Damian Lillard is an NBA Star and World-Class Songwriter

Yes, Damian Lillard is a six-time NBA all-star and six-time All-NBA selection. Yes, he came from a small college to burst on the scene in the world’s top basketball league and become a perennial MVP candidate. He’s a superstar with commercials on every channel for products like sports drinks, shoes, and streaming services.

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But Lillard is also a world-class musician and emcee. Candidly, this is not a case of a famous athlete leaning on his celebrity to sell a few records, boost YouTube views, or try to make a pseudo name for himself in another area of entertainment. Instead, Lillard’s is a story of hard work—“brick by brick,” as he says.

Perhaps more than his ability to shoot the basketball or spit a verse, Lillard’s ability to work hard, to “check every box” and not skip steps is what’s most admirable and world-class about him. The “D” in his first name assuredly stands for “Dedication.” More than a game or a song, it’s what he excels at.

We caught up with Lillard—aka Dame D.O.L.L.A.—to ask him about his new record, Different On Levels The Lord Allowed, out Friday, Aug. 20, with features from Snoop and Lil Wayne. We also talked about his origins in music growing up in Oakland, his legendary work ethic, his close-knit musical family, his community, and where he first learned a love for language.

American Songwriter: When did music first enter your world as a young person?

Damian Lillard: I would say music entered my world very young. In my family, music was big. My mom was always listening to music, singing songs. A lot of my cousins did music as a kid, singing and rapping. In my life, that’s what I was around. My family dealt with it so heavily and I just became part of me, you know?

AS: When did you start to invest in music as more than maybe a pass-time and how did you strengthen your love of language?

DL: I think I started to become more invested in music toward the end of my career in college and started to feel myself getting better at it. I started to notice that it was a good balance for me, something I really enjoyed aside from sports. I got the same kick out of it. When I wrote something I really liked, I felt good about it and I just became more and more passionate about it and I started to care about it more.

Once I got to the NBA, obviously, I had to make sure that I was focused on basketball and being the best version of myself as an athlete, but it was always in my mind that I wanted to do something with music. I just had to establish myself as an athlete first. And then as far as just the language and putting words together and finding clever ways to express myself and just witty things to say, I would say that came from my aunt.

My mom’s sister was just always on me about misusing a word, misspelling a word, using it in the past tense or present tense. So, she would always make me— like, if I said something and I used the word wrong, I’d have to write lines and write it in past tense and present tense. Things like that. She challenged us at home. Not even just at school, she would challenge us at home with stuff like that regularly.

So, as a kid, I always —when people would speak to me, whether they said an everyday word or a word that you don’t hear often, it was like I could— I was able to carry on a conversation and understand when people would speak. Or it became a habit when somebody would use a word I didn’t know, I would just look it up to see what it meant and start to make it part of my vocabulary. Or if somebody said something I didn’t know, I would just ask them, like, “I don’t know what that means, what does that mean?” I would say it just started from there.

AS: Did you read a lot as a kid?

DL: I did, I did.

AS: How did you get better as a writer, as a lyricist? To the point where you’re excellent now—your new song, “The Juice” is fantastic. Was it a combination of natural talent, dedication?

DL: I think it’s because I care about it. Usually, when you care about something, you give your time to it. You give effort. And another thing is accepting direction and criticism. One of my cousins who works on my label is also an artist signed to my label and he’s been doing music for 25 years. He’s older than me and he’s always pushing me as an artist. The way I was pushed as an athlete. He doesn’t mind expressing that to me.

I take that criticism or that direction and try to apply it to the best of my ability. But also, the life that I live, I’m around a lot of things, I’m experiencing a lot of things, I’m learning a lot of things. So, there’s a lot for me to tell. So, the more creative and interesting I can tell that story and be articulate enough and creative enough and witty enough and clever enough to tell — it’s a lot to tell.

