Words: Malcolm Worsham

Editor: Jasmina Cuevas

Photographer: Trevor Sage-El

RESPECT. Founder: J. Rheingold

Copyright Musinart LLC 2020

Dave East has seen the bottom, and is all about the bottom line. Known for executing on his vision, East has reached heights that nobody expected — startling rap music aficionados with his debut album on Def Jam, Survival.

His story can’t be compared with his peers. Maneuvering through the pain it’s not possible to deter this man on his mission. Life is a marathon which keeps rolling. East, 31, started the game with a dollar and a dream. From paying dues and telling his story, he’s now focused on paying it forward to his family, friends, and mentors in the game — all who have praised the rising emcee with honor and respect since the beginning. 

Diligently working to create the third installment of his Karma mixtape series, Karma 3, East is solidifying the quality-over-quantity formula. If you’ve seen the bottom, then you would know that this is not a matter of luck — it takes passion, pain and sacrifice. East has become a master MC, by pushing  through hard times and challenging any obstacle that has been placed in front of him. A whisper is louder than a shout — so listen up for Dave East.

In this game, you have to be built for the hard times while weathering the storm. How can you pursue happiness if you’ve never seen pain? We know what we want out of life, but it may come with a Change of Plans. These are the rules of the game. Sometimes we “Need A Sign,” all of those hours worked on the “Night Shift” to take care of “Me and Mines” — you do you and I’ll do me. We got the same 24 hours, so “What You Mad For?” These are the things that make us who we are, but in the end, what are we fighting, the love or the legacy?

RESPECT.: Who is Dave East?

Dave East: Dave East is a real one. From Spanish Harlem. I’m about family, you know what I’m sayin’? I’m about sincere shit, genuine shit. I’m about keeping respect. That’s what Dave East says, nah mean? I ain’t really in it for the clout, I ain’t in it for the hype. None of that. I’m here to let n****s know you can do it too, ’cause this shit came from nothing. A lot of people say that, but I don’t have any family members in the industry. I don’t have any cousins that work at Interscope or Def Jam. Nothing. This shit came from nobody. So I just want to be that person that shows the little homies that if that’s what you want to go do, go do that shit. That’s who Dave East is, you feel me? But it’s bigger than the music. The music is just one angle of what I can really bring to the table; that’s what a lot of people know me for. A few people seen me doing the acting thing, but I just wanna show n****s that as long as you’re focused and you wanna do something, get into it. And once you get into that shit, take that shit to the moon. You feel me?

Growing up in New York, what did you see yourself being?

I thought I was gonna be in the NBA. I thought I’d be playing for the Denver Nuggets right now! I thought I was going to the NBA, but shit ain’t work out. I was able to go to two different colleges on two different scholarships: the University of Richmond in Virginia, and then I went to Towson in Baltimore. I caught a little dumb charge and got locked up, put out of school and shit like that, so there was a lot of extra shit going on in my life. Rap is the first shit that really had me not distracted, like I was really able to lock in, go to the studio every day. Even with everything that was going on in the streets, I was able to get away from that shit, go to the lab. That was like my refuge. 

Who were your influences?

My father, my mom. Hip-hop wise, Cam, Jim Jones — I got a lot of game from Capo. He was really the first rapper I was around, like from a kid. When I met Capo, I was selling weed. He gave me a lot of game and a lot of different emotions. I learned a lot from Cam, but my bro Bully really linked me to Jim, so he gave me a lot of game. My uncles — all my uncles sold dope. All of them. They were around certain people and certain mixes where there were certain types of people that dealt with me different growing up. They all passed away. All my father’s brothers were getting busy in the ’80s and ’70s in Harlem and Queens and Brooklyn; they were running around. So I come from that. That kind of family. My mom is Creole and Dominican, and my father, his family, they’re West Indian, from Barbados. So that was my household. That was the mix I was around. That was the music I was hearing, that was the food I was eating. Know what I mean? It was spicy in the crib! I mean, like, real shit! 

How did you first get introduced to hip-hop?

