New York, NY – When one listens to Drag-On’s bars, there’s no denying that this man has lived the hard-knock life. Providing a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of his native Bronx, the rapper’s lyrics invoke brutality and fear, giving him a larger-than-life presence behind the mic, and making it clear to the world that he is the furthest thing from a “studio gangsta.”
Which is why it’s surprising — in a rather pleasant way — that, when speaking to the man born Mel Jason Smalls, his soft-spoken words are thoughtful, modulated, and remarkably pleasant.
But don’t get it twisted — Drag-On says that he’s still out in the streets. “I still fuck with the homies I grew up with,” he told us in an exclusive phone interview, adding that he’s calmed down, significantly, since his halcyon days with the Ruff Ryders.
Calming down is a function of his age, to be sure — but it’s also a result of his experiences, both good and bad.
“There’s a lot of people that have left me, over the years,” he said. “But, now that I’m on my own, it leaves me in a great position to put out a bigger body of work.”
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That bigger body of work includes his latest mixtape, Barz on Fire 3. Featuring production by Merc Beats, CuddyOnTheBeats, and CrazeOnTheBeatz, Barz on Fire 3 has the support of Back In The Game Entertainment and the rapper’s own Hood Environment record label. Brooklyn MC Maino and Hartford, CT soul man Ru Williams are also featured on the mixtape, and its first single, “Icon,” got the work trending on DatPiff. (As of press time, the tape has more than 65,000 unique listens and more than 100,000 unique views.)
But the success of the offering doesn’t surprise the industry veteran — and he’s still humbled by its ability to help him reach a whole new generation of Hip Hop fans. “Mixtapes get treated like albums today,” he said. “In the right hands, they act like calling cards. They can launch an entire career.”
Drag-On’s ability to use modern technology to his advantage makes him unique amongst the so-called “old heads” of Hip Hop, who prefer to use more traditional routes in their marketing efforts. And while the MC is still relatively young, he’s still nearly 20 years removed from his debut work, Opposite of H20.
The then-19-year-old enjoyed a rocket ride to stardom as the album debuted at number five on the US Billboard 200 chart. Eventually, Opposite of H2O sold over 500,000 copies and earned a gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
But he wasn’t content with resting on his laurels — and, he says, veterans who do so often find themselves drawing the ire of the younger, more tech-savvy up-and-coming MCs.
When asked about this disconnect between older and younger generations — a phenomenon exclusive to Hip Hop, as other musical genres like rock’n’roll feature younger artists venerating their elders — Drag-On waxes a bit poetic. “You know, respect is a two-way street,” he said. “Now, I was brought up with respect, so I give it, and I expect to receive it in return. But, when the younger rappers were coming up, the older generation didn’t really show them love like that. Maybe because they didn’t get respect from the labels like that? And they got taken advantage of? I don’t know. What I know is, the young ones are trying to get in the game, and the older ones aren’t passing down the torch because they want ‘respect.’ But how can you expect a young man to respect you if you, as the elder, don’t respect him too?”
Drag-On said that he’s in a unique position to work with people based on their “energy” — whether they work well with him in the studio or not — and not based on their age. What’s more, he says, doing so has given him a chance to expand his creativity into other creative efforts. When the Tables Will Turn, a film he shot last year in Las Vegas, will be dropping in April, and he’ll be heading to Detroit to shoot another film with Baltimore Snoop.
And his success is all thanks to his start in rap music. Regardless of the ups and downs, Drag-On says he, ultimately, feels like he, and others, are winning at the game.
“I love the state of Hip Hop right now,” he said. “Artists are being empowered like never before. They have more avenues, and more autonomy, which gives them the opportunity to make more money. I see all this, and really, I don’t have too many complaints.”