Interview: Dave East Is Harlem’s New Wave

Dope rappers. Flamboyant CEOs. Infamous trapstars. Thought-provoking activists. And, legendary writers. This is Harlemworld, USA.

These Uptown Manhattan blocks act as breeding grounds for world-renowned trendsetters. Harlem is where Puff Daddy, who is on his way to becoming a billionaire, picked up his cocky hip-hop mogul swag. It’s the same place where MCs like the late Big L—who was tragically killed in 1999—mercilessly slaughtered microphones and would-be rappers. There’s also no shortage of new talent like A$AP Rocky and Teyana Taylor.

However, Harlem isn’t limited to game-changing hip-hop artists. The historic section of New York City—known as a cultural hub for African Americans and one of the many spots Blacks fled to from the Jim Crow ruled South decades ago—was also once home to the iconic and revolutionary activist, Malcolm X. We can’t forget the Harlem Renaissance (1920s) —a time period where literary gods banged out some of the world’s greatest works and produced some of the most recognized African American writers. Literary figures like Harlem native, James Baldwin, created pieces that are studied at schools and universities across the world. Baldwin’s introspective pen game described inner city life in Harlem long before Kool Moe Dee, Big L, Cam’ron, etc.

But, up next to put on for the borough is Dave East. Draped in all black and reeking of a strong Mary Jane aroma, the 6’5, former basketball star, with a demeanor that calmly says: ‘Don’t fuck with me,’ and his two-man entourage–cousin and brother–stopped by VIBE’s offices to discuss hip-hop, his gift for storytelling and what he’s adding to the culture, which he answers like a true Harlem MC would.

“I try to paint a more vivid picture of what’s going on in Harlem,” says Dave. “I feel like no one has really got in-depth about what’s going on in the streets. And, I’ll be the one to really get that out there. I want people to come to Harlem when they hear me.”

East’s music invokes the spirits of the hustlers that were making street money on Lenox Ave in the ’80 and ‘90s. One gets that stifling feeling while listening to East’s recently released Black Rose EP. His pen game paralyzes listeners as he describes the inner city blues at 1199 Franklin Plaza Projects—the hood that raised D.E.

For example, on “The Offering,” Dave raps: “I’m from a grimy slum/We’ll get ya Mommy hung/Chain smoking that potent like I ain’t got a lung/Play tough if you want/Shots fly, them niggas gotta run/Jim Carrey, put on a mask pull out a Tommy Gun/Morgue running out of space/The East is where them bodies from/Heard he like to talk/Torture tactic/Rip out his tongue/Til’ I’m dead/I’m after bread/I’m come from without a crumb.”

Dave’s gripping lyrics are complemented by his aggressive, concise and fluid flow. Effortlessly, he flows in and out of the beat like a seasoned D-boy going in and out of traffic on the interstate while riding dirty. His Donald Goines-like visuals are so concrete that one can almost smell the stench of weed smoke mixed with pissy New York project hallways. All of this comes together perfectly on the captivating mini-drama track, “In Some Shit Pt. 1.” The song finds East telling an absorbing story that makes Meek Mill’s “Tony Story” seem exaggerated.

“That’s a movie,’ East said of “In Some Shit Pt. 1.” “Honestly, that’s one of them joints where it’s some truth to it. It’s a lot of truth to that. I’m not gon’ really get into the people. But, it’s a street tale, some shit that has happened. But, it was just one of them joints where I got to writing and my hand ain’t stop.”

He’s been writing for so long that he doesn’t remember writing his first rhyme.

“I was always a good writer. But, I don’t remember my first rap. When I fist did it, I just jumped in it. I was into the bars, trying to say slick shit. I wasn’t real personal. I wasn’t thinking on the scale of I could “pop” with this. Once I started feeling that, I started seeing the reaction from different people. I started getting more personal with it. I always had love for it [hip-hop]. But, I was playing ball, too. Growing up in Harlem, I was always in the parks playing ball.”

East’s b-ball skills earned him a scholarship to the University of Richmond—he later transferred to Towson University, where he shared a room with Kevin Durant’s brother, Tony Durant.

