Long before a cosign from Nas or inking the deal with Def Jam that catapulted his rap career, Dave East had NBA dreams that slipped through the cracks due to an unforeseen circumstance. And while most would have seen this as defeat, the East Harlem rapper never lost sight of his purpose to not only change his life, but the lives of everyone around him.
It is minutes before call time with one of New York City’s most acclaimed artists of the year, Dave East. The crew for the photoshoot hustles to fulfill any last minute preparations. The overall vibe on set is more laid back than past engagements with other interviewees of the magazine. East’s team made us aware of his sole request during shoots. Smoke breaks.
Mr. East walks in at 1:00pm, eyes laid low, but with a monumental presence. Sporting black denim, a black tee and a crisp pair of Margielas; the diamonds glistening from his chain and Rolex made for the perfect accents to his otherwise relaxed look. Surrounded by his father, manager Wayno and best friend Shooter, it’s evident that his circle is tighter than the very bars he spits on “Type of Time.” Despite his hard exterior he greets everyone with an infectious smile immediately signifying the fact that he rides on a different cloud than his lyrical counterparts and though living on the high side of life, he remains grounded – anchored by the very roots keeping him humble.
East is all but an overnight success. His first mixtape dates back to 2010 when the now-rising star juggled his love for ball and his love for music. His hoop dreams ultimately did not materialize and he focused solely on his music. The MC cultivated a sound that was, and still is, reminiscent of classic New York hip-hop. Though the growth in his voice and sound is evident, the truth in his delivery and the originality of his style has remained consistent throughout the years. He caught the attention of hip-hop mogul, Nas, and inked a partnership with one of the most prominent labels in the industry, Def Jam.
I manage to whisk East away between takes to the penthouse while the crew regroups for the next round of looks. With a quick flick of a black BIC, his guard moderately up, he lights another L. He loosens up after the third pull and begins to humbly answer a few questions. There is sincerity in his voice and passion in his eyes when he speaks about how life has changed over the past few years. However, once I mention his baby girl, Kairi Chanel, his vibe changes and contradicts the tough-guy persona he unconsciously exudes. She is his soft spot, his reason for it all.
How was the transition from underground to mainstream?
East: I still don’t feel like it’s really a major difference. I’m making the same music. I’m still talkin’ bout the same shit from when I was still in the hood. It’s been a dope transition overall but now I’m in a position to try to make other music that I know is really going to reach everybody. Back in the day I ain’t know who my music was going to get to. I would just record with the homies and put it on the internet. Now I’m with Def Jam so I know it’s going to reach everybody.
What effect has your success had on the people who’ve always been around you?
East: Some for the good, some for the bad – everybody can’t deal with it. People so used to me being just Dave and not all this other shit. I’m watching some friends become motivated by what I’m doing and watching some family and friends drift away. They’re kind of lost. This shit is concrete for me now. Shit, last year no one would even think to ask me for twenty dollars. That’s changed. But you know, success changes the people around you more than the actual person, but it’s all love.
How has growing up in NYC influenced your style and the type of music you make?
East: It influenced it crazy! But it was more so of where I was at. Being in Harlem and Queens and going back and forth. I was in the hood so I was always able to adapt to different situations which you can hear in the music. But beyond that, I would be listening to dudes like Jadakiss and Styles and that music definitely had an influence on my sound, then I took my life and my homies lives and started talkin’ about it.
How did you react to the call from NAS?
East: (slight grin) I thought it was a joke! Shooter was the one who told me about it. We were cool with his brother, Jungle, but Jungle would always play a lot so I dead ass thought it was a game honestly. (laughs) From there I linked with Jungle and he was like, ‘Yo my brother, Nas, been playing your shit out in Cali and he really fuckin’ with you.’ Even then I didn’t believe it. Two weeks later I got a call from Nas’ manager and the rest is history.
What advice has NAS given you?
