Harlem’s Dave East on what’s missing from modern New York rap: “Nobody’s really painting pictures about their own life”

Following the release of his debut album 'Survival', we talk to Dave East about Nas, Jay-Z and bringing hip-hop home to New York City

New York, once the Mecca of hip-hop, has been struggling to regain the worldwide dominance it once had as it continues to compete with the sound of the South sweeping today’s airwaves. Not since the mid-2000s 50 Cent and G-Unit era, along with the likes of Dip Set and D-Block, has the Big Apple been considered at the forefront of rap. But it appears things might be about to change…

An uprising led by the likes Pop Smoke, Cardi B, Cassanova and Shady Records’ Griselda clique is helping to put eyes and ears back on the streets of the concrete jungle, picking up where Onyx, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Nas, DMX and Biggie left off.

Another artist contributing to this new wave is Harlem rapper Dave East. A former basketball player who had the skills to go pro, East’s dreams of joining his friend Kevin Durant in the NBA were dashed after a run-in with his college coach saw him kicked off the team. Things got worse: after partaking in some illegal activities, the then semi-aspiring rapper was arrested and locked up for six months.


Upon his release, East shifted his focus to rap full-time. He released his debut mixtape, aptly titled ‘Change of Plans’, in 2010 and after numerous years of grind he caught the attention of Nas. Meeting through Jungle, the ‘Illmatic’ rapper’s younger brother, Nas signed East to his Mass Appeal imprint before negotiating a deal for him with legendary rap label Def Jam. The rest, as they say, is history.

NME sat down with East to talk about his debut album, ‘Survival’ – which dropped in November 2019 – the death of his friend and fellow rapper Nipsey Hussle and a previously unreleased Jay-Z verse he’s been holding on to.

While your new album tells the story of your own survival, it also feels like you’re fighting for the survival of New York hip-hop. Was that something you were thinking about while making it?

“I think I was thinking that subconsciously during the recording process. I’m a fan of what was going on in New York and I feel that shit is missing right now. There’s nobody that’s really painting pictures about their own life. All the people I grew up on, that’s the type of music they made. Nas, Jay[-Z], Cam[‘ron], they all brought you into their world.

You’ve been putting out music for almost 10 years yet ‘Survival’ is classed as your official debut album. Why did it take so long?

“People got used to me dropping projects that were of album quality. I feel like ‘Kairi Chanel’, ‘Hate Me Now’, ‘Paranoia’, all of those tapes, they were like albums. So when I said album it probably caught a lot of people by surprise. I hadn’t dropped a project in almost a year and I had Def Jam’s full support as far as marketing and putting an album out so I just felt like it was the right time.”

Dave East
Dave East released his debut album, ‘Survival’, on legendary hip-hop label Def Jam Records. CREDIT: Press

The album landed at Number 11 on Billboard in its first week but before this was confirmed an unconfirmed source claimed it had only sold 3,000 copies and that your label were considering dropping you. Where did that come from?


“You know the internet, right? If somebody posts ‘Dave East is gay’ right now it’s gonna go viral. There would be people asking me: ‘Are you gay?’ So it’s like anything they say on the internet is gonna make you think. I was waiting for Billboard. Once Billboard talk then it’s official.”

Biggie once rapped: “Because the streets is a short stop/Either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” There’s long been this idea that if you’re raised in the streets you only have three options to get out: playing basketball, selling drugs, or rapping. You’ve done all three but chose to rap. Why, especially seeing you were so good at basketball?

“I think rap was the only logical choice. With trapping you’re gonna get either robbed, killed, or locked up. With ball my problem was with authority, with coaches and shit like that.

“Rap is the first time I’m my own boss. I control me, I control what I do, I control when I go to the studio, I control what I wanna talk about. This is me. I can smoke all day if I want, drink all day if I want. I’m in control of my own success and what I’m doing. That’s why I feel like this was the best one for me and it’s a legitimate hustle. I’ve travelled around the world, brought my homies with me, my mom’s don’t gotta work, my pop’s is chillin’, my daughter don’t want for nothing. That’s all because of rap.”

Throughout rap’s history many MCs have spoken about growing up in single parent homes – and it’s usually the father who was absent. However, now it seems like things are changing with the likes of yourself, Game, Fabolous and Eminem proud to talk about being there for your kids. Is this something you’re noticing?