“Kevin Durant, That’s really one of my closest friends that’s in the NBA. [Also], I met this kid, A.J, who’s from L.A., in Baltimore that had the line on it.”

The line that DE is speaking of is DJ Ill Will, who hosted Meek Mill’s Mr. Philadelphia mixtape and Tyga/Chris Brown’s mixtape Fan of A Fan, and a studio. Dave literally had two dreams in the palm of his hands—pursue the NBA or rap. He had to make a decision.

“I could’ve went overseas. But, something in me was like, ‘Take this rap shit serious.’ I always had friends around me telling me like, ‘Yo, why don’t you rap? It sound good when you rap.’ So, I just took it serious.”

When it came time to make a choice, he hit the studio A.J. had on deck for him, and hasn’t left yet.

“I just went in there and I just got in the zone. And, that’s when I did my first mixtape, Change of Plans. I sent DJ Ill Will, out in L.A., some records. He hit me right back and said, ‘Yo, I’ll host a mixtape. I really like the sound.”’

Since dropping Change of Plans, the independent artist, who has also been co-signed by the likes of Nas hasn’t let up on his grind. He’s consistently put in work by dropping projects such as Insomnia (2011), American Greed (2011), No Regrets (2012) and Gemini (2012) and his latest effort, Black Rose. And, he’s in no rush to sign with a major.

“Right now, I’m just doing me. I’m just floating. Getting my buzz going. Keep my name out there in the streets the best way that I can to where I’m in demand and they calling my mother. That’s how I want it.”

Like all certified Harlem hustlers, Dave creates options for himself. So, even if rap wasn’t paying off, it’s more than likely that East;s potent stories would’ve been told, some how, some way. While in college, the former baller was a Communications student. “I wanted to get into film writing,” Dave said. “I always had a gift with writing. I can really write. I always felt like I can write movies or somehow get into that.” Dave’s gangsta pen game can also be attributed to him having to be aware of the monsters, beasts and savages that smother Harlem blocks and his love for movies. “I watch movies all day. I am a heavy movie head. And, I’m observant,” Dave said. “I’m a sponge. Don’t nothing really get by me,” he said. “I pick up on everything that I’m around. I’m always up on current events. I’m into to stuff like that. I want to be aware if they blow this motherfucker up. So, I’m just observant. So, I can be around a situation and really talk about it.” Not only is D.E, aware, but also his personal life experiences add depth to his music. For instance, On Black Rose, East talks about his pop’s incarceration for robbing a bank. Also, he speaks on his uncle’s cocaine habit. Then, there’s the sobering “Free Charlie” track, which deals with a loved one serving time in the penitentiary.

“He’s doing seven years. But, I cried writing that. I was in the studio with C-LV (Producer) He seen it in my face—we had girls in the studio, drinks, we smoking and all that. He pulled me to the side and said, ‘Yo, I’ma get everybody out of here.”

Dave began writing as a way to deal with pain. It seems as if the spirit of Baldwin lives in DE. Because Baldwin once wrote: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Despite his ‘Don’t fuck with me’ exterior, Dave isn’t afraid to show his true feelings. During this interview, he became misty eyed while talking about the death of his loved ones.

“Just a month ago I buried my cousin, had to put him in the ground. I had to watch his mother fall on the casket and tell them to stop. That shit makes me want to cry right now. Just death. And, homies I was with everyday, knowing they locked up.”

Now, that DE has a platform to deal with the drama that comes with being a young black man in the Ghetto States of America, over time his music can take him out of the world he once knew as reality.

“I want to eventually get to a point where I can make all types of music for every type of crowd.”

When asked what, or if anything, can be done to improve the already thriving hip-hop culture, DE said:

“Just the real, man. I don’t feel like nothing is real. I feel like it’s facade. A lot of these rappers, you meet them and it’s like you meeting a Disney character or one of these Tickle Me Elmo’s off 42nd street. I feel like I’m somebody that needs to be heard. Rap is wide open. And, people will yearn for the real. That’s why them classic rappers will always be classic.”

Dave East – Black Rose