Lillard Goes Deeper Into 'Who I Am And Why I Do What I Do' With Release of 'The Letter O'
It’s a damp Tuesday afternoon and the Portland Trail Blazers are preparing to leave for a two-game road trip to end their 2016 preseason schedule. Though he was one of the last players to leave the court after the team’s practice in Tualatin earlier in the day, point guard Damian Lillard is the first player to arrive at Portland International Airport.
Flanked by private jets, Lillard drives his black Porsche Panamera onto the tarmac in a scene that wouldn’t at all be out of place in a 90’s rap video, backing into a parking spot in front of a mostly empty hangar.
But he’s early for the flight, so rather than grabbing his luggage and going through security, he rolls the passenger side window down, releasing a wave of bass and treble that gradually increases in volume as the tinted glass descends into the door, and posses a question.
“You wanna little taste of this album?”
At this point, Lillard’s foray into rap music under the nom de geurre “Dame D.O.L.L.A.” is well known in both NBA and entertainment circles. While he had been rapping since high school with friends and family, his career as a musician really started to take form when he launched #4BarFriday, a weekly social media based project in which Lillard posts videos of short, four line verses while encouraging others to do the same. That evolved into Lillard posting mixtape versions of existing tracks on his Soundcloud account for 10 consecutive weeks during the 2015 NBA offseason, which became known as “Music Monday.”
With those two projects, Lillard proved he could handle himself in terms of writing and performing, which led to the recording of his first full-length original song, “Bigger Than Us.” Between the song being featured in a JBL Audio commercial and the music video airing nationally on TNT during their yearly slate of Martin Luther King Jr. Day games, “Bigger Than Us” marked a transition for Lillard’s career as an artist. What had been mostly a hobby was now, to pardon the pun, something bigger.
All the while, Lillard toyed with the idea of releasing an album, but for a number of reasons — not the least of which was being one of the last men standing on a team that saw nine players depart in one offseason — the timing just wasn’t right. And though he’s never been one to lack confidence, there might have been a little doubt as to whether he could pull off such and undertaking, and more importantly, if anyone would even care to listen if he did.
It wasn’t until his first live show at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland last July, a show that sold out within minutes, that Lillard knew for sure that he was going to record a full-length album.
“After my show on my birthday I was like, ‘Man, this is pretty cool,’ said Lillard. “It’s one of those things where you’re like, I can really enjoy my life, I can really enjoy this experience of being able to make it to the league and have that help me build other platforms and do other things. With my love for music, I was like, ‘I could put an album out and this could be some fun. Over the summer, I could have some fun with this.’”
So from there, Lillard embarked on the initial stages of putting a plan in motion to release an album. With the help of Nate Jones of Goodwin Sports Management, Lillard was put in contact with an artists and repertoire professional, Derrick Hardy of Chatham Management Group, to start the process of finding beats that were to his liking.
“(Hardy) reached out to a bunch of producers and got like 100 beats,” said Lillard. “I flew to L.A. — one of my best friends lives in L.A. — I was hanging out with him, sitting in the studio with Derek and we just listening. We were in Pasadena and we sat in the studio for hours listening to beats back to back to back, and if I liked it, we’d mark it off. We just listened to all the beats and when I left the studio, every beat that I marked I sent to my email and saved it on my computer.”
With the beats in his back pocket, Lillard left Los Angeles for Las Vegas to perform at an Adidas event, then on to Ogden, Utah to visit friends before heading to Boise, Idaho, not exactly a hotbed of hip hop, to begin offseason workouts with Phil Beckner, one of his coaches during his days at Weber State. In between those workouts, Lillard was using any spare moment to write lyrics and flesh out what he wanted the concept of his album to be.
“Over all that traveling I had my laptop and my backpack and my headphones with me and when I’d be going through the airport, going to the hotel, sitting in the hotel after my workouts, I’d sit there and listen to the beats,” said Lillard. “I came up with the idea that I’m just going to tell my story from start to finish, that’s what I wanted the album to be based on. I thought it would be a good introduction with my music, kind of just sharing a lot of stuff that people might not know. ‘This song could be about this. This could be the intro. This could be this, this could be that.’ I kind of broke it down like that and I just started writing.
