Rapper Dej Loaf speaks softly, but makes a lot of noise

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Rappers tend to be loud, boisterous, bigger than the room. Not Dej Loaf. The Detroit rapper is so soft spoken, it's disarming, and she talks in a hushed tone like she has a librarian hovering over her shoulder.

For someone so quiet, she sure is making a lot of noise. A few months ago, she uploaded her dreamy rapped-sung single "Try Me" to her Soundcloud account hoping to pick up 5,000 plays. To date, its received 10.2 million. Add in another 6 million hits on YouTube and 1.2 million spins on Spotify, and you have a genuine hip-hop sensation on your hands.

Other rappers offered praise. Drake quoted the song on his Instagram, Wiz Khalifa, T.I. and E-40 chimed in with remixes. And record labels came calling: after meeting with most of the majors, she inked a deal with Columbia Records, who will release her debut album in 2015.

To add to the madness, she also appears on the all-star "Detroit Vs. Everybody" track, which premiered Monday. The song, from Eminem's upcoming Shady Records compilation "Shady XV," features her alongside Em, Big Sean, Royce da 5'9", Danny Brown and Trick Trick.

Things have happened very fast for the 23-year-old, who is handling them the best she can. Last week she was briefly in town recording a clean radio version of "Try Me" at a studio in Oak Park before heading off on a two-week promo tour the next morning. Asked what it was like to be her these days, she took her muted voice down to a near-whisper.

"It's, like, overwhelming a little bit," she said, like she was telling a secret.

She's not complaining. A few months ago she was working as a janitor and now she's traveling all around the country meeting fans and making appearances. She was even on BET's "106 & Park" last week, wearing an all-white, full-length mink coat.

"This is what I asked for in my life, and I'm here," she says, "and I'm ready to work."

Dej Loaf was born Deja Trimble and was raised in the Fairview Manor apartments on Detroit's east side. Before her father was killed when she was 4, he would sit her on his lap and they would listen to music together, from 2Pac to Rakim to Miles Davis.

Music was always around — mom would listen to Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton, grandma would play Erykah Badu — and Dej (rhymes with "beige") would spend her time jotting down lyrics to her favorite songs and deciphering the lyrics. She remembers playing J.J. Fad's lightning fast "Supersonic" and trying to decode it. "They were really saying stuff if you pay attention, but you've gotta listen," she says.

She was a good kid and a decent student, she says, and mostly kept to herself. Around age 9, she started writing her own songs and treated music like her diary.

"I didn't have a vision; I was just writing what I heard," she says.

She played basketball, but fell out of it at the junior varsity level and then started taking music more seriously. "I dropped the ball and picked up the pen," she says, like it's a line to one of her songs.

After high school, she attended Saginaw Valley State University to study nursing but lasted only three semesters. She wasn't fully committed to campus life and was coming home most weekends to be with family and friends.

"I was just kind of wasting time and money," she says. "My heart wasn't really in it."

She came home and poured her heart into her first mixtape, "Just Do It," which was released in 2012. She rapped about her life in an honest, confessional manner, and her style and manner caught the attention of fellow Detroit rapper Say It Ain't Tone.

"I saw potential, I saw what she could do, and I had a vision for her," says Tone, a close friend and associate of Big Sean. He saw her as a Lauryn Hill or a Drake type, someone who could cross genre barriers and gender lines with the street smarts that made her cool enough for males and females to embrace.

Tone wooed Dej to join his clique, IBGM (I Been Gettin' Money) and his management team, and has been working closely with her ever since.

"I can see her being one of the people from Detroit to really make it," he says.

"Try Me" is a big step in that direction. In the song, Dej threatens to dismantle opponents like she's flipping through a menu at an Italian restaurant, at various points offering to turn them into macaroni, pasta and a pizza. The chorus is a warning that Dej will off someone's whole family if they come at her the wrong way, but her delivery is so delicate that it feels intoxicating, rather than menacing.

She was hesitant to release "Try Me" at first because of its violent imagery, but she saw truth in the words. She uploaded it in August and it quickly gained footing in the Bay Area, and by early September, it was buzzing nationwide. The video hit in late September and finds Dej wearing a jersey saluting WWE bad boys D-Generation X.

"Try Me," which is currently No. 64 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart (it's No. 15 on the magazine's Hot Rap Songs chart), is a taste of what she has in store, and she's trying not to let it overshadow her work.

"Try Me's" cool, but I have more music though," she says.

On the heels of the song's success, she released her second mixtape "Sell Sole" last month.

People that know her are surprised by her breakout.

"I've got a lot of people now like, 'quiet little Deja? From high school?' " she says. But she knew her potential.

"I always knew I was good. The music I grew up listening to, I knew if they can do that, I can do that."

She doesn't get starstruck, she says, but there's been instances where she's been taken aback. Like when Badu called her on the phone the other day.

"She said if you ever need any advice, just let me know, I'm here for you, I like what you're doing," she says. " 'Anything you need.' I was like wow, really Erykah? OK, cool."

And then there was the time a few weeks ago when Royce told her to come through the studio to record a track. She wasn't sure what would become of it until she saw the track listing for "Shady XV" and saw she was sharing real estate with Eminem, Big Sean and the rest of Detroit's finest on "Detroit Vs. Everybody." "That's a big song," she says. "It's a good look for the city."

Next up is her debut album, which she hopes to have ready by springtime. She's got some tracks in the can already and is waiting to sit down and write about her experiences over the last few months.

"My album's going to be dope, I'm betting on it," she says. She's toying with calling it "Flavors:" "I've got different flavors, I've got a song for everybody," she says. "I don't just got one, I'm not just in a box. I've got something for you, you, you, you, you."

For the time being, she sees herself staying in Michigan.

"I always thought the first chance I'd get that I'd want to leave," she says. But her travel schedule is making her yearn for Detroit. (She has yet to venture overseas; she hasn't had time to get a passport.)

A recent trip to New York, where she left her phone in the back of an Uber car, soured her on the Big Apple. She thought the driver would return it — "like a good New York citizen," she says — but he let her down. (She had several voice memos on the phone that she hoped to eventually turn into songs.)

"I've been all these places, and I just don't feel at home when I go out," she says. "They're cool, but I'm ready to get back to the city."