Standing at roughly 6'5", Dave East is a commanding presence. More than that, he's attractive — something the 29-year-old East Harlem rapper knows all too well. East is the subject of passionate blogs declaring him the "sexiest rapper in the world," which is why he credits a fair portion of his success to the ladies. "I'm not trying to toot my own horn, but there aren't a lot of good-looking rappers," he says with a shrug.
But good-looks isn't all Dave East, formerly David Brewster, has to offer. A promising basketballer (playing in the Amateur Athletic Union with NBA hopefuls, Kevin Durant and Nolan Smith), East gave up the game to focus on music full-time — encouraged by pals in the projects after he demonstrated his obvious talent for freestyling. After a brief stint in prison for drug-dealing, which had supported his burgeoning rap career, it wasn't long before a determined East's consistent musical output caught the attention of New York hip hop legend, Nas. East now counts the rap icon as his primary mentor, and under his guidance has become one of the city's proudest exports. Old heads lamenting hip hop music's collective shift from thought-provoking narratives to "turn-up tracks," i.e. top 40 trap, as well as "happy" or "mumble" rap, seek solace in the 2016 XXL freshman, whose rhymes describing his early woes are reminiscent to those of 90s luminary Tupac or enduring megastar Jay-Z.
Tonight, East will perform alongside MadeinTYO at 1800 x SoundCloud's "BLANK CANVAS" party at Art Basel Miami Beach. The event, which is inspired by spontaneous creativity, will see East intersperse his several of his popular tracks with live freestyling — something that feels relatively full-circle for East considering spitting amongst friends was his only outlet as an aspiring rapper. We caught up East prior to chat his come-up, the state of New York hip hop and his affinity for pain.
How did you and Nas link?
I'm from Harlem, but my aunt was living in Queens at the time. The hood that she lived in was right next door to Queensbridge. So I know his brother Jungle just from growing up and being over there. I used to sell his bother weed and shit, so once I really started rapping and taking it serious, everybody in the hood was listening to my shit. Then Nas heard it.
Wow, his brother put him on.
Yeah. But Nas lived in L.A. So anytime Jungle would go to L.A., he would listen to the shit in the car. Then Nas called me.
Having that recognition from such a New York icon must have been massive.
I couldn't believe that shit. His voice is so distinct. When he got on the phone he was like, "Yo what up son?" All I could think was oh shit. This is crazy.
When did you start taking it seriously?
I took rap serious when I got out of jail. I was like 21, 22. To 2011, 2012. That's when I really started being in the studio all the time, looking for producers, really starting to put videos together. That's when I knew basketball and all the other stuff I was doing before, I knew I was done with it. I wanted to put all my time into rap. Even when I wasn't just rapping I wanted to be doing something with music.
I feel like people really treat you like a newcomer, but you've been at it for a while.
A lot of people they didn't hear of me until Nas said my name. Even more people didn't hear of me until after that. The Nas shit I feel like went over a lot of people's heads. Now the different little TV shows and shit I did, I got fans from that, or the "Perfect" song with Chris Brown. Chris Brown's fan base is so big that for a lot of people that was their first time hearing of me. They hear that song and think I'm this commercial artist but after they go back to listen to my shit and say no he really raps. With me I love it all. However you get put on to my music.
I feel like you have that real distinctive New York sound — you have that real old school, raw, meaningful style. Your lyrics always tell a story.
I think with that it's more of what I've been through. Rap is so easy for me. It just comes to me. All of it is real shit that I can remember. That's the hardest part. Trying to remember how certain shit happened. If you really listen to my shit I tell stories and shit like that. I like to leave the listener guessing. Even with the "Keisha" record. Everybody is waiting for part two. My favorite rappers are Biggie, Styles P, Nas, Jay-Z, Jadakiss. The only thing is I'm young. I'm 29 but as far as the era I'm in I'm amongst the younger rappers. I feel like I stand out more because of me having that element to my music.
Yeah it's not trappy.
