Most 42 Dugg songs start with a whistle, like a sporting event. In recent months, the Detroit rapper’s resonant signature has become a viral meme, signaling the beginning of something special. Like most of the 25-year-old’s moves when it comes to music, the whistle is something that came about naturally. “I was at the studio thinking what I could do to make sure I start rapping when the drop came in,” he says, “so I started whistling and it came in perfectly. I don’t even remember what song that was.”
Over the past two years, Dugg has risen out of a storied Detroit rap scene packed with talent and charisma. Still, he’s been able to set himself apart, showing a versatility that first led to regional hits, like “Mama I’m Sorry” and “Stfu,” and now complements Top 40 records like “We Paid,” with his label boss Lil Baby. Dugg can effortlessly rap in the ahead-of-the-beat boasts that have come to characterize Detroit rap and sing melodic hooks over the same arpeggiated beats. His music is equal parts world-weary and fun, making room for both extravagance and pain—often in the same verse.
In conversation, Dugg is measured, saying only what’s needed to get the facts across without going into too much detail. But, in talking about the technical aspects of his rapping—freestyling versus writing, melody versus rapping—he begins to open up, seeming to admire his own cleverness the same way it’s easy to imagine him doing while listening to his songs.
On the heels of the deluxe release of his 2020 Young & Turnt 2, Audiomack spoke to 42 Dugg about first starting to rap while in prison, breaking out of Detroit, and how shooting dice with Lil Baby led to a record deal.
Tell me a little bit about where you’re from.
I grew up on the east side of Detroit. It was a lot of ups and downs. I seen a lot of young muhfuckas get killed. I seen a lot of young muhfuckas thrive too, though. It was really just... pick your poison. I was a badass kid, no cap. I was always getting kicked out of school and shit like that. I just wanted to have fun.
What was having fun to you back then?
Going skating, riding bikes, going to high school parties. [Royal] Skateland was popping.
What music was important to you at that time?
Who in your life did you look up to growing up?
I looked up to my daddy, my uncles. One of them died, one in jail, one still out. I talk to Reese every night, I hope he hear me / Quarter milli when I’m dressing my hair litty.
What was going on in your life around the time you got arrested at 15?
Everyday shit. I was catching cases, getting caught with guns. Just dumb-ass shit.
What inspired you to first start rapping?
I first started rapping in jail when I went to the hole. I was bored as hell. I didn’t have nothing to do. 23-hour lockdown. I was keeping to myself, though, for the most part. I probably rapped to other people a few times.
Six years is such a long time for someone that young to be locked up. Besides writing raps, what else got you through it?
The phone, letters, pictures. I had a big support system in there. My mama—she helped me get through it.
When you got and got back to your neighborhood, had anything changed?
Yeah, it changed. Wasn’t nobody in the hood no more. Everybody was older. Six years is a minute.
Being in prison for that long at that time in your life, did you feel like you had missed out on growing up, being a teenager?
A little bit. I missed my 12th grade year—I was hot about that. Shit, it all worked out.
How quickly did you start recording after you got out?
Probably like two weeks. First song I did was “Mama I’m Sorry,” or the first song I did with Helluva was “Mama I’m Sorry.”
How did you first connect with Helluva? He seems like a big mentor figure in Detroit.
My friend had already been going to his studio, and they was already locked in. He took me to him and paid for a beat. Then we just started working. He didn’t even make my pay after that. I had a whole bunch of songs that I still ain’t even finished I wrote while I was in jail. A whole notebook full.
When did you first start to notice yourself getting a buzz at home?
It was a song called “Stfu.” Everybody knew my verse on that song. It helped out all my solo songs a lot.
At what point did you connect with Lil Baby?
I met him in Cali while I was with Tee Grizzley. We would just be meeting up in different cities, gambling, shooting dice. I probably won like a hundred thousand that first day.
When did music come into the picture for you two?
I started going to Atlanta just kicking it. One day, he called me into QC studio, and I played him some shit. He was like, “Send me them songs.” He posted ‘em and they started going up. Probably around the end of 2018, we started talking about me getting signed.
You mentioned Jeezy was your favorite rapper growing up. Detroit and Atlanta have a long history together. How do you see that connection in this generation?
I just feel like real n****s connect no matter where you at. Real recognize real. A lot of stuff they talk about, I can relate. A lot of stuff I be talking about, they can relate.
A lot of your solo music is deep in the Detroit sound, but then your collaborations with Lil Baby sound more like what’s going on in the South. Was that an adjustment for you?
Nah, I just try to stay in my bag on any song or any beat. I just do my thing to hold up my end of it.
Tell me about recording “We Paid.” What do you remember about that session?
We was in Miami. I think it was Super Bowl weekend. It’s so funny ‘cause I just was looking at Twitter and there’s this video of us in the studio from the same day we recorded “We Paid.” When we went in there, bro was playing beats and shit. I really ain’t even like the “We Paid” beat, but I was like, “Shit, I can make it work.” I just went in there and rapped.
One of the things I was excited to see on the deluxe version of Young & Turnt 2 was your collab with DeJ Loaf.
When I first made that song, I ain’t really finish it. But I would play it for people, and they’d be like, “Man, you gotta finish that song.” I sent it to her unfinished and then her vocals got fucked up and we had to just redo it. I should have just gave her that song. I wonder if I would have just wrote that song and gave it to her, would it have been a hit for her?
Is that something you see yourself doing more down the line? Writing songs for other people?
Yeah, I’ma write some songs. I don’t know how much money I’ma get off it. I wrote a song for JT [from City Girls] before. I don’t even know if she recorded it or not. It was on some just getting-out-of-jail type shit.
You started out writing down songs in jail. Do you still write a lot now or mostly freestyle?
I freestyle everything now. It’s just on the spot and it comes out quick. I be trying to write but it’s like, bitch, I just don’t got the time [laughs]. I let the beat really tell me what to say, whether I’m gon’ rap, whether I’m gon’ sing. Some songs I might not rap at all.