INTERVIEW: From $250 shows to rap superstardom, Dreka Gates has always been a driving force in her husband's career, and that's just one of many ventures she's involved in. Now that Kevin Gates is a free man, where will 2018 take the hip-hop power couple?
Dreka Gates is excited for what’s to come. “This is going to be one hell of a fucking year,” she says, days prior to the release of her husband and business partner, rap superstar Kevin Gates, who’s been serving time in Illinois. She’s also aware that she's not the only one who’s been anticipating his freedom. “I think the world is fucking waiting for Kevin to come home,” she says. “No offense to some of these artists, but yeah.”
Though she’s not always given the credit she deserves, Dreka has played a large role in Kevin’s career from the very beginning. "I was the DJ at the shows, I was the booking agent, I was fucking everything," she remembers of the early days. The work she put in helped to build the loyal regional fanbase that allowed Gates’ proper debut album Islah to earn platinum certification from the RIAA in 2016, surprising many who hadn’t been paying close attention to the rapper’s hero-status in his hometown of Baton Rouge and the surrounding southern states. During Kevin's incarceration, first for battery in Florida before being moved to Illinois and pleading guilty to gun charges after the unexpected surfacing of an outstanding warrant, Dreka was entrusted with running his career from the outside. Over the last year, she's pieced together Kevin's most recent mixtape By Any Means 2 and conceptualized the video for “Imagine That,” which features the couple's two children, Islah and Khaza. She can't wait for him to see it.
Managing Kevin is just one of many hats Dreka wears, from recruiting artists for the couple’s BWA record label to her upcoming clothing line (not to mention a blueberry farm). We spoke to Dreka about overcoming early challenges in the industry, the importance of building a "real, true following," and her plans for the new year.
Image by Whew!
HNHH: You've played an active role in Kevin's career from the very beginning. What was your experience with breaking into the music business?
Dreka Gates: That was actually a real struggle: being a female number one. That was actually the biggest issue that I could have had. And number two: not really knowing the business, you know? I basically spent a lot of time just trying to bump elbows with people in the industry. Try to learn how everything worked. But it was really, really hard because they didn't respect me as a female, so I basically ended up hiring guys to sort of make these moves for me in the very beginning. That's really how that went. Another thing: no one wanted to fucking help us. It was like we were trying to get into this secret society [laughs]. So it was basically, you had to pay for information... we had to pay our way, you know. Not literally, but literally [laughs].
Kevin has a huge following in Louisiana and the surrounding states. How did you go about building that regional audience?
I would actually -- believe it or not -- get dressed up and go to these clubs and go around to all these different DJs and pay them to play Kevin's music, and I would just hang out in the club until they played his shit and then I was out. I also got in with local promoters and they started booking him. Literally, Kevin started doing shows for $250, $500, just to be seen by different people. We definitely really, really did do it old-school, like hitting the ground running, going to these events where there were a lot of people, passing out CDs. We really, really, really like got it out the mud.
Was there a moment where you started to see it transcend from just being a Baton Rouge thing to something that was a lot bigger?
Yeah, it was actually towards 2011, when he was getting ready to come home. It was like two-and-a-half years that he had spent in jail. That's when I really saw that. So when he came home, we moved to Houston and we started doing some groundwork there. We went back to Louisiana, then we went to Atlanta, and it just kept growing. One thing that he does, he goes to different cities and works with a local artist. That's another way -- you're basically like stealing other people's fans in a way [laughs], you know but it works.
It's kind of like building a regional fanbase in different cities.
Right, but it worked! And I mean, his music is amazing.
It's true, it was only a matter of time before people caught on. While Kevin was incarcerated, you had to put together his most recent project By Any Means 2 pretty much on your own. I remember seeing a post where you said you were nervous about that.
Truthfully, with his mixtapes, that's like pretty much all Kevin. He'll ask me for my input and stuff like that. But with his mixtapes, that's all him. Those are just the really street songs he's super excited about. That's just the shit that he wants to give to day-one fans. With this one, he wasn't here for like none of that shit [laughs]. So it's just like, "man I really hope he likes this!" It wasn't like my first time. By Any Means -- the original one -- was released in 2014 I believe, and he was in jail that time, so I had to help put that all together. That's why we named this one By Any Means 2, 'cause it was just like the same fucking situation: we just needed to put something out, he's locked up.
It's a little more melodic and R&B-influenced than some of his other tapes. Were you responsible for that direction at all?
Everyone says that, but to be honest with you, I don't really listen to R&B and that's not really my thing. That's Kevin. There's so much music of his that's gone unreleased because it's on that level. We didn't feel like his fans were ready for that part of him. You can give your fans some shit too early, and they won't be with it. Like "what the fuck is this? we want 'I'm gonna drop off a brick'-type shit and we're giving them 'I wanna D you down'" [laughs]. All that shit that's on there, it's all Kevin. That's the shit that he loves to do, but he loves the street shit too, so it's all good.
I assume you picked through a lot of songs in the process. Is Kevin one of those people who has hundreds of tracks on a hard drive somewhere?
Yeah, I call it the vault. He has hundreds of songs, and it's so crazy. It's all good shit, but he's grown so much as an artist. We might decide to release like the "Lost Files" or something one day. But there's a lot of stuff that won't be released anytime soon. It's good shit, but the quality isn't that great, as far as the sound and stuff like that.
What's your day-to-day like while Kevin's been away?