But if I’m creative, then I can tell it. I take that as a challenge. Also, it’s almost like a cheat code because there’s just so much to tell! There’s so much that people want to know, you know what I mean? So, it’s just about, okay there’s a lot of power in being transparent and vulnerable with music. You learn those types of things over time and I think it’s made me a better artist over time.

AS: Yeah, you come across with a very honest, sincere, even painstaking approach to music, your craft.

DL: Yeah.

AS: You started the social media trend “Four Bar Friday.” What has it shown or taught you about music or the music industry?

DL: The biggest introduction it gave me was just legal stuff if anything. I came up with the idea because I wanted to start putting it out there that I rapped, so I wanted to figure out a way. So, I came to my team and I was like, “I got this idea for Four-Bar Friday, where you just say four bars acapella, post it and encourage other people how to do it. Just showing how creative you can be with just four bars.”

That was really my way of introducing myself as a rapper. But I wanted to make a community of it. So, [my team] was like, “Alright that’s a good idea but you got to make sure you trademark Four Bar Friday. And you got to make sure of this, make sure of that. And you can’t have people’s music playing, you got to get approval for this, and all this stuff.” And I was just like, “You got to do all that? Just to…”

So, that was my first introduction to how serious it is in music, just the legal side, what you can and can’t do. But then it just showed me, with music you have to really take every step, you can’t skip steps. Because so many people are coming out doing Four Bar Friday, it was like—there are so many people pursuing the same dream and you can’t be disrespectful and try to skip steps and just use your status as an athlete. That just encouraged me to take my time and just do it brick by brick.

Like, alright, I’m going to do SoundCloud. Then I’m going to freestyle over other beats. Then I’ll keep doing Four Bar Friday. Then I’m going to try and do some features and do some shows and stuff like that before I just put an album out and expect people to buy it because I’m Dame Lillard, you know? That was the biggest thing in the beginning.

AS: You’re interviewed a lot for your other job but I wonder what music or rapping might offer you in terms of verbal expression. Does it give you a platform to say things that other more traditional avenues you’ve been exposed to do not?

DL: I think it provides balance for me. Like I was telling you earlier, I’m anal about my training and my diet and making sure that I’m preparing myself and all those things. So, when you’re so high-strung on that, you have to have something to ease you up a little bit. Something to take your mind to a different place and get you off of it so you don’t burn yourself out.

That’s what music is for me. I use that to express myself and to just give people — I turned it into a thing where I give people a deeper look into who they deal with, as an athlete, you know? I know that I love music, so I’ll use it in a way also where, okay, they hear my interviews where other people are asking me questions about the game or the winning streak or the losing streak or things like that. But they don’t know anything else. I’m sure they would love to have a peek behind the curtain, like, what is his life actually like? What really goes on?

So, I use music to do that and I think what it’s done is not just show people that I can rap and that I’m serious about the music. But it’s also given them a look into the real person that they’re looking at on TV and stuff. It’s giving them an opportunity to be a fan of me overall and not just a fan of me scoring 50 points.

AS: Your song “Dre Grant” really stands out. And it makes me wonder how family and community or even religion impact your sense of creativity? If those ties to your sense of home influence your work?

DL: I mean, it’s like you said—it’s the influence. When I do my music, the message behind my music is something I want people to be able to follow. I feel like a lot of the things we hear in music and we see on TV and that we hear on the radio, whatever it might be, it has influence. So, people start thinking that that’s the way to go, that’s the way to do things, this is the way I need to fit in, this is what I need to be on the right track.

So, for me, I try to make my music that, you know, by my words and the things that I choose to put out there. So people know, like, if I connect with him, or if I feel the way that he feels, it’s okay for me to feel this way, you know? I like to give people something that’s positive and real and authentic to follow so they know — it’s not like whatever is mainstream and whatever is being pushed the most, I don’t have to go that way.

