The third season premiere of Snoop Dogg’s web series GGN opens with the West Coast rapper—as a character named Nemo Hoes—smoking weed, bantering with pimp Archbishop Don Juan about if Black people can swim or not, and talking about women’s privates with shock comedian Andy Milonakis. The show, which went live on YouTube on January 25, is as vulgar and nonsensical as anything you’ll find online these days. The episode ends with Dee-1 performing “Writer’s Block,” a song from the mixtape I Hope They Hear Me Vol. 2 that catapulted him onto the national hip-hop scene as the new “it” rapper with a sophisticated streak. On the track, Dee raps, “Life is about progression,” and how a quarter of the people that listen to him will write him off because “G-O-D drives me”. As he performs, an advertisement for Snoop’s show reads “#puffpuffpassTuesdays”. Still, Dee’s brand of positive, thoughtful rap doesn’t seem out of place.
The same day that his feature on the Snoop Dogg webisode went live, Dee was in Washington, D.C. hosting a #BarackTalk panel about political issues and encouraging African-Americans to vote. It’s the sort of event where Dee shines. He’s branded himself as the politically inclined rapper who reports about the streets and offers genuine, educated insight on Black America’s ills and the solutions it needs.
“If there’s one word to describe my life, it’d be ‘balance’,” Dee-1—real name David Augustine—explains. He lived on Dwyer Road in New Orleans East where he says “the neighborhood was good, but we lived around some crackheads, and a few of my homeboys growing up got shot and some died.” But by day, he traveled Uptown to the stellar Audubon Montessori School.
“My parents took education extremely seriously growing up,” the 25-year-old says glowingly. “They believed in me so much that they did anything to get me in the best schools.” That “anything” included camping outside of Audubon Montessori at 5 a.m. to guarantee that their son could take the entrance exam because they were so confident he would pass.
“We never for a second doubted that he could do what he wanted,” Dee’s mother, Bernita Augustine, explains. “He was gifted from a young age and always cared about school, no matter if that made him cool or not.”
As an adult, Dee is still doing things his way, regardless of how unhip it may make him. Dee-1 doesn’t curse. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. And his music is something your mom would love to listen to. Still, he’s no Will Smith. Dee’s managed to accomplish something his clean rapper forefathers have been unable to do: make music that’s at once inspiring, hard-hitting and catchy. But can that music prevail in the land of “Back That Azz Up,” bounce music and Lil Boosie lovers?
“Dee-1 can and will be the voice of Louisiana,” says Silky Slim, host of the “Stop the Violence Hour” radio show in Baton Rouge who is himself a reformed gang member. “What Dee-1 does that makes him unique is he orchestrates his music with a gangster rap sound, but it has positive lyrics. Right now they want to listen to [Lil] Boosie and Lil Wayne, but they don’t have the message Dee has.”
The beauty of his message is also the fact that Dee isn’t a didactic “pull your pants up, kids” rapper. He presents the music in a relatable manner that doesn’t at all come off as preachy.
“I just want to be a motivator,” Dee says. “I take the negative and present it in a way that makes you want to make it positive. I can’t turn your negative into a positive for you. Hopefully my music makes you want to sit back and want to change without me telling you to change.”
Augustine’s first stop after returning to New Orleans from his cross-country trip puts that theory to the test as he heads to Joseph S. Clark High School to talk to a class of 10th graders that idolize Boosie, Young Jeezy and Nicki Minaj.
For Dee-1, the teenage crowd has been unconquered territory and his final frontier. While most rappers use a grassroots approach that starts with “the hood,” Dee has eschewed that method and carved his own way to success. He’s managed to gain acceptance from politicians, college professors, blogs and magazines while leapfrogging the local teens that are a foundation for most stars’ successes. When he goes to Clark, he gets a gauge of his standing with the pop-loving teens. “I live for talking to kids. I just want to be able to reach them with my message but I also want to understand what they think of the music.”
As Dee is introduced, one student yells from the back: “If he’s wack I’m gonna tell him!”
“I could stand here in front of you all and tell you that I’m a rich rapper and how cool I am and how you should get straight As,” Dee begins. “But I’m not going to do that. I’m gonna give you all the real.”
And he did. Even if those stories made him sound nothing like a hip hip-hopper. He told them about how his grandfather used to have him tag along to join a bowling league. He talked about how he loved being with his parents, but his grandparents had all the cool snacks in their fridge. He celebrated his GPA, study habits and even spent 10 minutes talking about how much he vacillated over which major to pursue during his time at LSU. Slowly but surely, he was winning them over.
“David was never concerned with being popular,” his grandmother, Loise Augustine, insists. “He just did what was right and what made him happy. His grades were always great and we never even had to really discipline him.”
