Dave East Is Ready to Escape the Trenches For Good

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For all the talk that’s dominated hip-hop in recent years of a generation gap as supposedly wide as the Grand Canyon -- melodic, druggy, or emo teens on one side, tradition-bound lyric-focused older heads on the other -- there are artists whose skills and flavor challenge that binary.

Dave East, the dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker whose lyrical gifts and penchant for personal storytelling has earned him the respect of peers and veterans in Gotham and beyond, is one of them. Signed by Nas to his Mass Appeal label five years ago, with more than a dozen mixtapes under his belt, East is as adept at collaborating with veteran greats (Juelz Santana, Beanie Siegel, Cam’ron, Styles P) as he is younger talents (Don Q, A Boogie, Gunna). This week, at long last, the Harlem native drops his debut studio album, the remarkably reflective Survival

The set opens with the streetwise boom-bap of “They Want To Kill You," a track which puts its faith in the “survival of the fittest." But soon enough, Survival’s real m.o. becomes apparent: juxtaposing East’s bars with R&B sounds. Whether it’s timeless samples (Jodeci’s “Feenin” on “Alone”; Teon’s “Burgundy” on “Mama I Made It”) or sung melodic hooks (such as the Teyana Taylor-assisted “Penthouse"), East shines on all levels.

An irresistible standout is recent single “Godfather 4”, a shimmering, cinematic collab between Dave and his friend and mentor Nas. Over beats by Green Lantern and soulful strings, the sounds of jazz trumpeter Kayon Harold and New Orleans brass band The Soul Rebels, the Illmatic icon and his protégé profess mutual admiration, talk of a “Lexus across the Triborough” and imagining themselves on-board a plane at 40,000 feet, with the in-flight movie part four in the Corleone saga, starring the two of them.  

For East, a star turn on the big screen may not be too far off, as he’s recently made an unexpected career pivot toward acting. Guest appearances on the BET series Being Mary Jane and VH1’s The Breaks in 2017 led to a role in the Netflix film Beats, directed by filmmaker and music video veteran Chris Robinson, who also cast East as none other than Method Man, in the just-concluded Hulu series Wu-Tang: An American Saga. His transformation into the Wu legend was on the money, and has gotten a thumbs-up from Meth himself. The experience of playing the rapper in his early, pre-Wu youth also prompted some reflection by East on his own past, which led to some of the most affecting tracks on Survival -- a trio of songs that take him back to his days as a young David Brewster. 

On “Way to School,” there acted-out recollections of being woken up for school by his mother and being told to get into math class by a principal who asks, “How does detention sound before basketball practice?” On “Seventeen," he recalls wearing corn rows like Allen “Bubba Chuck” Iverson and ripped-sole shoes. And there’s “Mama I Made It” – a love letter to the woman who raised him, slapped him when he “used to try to cuss” and taught him early that “you need to fight.” “We didn’t have too much at all,” he admits in the track. “I wasn’t born wealthy/ I thank God for keeping me alive/ Tell my moms I made it.” 

Survival’s title says it all. At 31, Dave East has not only survived, but is increasingly flourishing. He’s still a young man, but the new project is very much about taking stock of where he’s been, the hurdles he’s overcome, those he’s lost along the way, and the long way he still has to go. We talked about it all following his afternoon set backstage at Rolling Loud.

First of all, I should tell you that I saw Method Man last night here at the festival, and I told him I’d be talking to you, and he said, “You tell him he’s doing a great job, and I am so proud of him.” 

Dave East: Wow, man. That’s nice to hear!  I hadn’t seen him in a minute, since we were filming. So that’s nice to hear. 

Last time we spoke a few years ago, it seemed like an album was on the way soon. And there was new music, the Karma mixtapes…

One and Two. 

There was the Styles P collaboration.

Beloved.

Right. So there has been music, but it took a while for the album. Did you want to just take your time with it? 

It was a little bit of both. I started the acting thing, so that kind of blasted out at me. I mean I was still recording, but the focus kind of shifted for a minute. But I put in almost a year recording Survival. Just, you know, tweaking it, going back and forth -- this is the first project I’ve put out that I sat with, and really digested it, soaked it in, let my whole crew soak it in. I just played it, over and over and over, to see what we didn’t like about it.

