Sidney Selby, aka Desiigner, rocketed to pop stardom with his hip-hop hit “Panda”. We talked to the 20-year-old about growing up in a Brooklyn housing project, his love of BMW and his greatest idol – his grandpa in Berlin.
- Robert Wunsch
- Lars Gaede
When your mega-hit “Panda” topped the charts last year, a lot of people initially thought it was about giant pandas. Then word spread that it was inspired by a car. Is that true?
Desiigner:Yes, it was a BMW X6 that was the inspiration for the track. In all-white with black-tinted windows, it looks to me exactly like a giant panda! Sometimes my brain just picks up on something, makes a connection – and that’s it. In this case, I’d just found the panda emoji on my phone, and then I saw the car somewhere on the road a bit later or maybe it was when I was playing on my console. I can’t remember now. Anyway, all of a sudden this association popped into my head. Next thing I was texting: “White X6, looks like a panda!” And it turned into a line on the track.
I see. What kind of car were you driving when the BMW X6 inspired the track?
Desiigner: Huh, none at all – I’d never owned a car up to that point. Had I even driven one? I maybe rode along in an Uber cab, but that was about it.
Did you even have a driver’s license?
Desiigner: No. But I sorted that out as soon as the money started coming in. Believe me, once I’d taken my test, I got a car as soon as I could. I’ve always been crazy about automobiles, you know.
So you went straight out and bought yourself a BMW X6 with…
Desiigner: Nope. I thought about it, but I’m a speed freak so I went for a dark grey BMW i8. The acceleration of this car – it’s crazy. When I was a kid, all I ever wanted was a Beamer. Nothing else was going to cut it.
What really grabs you about BMW cars?
Desiigner: Doesn’t matter if you’re looking at a 4 Series, a 5 Series or the new 750i – you always get this mixture of comfort and dynamics. And I like the way BMW does its M thing with different models.
The BMW i8 is a plug-in hybrid. Do you like driving electric cars?
Desiigner: I love my i8. It’s real quiet, of course. But I actually get a kick out of cars that make a lot of noise. If only you could get both at the same time!
“Even when I was a kid, all I ever wanted was a Beamer. Nothing else was going to cut it.”
You say you love driving. But soon cars will be able to take you from point A to B fully autonomously. What do you think about that?
Desiigner: That’s the future! Upgrade, baby! Evolution! I can’t wait to be sitting in a high-class car, then turn my seat around and take out my lunch. I’d miss driving, of course, but sometimes you just want a little bit of shut-eye, a power nap.
You grew up in Bed-Stuy, a historically poor neighborhood in Brooklyn. Do you still take your i8 down there from time to time?
Desiigner: Yeah, sure! I was down there just yesterday. I still like meeting up with my people from back then. But I never hang around too long.
No? Why not?
Desiigner: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly dangerous, but it’s not risk-free, either. There’s always gonna be some hater out there somewhere, and I just don’t want to put myself in a situation where something might go down. I got much too much to lose now. That’s the big difference to what things used to be like.
You once said you’d come from “nothing”. What did this “nothing” look like?
Desiigner: I grew up in the Louis Armstrong projects, a big social housing complex. There’s a lot of stress there and plenty of poverty. I mean, Jesus, we were poor! My dad had problems with his lungs and wasn’t able to work, so my mom had to provide for him, myself and my siblings. For the first 18 years of my life I didn’t have my own room, not even a bed. I always slept on the couch or the carpet in the living room. Not having a bed is really not cool. And then there are the gangs and all that stuff. It’s like living in a jungle. You’re either sitting with your group up in the trees with everything under control or you’re creeping around on the ground, desperately trying to find something to eat.
How do you survive in a jungle like that?
Desiigner: You have to keep forcing yourself to stay positive. For example, I always hated it when people said to me: “I live in the projects.” Instead, I always said: I live in a “Model City House”. There’s a difference there.
When you were 14, you were shot on a street corner. How do you deal with something like that?
Desiigner: By not talking about it much. Let me put it this way: I was in a gang and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could’ve avoided it.
Did that incident change you? Did it have a fundamental effect on you?
Desiigner: It made me more careful. I stayed away from the most dangerous stuff and devoted more time to music. I sang in church, went to local talent shows, and I even sang Christmas carols in the cafeteria at the projects. I also recorded my first rap tracks in the studio. But I never lost sight of my goals. I kept thinking: Soon I’ll be out of here; I’ll be a millionaire by the time I’m 21. And that’s exactly how it turned out.
