How a Flawed Justice System Inspired Detroit Star 42 Dugg’s Rap Career
Show & Prove
Words: Peter A. Berry
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
If it hadn't been for a flawed justice system, 42 Dugg the rapper might not exist. While behind bars for carjacking and felony firearms charges he caught at age 15, Dugg wrote his first raps in solitary confinement after getting into a fight with an inmate. A mix of boredom and instinct powered his initial forays into the genre. “I just wanted to get my story out,” he says, reclining in a chair in XXL’s New York office on a cold February afternoon. Four years after his prison release, Dugg’s terse street tales have made him a 26-year-old burgeoning rap star with a feature on a Billboard Hot 100 top 10 single, a joint record deal with Lil Baby and Yo Gotti, and nothing but time and opportunity to become the biggest new rap star Detroit’s seen in a decade.
Since 2017, Dugg, born Dion Marquise Hayes on the East Side of Detroit, has used melody, a piercing voice and street narratives with no filter to transition from young felon to his city’s next up. After building buzz with his first two mixtapes, 2018’s 11241 Wayburn and 2019’s Young and Turnt, the rapper announced his arrival with standout guest appearances on Lil Baby’s 2020 singles “Grace” and “We Paid.” The former, a three-minute-and-23-second track filled with somber reminiscences and street philosophies framed as scripture, peaked at No. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100. This became Dugg’s first song to land on the chart. The latter, a classical back-and-forth rhyme session with plenty of quotables for endless Instagram captions, peaked at No. 10 last summer. By the time he joined Lil Baby to perform the song as the opening act at the 2020 BET Hip Hop Awards, the legend of 42 Dugg was unfolding in front of the world.
Decades before he landed an awards show performance, picking up a mic wasn’t necessarily in the picture for Dugg. Raised by his mother and grandmother, the self-described class clown grew up in an area of Detroit where crime was normalized, and fistfights and carjackings were often seen as funnier than they were unfortunate. Dugg’s primary concerns were partying, getting fresh, skating and gambling. He was popular in high school, but soon found himself getting into a lot of trouble.
In October of 2010, just a month shy of his 16th birthday, Dugg’s street ways got the best of him. He was arrested for carjacking and gun possession. Since Dugg was out on bond for a firearm charge at the time of this arrest, he was charged as an adult for the new arrest, but he was only 15. In June of 2011, he began serving a prison sentence that would stretch six years—he claims they got the wrong person for carjacking. To make the days go faster, Dugg would read magazines and even got his GED. After getting into a fight with an inmate and being forced into solitary confinement, Dugg, then 20, made rap his newest pastime. He says his first rhymes were bad, but by his second time in the hole, his flow was more developed and his raps were sharper.
Once he was a free man in 2017, Dugg teamed up with his cousin Kato to record Dugg’s first songs. Dugg, who says Jeezy and Yo Gotti are his favorite rappers, started generating buzz when he dropped his debut mixtape, 11241 Wayburn, in July of 2018. The project earned thousands of SoundCloud streams and by the end of 2018, he was on the rise. That same year, fellow Detroit artist Tee Grizzley took Dugg to shoot dice with Lil Baby in Los Angeles. One day after the hangout session, Baby called Dugg, rapping the lyrics to one of Dugg’s songs. Baby offered to sign Dugg to his 4 Pockets Full Inc. label. Soon, Yo Gotti also got hip to the movement, and by early 2019, Dugg had signed to both Gotti’s CMG Records and 4PF.
With a voice that’s scratchy and strained, Dugg’s music can vacillate between emotional and menacing, his delivery can be melodically slurred or deadpanned and his sound fits at the intersection of Detroit street rap and the melodic warbles of Atlanta. Like Lil Baby and Yo Gotti, Dugg’s bars are filled with details that can only come from experience. On “We Paid,” he unloads punchy bars filled with survival logistics. “You might get a little melody or you might get some laid-back stunting, or he might give some real aggressive shit,” says Detroit producer Helluva, who produced Dugg’s “Dog Food.” “He’s always been a respected and feared street dude. So, when he says something on a track, niggas know he means business.”
While he’s positioned himself for stardom, Dugg hasn’t been able to avoid issues with the law. Three years after being released from prison, Dugg was arrested for a federal firearms charge in March of 2020 after police obtained video of Dugg using a gun at an Atlanta shooting range in November of 2019. Dugg was not allowed to possess a firearm due to his 2010 arrest.
Freedom came once more, but Dugg was once again arrested in August of 2020. This time, it was for fleeing from police during a traffic stop in Oakland County, Mich. He was released that same month. Now, he’s required to wear an ankle monitor. Both cases are still open. “It just makes me very aware of my spot, you know?” says the rapper, optimistic about his chances. “So, I don’t want to throw shit away.”
With his fate still up in the air, Dugg, who released his latest project Young & Turnt 2 in March of 2020, and the deluxe version last June, looks to happier aspects of the future. This year, he wants to push his record label to new heights and in five years, he hopes to have $100 million. More immediate plans include unloading new music that should only build his momentum. He says both Gotti and Baby have told him to take music seriously. There was a time he didn’t and considered quitting. Now, for the father of a 2-year-old boy, there’s more at stake, including people he won’t let down, like his jailed homies.
“They said, ‘Keep going,’” Dugg tells. “‘We living through you.’”
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2021 issue including Cardi B's cover story, how rappers are legally making money from the cannabis boom and the social justice that comes with it, Snowfall's Damson Idris on how hip-hop impacted his life, A$AP Ferg reflects on the making of his Always Strive and Prosper album, Shelley F.K.A. DRAM talks about his comeback, Waka Flocka Flame checks in with us and gives an update on his Flockaveli 2 album in What's Happenin' and more.
See Cardi B's Photo Shoot in XXL Magazine's Spring 2021 Issue