Dama Nilz: From Jimmy Fallon to Applebee's to Warped Tour
Arguably the hardest working woman in New York hip-hop, Dama Nilz's struggle is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. Nilz has been a fixture of the underground rap scene despite life throwing her curveballs in-between her home-runs. Last winter she performed on "Jimmy Fallon," that spring she hit hard times and had to get a job at Applebee's, and that summer she got invited to perform on Warped Tour. The following winter she had to go back to hustling. She performs Friday, May 23rd, at Tobacco Road. We caught up with her to discuss the constant challenges of gaining acceptance as a female in an already competitive New York hip-hop scene, and how she began directing her own videos.
Mats Baken Photography Dama Nilz
Do you recall your first exposure to hip-hop?
Yeah, when I was seven or eight, my dad had a briefcase of cassettes. There was a bunch of different cassettes, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, whatever. But, there was a Young MC cassette. It was the "Bust a Move" two-track cassette. That was my first thing, and I remember playing it and being wowed at what they were saying. I was playing it for kids in the lobby. It didn't make me love hip-hop, it was just one of the things that hit me at that time. I was into that 2003 era of Lil Jon and right around then was when I started rapping, so that might have had something to do with it. I was 13 or 14. I was already writing songs, but raps in particular, I was trying to get really good at lyrics.
Typically kids at that age are either secretive about it or try to rap in front of everyone. Which were you?
I tried to rap in front of everyone. A lot of people. I was definitely rapping. People knew that I could rap, but I wasn't that good yet. I wasn't too out there with it, and I never went to school, so I couldn't be too popular for how I was at rapping. I was out in the streets and rapped here and there. I always ha a CD player on me with some Mobb Deep. That was me.
The New York underground hip-hop scene is pretty vast, especially at the end of the '00s. Where did you first break in?
I was traveling a lot with [rapper] Zeps, who I've known since I was 17. I had recorded a couple tracks in the Bronx, but then I met him in the neighborhood and he ended up taking me to the studio where I wound up recording my first album. I didn't really get started at open mics, it was more the Zeps shows at Bowery Poetry Club. We were there a lot, and Public Assembly when it was called Galapagos.
It can be challenging to break into hip-hop scenes both when you're that young, as well as when you're female. Did you find you had to overcome much, or were most of these audiences pretty receptive?
At first, I guess it was something I had to overcome. The being young thing was more of a problem because I had to use a fake ID and there was times when I couldn't get into my own show when I'm on the flyer because I'm not 21. In Albany once, dude looked up my address on the ID and asked me the cross-streets. It was hectic, but they let me in just to rock. That was when I was so eager to perform that I would do anything.
It was more of a curiosity. I always had to outperform and I always had to out-spit. I couldn't go in there and be "good for a girl" because I hate that so much. There's nothing that makes me more angry than "You're dope for a female, though." That shit stabs me in the neck. I had to be really good. There came a time when I wrote a verse to an AZ beat where I felt I'm actually good now, like I can actually listen to this. From there I started performing with Zeps and people were definitely receptive for sure.