Music

Dave East Has Harlem, Nas, and the Whole City Behind Him

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By day, Wooster Street is overrun with the dregs of Soho — self-aggrandizing fashionistas, tourists asking for directions to the Kardashian Dash boutique — but by night, the cobblestoned sidewalk in front of 84 Wooster is quiet and peaceful. It’s also the perfect place to smoke weed. “Don’t ask for permission. I’ve been learning that,” says Dave East. Having been told that he can’t smoke on the roof of his record label’s building, the rapper now perches himself right at the entryway. It’s 8 p.m. and the air is crisp in anticipation of the first day of fall. East gingerly places a small amount of herb onto a square of raw rolling paper. He reclines, wearing ripped jeans and Nike Air Force 1s, and relishes his first puff of the day.

The 27-year-old has a lot on his mind. He’s releasing his ambitious Hate Me Now on October 2. He’s planning his first overseas shows, in Japan. And — as if that weren’t enough — East and his longtime girlfriend are expecting their first child next year. As Nas’s protégé, the stakes are high. But then Dave East has dealt with pressure his whole life.

Born in East Harlem, East had hoop dreams, not musical aspirations, as a kid. He grew up on a healthy diet of uptown hip-hop (Mase, Cam’ron, Dipset), but his father groomed his son — who’d reach a healthy six-five — to play basketball. East would get as far as the collegiate level, first at the University of Richmond and later at Towson University. But his attitude was a problem. He locked horns with his coaches and was ultimately dropped. Sidelined, he began selling drugs in Baltimore and landed himself a six-month stint in jail.

“Honestly, I was embarrassed because my mother was in court,” East says, looking down at his tattooed hands. “I just took it on the chin and ran with it.” The detour proved the kick in the ass he needed. He was able to “focus up” on music as well as a new spiritual path. He converted from Catholicism to Islam after his cellmate exposed him to the religion.

He lights up another joint. “I ain’t the best Muslim.” Yes, East has taken the shahadah and officially converted, but he’s not overzealous, clearly. He balances the trappings of rap — women, weed, and dark liquor — with faith to the best of his ability. He prays five times a day (or tries to), and he’s staunch about upholding holy days.

‘People think I live in the Hills, [that] I’m lit. Nah, brother.’

“Soon as I came home from that, I got right into the rap shit,” he says. “The ball shit ain’t really work out how I thought. I’ve never been no 9-to-5 type of dude. I wanted to do something I love to do, something that’s fun. Something that I know I’m gonna love waking up and doing every day. Rap always came easy to me. In Harlem, that’s what we do. We play ball, rap, or hustle.” He began recording mixtapes by scrimping, borrowing, and (admittedly) hustling for money to pay for studio time. “I kept making videos every other week. I stayed in the studio. I treated that shit like my real job.”

New York City rap is notorious for its hypercompetitive, crabs-in-a-barrel ethos, but following 2013’s Gemini mixtape, industry players like Sway, DJ Kay Slay, and Jovonn of Power 105 started to notice the neophyte’s lyrical prowess and style. East’s biggest break came last summer, when he earned an unexpected fan in Nas. “I don’t know how it happened, to be all the way 100 with you,” East admits. As legend has it, Nas was scouring YouTube for new music and stumbled upon East’s reggae-influenced “Bati Boy.” Nas’s brother Jungle (whom East knew from hanging out in the Queensbridge projects) was in the room, and the connection was made. Nas called shortly after just to give East props. “He was like, ‘Oh, you good? You killing this shit. We gonna talk soon. Keep my number. Lock this in. Keep killing.’

“I’m like, I don’t know what’s going on!” East laughs, taking a sip of Hennessy. The two continued exchanging messages, but East had to “keep killing” it on his own. He released Black Rose, expanding his growing fan base and garnering attention from New York OGs like Styles P, Jadakiss, and Raekwon. Six months after his call from Nas, East inked a deal with the rapper and Mass Appeal Records.

Being Nas’s protégé has opened doors otherwise padlocked shut to an indie. Dave East gets play on Hot 97, he hangs with the cool kids — like a recent dinner with the owners of Hennessy — and the rap cognoscenti give his music a serious listen. None of this guarantees shit, of course. East is still on the same block he’s always been on — figuratively and literally. “Me and [Nas’s] relationship is what it really seems,” he says of their closeness, though people often misconstrue it. “People think I live in the Hills, [that] I’m lit. Nah, brother.”

The half-life of hype is dangerously short. If indeed you do only get one shot to blow, Hate Me Now has to be a slam dunk. One of the early standouts on the twenty-track commercial project, out October 2, is “Forbes List.” Nas and East share a simpatico back-and-forth about the good life, trading perspectives as sensei and grasshopper. “I could see me in the sports cars/On sixteen shots of brown at the sports bar/At sixteen, I was hiding report cards/Now I see myself getting where I’m going, no OnStar,” raps East. Counters Nas: “I rock tuxes, busters/Clusters cover my watches/Drop mustard color, foreign cars in garages/Only queens I fuck with Céline clutches.”

“He put a lot of work in,” says manager Wayno, who’s been hanging out on the far side of the sidewalk during this interview. “We recorded a lot of music. We had a lot of arguments. He’s either really happy or really upset.” East interjects playfully, “I’m a Gemini! You can argue me — anybody!” Their relationship is more brotherly than business. “This is something that’s really gonna change our lives,” says Wayno.

Dave East’s dreams are closer to the ground. “[I want to] get on the road. That’s my biggest thing right now. I did every venue in New York you could perform at except for the Garden and Barclays, you feel me?” He stares into the distance. “I want to get out of New York.” His phone buzzes. It’s his girlfriend wondering where he is and why this interview is taking so long. (Far be it from the Voice to keep a pregnant woman waiting.) We wrap things up. He gives me a quick hug and hops shotgun into a sedan heading back to Harlem, presumably. Dave East is on the precipice of fame, but right now, life calls.

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