But I can mix all of that. That's the difference. My go-to shit is going to give you the feeling of Biggie, Nas, or just that New York shit. At the same time for my features and mixtapes I do trap shit or all kind of R&B. I can get onto all that but I like that pain, those stories, that shit to where you can be in New Zealand but feel like you're in Harlem listening to it. If you close your eyes you can see all of that shit. I'm detailed. I believe in lyrics and taking my time with a song. I'm not just going to go in there and just turn up. I'm going to do something that makes you feel like you have to sit down and listen to that shit.
With all that other stuff popping off, though, did you feel the pressure to jump on that to put out that party track?
I'm not mad at it. If it comes it comes, but I'm more built on the legacy. There are so many people who will have the biggest hit in the world and then the next summer you won't even see them anymore. They're only as big as that song they made. I want my shit based on me as a whole career. However long I'm in this shit, 10 or 15 years, however long I decide to do this. If I'm allowed to be here doing this, that's what I want it to be based on. Wherever I go people know me as Dave East. It's not, "Oh that's Nas's artist."
No one does that with you and Nas. It's very low key.
Me and him laugh about that shit. He will tell me that I'm the first artist he's worked with that he doesn't have to do nothing for. He'll even say how he's trying to keep up with me. For me he changed my life enough. I don't have to be underneath him or asking him to do certain things. I'm going to show you how much I appreciate you putting me on by just out working everybody.
What do you think about the state of New York rap?
If you think about it it's always been competitive. It's always been that way. Even in the 90's and shit like that. Dudes were collaborating but the same dudes still represented their team and their team only. You had Wu-Tang, you had Dipset, you had Terror Squad. You had all of these groups that might have been cool with each other but all did their separate thing. They would get together on radio freestyles or shit like that but they did their own thing. Now in Atlanta there's a new star every week. In New York new stars aren't being born like that. It takes a while for a new person to come in New York that's actually worthwhile. We have a lot of rappers and shit like that but I'm talking about an actual star. Somebody you can put in the mix with all these other dudes that's doing it nationwide. In New York city we haven't been producing at that rate that we were back in the day.
Who's a star to you in the current landscape?
Right now Kendrick Lamar is a star, Lil Uzi's a star in his own right. I feel like people confuse hip hop with shit. Hip hop is hip hop. Trap rap is trap rap. Rock rap is rock rap.
You don't put it all under hip hop?
Hell no. I don't put that under hip hop. I put it all together. He can rap but the shit that he's wining with, the shit that has the world loving him, that's not rap as I know it or rap as the culture I come from knows. At the same time you have to respect it.
Has hip hop disappointed you?
No. Hip hop is the most listened to genre out of all music. The kid's parents were country western fans they listen to rap. The kid's parents that were rock fans they listen to rap. Everybody is listening to rap. Based on what you want to do with it is up to you now. It's not a structure on it anymore where if you're from New York you have to have on Timberland boots. It's not like that anymore. You can be the weirdest motherfucker ever but if the people love you and if you're creating a wave then you're doing your job. I always tell people that rap is more of a popularity contest. With me the fact that I don't have a hit record, the fact that I don't dominate the club scene or shit like that, other things have made me become popular.
I feel like it's the shit with the girls.
What do you mean? The songs for the ladies?
No I just feel like there aren't too many attractive male rappers. Dudes that be rapping who are actually attractive. Girls be loving the music but you're not going to do anything with them. I feel like with me a lot of girls may be in tuned with the music but they be liking me. They're going to go "Damn he's cute, damn he's tall" — it's more about me as a person than the music. Now when that hit comes, or I drop a hit or whatever, that's just going to pick up a whole group of other people. My raps got me in the door. Nas didn't give a fuck how I looked. I used to always have a hoodie on. I'd be hiding. I would have a hat, a hoodie, and my previous manager would tell me to take my hat off and let the world see you. I didn't like cameras or people just looking at me. Now I love it.
