In the broken-down basement of Saint Andrew’s Hall, the historic Detroit music venue that’s rumbled with the reverb of everyone from Iggy Pop to Eminem, a group of 20 or so rappers, their posses, and various scenesters are taking drags of cigar-size blunts, counting stacks of cash, and chatting as a showcase gets started upstairs. Young Thug and Travis Scott, arguably two of the hottest young stars in hip-hop, are here. So is Bryan “Birdman” Williams, the high-rolling co-founder of Cash Money Records.
But the only one anybody seems to care about is Dej Loaf, a short-haired, five-foot-nothing 24-year-old wearing a white track jacket with the words “self made” emblazoned on the back. She began the evening standing alone in a corner but was soon beckoned to the center, where, one by one, nearly every person asked to snap a selfie or share a word.
“It’s tough to have the world watching you,” Dej confessed earlier. And yet the casual cool with which she mingles among the hip-hop Cosa Nostra makes it obvious she’s growing accustomed to the spotlight.
Dej, born Deja Trimble, has been one of the most talked-about new talents in hip-hop ever since 2014’s $ell Sole mixtape. The self-described shy girl made a lot of noise with the tightly wound collection, especially the single “Try Me,” a melodic, threatening number that quickly became a de facto street anthem. Drake and Wiz Khalifa shouted it out, as did Nicki Minaj, with whom she’ll be touring this summer. The masses caught on, and soon Dej was lighting up Soundcloud, drawing comparisons to everyone from Lil’ Kim to Lauryn Hill, and signing with Columbia.
“I don’t feel like I’ve made it yet,” she says as we sit in her recording studio a few hours prior to the showcase. “You’ve got to keep it going. People, their attention span is like…” Her soft, gauzy voice rises slightly, and she flails her arms to the sky. “People are never satisfied.”
Collective Studios, where Dej records, occupies two sides of an industrial block. She spends most of her hours there, crafting hooks, sharpening lyrics. It sits on the west side of Detroit, clear across the city from the eastside projects where she grew up, a childhood that was rough even by Detroit’s standards. Dej’s father was murdered when she was four, and she and her two brothers lived with her drug-dealing grandmother. “It was just a different lifestyle,” she says. “We had literally nothing. I saw a lot of stuff at an early age.”
As a child, Dej was cripplingly introverted. But music always spoke to her. “Even if it wasn’t good, I always found a CD and just played it,” Dej says, recalling how she’d sit on her father’s lap, rapping along with 2pac and E-40. Latrice Hudson, Dej’s mother, noticed her daughter’s ear. “There was never a moment when she wasn’t doing something with it,” she says. “Dej was motivated with music more than anything.”
Dej wrote lyrics and beats all throughout high school. It was during her time at Saginaw Valley State University that she started to work on what would become her debut mixtape, 2012’s "Just Do It. “I was just feeling myself more, finding out who I was,” she says. The album’s confessional style was born of the transition to adulthood. “It was the ups and downs,” she says. “Just not having a lot going for yourself.”
Dej began traveling back to Detroit and immersing herself in the underground scene. Eventually, she built up the courage to perform.
“It was like, OK, I get it. I’m who I am now,” she says.
“When I saw her perform for the first time, it was kind of like the first time I heard Lil’ Kim rap,” says Big Soj, Dej’s engineer and musical confidant. “She commanded attention.”
Dej admits that those who knew her would never believe that shy girl was now performing in front of thousands, threatening to “leave a bitch nigga head in pasta.” But it’s all part of her persona.
“When she’s performing, that’s a performance,” her mother says, laughing. “She’s still the same quiet, shy person.”
Minutes after taking a break from the crowd and idling in a back stairwell, Dej is onstage with Young Thug. Her limbs start bouncing in sync to the beat, and she radiates confidence. “Hey, let a nigga try me in this motherfucker!” she yells to the packed house. She’s happy, smiling behind gold-rimmed Cartier glasses.
The glasses are important; they’re a Detroit status symbol. “Growing up, if you had a pair, you were doing something,” she says. Dej hasn’t splurged on much: an MCM pink backpack, a 300S for her mom. As a woman who, when working as a janitor, was once forced to scrub floors with a toothbrush, Dej knows it could soon disappear.
“You never get used to this,” she says after her set.
We continue talking, and she returns to her demure self before a man interrupts. “I’m sorry, but they’re yelling. They want you back.”
The young star smiles, turns, and strides back upstairs.
Photos by Photo by: Ryan Lowry