Cass Café is its usual, eclectic self. There's alternative music bouncing off art-covered walls while patrons of various ethnicities tend to their preferred beverages. The emcee known as Dagda fits right in. With his long hair and pleasant disposition, he walks in giving away smiles like a granddad gives out candy. Dadga's real name is Joey; he stumbled on his stage name while attending Roosevelt High School. "I was doing a research paper on my Irish heritage and I discovered Dagda was like a father figure god to the Celtic gods," he says.
Dadga was born in Dearborn but grew up in Wyandotte. His introduction to hip-hop was much the same as many other artists. A friend turned him on to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in elementary school, and he's been hooked ever since. Though he stayed a hardcore fan of the music through high school, his passion at the time was sports. "Football came first — I played fullback and defensive end, and played linebacker for a bit at Wayne State," he says through a nostalgic grin.
Dagda dibbled and dabbled with music after football but it wasn't until 2009 when he began to embark on a professional music career. He collaborated with longtime friend J-Shine to form the duo Sticky Bandits, started seriously writing, bought some average recording equipment, started recording himself, and released a mixtape. "We joined this label called Squad X, which was run by DJ Xavier. I was doing a lot more structured smooth hip-hop, and DJ Xavier was more into what was fresh on the radio," he says. He pinned a song called "After Party" using a track he bought from the Internet. The song was a constant club banger and got several spins from 95.5 FM. "We linked up with DJ Buddha, who as a DJ for 95.5 back then. I was able to keep the lyricism with 'After Party' and still have an up-tempo poppy chorus."
During the next year Dagda continued to record but was still bouncing from cubicle jobs to factory jobs. DJ Buddha had moved to California (thus ending his radio connection) and his time on Squad X was coming to an end. By 2011, he decided it was time to take things to a higher level. "It got to the point where I couldn't keep recording myself. That's when I met Tone Rizzo, that was the turning point when my professionalism and my sound became correct," he says.
Rizzo had built a name for himself as one of the premier studio engineers in the Downriver and Detroit area. In an instant, Dagda's sound became more Dungeon than Radio Shack. By the fall Dagda also signed with Beats at Will Records (run by Kid Rock's DJ Paradime) and re-released his mixtape J.E.A.H. as a whole album.
"I was on the label with Mr. Chief, Ketchphraze, DJ Amf, Pony Boy, Jypsy, Astray, Cancer, Knox Money, Peace of Mind, Ben Price, and Aaron Taylor. It was definitely an all-star roster," he says. Dagda's first shine came from being featured on the 2012 complication album called DJ Amf Present Beats at Will Support Your Local BAW Mixtape Vol 1. In 2013 Dagda released The Black Irish EP. "That was my Detroit hip-hop project," he says. "It was real boom bap influenced." Just like Dagda promised, The Black Irish EP was an odyssey of hardcore and witty lyrics accompanied by East Coast-influenced beats. Dagda didn't take any songs off and practically forced the beats to keep up with his flow.
During Dagda's time with Squad X and Beats at Will, he quickly became creative and business savvy when approaching his performances. Before he speaks, he scoots his chair up and rests his elbows on the table. "A friend of mine was in a band and they had a show at Harpos opening for Bizzy Bone. This was 2010. He gave my number to the promoter and I told him I could sell tickets and open up too. The promoter didn't care to hear my music but put me on the show because I promised to sell tickets. I sold 75 tickets to that show," he says.
The "tickets for performance" hustle isn't new. Local promoters and club owners have routinely tried this, but most times the artists have no interest in it or weren't that good at it. "I noticed the artists that sold the most tickets got to go on before the opening act. I figured I could take the fans of the big act and make them my fans as well," he says.
Dagda mastered these tactics and used them to throw his own shows featuring local artists and build relationships with national promoters. Using his own hustle and wits, and help from manager William Ashworth, Dagda has been featured at Gathering of the Juggalos, shared the stage with Cyprus Hill, and was the lone opener for Yelawolf at Saint Andrew's Hall last year. "We always approach each new business relationship, showing them we are ready and able to work," he says.
Dagda is preparing to open up for Tech-9 on Sept. 27 at Saint Andrew's, and pushing his newest release, Bar Soap, which dropped in March. The album's first single and video, "Sunrise," featured Guilty Simpson. Dagda's spitfire lyrics matched up perfectly with Guilty's monotone flow. The production feels more diverse. Some tracks sound West Coast, some sound trapish, and most are boom bap. "I don't slack lyrically no matter the style, but I do understand different emotions call for different things," he says.
Dagda claims Downriver and Detroit equally. He talks about getting nothing but respect from emcees all over. "It seems to me the assholes got weeded out. I love Detroit hip-hop and my Detroit hip-hop family," he says. "There just isn't any haters here."