I just try to put something real out there, something that people who may feel like I feel or come from where I come from or have a family like I have or might be living the same life as me in another way, smaller or bigger, or whatever, could use that as direction, could use that as support.

AS: What was the genesis of your new record? How or when did you write it, what were some of the important themes for you to express?

DL: It was made over, like, the course of maybe a year, I was just putting it together. In the past, I was working on albums in 10 days, 11 days, because I didn’t have time, so I would just have to rush it. This one, you know, I haven’t put an album out since ’19. I was just taking my time and I wanted it to come together the right way because I wanted it to be strong. It basically is just addressing where I am now, and how I got here, how I’m feeling about things.

Just standing in the moment and embracing how I am in my life and sharing it. So, I mean, that’s really it. My first album was the introduction, I shared some. And I feel like it was time for this type of album, that’s what it’s self-titled with my rap name and the acronym, Different On Levels The Lord Allows. I want to share why I think I represent that and why I’ve had an impact on where I am now, why I’ve been successful and why I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten to.

AS: Your dedication and the idea of “not skipping steps” is so difficult, especially in a world where people think just because they’re social media friends with someone they deserve those same rewards. So, you keep such a high bar and you work so hard—where does that come from and how do you stick to it?

DL: I think it’s innate and I think it also is just a part of my foundation. My family and the way I follow behind my dad’s footsteps and the way I listen and the way I watch and see things. It’s like when I set the goals of, alright I want to make it to the NBA— I was more paranoid that I wasn’t doing enough the entire time than I was like, “I’m just going to make it!” So, it was like, “I’ll check every box.”

I didn’t skip workouts, I was never late to a workout. I got into the cold tub all the time, I went to sleep at a certain time. I was never late to a class my entire time. I went to college for four years and I was never late to class. I never missed class. I felt like everything counted. It was like, “Everything counts.” I don’t want to mistreat nobody, I don’t want to—I just was trying to check every box and do everything to the best of my ability.

I wasn’t the most talented and I wasn’t the most gifted in size or length or athleticism, or whatever, but I feel like to this day, I’ve reached the level that I’ve reached as an athlete and just as a person because I live my life that way. Checking every box. To me, that’s what I think gives you the chance to get the results you want and to reach success. You do the work, you get the results. So, with my music, it was like, well, I feel like I got the recipe for getting to where you want to get to by how I approached my whole life to get to the NBA. So, I need to do the same thing for my music if I expect to accomplish what I want to accomplish in music.

And that’s checking every box and doing everything the right way. Just embracing it for the challenge that it is. That’s how I’ve done it. That’s why I’ve been able to take my time and do each thing without skipping over stuff or expecting it to be one way and it’s not. It’s just like, alright — even if the growth is slow, it’s still growth. And it’s just making sure that I keep doing that.  

AS: What do you love most about music?

DL: The thing I love most about music is the feeling that I get when I connect with the artist. Obviously, we all love the beat and the production and the bounce to music, I think everybody loves that. Or just the softness or the smoothness of it, if it’s not rap. But I think the best feeling for me, as a listener, is when the artist is — when I’m listening to an artist’s music and I connect with them.

Like, they say something and I’m like, “Man, that happened to me, too!” Or, “Man, I feel the same way!” Or, “Man, he’s speaking from a place that you just got to know. If you know, you know.” And I’ve been in that place. I love that moment and that’s why I’m a big fan of J. Cole because I feel like that when I listen to a lot of his music. So, as an artist myself, the best part is when people are telling me, like, “Man, this is my favorite song! Because I was going through a time in my life and this was speaking to me.”

Usually, it’s a song that I might appreciate the least, like, that wasn’t my favorite. But somebody is connecting with it. That’s my favorite thing about music. Because music is like—when you make music, it’s yours when you’re making it. But when you put it out to the public, it’s not yours anymore. It’s other people’s. Because they’re the ones receiving it and becoming attached to it and connecting with it. So, that’s the best part about it!

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