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.
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.
There’s a big visual element to your music. Are you hands on with your videos too?
Yeah, I shoot a lot of my videos and direct pretty much all of them since last year. The reason we started doing our own videos is because Darya ask me to help shoot a video [for “Artificial”] and I had no idea how to hold a camera. By the end of the night I was switching lenses, focusing and really going in. We got good shots and she learned how to edit instantaneously off that video. “All About You” was directed by Mollie Mills, we did that really quick. “Skate” was planned out, I directed that whole shit.
2013 was a pretty tumultuous year for you. How did you wind up on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon?
Poison Pen called me and asked if I wanted to do “Jimmy Fallon” in two days. How could I say no to that? One of the producers of the show took four of us into a backroom and gave us words to freestyle. Me and my boy wound up getting chosen, we did the show. I got to meet Jimmy and I got to tell him I love his Doors impression. I had to tell him that because he’s so good doing Jim Morrison. I was hype. Then, downstairs, the guitar player for the Black Keys was orchestrating for the musical act. We had a romantic moment when we looked in each others’ eyes, but nothing pans out with rock stars like that. But we shared a moment, it was beautiful. laughs
Then, that spring, you started working at Applebee’s. After having such a visible platform for your rapping on network television, was that a difficult transition?
Jesus Christ, the girl that trained me said “you know, you look like somebody who was on TV last week. That rapper chick from ‘Jimmy Fallon.'” I said, that’s funny because I was just on “Jimmy Fallon.” It was bugged out. I had to do what I had to do, shit came up, I had to make bread, but shit is wack. Everybody that knows me in my neighborhood knows what I do. Serving people is fun and I was having fun, but to my rapping ego, that shit was a daily kick in the twat. Chain restaurants in general are harder than privately owned. If you got cool management we’re good. When we had cool managers, it was cool. When we had people who shouldn’t it given any sort of power, it was…yeah.
So, you were still working at Applebee’s that summer while you were on Warped Tour?
Yeah! They gave me time off. They gave me time off for the local shit. It was so much fun. We met some awesome people. The kids [at Warped Tour] were receptive. On our stage, there was no promotion and people were passing time walking by waiting for their artists and they would come and watch you. Sometimes you’re rocking for a line of people who are waiting to get their CD signed by some band at a tent you just happen to be rapping in front of. Such a fucking great year, and then going back to work at Applebee’s after was so heartbreaking.
During your freestyles at shows your sexuality has come up as a recurring topic. Were you ever hesitant to explore that?
I mean, I’m not really bi, sometimes I just spit like a guy. When I freestyle sometimes, I become like a man. I don’t want to say I’m not bisexual because I have fucked with girls, it’s just nothing I’ve really explored like that. I guess I’m a little bi, but it’s not enough to really make me. I usually keep a boyfriend handy. But, when it comes to freestyling, I’m usually emulating a dude who’s like Biggie combined with one of my homeboys. The way the chick saw Will Ferrel as Jesus and her father. That’s who I become. I become somebody else and just start talking about bitches a lot. It’s weird.