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42 Dugg Is Working on Freedom—for Himself and His Partners

The Detroit rapper talks about his new project ‘Free Dem Boyz,’ his legal situation, and the time he gave a Corvette to Yo Gotti

CMG/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Yo! We need to do a show together.”

Sequestered in Atlanta, 42 Dugg is on the phone with comedian HaHa Davis. His latest project, Free Dem Boyz, drops this week, and he’s doing interviews from the corner of the living room, draped in diamonds and designer clothes with a monitor wrapped around his right ankle.

The monitor, worn because of a pending case for gun charges, is also a reminder of how the 26-year-old got his start in the industry. Dugg taught himself how to rap nearly a decade ago to pass the time in solitary confinement while serving a sentence for carjacking and gun possession when he was 15. He rapped so much that he made a project: 11241 Wayburn in 2018, which caught the attention of fellow Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley. Grizzley then took Dugg to Los Angeles, where he met his now favorite collaborator, Lil Baby, during a dice game. They recorded some records and collaborated on hits “Grace” and “We Paid,” the latter of which has racked up nearly 200 million streams on Spotify. After signing a joint venture deal with Baby’s 4 Pockets Full Inc. and Yo Gotti’s CMG imprint, he began to find his path, releasing two volumes of his Young and Turnt series and becoming one of hip-hop’s biggest new acts.

He raps about pain, trapping, and using utter grit to get out of his circumstances. Songs like “Mama, I’m Sorry” paint the picture of a young man who sees rap as a ticket out, but doesn’t know yet how to cash in. Success has come, but so have other incidents. A year ago, he was arrested for a federal firearms charge days before he was scheduled to perform at Little Caesars Arena in his hometown of Detroit. Yet here he is, trying to make good on his potential, hoping his ambition and talent can bring his community out of poverty.

When we spoke he seemed happy, even with immense pressure to succeed, and perhaps anxious about his new project’s release. After a while, he got off the phone with Davis, put on a jacket, sat down, and made sure his chains were glistening in just the right light before the interview began.

What’s the meaning behind the title Free Dem Boyz?

I made it for all my people in jail, all my big brothers in jail. It’s really just paying homage to them. The majority of them are in there for something they ain’t do. So I really just wanted to shine a light on that, and I really just want to give them a whole project dedicated to them so when that motherfucker gets to jail or gets to the feds, they know what I was thinking about or they hear their names more than regular.

How has it been rolling out an album right now? It’s a weird time in the world.

It’s been kind of up and down. I had a lot of shows, but I probably would have had a lot more if the world was open. We’ve been taking the good with the bad.

The first song that I heard was “We Paid” with Lil Baby. I thought, “Man, this shit is like Boosie and Webbie on ‘Full of Dat Shit.’ This is like Kobe and Shaq.” There’s a lot of chemistry there. When did you know that your connection was different?

We like to rap, but we got chemistry in talking shit too. So a lot of times we be shooting dice or something, and we be talking shit. He be saying shit. I’m saying shit right behind him. So it’s really some natural shit. We talk shit crazy just like how we rap. That’s probably why our flow so good.

You’ve been hinting that you and Lil Baby are going to have a joint project. Are you guys going to actually do that? Or have you just been teasing us?

I don’t know. We got to see.

I really liked the first single of the new project, “4 Da Gang” with Roddy Ricch. It has a rock sample. It really showed me that this wasn’t just a normal dude—this dude, he’s sampling rock, he’s open to new sounds. What makes you open to these new sounds and wanting to try stuff? Because you could just be like, “Oh, I’mma just do what everyone thinks is a Detroit sound.”

I don’t put that much thought into it. I just do music. Whatever beat, whatever thing I like. I don’t give a fuck if it ain’t a rap beat at all. I just fuck with it how I fuck with it, for real. I don’t feel like I’m in a category box. Whatever I feel when I’m at the studio, I’mma do it.

What did you feel when you first heard the beat?

When I first heard that, I had just did the verse to “Members Only” with EST Gee. I’m playing the beat. I’m like, “Damn.” And Gotti had walked in. So when Gotti walked in, he was like, “Damn, I like this beat.” I’m like, “That motherfucker go hard.” I’m like, “I got to do something to it right now.” I did some shit to it, and I sent it to Roddy just on some “Listen to this.” He sent it back with a verse on there.

So you just was like, “Peep this right fast”? You weren’t expecting Roddy to get on it?

No. When he sent it back, he was like, “I’m about to try to do something with the hook.” And he had took some bars off the verse and made the hook. I’m like, “I want to drop this motherfucker.” We was supposed to drop it immediately, but some shit happened. But it came out right on time, for real.

Before the coronavirus hit, you had a show at Little Caesars Arena that ultimately got canceled because of COVID-19, but then you got arrested and it seems like your world was in flux. What was that time period like for you?

I really was looking forward to that show. You know everybody was going to be there, but circumstances, they ain’t let us do it. I was in jail, and I had got out a couple of days after the show was supposed to be over anyway. So I was happy they canceled it.

What’s it been like to be at your peak, but also have to deal with other situations, like jail time?

Just stay grounded. Motherfuckers have been going through this type of shit their whole life. So, I really ain’t new to this. I’m just trying to keep my game face on and let it blow through.

Does your legal situation wear on you?

You got that black cloud over you. So you be doing the best you can do, and motherfuckers always come fuck with you. Motherfuckers always put you in jail. So I’m really doing my best to get this shit away from me, hopefully. I feel like I’ll come out on top. I didn’t put nobody in harm. I really thought I was doing everything right.

