Yet New Orleans rapper Dee-1’s songs about paying “Sallie Mae Back” and being smart with his money have blown up—drawing millions of views on YouTube and Facebook. That’s led to a partnership with consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to talk to students around the country about making good choices with their money.
We spoke with Dee-1 about the unusual trajectory of his music career, how he resists splurging on Benzes and Beemers—and his life-changing money moment.
Your song “Sallie Mae Back,” about using the proceeds from your record deal to pay off your student loans, struck a chord with college grads dealing with student debt. Why are you so passionate about the topic?
After I graduated [from LSU], I was working as a teacher, money was tight and I was getting phone calls from the lender every month. I know the pressure that comes along with that. I also knew that the quicker I could pay my loans off, the less money I would have to pay overall because of the interest. So when I signed my record deal, the first thing I did was knock them out.
I wanted to do something different than what rappers had taught me growing up: spend money on cars, clothes, the club experience and jewelry. But most of these things depreciate and have no long-term value. I said if I ever become a successful rapper, I want to change that narrative.
You spent two years as a middle school teacher while getting your music career off the ground. How were you able to dedicate the time and money to do that?
As I neared [college] graduation…I thought it would be cool if I could do my music full-time. I didn’t have enough buzz to do that, but it had become such a passion that I didn’t want to stop because of my 9 to 5. That was actually part of the strategy behind becoming a teacher: It would give me weekends, holidays and summers off, and school ends at approximately 3 p.m. I’d have a bunch of flexibility to do my music.
Teaching isn’t the highest paying job, but I’ve become a pro at making a little bit of money stretch. I didn’t buy a new car after graduation or splurge on a new wardrobe. I made a moderate salary, but I was able to cover the expenses for my music career.
My music gradually gained steam, and I was putting out viral videos. I found myself saying, do I go to New York City and do a concert or stay here and grade math tests, when what I’m being paid for the concert is more than what I make in two weeks as a teacher?
The principal at my school saw my rapping as a distraction. Although it was a positive message with no profanity, he told me I would have to choose if I wanted to teach or rap. All of these factors made it easier for me to retire as a teacher in 2011.
How has your financial life changed since becoming famous?
When you work for yourself, you have to…pay your own taxes and business expenses. As a teacher, I had little-to-no business expenses and the infrastructure was provided to me, as far as the place where I worked and the materials I needed to teach. [But] I’m able to make more money now, and it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
Rappers are known for spending money pretty lavishly. How do you manage the temptations?
It’s just discipline. I know that anything I spend has a consequence. I wasn’t raised to need the things other rappers may need—like, you’ve got to have this many karats of diamonds or drive this type of car. I don’t need those things to feel fulfilled.
I also want to set a good example. I don’t want to be in trouble, living above my means, and educate others to not do the same.
I don’t make the most money in the world. I’m not sitting here making Dr. Dre, Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z, Eminem type of money. I know people who make millions every year, but they still end up mismanaging it. That motivates me to be different. Whatever I’m given, whatever I’m blessed with, it’s in my heart to be a good steward of it.
What inspired you to write your new song “No Car Note”?
I drive a ‘98 Honda Accord with almost 300,000 miles on it, but it’s still ticking. I’m a point A to point B type of person in terms of how I view cars. It’s not a fashion statement. Before I had a record deal, I was still riding around in that car, so it keeps me humble.
I have been seeing a lot more success in the past couple of years, but I don’t want to turn into someone who is splurging on things like cars. That’s not to say I can’t treat myself to a new car if I want to—but it’s more of a want than a need, and I know how to separate my wants from my needs.
What money lessons did you learn growing up?
Honestly, I saw a lot of mistakes being made. I used to hear about student loans and credit card debt from my mom—not lessons of how to pay it off, but the stress associated with having that debt. I was like, yo, it must be tough to be an adult because I hear about all these bills every month.
I definitely wasn’t taught about financial literacy in school. I’ve always been infatuated with math and numbers, but that didn’t translate into learning about money. And I wasn’t hearing it in the hip-hop music I listened to, which was about getting money, making money and spending money. None of it was about saving or being [financially] literate.
What’s the smartest thing you’ve done with your money?
Paying off my student loans before the time I was required to. I felt like The Man, like I accomplished something. The joy I felt led me to make the song that is the motivational anthem for a lot people waiting for that day.
Any financial regrets?
My mom used to get on me about putting money aside for retirement, and it wasn’t until recently that I started doing that. I don’t know if I would call it a regret because I felt it was the only option I had—I barely had enough to stay afloat—but it’s something I’ve wondered about: What if I had been putting money away for these few years? I know how it can accrue.
What’s the best money advice you ever got?
When I was around 12, my grandparents’ cars both stopped working at the same time, so I made a joke about them taking the bus with me. My grandfather called me into his music room where he kept his jazz records, and told me to open the cover of one of his albums. Inside was $25,000 in cash.
He told me it was important to put money aside for a rainy day. That lesson stuck in my mind and played a big role in me learning to manage my money properly, so I’m never stuck.
What financial tips would you give to people in their 20s and 30s?
If you’re still in school, don’t take out more in student loans than what you expect your starting salary to be. Once you’re in the workforce, you can’t get caught up trying to live the lifestyle that your friends are or that social media is glorifying to the point where you’re living above your means.
You also have to be able to separate your wants from your needs. And don’t overspend on food: As millennials, we are always busy and on the go. Cooking can feel too slow-paced or boring—but it helps a lot to save money. When it comes to cars, avoid having a car note at all costs. Lord willing, I’ll never have to have a car note in my entire life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.