“Yeah, it’s the cool thing now. We’re making it cool. You’re supposed to be there for your child, that’s a little you. I just like the fact that tradition, or whatever you would call it, is starting to fade. Especially as far as a black man, you know, just the general outlook on black men and how they are with their kids, that ain’t me at all. My daughter is 100% of my life and I’m 100% of her life.”

Dave East
Dave East during his ‘Survival’ album cover shoot. CREDIT: Press

On ‘Survival’ you have a track called ‘The Marathon Continues’, which is a tribute to Nipsey Hussle. It’s evident you guys were very close. How did you meet?

“Through one of my big homies in LA, she’s like my hood mother, Mama Red. She had known Nip forever, like back when he was calling himself Lil’ Thundercat and all that.

“We connected on some street shit. The gang I’m from were up the block from the gang he’s from. He knew who I was and I knew who he was and then we started making music. We started calling each other and going to video shoots and shit like that. There would be times I was in LA and he wouldn’t be there, but he’d send me weed, send me guns, and whatever else I needed he’d send it to me.”


On the track you mention that you and Nipsey were going to do a joint project together. How far along was it – or was it just a discussion?

“We were like maybe four, five songs in.”

Are we ever going to hear them?

“A few people have asked me that, and truthfully I don’t know. Do you know why? Cos it’s not the same without him. The songs we did we can’t do a video for, I can’t run around with him and go promote it, so it ain’t the same. If I was to do it it’d be for his kids or something like that. I’d take all the proceeds of the album and give it to Emani and Kross and Lauren.”

You also mentioned on the track that he made you feel proud to tell the world that you were a Crip. Was it something you weren’t proud about previously?

“Nah, it’s just you don’t wanna get blackballed… Labels are like, ’Is he gonna be a problem? Are we gonna have to bail him out? Is he gonna get killed?’ So I always stood on it but then I saw Nipsey move the way he was and I was like, ‘What! They letting us in here? They letting us in these buildings now? They letting us in these offices and these meetings? They respecting what we got to say?’”

“At first I had people telling me, ‘Yo, don’t push that so hard.’ I was like, ‘Why not, bro? Why not, if that’s me? Why not if it ain’t hurting anything I’ve ever done?’ I still got all the same deals, I still sit in all these meetings with people. But they respect my mind, it ain’t about no gangbangin’. I feel they respect what I’m talking about and what I can bring to the table.”

Dave East and Nas
Dave East and Nas. CREDIT: Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Another highlight on ‘Survival’ is ‘Seventeen’. What was it like working with Timbaland on that record?

“Tim is dangerous man! What’s so ill with Tim is we did like eight records that day… The first beat Timbaland played for me had Jay-Z on it so I was gonna use that and get Nas on it for the album but it just didn’t work out at the time.”

So you’re saying you have a record with Jay-Z that you’re going to release at some point?

“I can’t say that. I don’t know. But the first record I recorded with Timbaland has a Jay-Z verse on it.”

We can’t end the interview without talking about Nas, specifically your ‘Godfather 4’ collaboration. The track appears on your album but he has more bars on it than you. Was it originally meant to be his record?


So how did it end up coming together and becoming yours?

“I walked in on him recording it at Mass Appeal studios in Manhattan – Green Lantern did the beat and killed it! So it was Nas, his engineer and Jungle. He had only spit maybe like 12 bars on it and I was like, ‘Yo bro, what you doing with this? Let me get on it with you.’ So I did my first part: ‘Yo, big bro, I’m from the ice pick era, light-skinned terror.’ I did that part and then he left. He was like, ‘Yo, I’m a get outta here,’ but he let me keep the song – and Nas don’t do that.”

On it Nas mentions that he gave up on looking for new young spitters and then you came along. What was it about you that changed his mind?

“He told me he sees a lot of similarities in how we are and what I’m talking about. And then there’s the fact that I’m from where he is. I’m from over that way. I’m not like a random person he found and signed, we all have mutual homies.”

Was the first time you recorded with him intimidating?

“Nah. I was more excited than anything. What was intimidating was the first time I performed with him. We performed at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas – this was like 2016, I think. We had a record called ‘Forbes List’. He brought me out during his set to do it. That was a little different, I’m on stage with this n***a, you know what I’m saying? But that was the icebreaker, after that I could perform with him, I could rock with him. Nas is an ill dude.”

Dave East’s debut album ‘Survival’ is out now