Photo by Jerry Johnson, illustrated by Minna.

Collage by Minna Gilligan, using a photo by Jerry Johnson.

The rapper Dej Loaf’s track “Try Me” was already blowing all the way up when Drake quoted the song on his Instagram. Super-established artists including T.I., Remy Ma, and Wiz Khalifa remixed “Try Me,” and in October, Dej signed a deal with Columbia Records. That was last year, but Dej, who is from Detroit, has been filling notebooks with her writing since she was nine years old. After graduating high school in 2009, she completed a couple of semesters of college before deciding to completely focus on music. In 2012 she released her debut mixtape Just Do It, and followed it last year with Sell Sole.

I chatted with Dej over the phone her about writing, overcoming her shyness, and her personal style.

JULIANNE: When did you first know you wanted to be a musician?

DEJ LOAF: Since I was little, I always knew. I had a thing for music, I had a fascination with it, and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. When I was in ninth grade, I started recording in a home studio of my best friend. He was a rapper, and he inspired me to start recording. He had the equipment.

How did that happen?

He would come over after school and set it up on my computer, on my desktop. I was always a writer, but I hadn’t recorded anything. I didn’t take it really seriously during that time, though. I started taking it more seriously after high school. I went to college for a couple semesters, and I didn’t see myself doing anything else. I didn’t see myself being the average, you know. I watched everybody grow up after high school and fall into that trap of being at home, not doing much with themselves. I didn’t wanna do that, so I stuck to my guns.

Are you a pretty determined person?

Very much so. I stuck to it. I didn’t know when it would happen. I was down, sad, didn’t have money, didn’t even have money to record anything. So it had to happen, you know?

How did it feel when “Try Me” popped off, and then you put out the mixtape Sell Sole, which is so good.

Some of the stuff on Sell Sole I’d worked on after “Try Me” but most of it, I had been working on [my mixtape] Just Do It since 2012, and I was originally supposed to do a sequel to that. I was in a stage when I was holding onto so much music, writing but I wasn’t recording much. When I finally started recording, it had a whole new feel, and it was like, how could this be a volume two? It didn’t have anything to do with it, and I was in a different place. The music is way different from the person [I was before].

How does it feel when you’ve been working on songs for so long? And to see the reaction after you’ve been sitting on them for a while?

I never know going in. With my music, I write it for myself, and I can only hope that people will like it. It’s kinda like I’m writing in my diary—I’m expressing how I feel. When I put it out, you never know, you just never know. I mean, I’m confident in how I write, but I don’t know what the world will think, you know, ’cause everybody don’t like everything. I didn’t write “Try Me” to be a big hit, when I wrote it, I was in a space where that’s how I felt. Just like my other songs before that. You never know what people will gravitate to.

Do you remember when you played your first show, and what that was like?

I used to perform at these events back at home in Detroit, like underground events the shoe store would put on—a little underground, hipster-y, with the cool kids. That was probably one of my first shows. It’s crazy to watch the growth of something. Like, I used to be scared to perform—not scared, but I used to just stand there. I knew I was good, but I didn’t have the confidence.

How did you gain the confidence? I’ve seen you a few times now and you are such an awesome performer. You’re really commanding on stage.

It became a thing where I knew this is what I wanted. That music is what I wanted to do—to be an entertainer, a big star. I had a lot of things going with my personality, I kept telling myself, If this is what you want, this is what you have to do. You have to smile, you have to hold the mic like this, you can’t be shy, you have to talk to these people, things like that. I’m still working on it to this day, but I’ve gotten 80 percent better than I used to be. Once I figured out this is what I wanted…once you know what you want in life, there’s no turning back.

You have great style, and you often go up onstage wearing an excellent fur coat. It always seems like battle armor to me! Does that help your confidence at all, too?

I think the way that you dress always can add spice to whatever you’re doing, to hold people’s attention. I’ve always had a certain style about myself, even when I was young. I always found some way to not be like everybody else, even with my hair. I always did that growing up. And with the fur or the glasses, a lot of people say I look good, but I’m representing where I’m from. I get out there on those big stages, you know with TVs, and I feel like I have to go all out. If I don’t go all out…I have to represent Dej.

That’s really Detroit, too, right? Detroit style is really about being as fly as possible?

Definitely. In Detroit everybody has style. Furs, gator shoes, white, all that. I wanna keep it going but also feel comfortable in what I’m doing. I want to be me. ♦