East: Don’t get caught up in all this hype. It’s crazy because you’ll see different rappers hanging with all these different dudes just to stay relevant. That’s something I always respected about Nas, you never seen him with this crew or that crew. He was always low-key but the music spoke for itself.
What do you think of the current state of Hip Hop?
East: It’s a lane for everybody now. It’s artists right now that may not be rapping like me but they get mad love. I honestly don’t care about what’s hot right now, though. Who’s going to be relevant 5 years from now, 10 years from now? Who’s really still going to have shit rockin’? I feel like I’m good. I’ve accomplished a lot coming from the projects. I’m not in a rush, my shit good and I’m just enjoying the process.
What’s playing in your car right now besides yourself?
East: I still listen to the oldies. I’m listening to Marvin Gaye, A Gangster & The Gentleman, Life After Death, The Chronic. As far as new music, I like A Boogie, Don Q, G Herbo, Kendrick, J-Cole, Fab, Meek…I really like music I can relate to and it’s not a lot of that out there. I rock with other genres too. Like right now I’m listening to Groove Theory, Old 90’s R&B like Total. To get the rap I like, I have to listen to myself or shit that’s been out already.
Who do you hope to collaborate with soon?
East: Erykah Badu. I want to work with her for sure! The-Dream, Marsha Ambrosius (Masha Allah) that’s actually going to happen…HOV, J-Cole, Kendrick, Dr. Dre.
In your song, “Don’t Shoot,” you talk about how you played basketball in college but got kicked out from selling weed, what effect did that have on you?
East: At the time it fucked me up. I stayed on campus another six months because I really ain’t know what to tell my parents. I came back to NY after that and got another scholarship to a different college and that’s when I got locked up. I was nineteen, so I ain’t know what to do! I had my NBA dreams. I didn’t know what to tell my pops. He been supporting everything I do my whole life, so for me to just blow it like that was crazy!
You talk about your cousin Malik a lot—may he live in paradise—what impact did his life and his death have on you?
East: Everything. He was that cousin that I looked up to and followed. He always motivated me to get it. When he got killed it was crazy to me because he didn’t live that kind of lifestyle at all. I just remember being woke up out of my sleep at like four in the morning getting’ that call like, “Yo, they killed Freaky.” That will never leave me. I was crushed for a while but he was too live to die! That’s when I knew I had to take this music shit serious. He was the main one always telling me how nice I was when it came to rapping.
You have a platform to influence so many young dudes that look up to you. What change do you hope to bring to your community and ultimately the world?
East: I just really wanna show these dudes that it doesn’t matter if you fall. I tried school. It didn’t work. I tried ball. It didn’t work, but I never lost my motivation. Everybody doesn’t end up doing what they first set out to achieve. There’s no time to waste and if something doesn’t work out you can always bounce back from it.
What gives you that drive?
East: It’s naturally in me. You can’t buy it and nobody can give it to you. Nobody had to tell me to get in the studio, nobody had to tell me to go to the gym when I was hoopin’, I just did it. I wasn’t making a dollar from going to the studio and recording, but every day I would get up and get to it. If nobody was watching, Allah was watching, and that comes back to you.
How has fatherhood changed you?
East: OD! Now I understand what love is for real. I would do life in prison 10 times for her. Before I was just looking out for myself, now I have Kairi and I don’t even want a mosquito to bite her (laughs with a big smile). I’m the most motivated I’ve ever been. I’m focused on making sure no matter what, she’s always straight! My dudes’ kids too though. That’s the purpose of all this, securing my daughter and my guys’ kids as well!
What’s a day off like these days?
East: I mean of course all that times goes to my daughter but really it ain’t no time for days off! I had that time off already! I’m about to be 30! The first 30 was spooky, the next 30 got to be comfortable!
You always say your official album is being produced by Nas. When can we expect that?
East: This year for sure. I can’t give you an official date just yet, but definitely this year.
What is something you wish more people knew about you?
East: I have a huge heart. Sometimes too big. I really want the same success I have for everyone around me. I just want all my guys to be good. I got into this game not just to change my life but everybody’s life around me.