“I always taught him to be a leader and never a follower,” David Augustine, Sr. says of his son. “And that’s carried on into his music.”
For a few months during Dee’s freshman year at LSU, he wasn’t nearly the independent musical thinker he’d soon become. After failing to make the LSU basketball team—he was a star athlete at Ben Franklin High—Dee turned his attention to making music, but it was a far cry from the lyrics fans would later become accustomed to.
“I used to rap about the same stuff everyone else did. I talked about girls, guns and money like all my friends did.” Dee even recalls his first raps rhyming “snitches,” “stitches” and raising his gun.
“My rap name was even unoriginal,” he continues, shaking his head. “I went by the name ‘Deezy’ which is a name everyone had,” pointing out the already-in-use names Young Jeezy, Weezy and Yeezy. “I was embarrassed to have my parents and grandparents listen to the music.”
After a tumultuous freshman and early sophomore year—the aforementioned inability to make the basketball team, a nasty break-up with his high school sweetheart and Hurricane Katrina decimating New Orleans East—Dee underwent a change.
“I became closer to God that year and turned my life around.” He started cleaning up his raps and becoming “truer to myself.” Much like walking around with a bowling bag as a kid, this wasn’t the most popular move amongst his friends. And just like when Dee was a kid, he didn’t care. While some abandoned his new approach, he was finally taking his music seriously, changing his name to Dee-1—a play on him being a “Division I” talent—and releasing mixtapes for his LSU classmates.
As his Baton Rouge fan base grew, Augustine started seeing his music as a viable career. “At one point I had it figured out that I’d walk across the stage at graduation with my diploma in one hand and a record contract in the other one. But, as it turns out, things happen and plans don’t come through.”
While his major label dreams were coming more slowly than he’d hoped, a chance encounter would change the course of his career. Dee, while still at LSU, ran into Mannie Fresh at an Auto Zone and handed him a mixtape with hopes of a future collaboration. “I’m not looking to get signed,” he said to the former Cash Money producer and Big Easy legend. “I just want to give you my music and see what you think. Maybe we can do some work together.”
Fresh appeared receptive to Dee’s approach, and the meeting made the prospective MC hopeful for a future collaboration. That phone call didn’t come for a long time, though.
“I just knew that Fresh would give me a call and we’d start working together right away,” Dee remembers. “But I turned that experience into something else. I made a song about it.”
After getting tired of waiting for the call, Dee-1 released a song titled “Mannie Fresh” about the meeting, ending with Dee uttering his disappointment. “Fresh ain’t never call me, dog.”
After that song started making its rounds in New Orleans, Dee finally got the call while at the grocery store with his grandmother. “I wanted to let him know that he shouldn’t let me discourage him,” Fresh says about the call. “I told him I was calling to let him know he was on the right path. Even the song about us meeting, it was talking about real life. His music is such a breath of fresh air for the city.”
The MC and producer would run into each other and exchange pleasantries for a couple of years, but Fresh had yet to reach out to collaborate. Maybe he was busy. Maybe Dee wasn’t ready yet. Maybe his buzz wasn’t big enough. Whatever the case, Dee dropped a song that would eliminate any hesitation.
If there’s one song that is most responsible for Dee’s success, it’s 2009’s “Jay, 50 and Weezy”. The track is a lyrical call to arms, challenging the hip-hop power elite to more effectively give back to their communities.
“I was teaching at the time and realized that my middle school students looked up to rappers more than their parents and teachers. Boosie was like God. I just knew that if I could charge these rappers to do something—they have hearts and they’re intelligent—they can make a difference.”
“Jay, 50 and Weezy” challenged 50 Cent to stop insulting rappers, Wayne to donate more money to New Orleans schools, and Jay-Z to take more firm political stances. While it’s not uncommon for new rappers to take aim at established stars, this socially conscious salvo was a one-of-a-kind approach.
“[‘Jay, 50 and Weezy’] was so smart, creative, and such a perfect model on how to have great conversation through hip-hop,” says Tricia Rose, professor at Brown University and author of the book The Hip Hop Wars, whose 2011 declaration that Dee-1 was one of her favorite rappers immediately spread across Twitter and helped introduce his music to the world of academia. “The song came from a spirit of love and challenge. The music was great. The rhymes were tight and surprising. There wasn’t an ounce of hatred or hostility, and it showed respect and love for the community.”
The video for “Jay, 50 and Weezy” has nearly half a million views on YouTube and immediately made Dee-1 a presence in the national hip-hop scene. Soon, he’d get that call from Mannie Fresh he was looking for.
“I saw so much growth in him,” Fresh reveals. “Seeing where he left off from me meeting him to where he is now, he’s on his grind. When you see an inspiring artist and you see him rapping it’s inspiring. He was someone I wanted to be involved with.”