My cousin. He was on my album. He’s the dude talking on “Need a Sign.” That’s like my big brother. He put me onto hip-hop. Because my mom didn’t listen to rap. She listens to it now ’cause I rap, but the only rapper my mom listened to was 2Pac. You feel me? My pops wasn’t listening to no rap. N****s was listening to fuckin’ Earth, Wind & Fire; Marvin Gaye; Frankie Valli; the O’Jays; all that kind of shit, Donny Hathaway. That’s the shit they were listening to. So my cousin put me on to rap. He was knocking Wu-Tang. That’s how I first got put on to the Wu. Like, early, this is like ’94, ’95. I was like 5 or 6 years old. My cousin had a boombox that was playing all that shit: KRS-One, Kool G Rap, Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie, Junior M.A.F.I.A. I’m knocking all that at like 5, 6 years old with my cousin. But then when I was back home to the crib, I wasn’t hearing any of that shit. So that was exciting for me. 

The first CD I ever bought was DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. It was the first time I ever had my own money in my pocket and really went and bought it. I was 10.

Hip-Hop has evolved in so many ways. What about it keeps you coming back?

Hip-hop ain’t going nowhere, man. People always need that motivation. They gotta be on the radio, and they gotta be on the Billboard Top 10. That’s what I do it for — being able to travel the world, just to be able to provide different shit for my family and my homies.

You had hoop dreams at first, then you had a change of plans. How did one decade change your life?

When I first realized I was gonna do the rap shit, I just put my head down, paused and went in. ’Cause I already had the scene, from basketball — like waking up, going to the gym, running. I was already built for that, so staying in the studio, I got mad weed, my n****s with me, I got liquor, couple girls — that shit became routine, know what I’m saying? And it started bugging people out, ’cause I was doing so much. But now n****s see what it did and it actually paid off. It got me a deal, it changed my family. My daughter doesn’t know anything about the projects. I toured in Europe and Japan; I went around the world a bit all from me rapping. So I don’t have any regrets in this shit. I came into this shit with nothing, just scraping and trying to make it happen. And you build blocks with this shit. You get one block, you build another block. I just kept building blocks. 

What’s your favorite Dave East project?

Probably Karma 3. It ain’t even out yet. I feel like I had my beginner stages with the mixtapes, where I was starving, just rapping my life away. Just letting n****s know I could rap. Then I got the deal, started working with different artists and getting different features and shit, and people in New York started standing behind me. Then I did the “Survival” shit. That was my debut with Def Jam; that was mad personal. I really tapped into me growing up and all that. So now, I went through all that and I can get my shit off. Now I can really focus on making good music. I really don’t have to aim no more. Before, it was really personal. Like, “A’ight, let me talk about the streets. A’ight, let me get to the girls.” Now it’s like, let’s just make good music. Let’s make good records and let’s always remind n****s that you can’t fuck with me. I’mma always rap. I’m always facing shit, bringing some shit from my own life with some shit I’m going through that you can’t fuck with. Like you’d have to make it up. People might not think it’s credible, but ain’t no bullshit on my name. Everything I just spoke on or rapped about, the OGs respect it. The older n****s that I was inspired by, that made me want to rap, they all fuck with my shit. So it’s like, now I’m in a space where I’mma just make good music, and I’mma always push the ball — let n****s know that I respect my own pen. I respect the shit I’m talking about. 

“Even with everything that was going on in the streets, I was able to get away from that shit, go to the lab. That was like my refuge.”

“Even with everything that was going on in the streets, I was able to get away from that shit, go to the lab. That was like my refuge.”

How does your daughter, Kairi, influence your music?

She influences me a lot because I pay more attention to the shit I’m talking about. The other day I was locking in on one of my new records, and she was like, “Dada, why are you saying so many bad words?” And I’m having to explain, “I’m sorry.” But she’s listening, so the way I talk to her is not the way I talk in my music. I’m talking to the streets in my music. It stays in my conscience, like, “Let me watch what I’m saying, man. ’Cause my daughter is listening to this shit.” I’m her favorite artist — I’m her dad, so she’s gonna be my biggest fan. So I just gotta watch the way I am living with this shit.

After Nipsey Hussle passed away, you mentioned how much he and his music meant to you. Tell us how he inspired you.

Nip was probably the closest n***a I been to in rap. Even over Nas. Nip probably was the one that I really, like — we was the same n***a. He’s from L.A., I’m from New York, but he was the one n***a that I really, like … sometimes when you meet people, it’s like a magnet. The universe just kind of locks you into that kind of shit. I’d wake up to missed calls and texts from Nip, like, “You good, cuz?” And I’m thinking something happened. I’m like, “What up?” And he’s like, “Nah, I was just checking on you, bro.” You know what I mean? We and Nip had that type of relationship. We’d be on FaceTime with my daughter, all that type of shit, bro. So it just … I don’t know. That’s one of them losses a n***a’s gotta wear. 