You know what changed? I put it in my mind that this is my job. It's what I signed up for. At first I didn't know the people but I'm coming straight from the street. It wasn't like I went to a rap academy or a school. I came literally from the block to the label. Next day, same day shit, and then I went back to the block. So my instincts were that I didn't know anyone or their intentions. Now I just feel like this is what I signed up to do.
Then you put out an album called Paranoid. If you're loving it where's the paranoia coming from?
You can love something that can make you paranoid. You can be with your boyfriend but still in the back of your mind hope that he isn't cheating on you. You hope that it works out because you love him to death and you'll do whatever for him but you're paranoid. It's a yin and a yang. I love what I've become.
For you is the paranoia about falling off?
No not that. I'm here. I always said that's the last thing they should have had which was me getting in this game. I'm here now so I'm a hustler. From here on you're going to see my name involved in a project in some way. Whatever it is rap, acting, if I want to come out with a healthy drink. Whatever I do I'm going to be relevant. I've created such a base where people are going to want shit from me here on out. Whatever it is. The paranoid is more of not knowing.
That's what people don't understand, those big records can do a lot for you but it has to be more than that, it has to be something where they want to do other things with you because once the life of that record is over you're over. But if you took that record and got the number one then you landed a modeling deal, you landed a clothing line, you landed a movie role. If you land certain shit off of that record then your purpose was fulfilled. If you were just chasing that next hit then I feel bad for you. A lot of people paint that picture of who they want you to be. I rap about the street, I rap about jail, I really did that shit so.
Your lifestyle has changed so much from that time. How do you still keep it real in your lyrics rapping about the hood etc?
A lot of this new shit doesn't really phase me. I have the same people around me that was in the hood. It's not like I got lit and now I have a whole group of new friends.
Would you ever move intoto that "I pulled up in a Lambo" or "posted with my chains"-type of vibe?
Those are little personal wins. That's all that is. People call it stunting or flexing but that's a person win. If you're a kid that never had none of that shit, you had no way of even imagining how you could get next to it, then it happens, hell yeah I'm going to show you this new watch, hell yeah I'm pull up in something nice. I'm going to show you that I did it from nothing. That's all it be about. As you get into it and see everybody else doing that shit it gets trendy and the norm. So you want to fall back a little bit more.
Yeah, you're not flashy with it.
Everybody has a hundred chains so I might just want to have one. I always want to change up. Dave East is not a character it's who I am.
When you were formulating your sound, were you trying to create something timeless?
Of course. You have to remember, the youth are the individuals that change rap. It's not even the rappers. It's the kids, the fans, the kids growing up in these cities, these suburbs, these ghettos, these other countries. That's who changes the climate of rap. When I was younger lean wasn't popular, xanex, all these pain killers.
Do you fuck with that kind of stuff?
I was on it for a minute. Maybe before my daughter was born. Each generation like the babies that came from the eighties, that era was crack, crack was a drug. That affected a whole generation and a whole ten years. From 1990 to 2000 those were babies that came from the crack era.
What if it got to the stage where you did get that hit and you couldn't escape your name?
Then it's lit. Hell yeah, I'm going to embrace it. I just feel like it opens up more markets. I'm just glad that I have been able to build enough of a fan base and I've created enough of a name without that. When people run up to me they're not like that's the guy who is on "Perfect," they say that's Dave East. I'm not a song person. I've been around people with those hits. Even with Cardi B she had the biggest song in the world but she was already doing her Love and Hip Hop shit. She was already creating a fan base. She was setting it up. Her Instagram was lit, her videos were going viral of her just talking, so she was getting her name out there. The hit just stamped it. It's like ok now I'm in here for real. With me I did all the other shit. I got all the co-signs and I did all the other shit besides that hit. I feel like those people who come out the gate with that hit have the toughest careers. For the time being of that record you're the hottest and everything looks marvellous but now everybody's waiting for that next record. The world is waiting for that next record. If it doesn't do what that first record did now you're a failure. The rest of your career you're chasing that hit. For me I don't know what a hit record does. I haven't seen that reaction from the world with a hit record. I just seen the reaction from the stuff that I put out.
Listen to Dave East's latest project, Karma, below.