“I was in my car as soon as he called and when I got there, I told myself that I’d have a song ready for
every beat he played,” Dee says about his first studio session with Mannie Fresh.”
One of those tracks was “The One That Got Away,” a radio-friendly song about lost love. The single has gotten considerable airplay in New Orleans and is the song Dee’s Clark audience is most familiar with.
The class asks him to rap some lyrics from “The One That Got Away,” but first he raps the same “Writer’s Block” lyrics from the Snoop show. And a room full of teenage Lil Wayne fans ooh and aah, clapping and cheering along as Dee drops lines like “I’ll hit your whole block up with prayer / y’all ain’t used to me”. Any questions about him winning this crowd have disappeared. Dee is in his element.
“I know that if I give people something tangible, then they’ll understand me and be fans,” Dee revealed later. “People may or may not have my music, but if I can perform in front of them or speak to them, then I know I can have their ear and have them become fans. But these are my people, and I feel like I have to reach them.”
Dee has shown an intense passion for his music, but hearing him talk about ways to improve the community is where he gets even more animated. Even when discussing his upcoming collaborative album with Mannie Fresh—a dream come true for any New Orleans rapper that came up on Cash Money—Dee will eventually veer into a thesis about ways to help New Orleans’ youth.
“The name of the album is Mission Vision, and that’s the motto I have for how I live,” Dee explains, talking louder and faster as his ideas start pouring out. “Mission vision means focusing and keeping an eye on what’s important. Don’t worry about goliaths. Be bold and confident in your pursuit of a better life. Plan. Prepare. Pray. Work.”
He plugs his One Many Army movement as much as he discusses his upcoming 20-city tour. “One Man Army is what I stand for musically because it’s the lifestyle I live and the journey I’ve been on. It’s about forward progress and men using manhood to help mentor kids. Life is a battle between good and evil and I’m battling to defeat the enemy. Right now, hip-hop is my weapon.”
Dee has seen firsthand the results of what happens when “evil” prevails, which he explains through the story of his childhood friend Carl.
“Carl was more talented than me, more charismatic than me, and probably smarter than I was. But he didn’t turn out like I did.” The two friends grew up taking the same honors classes but, as they got older, Augustine noticed a change in Carl. “He started getting Bs and Cs instead of As on purpose, just to blend in with the rest of us and be cool.”
Years later, after Carl had essentially fallen out of touch with the rest of the clique and spent some time bouncing around high schools and ending up in jail, he wandered into The Dragon’s Den, where he saw his old buddy, a now collegiate Dee-1, performing.
“It was crazy—when I saw him I just knew what I had to do.”
Months earlier, Dee-1 had recorded a song on his I Am Who I Am project called “Just in Case” dedicated to his friendship with Carl.
Before launching into his set, Dee invited Carl on stage to perform “Just in Case” for him. “He just had this real serious look on his face, like I could tell it was really affecting him.” After his performance, Dee-1 was able to catch up and reestablish his friendship with Carl.
“I could tell what I was saying was really affecting him and he was really seeing where he went wrong in life,” Dee says. “I could just tell it was a big moment for him.” Dee was never able to see the long-term affects of his performance, though. Carl was shot and killed on October 29, 2008 in a half-abandoned New Orleans East cul de sac.
By the time Dee finishes telling this story to the students at Clark, the room is silent except for a few audible sniffles from the back.
“I’m sure some of you have a Carl in your life. Or you maybe are Carl. But like I told him, it’s never too late to turn your life around. And that’s true for you.”
After his discussion with the class, Dee is approached by a student, a self-proclaimed producer with a handful of beats he’d created. He wants to ask Dee-1 to record a song, but he’s hesitant to ask. The student waits for everyone else to finish asking for autographs and pictures before making his move.
“I made this beat. It was originally for my cousin, but I don’t want him on the song anymore. At first, I was thinking I should make it a relationship song, but I decided to change it,” he explains. “I want to do a ‘stop the violence’ type song instead.”
“Yeah! Play the beat for me.”
In what would otherwise look like an awkward scene, the student holds up his phone to Dee’s ear and sings the would-be hook: “Stoooop the violennnnnnnce.” But the two are in their own world, a teenager excitedly playing his project for an established artist and a rapper genuinely excited about being approached by a kid with a positive message.
“Something told me this song needs to be about stopping the violence,” the student says without a hint of irony. “It’s something the youngsters need to hear.” Dee-1 vehemently agrees, asking technical questions about the process for making the beat. And before he leaves, they exchange contact information.
Seconds after they go their separate ways, Dee starts humming the melody to the instrumental he just heard. “See, it’s stuck in my head already.” He laughs to himself and looks off in the distance.
“Yeah, I think that can be something really special.”