me and seen how I was moving, and he was like, “Man, hold on” and he went back to the drawing board and he wrote me into all that other shit that you see in the movie. And it practically became my movie. Kayo with the yayo. I could do a movie right now and call it “Kayo with the Yayo” and I bet you that shit’d blow up. Pam Grier supposedly killed me, but if I came back in the hospital like I ain’t dead, they would eat that shit up. I’m sure of it. Yeah, OG 2. That’s what I would call it. Motherfucker, “Kayo with the yayo” in big bold letters. OG 2. I bet that shit’d go wild. We’re gonna get to it. We’re gonna put this music out first and do what we need to do.

Me and Ice-T, a good friend of mine, we did a lot of music. That’s how I ended up getting in another movie called On the Edge. That was with Ice-T and Jim Brown.

Do you have a favorite song to perform live?

Dru Down: I mean, I have a lot of songs I like, but my favorite one, would be “Can You Feel Me.” That’s my favorite one. “Pimp of the Year.” Everybody loves “Pimp of the Year” and “Can You Feel Me”. Then it goes “Ice Cream Man” then “Rescue 911” then “No One Loves You.”

Do you remember where you first performed live? Was it in high school?

Dru Down: I first performed when I got out of jail. My shit was over because I was 18. But (my uncle) got me into 12th grade. I’m like, ooh, okay. Let’s book it. I’d been playing sports. I was golden glove in the outfield for three years. Playing football. Our actual jail was playing against real schools out there in the Valley Shores. We was actually a jailhouse team that would play real high schools. So I was good then a motherfucker. But I was in jail. Once I got out, I came and started taking motherfuckers’ positions.

In football, I was starting running back. I took a white boy’s position. I was hella fast. That’s how that Jackrabbit nickname come. I got out there and, boom, I took his position. What were they doing? Picketing. Talking about they want their son back in. The whole family was picketing the games. I was doing touchdowns, two or three a game. And he wasn’t. That’s what that was.

And then basketball, that’s just me. I shoot that like a motherfucker and run. That was a good experience for me because I was the oldest motherfucker in the whole school. And then we had some things, like an awards party for school. And I ended up having a song, and that was the first time I performed, was at that school, Terra Nova High School in Pacifica (south San Francisco). I forget what song I performed. But then when I became Dru Down, my first performance was in Barstow where Eazy-E was living. And Eazy-E just found Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. So it was me and them.

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