And then suddenly all this money starts appearing in your bank account?
Desiigner: That’s exactly how it happened! But first I had to open an account. I’d never had any money, so I never needed a bank account.
Do you still remember when you heard your hit record on the radio for the first time?
Desiigner: It was on Hot 97, New York’s biggest hip-hop station. DJ Bobby Trends opened his set with it. I was at Zana’s place. She was my neighbor back then, and now she’s my manager. I ran home as fast as I could, around the corner and across the hall of our housing complex. Everyone was out there. They were like: “Yo, you’re on the radio!” My friends were crying, my neighbors were crying. “It’s all changed for your family now,” they were saying. “Everything’s different for you now, bro! You’re outta here.” It took me a long time to get what they were talking about. But they were right, of course. I was able to get my parents out of the projects. I live in New Jersey now, in a house on the waterfront. It’s the best place for a New Yorker – you’ve got a perfect view out over the city.
The video for “Panda” has been downloaded more than 200 million times. Kanye West is in it, and he sampled “Panda” on his own album. He’s got you on a deal and he mentored you. How did all that happen?
Desiigner: “Panda” was getting more and more successful, and we ended up in a bidding war between eleven different labels that all wanted to sign me. We flew out to L.A., where we were also supposed to meet with Kanye West. The meeting kept getting postponed, and then we got the message: He’s at LAX. Get over there fast – he won’t be around for long! So we raced over there in our cheap old rental car. My manager had the pedal on the floor, believe me. Kanye was sitting in a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost with a child seat in it! We got in the back, and he opened up his laptop and played us the sample he wanted to use on his album The Life of Pablo. Then he asked us: “Is it OK like that?” OK? I just flipped out!
You’re now working on your first album, The Life of Desiigner, which is scheduled for release soon. Will we get to hear your grandpa on the record? He’s a jazz guitarist and lives in Berlin, right?
Desiigner: Yeah, his stage name is “Guitar Crusher”. He’s a real jazz legend. I’ve only seen him three times in my life, but when I was a kid, he always came across as real smooth. I must have listened to his albums a thousand times. He was my Michael Jackson, my James Brown, my Stevie Wonder, my Ray Charles. Even though I grew up in the projects, I always saw myself as his heir. Will he be on the album? That’s something I can’t say right now. But let’s put it this way: Grandpa is working!
Now that you’re famous, have you visited him in Germany?
Desiigner: No, but I recently shot a video in Manchester United’s soccer stadium and flew him over for it. It was crazy. The whole stadium was completely empty, and me and my grandpa were standing there, looking out over the field. And at that moment I thought: Wow. This is it. I’ve made it. I’ve made it to where my grandpa is here standing next to me – in Manchester United’s stadium. Being able to get him over there and do something for him meant a lot to me.
What’s it like when you’re working on an album? Do you scribble the lyrics down with a pen on a piece of paper or do you just record everything on your smartphone?
Desiigner: I definitely don’t write anything down. Everything is up here in my head. And it just flows out when I’ve got a beat and a microphone. The last time I took down lyrics to a track was for “Panda”. But that was just because I couldn’t afford any studio time back then.
So everything you do is improvised?
Desiigner: Yes, it’s all in the vibe. The vibe of life. I pick things up that are going on in my life, add my swag and let it run.
So you essentially work off the cuff, like a jazz musician.
Desiigner: Always. I play with my voice. I whistle. I’m learning the art of finger-snapping. I try to constantly add new things to my sound.
What’s it like having to deliver your first album on the back of such a massive hit? Are you worried that your success might disappear just as quickly as it came?
Desiigner: Oh no, no, no, no. I don’t worry about that sort of stuff! I’m just enjoying it all. I’ve always got God with me. And I’ll always make music, no matter what happens. You know, everybody loves to dance. As long as I know how to get people up on their feet – and that’s one thing I do know – I’ll always be a winner.
Desiigner’s fast track to success
The single “Panda” catapulted the Brooklyn rapper from nowhere straight to the top of the charts. GQ Magazine speculated that the song might have helped boost sales of the BMW X6 in the process. “Panda” has been streamed over 600 million times on Spotify, and the rapper’s first full album, The Life of Desiigner, is due for release at the end of 2017.