I try to do a little something for everything. I'm dropping my clothing line I've been working on for years because I've finally had some time where we're not on the road. We have a blueberry farm. We also have a Kevin and Dreka Gates foundation. I have [the record label] BWA. I have skincare products. There's just a bunch of different things I'm working on. I kind of have a checklist for all the businesses I have and try to do something every day.
You were involved in the making of the "Imagine That" video, which features your daughter Islah rapping the hook. How did that idea come about?
Well, we kind of had to improvise like, "Kevin's not here, what are we gonna do?" Islah was kind of like the next best thing. She loves her dad, she loves the song, so she had no problem with learning it for the video. And then the recordings that you'll hear, that's just some shit that I just happened to catch one day. They have the most interesting conversations. She was actually telling him that she had a plan to get him out of jail, but I wasn't actually able to catch that part [laughs]. I was able to catch everything else that came after. I can't wait for him to see it to be honest with you. I'm definitely going to have the phone out for that one [laughs].
What kind of contact have you had with Kevin?
No physical contact whatsoever since he's been gone. Just phone calls throughout the day. Just to see how everyone's doing. See how I'm doing. Just talking, just trying to keep his spirits up and stuff.
Has he been writing at all?
It's kind of hard with him being in there. This shit was so unexpected, you know what I'm saying? He kind of had a hard time dealing with that. And then he can't get an MP3 player. So he's not really able to listen to music and stuff. But I'm more than sure, the second his feet hit the fucking ground, [the studio] will be one of the first places he goes. I'm sure he has a lot to say.
Do you have plans for when he gets out?
This year's going to be fucking amazing! I'm just excited for what's to come for the remainder of this year. It's going to be really, really dope.
I think a lot of people who weren't following Kevin Gates closely were surprised to see how big he actually was when Islah went platinum. The South knew what he was capable of, but a lot of other rap fans were like 'wow.'
And like... who the fuck it this guy? [laughs]
Were you expecting to do those numbers or was it a surprise for you as well?
It was definitely one hell of a feeling but it wasn't that surprising. I say that we have like a fucking cult following. That's another thing from day one: we've always toured. Even if there wasn't that much money in it. If we just went to this place and fucking broke even, we were doing it. I had -- and I still have this car to this day -- it's like a 2008 Infiniti G37 Coupe, that just me and fucking Kevin would be in and we'd just do these shows in fucking Arkansas and Oklahoma and all of the surrounding states, just me and him! So it's like we really put in the groundwork. The new, younger artists don't do that today, and they don't have to! They're going straight to the consumer through social media and all that shit. We really built a real fanbase. And he also said, "man, I don't want to drop an album until I know it's gonna go platinum," and that shit fucking went platinum! We're shooting for double platinum by the way.
Like you said, people are mainly using the internet these days, but even so, I think Kevin's success is a testament to the fact that taking that traditional approach to promotion can still pay off way bigger than doing the online thing.
Oh hell yeah, definitely. I think a lot of these young guys, you get lost in the sauce. I'll listen to Spotify's Rap Caviar to see what's poppin' and do my research or whatever. And it's like 'lil this,' 'lil that,' and I'm like who the fuck are you guys? They're streaming and they're getting that money, but I don't feel that they have a real, true following in a sense. I swear to you, that's no shade to anyone, but my biggest thing with these new artists, like anyone I speak to, I'm like, "build your own fanbase!" You're gonna need those people who are ride or die when the shit hits the fan' [laughs]. You don't want to be popular one day and then you get exed from the radio and people were only listening to you because they heard your shit on the radio. That's just my little spiel that I give to people.
Is there any advice you'd give to young women who want to get into the music industry?
Things are changing now. My advice back in the day would have been like 'find you a partner that's a man' [laughs]. Just work through him until you get in and just pop up and be like, "bam, yeah bitch, it's been me who's been calling the shots!" My thing has been in any business, you have to have the passion. The passion has to be there. Without passion, there is no success. Anything that you're passionate about, I guarantee you will find or make a way to make it happen.
How has your role in Kevin's career changed since the early years?
I guess you could just say I have more responsibility. I've done it all. At the very beginning, I was the DJ at the shows, I was the booking agent, I was fucking everything. I've grown smarter, now we have a real booking agent, a real A&R, all that shit that comes with it. I'm very, very involved. There's still more than people will believe. We'll be in the studio, and I'll say something he'll take that and make it into a song. Or he'll just ask me about something, and I'll be like 'you should say this and instead of that or tweet this.' I play a huge role in his career. But he's still very, very fucking talented, and what you hear is him. I could never take that away from him. Something I could never do in a million years [laughs].
He's never asked you to get on a track?
Jokingly, and I'm like no thank you! That's not my lane. I will sit back here in this office and handle all that shit but uh-uh, no thank you!
You've expressed some frustration with being known solely as Kevin Gates' wife to some people. How do you want people to know Dreka?
Ok, I have to say one thing regarding that. I was so fucking frustrated when I tweeted that. I went to an event, right? And it was an event for Dreka Gates, but these guys they kept calling me Kevin Gates' wife, and I'm like do you not fucking know my name? My name is Dreka, it's not Kevin Gates' wife. I'm okay with being known as that, but don't keep calling me Gates' wife and not calling me by my name! Shit was pissing me off. At the end of the day, I am that, and that is a big part of my life. I play a major role in his life and his career. So I'll never get away from that. I just want people to know me as Dreka: this fucking strong business-woman, this cool-ass mom. I wanna be known as that person. An entrepreneur. I'm not a fucking housewife. I definitely don't sit at the fucking house all day and get my hair and nails and makeup done and just walk around looking sexy [laughs]. I would love to live that life, but that's not my life. Bitch, I fucking work!