And it’s a beautiful project. A lot of people are familiar with my previous projects, but I feel like this one here is really gonna connect some dots of all the bits and pieces of stories I was talking about, I really get into detail on this album. 

Coming on the heels of titles like Paranoia and Karma, is there anything that that name, Survival means and why at this point in your life and your career you wanted to title it that? 

I feel like every project I name it based on kind of what I’m going through. So, when I dropped Paranoia [in 2017] I really was paranoid, you know what I’m saying? I’d just gotten my deal, I was still living in the projects, I was still in the same mix, but people knew Nas had signed me. So it gave me a different feel.

And then I did the Karma projects [2017-18], and when I did Karma I was falling out with a lot of people. I had the fame for a little while, and like day one friends of mine – we was falling out, over me being “Dave East”. And so I had to just put in my mind that as long as I was nothing but good to a person, and that my heart was genuine, that I got good karma coming, and that there was nothing bad gonna come my way. You know what I mean? And then Survival -- that’s what I’ve been doing this entire time. I’m surviving now, I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m trying to broaden my horizons, get into things that people don’t know me for. I feel like “survival” was the one word that could tie all of that together.

There are some really reflective, you might say nostalgic tracks on the record that relate back to your youth: “Seventeen”, “Way to School”, “Mama I Made It”. That little section of the record is like a window into your past. 

Exactly.

On “Seventeen” there’s that dialogue with the principal, you not wanting to go to class, him threatening you with detention…

Right, and that was me, man! And it’s crazy because I feel like taking the Method Man role [on Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga] played into it, because on the show I’m playing a 19-year old kid, and just me tapping into that, it made me think about my own life. And, who was I at 17? What was my attitude like? What was I saying, what was I going through? You know what I mean?

And shout to Timbaland, he produced the record. Got in the studio with Timbo and we went through a bunch of beats. We might have done eight records, but that one stuck. And he even said, “Yo, I don’t even know you! I mean, I know Dave East, but I don’t know you like that! And you brought me into that.” And also I just wanted my mother to be on it – like the whole waking me up for school thing [on “Way to School”]?  

That was all drawn from on real life? 

That’s exactly how it used to go. She used to wake me up, I would wake my brother up. She used to threaten us with my dad, “I’ll get your father in here if y’all don’t get up!” So all that was real. And my principal, he was a fan of mine! He was one of them principals where he felt like, “You got the potential to go wherever you want to go, but you just want to be cool,” you know what I mean? So we would have them talks. He’d be like, “Get out of the hall, Brewster, what are you doing?” And I’d be like, “Man I ain’t going to that class.” I’d really talk to him like that, so I had to bring that back. 

When you think back on your 17-year old self, knowing what you know now, having the perspective you have now, having a child – is there any advice you would give that kid? 

At 17, you couldn’t tell me shit, cause that was just my mentality. But I feel like those are just them ages, 17, 18, 19, where you need to be soaking up as much game as you can get. You know what I mean? Because it’s gonna propel you into your 20s. It’s gonna push you until you’re 30 years old. 

Speaking of 17 year-olds, we’ve got kids on this Rolling Loud bill this weekend that are right around that age. Mosey, Tjay, Tecca -- I mean, these guys are teens, and all respect to what they’ve achieved recently, but…

But they’re kids! 

So if things had blown up for you at 17 the way it is for them at 17, 18, 19, whatever -- could you have handled that?  

I don’t think I could have handled it, bro, at that age, because I was very impressionable at them ages. Whatever my man was doing, I wanted to do it. I had friends that was into a lot of illegal activities, and so that -- if my man was doing it, I thought that it was cool. So, it took me to become like 25, 26 to really have my own mind, and be like “I’m doing this for me, and I don’t care how you feel about nothing,” you know what I mean? At 17, 18, if my man wanted to go shoot something up, I’m gonna get in the car with him. If my man wanted to go rob something, I’m gonna go with him. And that was just my mentality -- but I had to hide it, because I had strict parents.

My dad wasn’t going for none of that, my mom wasn’t going for none of that. But that was me trying to be my own man, like, “Yeah me and my man just went and shot at… we just did something gangsta-like!” All that was corny, you know what I’m saying? But I luckily survived it, got through all of that, and now I’m 31! You know, I ain’t seeing me being 31. But I’m here, I just killed Rolling Loud in my own city, album on the way, I’m doing acting -- so I just feel like I persevered through some of the worst shit. And at the end of the day, I would say all that to somebody who’s 17, 18, whether they want to hear it or not. 