But that hit me differently because I actually was around cuz. I still hear that n***a’s voice. Like me and him were talking about shit we wanted to do in the future, putting tours together, starting our own little label. Like only signing n***as that’s Crip, like all kinds of shit we used to just joke about, but really be talking about business. Like, “We only be going around anybody that’s low. From L.A. to N.Y., n***a. If they Crip and they putting on, we’re gonna give ’em a deal.” We used to have these conversations, so that was unexpected, bro. And I been right there with him a thousand times, so to know the respect he caught in his hood and to see how n****s treated him — that happened right there on camera for us to see. That shit broke my heart. But at the end of the day, I learned so much from cuz. In the little bit of time I was able to be around, he gave me a lot of game just as far as the industry, you know what I’m saying? And how to be your own boss. That’s what he always preached. Like, “Fuck these labels. Use these labels for what they are, but always have your own shit crackin’. Build your own empire, hire your own n****s. Know what I’m sayin’? Make whatever wealth come to you and spread that shit within your people, where everybody gets a chance to boss up, even for just a second.” You feel me? He taught me that shit. So I got certain conversations and certain truths that Nip dropped on me that I’ll never forget.

How are you planning to live with that inspiration and keep his name going?

Shit, just keep it pushing, bro, and stay on the same time he was here. When he was around, I was on a certain energy. That’s the time I gotta stay or I just gotta keep this shit rolling. Same shit as he would’ve been. Right now, Nip would’ve been rolling. Right now he would’ve been rockin’ and rollin’. Getting nominated for Grammys, all kinds of shit. Cuz would’ve been movin’ and groovin’ right about now. That’s all I can do. Stick to my craft, stick to my plans, stick to my supporters. I gotta keep continuing to motivate them. 

You lost both your friend Malik and your cousin Mugga. What blocks the pain of losing people on the road to success?

I feel like God made me successful for that shit, bro. I feel like the life I live now is a whole other life. I think back on my n****s. I got chains with their faces on them, so I can always see them, they’re always with me. They’re tatted in my flesh. I got both their faces. These were my guys but you know life don’t stop. They were my guys, but I always think, “Damn, I wish cuz was here.” I wish them n****s were around to see me now, ’cause when both of them died, I was broke. I hadn’t made it yet. I had gotten a little lit when Mugga passed but when Freaky [Malik’s nickname] died, I was dead broke. I couldn’t hold $20. I wish they could have seen how, you know … and I mean, they see it. But I wish they could have been around for it.

I put it into the music. I speak on it. But I spend a lot of time — and I’m sure a lot of people go through this shit, celebrities or whatever — when I be crying. I go through it. When I’m not on Instagram, when I’m not in the studio. I’m just for the dolo smoking, thinking ’bout my n****s. That shit will hit me, you feel me? So I go through that. I feel like I’mma go through that forever. That ain’t going nowhere.

What is this next decade going to be about?

Just more boss moves. I feel like the last decade, I was scraping and trying to let n****s know who I was as an artist. This next decade I wanna do more acting. I wanna do some directing. I wanna get my label, From the Dirt, off the ground. I wanna sign more people. I just want to get more in the executive position of other n****s’ careers. Really changing other peoples’ lives like Nas and other people changed my life. I feel like I have been around long enough, and I know the muthafuckas to deal with and talk to. I could really help some n****s out. They really, they are close to it …. They got the talent. They just need somebody to help them. They need somebody to push the button for them. So that’s what I want to do in the next decade. I want to be the one that becomes more responsible for other people’s careers and not just my own.

What does the word “RESPECT.” mean to you?

The word “respect” means everything to me, man. The way I was raised, you’re supposed to die by that. That’s how I was brought up. My father raised me like that. My mom, my uncle … you die ’bout your respect, regardless of what it is. You don’t be stupid and jump off the roof, jump off the bridge, but that’s really all you got. Because you could be filthy rich and nobody respect you. Except for the n****s you pay to work. As soon as that money’s gone, you know what I mean? So I feel like respect goes a long way. Respect goes way further than money. Respect will get a n***a back on his feet when they just did 20 years. You feel me? He did 20 years and then came home without a dollar, but the respect on whatever he did before he did that bid will get that man back on his feet. There are n****s out there that’ll look out for that man, look out for his family. Shit like that. So respect goes a long way — way longer than money. So that’s what respect means to me. It means everything