NEW YORK (AP) — Iconic rapper Nas isn’t known for being the most talkative, letting his legendary music speak for him. But when he does talk, his protégé Dave East is very attentive.
“It’s not like he’s trying to be overbearing. He’s just cool. He gives gems—advice. I’m like, ‘Oh, I caught that one!’” he laughed. “He just inspired me to go. It’s like what I do excites him sometimes more than excites me.”
Nas serves as both a mentor and label head to East, who is signed to his Mass Appeal Records in partnership with Def Jam. It’s easy to see why Nas and East, born David Brewster Jr., click so well; they’re both native New Yorkers (Nas repping Queens and East from Harlem) and both gifted wordsmiths who are lauded for creating lyrical gems with their music.
Steven “Steve-O” Carless, vice president of A&R for Def Jam Recordings, also saw how striking the similarities were.
“That’s the main reason why I signed him,” said Carless, who considers himself the biggest Nas fan in the world. “He was signing to G.O.O.D. Music. We stole him from Kanye West.”
“Survival,” which debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard Top 200 albums this week, is East’s official album debut, even though he’s been widely known in the hip-hop community for the past few years, releasing numerous popular mixtapes and EPs. He’s also collaborated with high profile artists such as Chris Brown, Meek Mill, 2 Chainz and Mac Miller.
He says all of that legwork was a build up to this musical moment.
“I just really want to get a lot more detailed about my life. Throughout my career so far, I’d kind of given bits and pieces about stuff, but I really want to paint that picture,” said East, whose “Survival” tour kicks off in Atlanta on Friday. “I want you to feel like you’re in my living room, or picture my living room when I was growing up, where I was growing up—all of that.”
But because of East’s lengthy mixtape catalog, those who worked on “Survival” had the challenge of presenting new themes and concepts to those not familiar with his work.
They also wanted to make the album stand out by using live musicians and honing in on the musicality of the project.
“We just wanted to ensure that we had a timeless approach to the musicality and sonic of the record. So we brought in a lot of musicians in on it to round out everything under the emotions of what he was saying and every bar that he basically spit,” said Carless. “We didn’t want the lyrical premise of what he was saying to go over anyone’s head.”
He tends to rap about the lures of the street and his upbringing, recalling navigating through the ills that inner-city life can bring, such as violence, drugs and paranoia. But he also brings fans into his family life, with “Mama I Made It,” dedicated to his mother, and “Daddy Knows,” for his daughter Kairi, both on the new album.
Initially, a music career wasn’t even a thought, as he set his sights on professional basketball. The 6’5” former Division 1 player was once AAU teammates with a number of future NBA players, including former league MVP Kevin Durant.
East began his collegiate career at the University of Richmond in Virginia, but was eventually kicked out. He bounced around, eventually continuing his hoop dreams at Towson University in Baltimore. That didn’t work out either, and then a series of bad decisions led to an arrest for a gun charge, followed by a six-month prison sentence. Realizing his basketball dream was over, he turned to music, which had only been a hobby. His 2011 mixtape “American Greed” was recorded at Durant’s home studio in Oklahoma City while he was still with the Thunder.
While he hopes his music has a broad appeal, he’s betting his acting will also be his calling card. He recently starred in Hulu’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” which ended last month. The series detailed the rise of the Wu-Tang Clan, one of rap music’s most prolific groups-turned-pop culture fixtures. East, who grew up idolizing the collective, portrayed standout member Method Man.
“I always looked up the Meth. So to even get cast for that role was crazy. I was like, ‘This is insane.’ But then to go meet up with Meth and vibe with him and he give me his blessings—it was priceless. To me, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it no other way,” said East.
East is a musical reflection of his upbringing. He’s an updated version of 1990s East Coast hip-hop; words are important to the rapper, and he doesn’t take their impact lightly.
“Lyrics are important to me because lyrics change people. Lyrics can inspire, lyrics can motivate me, lyrics can make you do good or bad. I feel like it’s all about the mood you’re in when you’re hearing certain lyrics. I always pay attention to what I’m saying,” said East.
“People run up on me with my lyrics tattooed on them, on their leg, their neck, their arm—stuff I said. It was just a rap to me, but that specific part of that song—you were living that. Somebody was actually going through that and it meant everything. So I really take my time and try to focus and make sure I’m saying something that’s worth something.”
In this hip-hop era where much of the emphasis is put on the sound or vibe of a record, Carless believes that although Dave is a lyricist, his authenticity can cut through the trend.
“Everything that’s going on around the culture and around the business of music, he’s like a one-of-one in my estimation. So I feel like his mountain is a lot steeper to climb because he is not 18-year-old kid on the internet with viral videos,” said Carless. “Dave with storytelling, narrative, low persona, lyrical ability, intense flows, the look, Authenticity, culture, vibe of him—those things are just special. You can’t make that up.”
Follow Associated Press entertainment journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at twitter.com/GaryGHamilton.