Obviously another song that stands out on the record is “Godfather 4”. 

With Esco! And Green Lantern did that beat. You know what’s dope about that? It was only me, Nas, my blood brother Errol -- same mother, same father -- and Jungle, his blood brother. Nobody else was in the studio. Usually when I’m the studio I’ve got homies around, a few people. But that night was just me and my brother, Nas and his brother, and a bottle of VSOP! 

And Nas, I think he mighta had a 12 on there already, when I pulled up. He was already recording to the beat. And I was like, “Yo, I need this for my album!”  And he was like, “You sure?” I’m like, “I need this for my album!” and I said, “Keep doing what you’re doing, you go and finish it, and I’m gonna put something on it. But I need this.” And he was like, “Aight it’s yours.” Cause you know, a lot of people know of me and Nas’ connection.

But even me as an artist, I don’t really get to get that vibe with him like that. Usually when I’m with Nas, there’s a lot of people, there’s cameras, and Nas is – he’s secluded. He’s not really into all that. So to be able to be one-on-one with him, getting drunk, taking shots, beat playing, his brother there, my brother there -- I just felt like that it was a special moment that I never got to get with Nas since he signed me. And I’m glad that it happened for the album.

As you say your association with Nas is well known, you’ve also collaborated with Styles P and other veterans, and now you’re playing Meth in the Wu-Tang series. You find you learn a lot from all these legacy artists?

A hundred percent. I feel like I’m one of the lucky young dudes in the game that was able to be around Jadakiss, Styles, Sheek [Louch], Diddy, Nas, the whole Wu. Not only do they support what I do, they give me game. We have relationships. Their numbers are actually in my phone. They can call me, I can call them.

So that just changed the whole platform, when people started respecting me. Cause it kind of put me in a certain bracket as far as New York was concerned. Because you always wanna hold it down where you from, and I feel like The Lox, Bad Boy, Mase, all them type of dudes, Dipset -- you know, coming from Harlem, Cam, Jim, Juelz Santana -- they all supported me from the get-go.

And dealing with all these people, I soaked up mad game, because they’re all different! Wu-Tang is different from The Lox, The Lox is different from Dipset, Dipset is different from G-Unit, you know what I mean? And I got game from all of them, from 50 to Banks to Yayo to Busta Rhymes, like -- the only person that I haven’t sat and had a real conversation with is Jay-Z. That’s it. Anyone else from New York City... I mean I done chopped it up with Big Daddy Kane! With Kool G Rap! You know what I mean? 

And you never took an acting class? 

I had a few people that, once I got the role, they was recommending me to this acting coach, that acting coach. But I watch Cam, I watch Meth -- I watch them just being they self! Just being the person we love, off of their music. And if you don’t know em from their music, you love the character they play! So I didn’t even look for no coach, I just said, “You know what? I’m gonna just embody this.” I just focused up, and paid attention, and knowing how vibrant of a person Method Man was, I didn’t even want to dilute it. So I just did as much research as I could. 

There’s a tour coming up right after Survival drops? 

Yeah and my first U.K. tour – first time I’m going over there, can’t wait. But I feel like I’ve had a lot of supporters from the U.K. that have been supporting me from the jump, and they’re finally gonna get a live show. But also Amsterdam, Lisbon, Paris –we’re moving around this time. And it feels good because I can remember just, you know, rapping for the hood. And now, to actually have a Dave East album and tour, in London and Paris, and it just lets me know that the hard work really is paying off.

Is [daughter] Kairi gonna join you over there? 

Yeah I’m gonna bring her over. She got her passport, she ready to go! 

How old is she? 

Three. She’ll be four next year. 

I wondered if she was in school yet. 

She already started! I started her early. It’s something that’s before Pre-K. She’s in that right now. And also, you know, I feel like I teach her a lot. We read, and I try to teach her everything I know, and you learn more from interaction.

But I could be the best father ever, and give her all the game in the world, but she’s still gotta go apply that with other kids. So I want to get her in the mix early. It’s like -- go get around other kids! You know, you’ve got to watch them, and be a protective parent, but at the same time, they gotta learn the world too. You know what I mean? My pops put us out there, he said like, “Go ahead, go learn. I’m gonna give you all the game, but go figure it out.”