“Once I got my concepts down for each beat then I just started going through the beats and I’d write a hook, I’d come up with the hook first about what I’d want the song to be about. I got to Ogden and I wrote a song about college when I was in Ogden, so that was cool. It’s called 'Wasatch Front' because everything that sit up on the mountain is on the Wasatch Front, so I named the song after that.”
Lillard would continue working out every morning and then writing at night in preparation for hitting the studio. Eventually, he would completely or partially write ten songs with titles such as “Bill Walton,” “Growth Spurt,” “Misguided” and “Loyal To The Soil,” all of which describe parts of Lillard’s life, from growing up hard in Oakland to living the life of an NBA player in Portland.
“I really like it because it’s real, it’s like all this shit is real,” said Lillard. “I’m proud to be able to put something out where I know I’m telling the truth in every single thing I say. It’s pretty cool.”
After a week of grueling workouts in Boise, Lillard headed back to Los Angeles to start recording the album, “The Letter O.” While the process of recording in the studio is obviously much less physically demanding than high-energy workouts he does every offseason with Beckner, the focus required to record an album from start to finish in a short period of time was not insignificant.
“I recorded the entire album in L.A. and it took me one week,” said Lillard. “So I was there for five days and from 12 noon to 12 midnight I was in the studio. I’d workout at 8 am and then I’d go lift and then I’d go to the studio, 12 to 12, five days straight.”
Though he showed up to the studio with roughly 10 songs written, he ended up writing three more with his cousins Brookfield Deuce and Danny from Sobrante, including the track “Thank You” about their grandmother, which also features singer Marsha Ambrosius.
Then there was the task of determining what artists would be featured on various tracks throughout the album. There’s “Plans” featuring Jamie Foxx, “Legacy” featuring Juvenile, “Loyal To The Soil” with Lil’ Wayne and “Baggage” with Adrian Marcel. After a couple of days recording “dummy” tracks in order to get a rough sense of how each song sounded, Lillard moved on to the final stage, at least in terms of his daily involvement, before heading back to Portland.
“On the fourth day, I went in the studio and I recorded one verse,” said Lillard. “Then I recorded the next verse, and the next verse, and then I did ad-libs and then I doubled it, then I did the next song. We just knocked it out, knocked it out real quick. We sent them out, got features, got people to send they stuff back.”
All told, Lillard finished his studio work in under a week, all while continuing his regular workout schedule. The idea that Lillard should be working on improving his game instead of recording in the studio has always been moronic — how a player decides to spend his time in the offseason is his own business — but in this case, the criticism wasn’t even applicable, as he spent just as much time in the gym has he did the year before, if not more so. The only difference is some of the workouts this year took place in Los Angeles.
Sitting on the tarmac at PDX, Lillard leans back in his seat before playing the first two tracks from “The Letter O”, “Bill Walton” and “Wasatch Front,” as teammates, coaches and team staff pull into parking spots around him. Though he’s surely listened to the tracks over and over again, there’s still a look of excitement and pride on his face as heads bob along to the beat.
“I almost put something out last year and I was like ‘Nah, I can’t put this out,’” said Lillard. “But this right here, this the one, fo sho. I don’t know how Shaq’s album sold or how legit it was with how it sold, but people are going to like this. They’re going to like it, I know it. This gonna be the best rap NBA album in history, I’m telling you.”
No matter where you listen, be it in your car before boarding a charter flight or riding the bus on your way to work, Lillard hopes that you get a little taste of who he is through his music. He’s always been relatively open and upfront about his thoughts and feelings, but “The Letter O” has given him the opportunity to go deeper than ever before.
“I want people to get to know me,” said Lillard. “I think everybody talk about ‘I grew up like this and this is where I’m from, and blah blah blah.’ But I want people to hear like, this is how I really grew up, this is what has made me who I am. This is why I act how I act, this is why I feel how I feel about myself and the stuff that I do. I think it’ll explain a lot about who I am and why I do what I do, for real. Give people a chance to get to know me and the situations I’ve been in."