Three years ago, Your Old Droog found himself in the middle of a frenzy when rumors from online forums claimed the rapper’s self-titled debut EP was actually the work of the Queensbridge rap veteran Nas, recording under an alias. This was news to the 24-year-old Ukrainian-American, who lives in Coney Island. He does happen to share a similarly husky-hued voice, an effortless flow, and a penchant for throwing cute references to Nas lyrics into his rhymes. As a previously unheard of artist at the time, the lack of photos of Droog in circulation also helped fuel the theories.
Of course, the confusion worked to his advantage: His profile skyrocketed overnight. “I was caught off guard and I just observed peoples’ imaginations running wild. It wasn’t planned. It was shocking.” Speaking from his Coney Island home ahead of the release of his new album, Packs, Droog says, “It was surreal. Like, yo, I’ve been rapping for 108 years and nobody ever said you sound like Nas.” Of course, the comparisons were, he says, “a compliment.”
Born in the Ukraine, Droog’s family moved to the U.S. when he was four years old. (“Droog” means “friend” in Russian.) “The overall consensus was “it’s better over here—it was a mess where we was at,” he explains. They settled a subway stop away from Coney Island, and Droog’s “regular childhood” lit up when he heard Heavy D’s dance-influenced “Now That We Found Love” and LL Cool J’s prototype rap ballad “I Need Love.”
“Right then, I made a mental note as a four-year-old,” he says, adding another self-deprecating laugh. “I realized they’re not singing, they’re doing something else.” Droog’s interest in rapping was solidified when he discovered The Notorious B.I.G.’s marriage of coarse-but-witty punchlines and darkly humorous story telling. That inspired Droog to begin a decade of penning raps and recording songs that took him on a personal and technical journey to “figure out who you are and what you want to say.” (In Droog’s world, being a “corny or wack person” cancels out any rap skills.)
For much of that voyage, Droog considered himself a battle rapper—someone skilled in the art of the scathing punchline, but unable to mold those quick turns-of-phrase into fleshed-out songs with their own narrative. He honed his skills by facing off against other rappers in high school lunchrooms around the city. “I wouldn’t give them no air time though,” he says when asked if he ever battled anyone who’s since made a name for themselves.
He considers his debut EP, 2014’s Your Old Droog, a case of “just trying to let motherfuckers know I could rhyme”—but notes he left a clue to his future moves on “Nutty Bars,” where over a slinky Italian crime drama soundtrack sample he vowed “I’m about to bring back story telling.” Packs comes good on that promise, as Droog channels his cocksure patter into songs that resonate beyond the quick quips.
His bare voice has always been attractive to beat makers. “He has a great tone, something that sounds synonymous with rappers from New York,” says The Purist, who crafted the dusky “I Only” on Packs and has previously worked with Action Bronson and Shady Records’ recent signings Westside Gunn and Conway. But RTNC, a producer who’s collaborated with Droog since his debut and notched credits with De La Soul and Mos Def, notes how now “he’s scraped the edges off and knows what he wants to be. He’s always had the rhyme patterns and the word play, but now there’s a maturity.”
This escalation is apparent on tracks like Packs opener “G.K.A.C. (Gotta Kill A Cop).” Over a theatrical beat punctuated with sirens, Droog tells a fictional tale about “a dude who’s been suppressed through the years and is going through a lot of mental health issues and has schizophrenia.” Drama ensues on what Droog calls his chance to indulge in creating “my little car chase, my little action scene” of a song.
Wiki from the avant-garde group Ratking guests on “Help.” He bonded with Droog at the Boom Bap Festival in the U.K. two years ago, noticing “he’s a beast on the microphone.” When they teamed up for this year’s What Happened To Fire EP, Wiki “spent time with Droog in the crib writing to beats on repeat” and realized “he’s a rapper who’s capable of killing any concept”—which is what he proceeds to do on the key RTNC-produced “White Rappers (A Good Guest).”
Reflecting on his role as a Caucasian artist in a historically Black and Latino music form, Droog skillfully flips a phrase from the Five Percenter-aligned golden era group Brand Nubian to plot his place in the scene: “Can a white rapper fool a Muslim?/ No, not nowadays, bro/ So what the hell makes them think that they have to say so?/ I don’t know, but I’m glad that you’re not like them/ Your stuff’s emotive—you didn’t come into this with a motive/ The way he flowed on the track was straight bananas/ Came right in our house with great manners.” The crux of the song, says Droog, is that “it’s not a big deal to be a white rapper or a green rapper if you’re a fuckin’ wizard.”
That’s been his experience, at least. “Motherfuckers wasn’t seeing me and calling me white, not since I was 13 with a gel hairdo,” he says.