Meet Desiigner: Teen Sensation Behind ‘Panda’
How Brooklyn rapper turned a $200 beat into a deal with Kanye – and a smash hit
“Goddamn, it’s hot out here!” Desiigner cries out. “It’s like Jesus times – Bible heat! I’m about to pass the fuck out.”
It’s noon in Las Vegas, and the 19-year-old MC is on his way to the airport. He’s from Brooklyn, so the desert climate is taking some getting used to. Desiigner’s in Vegas because he performed at the club 1OAK last night, riding the success of his breakthrough single, “Panda.” The song, which Kanye West sampled extensively on The Life of Pablo, rose to Number One on the Hot 100 in April, powered by a bullying beat and Desiigner’s slurred singsong. The beat, it turns out, was made by a European kid named Menace, who Desiigner never met – he bought it from him online for $200, in what has to be one of pop’s all-time greatest returns on an investment.
“Panda” is both hard and playful – its central conceit is that a white BMW X6 resembles a panda, which is an adorable way to celebrate conspicuous consumption. (The song’s sonic and thematic resemblances to the music of Future have been identified by admirers and detractors alike. Desiigner routinely brushes off the comparisons: “God gave him a blessing, but he gave me a blessing too,” he’s said.) The six-foot-five Desiigner says he relates to music intuitively. “I got a whole lot of slugs in the chamber. Music is everything. I’m like a big-ass music note with arms and legs!”
He was born Sidney Selby III and grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “My dad worked on ambulances for a while; my mother had a lot of different jobs with the city,” he recalls. He’s loved music as long as he can remember. “I played the sax at school. I was in marching band. My moms and pops listened to Funkadelic, Michael, Aerosmith – I fucked with rock & roll. My grandfather is a blues musician” – Sidney Selby, who played with the Isley Brothers and the Drifters, among others – “so my mind was everywhere. You’d be surprised what you’d catch on my playlist.”
For Desiigner, music wasn’t just a passion but a means of escape. “I tried selling drugs – it didn’t work,” he says. When he was 14, in circumstances that he declines to detail, a bullet hit him in the hip – an experience that put him briefly in the hospital, and which convinced him to pursue music for a living: “My advice now is stay positive and get your money.”
That attitude paid off in January, when he was interrupted by a phone call while working on new music. It was Kanye, who had caught wind of “Panda” as it bubbled online, asking Desiigner to meet him in L.A. Desiigner soon signed with G.O.O.D. Music, Kanye’s imprint at Def Jam. His rapping tends to privilege sound over sense – he’s hypermelodic, rhythmically inventive and frequently unintelligible. “I play with my voice, make it sound crazy,” he says.
In recent weeks, Desiigner has called a studio in North Hollywood home. His camp tells me he’ll be releasing a mixtape imminently, but when I ask him what he’s got coming, he’s whimsical: “I’m working on a whole lot of bangers. I’m making movies, you feel me? The album will come out maybe the top of next year – but I’m a true artist. I might drop an album tomorrow!”
When I ask how he celebrated “Panda” going to Number One, he laughs. As some lyrics on “Panda” indicate, he’s partial to mellow drugs. “I just smoke weed – only the herbals, maybe a little lean here and there,” he says, and any time he spends in nightclubs is as a performer, quickly shown the door the moment he’s done onstage. “I’m 19!” he reminds me, getting ready to board his plane. “I need to turn 21 so I can actually stay in these clubs!”