Graduating from LSU in 2008, NOLA rapper Dee-1’s current single and corresponding video for “Sallie Mae Back” is furiously making its way around not only music publications but also places like CNN, Mashable and Forbes. Starting his post-graduate career as a middle school math and life skills teacher, Dee-1 decided that his true calling was in the music industry.
Quitting his job and diving into emceeing full-time, Dee-1 caught the attention of RCA and signed a deal in 2013. With an advance check on the way he decided to spend his newly-earned money on something a rapper normally wouldn’t. Not a new car, not a gold chain, but repaying his student loans. With his impeccable story-telling skills on display, “Sallie Mae Back” is a triumphant anthem that resonates with so many people young and old. Being that Dee-1, born David Augustine Jr., is a true citizen of Sway in the Morning, we wanted to tell the story of this inspiring new single from front to back.
Interview by Taylor Lovaas
What’s it like to see “Sallie Mae Back” coverage on more than just music sites?
For me to see the transcendent nature of this song and how it’s bigger than just hip-hop when it comes to who it’s resonating with, it honestly just reminds me that I make anthems that are for an entire generation. We should never limit ourselves in life to have to conform to a box that people try to put us in. I think that this was just a reminder to me that the sky is the limit when we maximize our gifts and our talents.
People heard this song before it came out. My record label heard it; a lot of people heard it. This is all an independent venture at this point; this isn’t the record label putting any resources or anything behind it. This is a movement literally of the people and by the people for the people and that’s the main thing that’s stood out to me. When you strike a chord with the people and you are a man of the people that’s who is going to be your street team.
There’s no hidden budget or anything behind this. That’s the truth; you know the relationship I have with Sway so there are not many people I would tell that part of this narrative to. The record label, they’re not backing this song. I wanted them to, I went to them like ‘yo this is dope. I’m telling you this is going to connect with people, I’m adamant about his, I’m telling ya’ll.’ They were like ‘nah,’ they didn’t believe. I’m not even going to use some of the language they used to describe this song because I’m still signed.
You’re no stranger to writing songs that tell a story. Songs like “My Student Got Murdered” has an incredible narrative along with “The Sway Interview.” Did this one feel any different when you were writing it?
The only difference between this one and some other stories I end up telling is this one felt a lot more joyous and triumphant. Other stories I tell are about the struggle man, and I know the struggle well because I live it just like a lot of us do these days. So it’s the same thing I’m good at, telling these true narratives but this one just felt triumphant and big.
While the media coverage is fun, what does it mean to you to see the conversation this song is sparking?
People are now tapping me to check in on the strategy. Part of the narrative I made sure to put at the front of the video that I was paying the minimum payments on my student loans just like a lot of people. When I signed my deal I decided to use a chunk of my advance to go ahead and just finish paying them back. That’s important for me to let people know that because we have to weigh the cost benefit of life so when you’re taking out these loans you have to ask yourself, is the education you’re going to receive worth this amount of debt that I’m accumulating. For some people I wouldn’t recommend going into debt over $100,000 just in undergrad. Now if it’s a graduate degree depending on what career you’re going into, yeah that would be something where you could make enough to where it could be a good move.
But for me it’s all about strategy as far as how to get out of debt. My strategy once I got a chunk of money, my strategy was ‘yo I’m just going to get this out of the way right now.’ I know I’m a rapper but I don’t feel like a rapper. I’m a human before I’m a rapper. So for me I just never got in the habit of living above my means and that really helped a lot as far as making responsible money decisions.
You talk about this being a triumphant track and coming from the struggle but was there one low moment that you look back on now that you’ve paid all your loans back?
Yes, certainly. That’s when I quit my job actually. This is right when I was like ‘yo, I want to pursue hip-hop full time.’ This is literally me knowing that I’m supposed to be in this industry but also knowing that I’m not making any money from hip-hop at this time, like zero, zilch, I never got paid to do a show or any of that type of stuff. And it’s kind of like ‘man, if I quit my job now, these bills don’t stop.’ It’s not like they’re going to say ‘oh well you’re not working so cool, we’ll excuse these payments.’
So that was the point, the nervous time for me. Right when I quit my job and gave up that stable salary and I still had bills every month coming in.
So you were a teacher before you were a rapper. Have any of your former students reached out for loan advice?
It’s so funny that you ask me that. Yes, because the students I taught in 8th grade just graduated. I’ve literally had some hit me up and they’re in school already. Saying ‘man, I’m having to take loans to stay in school. I’m not trying to do that. I’m considering dropping out.’ I’ve had to talk a couple out of it because the thing is; debt in itself to me isn’t a thing that is inherently negative. It’s not like when you take out any loans that it’s the end of the world. But you have to assess how much makes sense to take out.
So when I was talking to my boy who I used to teach, he’s actually an aspiring rapper. So it’s cool because he wants me to be featured on some of his tracks and of course I’m going to do that. That’s a former student. But it’s crazy because when he was talking to me I asked, ‘how much are you taking out in loans?’ He was saying like $2,000 every semester and I’m like ‘bruh, you better not drop out of school for taking out $2,000 in loans.’ So they’ve definitely hit me up for advice, and he’s not the only one.
So basically you’ve gone from teaching math and life skills to middle school students to being a rapper to now teaching the whole world about life skills, you’ve come full circle.
Thank you bro, there’s something about what you just said that I’ve been feeling lately. My whole worldview is that this could all be done any day now. I’m in Atlanta currently recording my album and I’m like ‘man, for all I know I could fool around and die today.’ If that was the case today, what did I spend my time doing? Like you said, I think it’s great that I’ve spent my whole adult life either formally teaching in the classroom or indirectly still being a teacher through hip-hop. I’m blessed if that’s what I’ve done with my life.