A big part of your story is rapping and figuring out rap as a means to save your life. But how do you deal with trauma? You’re a jokester—but how did you channel trauma into making a rap career?

I just bottled everything in and switched it to music for real. Like all the situations I’ve been through, all the hard times I came across, I just switched it to music and it just started flowing for real.

What was writing raps in solitary confinement like? How do you fucking do that?

Jail is where my creativity came from. That’s how I knew I could rap from jail. It gave me my flow. I was in the hole by myself, and I just started writing. I used to just try to sing hooks in that motherfucker. Then motherfuckers started asking me “sing this, sing that one.” I went to bootcamp, and I had wrote a song called “Probably Not.”

When I got out, it wasn’t translating that much, because I ain’t never rapped on no beat before. So when I learned how to translate it, that’s how I knew it was something real. I knew how to rap. I started rapping to hooks and shit like that. I started linking with a couple of Detroit producers. They helped me find my sound and beats.

You have a song called “Not a Rapper.” Is rap a means to do something more in this industry for you? Or is it like “Yo, I’mma be the best rapper in the game”?

I really don’t have no goals as far as rap goes. I’m just trying to keep evolving. I ain’t really set out to be “Oh, I’mma be the best rapper. I want to have the best punch line.” No, I ain’t even no punch line artist. I’m just a motherfucker that’s going to tell you what it is or what I’m going through. If we having fun, I’mma tell you how we having fun.

Do you think that Detroit gets its just due in the industry?

No, I heard motherfuckers say that Detroit artists ain’t going to never go far. I heard somebody say that before. So I feel like motherfuckers still got a lot to learn about Detroit or a lot to respect about Detroit. I feel like we doing our thing right now, but some motherfuckers going to like us. Some ain’t.

On the first few albums you put out, it felt like you were just trying to get a lot out. What do you want to tell us on this album?

On this album, I’m giving you insight on a lot of my people that ain’t here, whether it’s dead or in jail. I really try to tell they stories.

They playing with motherfuckers out here. They putting people in jail for bullshit. I’m trying to shine a light on it. I got a brother doing 30 years for selling drugs—all on weed charges, though. They charged him with weed. I really try to put the light on that shit, see if I can get a few of them out.

I know one of the reasons I got into writing was I knew I had a platform to speak for people who couldn’t really speak for themselves.

That’s what this whole tape about, my people in jail. It’s really a letter to y’all, everybody going through some shit. I got a couple people that got life without parole, and they don’t even think they are getting out. But they hear that Free Dem Boyz, they know I’m talking about them.

How does that feel? Is there any survivor’s guilt there? Like you made it, but you want your partners to see this, too?

Hell yeah. That’s why everything I do, I try to go crazy. The BET Awards, I put all they names on my outfit. Shit like that. I’m trying to make them live through me.

You have a song “Mama, I’m Sorry.” I don’t know if that’s your grandma or your mother in that video, but she’s like, “Please. What are you doing? Don’t go out. You got curfew.” You’re like, “Nah, I got to do this.” Did it feel like you had a vision and some people just didn’t understand it?

That was just a play on a real-life situation. In 2010, 11 years ago, I had got kicked out of school. My mama told me “Don’t leave the house,” and I left the house. I caught a case, and I did six years for that. That just showed me your mama always got your best interest, and I had to put that in the video just to let motherfuckers know how real that was. That happened to me for real. She told me don’t leave the house. I left the house and did six years in prison from that.

“Mama, I’m Sorry” was something I wanted her to know. She went through a lot. I was the only child for 16 years. So my mama was stressed out without me there. I just wanted to let her know I’m sorry.

How’s the relationship now?

She for sure appreciates what I’m doing. She let me know every chance she get. I appreciate how much she appreciates me. I let her know, “Just thank you for being you, helping me out.” Right or wrong, she was with me. She ain’t going to let nobody else know I’m wrong, but she’ll tell me. I appreciate that, and that helped me out along the way.

What’s your best Yo Gotti story?

When I was 15, I went to prom. I was in 10th grade. I went in a Corvette. I was like 15 with a ’Vette. I was obsessed with Corvettes from then. So when I got out and I started rapping, they dropped a new C8 ’Vette. I’m like, “Damn, I want this motherfucker bad.” I finally gets that motherfucker. I finally gets the ’Vette.

This was my dream car. So Gotti pulled up to the studio while I got the ’Vette delivered. Man, something just told me like, “Man, fuck it.” I let him have it.

You let Gotti have it?

Yeah, it wasn’t for his birthday. It wasn’t for nothing special. I just told him, “Here, you can have it. Here.” I bought it for me. I ain’t buy it for Gotti or nothing, but it was just something. I just wanted to show him like, “Bro, I appreciate you for fucking with me. Appreciate you for everything you’ve done for me and my family.” I let him have my car I wanted my whole life.

How did he react to that?

He appreciated that. He told me, “Motherfuckers ain’t really do shit for me.” He stayed on the phone for an hour calling everybody like, “Man, Dugg just did this.” That did something for me, because that was my guy. I gave him something I wanted my whole life. That just shows you how much I appreciate him.

What’s up with the Tyler, the Creator collaboration? That’s an interesting relationship. How has that been?

I fuck with Ty. Ty a real goofy motherfucker. He hit me about “Been Turnt.” He like, “Man, this is hard.”

I need a Tyler, the Creator story.

Tyler so motherfucking funny. One day this motherfucker sends me a picture of a sore on his knee. Man, I’m like, “What the fuck wrong with you, Tyler, man?” But he’s so motherfucking silly. Then he sent me a cat with a jean jacket on. He just really a funny motherfucker.

When y’all going to put it out?

I’m waiting on Tyler for real.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.