Two years. That’s all the time that passed from when Dave East released his first mixtape, got noticed and subsequently mentored by Nas, signed to Mass Appeal Records, and got signed by Def Jam Records. For milestones that take other artists many more years to hit – if they do at all – the East Harlem native proves that talent and hard work really can align the jackpot for that million dollar win. But with the release of his debut for Def Jam, Paranoia: A True Story, East is out to prove he’s only warming up, putting his own stamp on the lyrical poetry contemporary rappers like Kendrick Lamar and J Cole are making popular again.
In fact, it’s East’s penchant for sharing a lyrical honesty relatable to millions of others that has made him such an important and welcome addition, touting Cam’Ron, 2 Chainz, and Beanie Sigel as some of his collaborators. It’s an honesty that includes life in the hood, but also his journey as a father to a beloved baby girl, and his meteoric rise to fame, the glamor of which, East has quickly learned, comes with a heavy dose of that titular feeling. We caught up with the rapper in our New York office to discuss his breakthrough moment, the duplicity of fame and how paranoia feeds into both.
How was creating this album different from your past mixtapes?
I recorded the majority of it in L.A. so that was new. Different energy over there… and just knowing the hype around it and being able to work with the different people I wanted to work with. I didn’t really have a hard time contacting any producers or artists that I wanted to have on the team, so it kind of went real smooth this time around.
A lot of your lyrics focus on exposing the realities of street life and the environment you grew up in. Do you think there’s a responsibility for artists to talk about the uncomfortable truths?
Depends on the type of artist you are. I’m real personal, I actually take time and put focus into lyrics. I feel like if you’re a lyricist and you’re trying to get an actual story out, then yeah, you need to do that. You should make your listener as comfortable and as familiar with where you came from as possible. I try to bring people into my life, even if it’s just for that project; if you just get to listen to my music you should feel like you know me.
More than just the title, paranoia is strewn throughout your lyrics’ navigation of fame. Do you think success can exist without paranoia?
I honestly don’t think it can, unless you’re not conscious of what’s going on. I can remember having ten followers on Instagram, and now it’s a million. I can remember not knowing who I could get any music to. I didn’t have an email or a phone number, nothing to get my music to any blog sites, any radio stations, anything, so just the process I took and the journey I had to take to get it to where it is now… I’ve seen a lot. I was able to see the different climates of when nobody knows you and then when everybody knows you. It created a feeling of, “who really, really is into me?” or is it just, “Oh that’s Nas’ son.” The paranoia comes from me not knowing what’s genuine no more, and not knowing what’s real. All this is a blur. All my dreams, all the things I had on my bucket list, from women to cars to everything else that I really wanted to do as far as my family, my homies, and getting out of my hood, I accomplished all of that in two years.
So now I’m watching my surroundings, you know what I’m saying? I’m really peepin who’s coming around and I try to keep the exact same people in my circle. I’m not against new friends, but I just don’t want to let anything cancerous into my circle. I can’t allow anything to tarnish that or push me in the wrong direction. That had me paranoid, watching, like ‘Man, I don’t know him, I don’t know her, what they want?’ It just had me watching stuff a lot more. And on top of it all I’m a dad now, and I feel like I’m my daughter’s hero. I’m her protector, I’m the only man she knows. I can’t jeopardize that for nothing. I can’t ever go back to jail; I need to be around for my baby girl to really grow and me give her all the game I got, to where when she’s a grown woman she’ll be cool, she’ll already know what life is about.
Let’s talk a bit about your evolution, you’re in a way different place and your bars are really reflecting that.
I didn’t grab this out of the sky, you know. Down to all of my tats there’s a story behind everything I do, and it’s unraveling in my music. You start to grow with me, you know what I mean? The music is a way for me to vent and really tell people my life without me sitting down and having a conversation with them. If you listen from my first mixtape to now with my first Def Jam debut you can hear so many stories and you can hear what I went through: if I was down or if I was happy, or you can hear when I got money. You can hear the transition to when I start talking about jewelry. I wasn’t talking about all that before; I was talking about what I was seeing every day: roaches and the water was cold and the whole building was filthy.
Now I fly first class everywhere, I’m eating different dinners now, I’m talking to different women, I’m in A-list parties now, so it’s like whiplash. It’s still gonna be feeling real, but I try to talk about it as much as I can so people can stay with me. So I’ll always relate back to my bare room in the projects, just as much as I wanna talk about the mansion. I will always give you both: it came from this to get to that. I feel like in the game of music…it ain’t enough people doing that – that’s really bringing you where they’re from or bringing you into their life. I feel like people just keep being like, “Oh that’s winning, that’s poppin, let me do that.” I can’t do that. I gotta keep it me.
What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in hip-hop now?
The creativity… you don’t know who’s gonna be the next big thing. I feel like back in the day it was a select group of people, and that’s who the hits came from. Now you don’t know who’s gonna have the hit record, you don’t know who’s gonna come out the blue and everybody gonna fall in love with it. I use Cardi B for example. She’s got the biggest record in the world right now, and you could have never guessed that a year ago. You wouldn’t have even taken her rapping seriously if you wasn’t on it. But she’s super dope and it just goes to show this game is so open anybody could step in, and it changes the whole climate of the game.
Aside from being a musician, you’re also a talented athlete who was gonna take the basketball route. Do you have any secret talents?
I can draw. I loved drawing, but I think the passion I have for that is going to the music now. I love to write. I could write all day long. That makes it easy for me, with music, I write all my own music, all my own hooks. 90% of the time when you hear artists on a record with me, if there’s a hook they throw, I wrote it.
And I like to work out. I feel like that’s something that came from the sports that’s not really major in the rap industry. When I first kind of got in with the rap I wasn’t working out. I was a rapper, just smoking, drinking, partying, in the studio, and me being an athlete so many years that shit was breaking my body down. I didn’t even feel like me. I feel like it should be promoted more. People should take more time to reflect on their own health and their wellbeing, because the foods we eat, people be dying mad young. I can’t afford to be dying young, I have a daughter.
It’s such an aspect of the times that we live in now. Excess everywhere.
Everywhere. I feel like it don’t hit you until it’s too late. I was glad I kind of got into the game older (I’m 29). If Nas would’ve signed me, or if I had signed with Def Jam at like 19 or 20 I don’t know if I would be this mature mentally. Who knows? But I hadn’t been through enough to where all of that don’t really excite me… so that’s why I can really maneuver through all this. I be just as excited, but I just know how to hold it down. I might meet somebody I’ve wanted to meet all my life, but I gotta understand that they may be a fan of me too. That’s what’s the craziest thing now, meeting people that I’ve been a fan of my all my life and they be a fan of me; that’s dope. It just lets me know how far I came.
What does happiness look like to you?
Happiness looks like Kairi, my baby girl. That’s happiness. She don’t know nothing about the world, she don’t know nothing about my dramas. All she knows is fun. When I think of happiness or if I could put happiness in a picture it’d be my daughter. She’s innocent, she’s pure, she’s like a real little angel. I don’t care what I’m mad at, as soon as I’m with her that shit blanks out. I just want her to know fun and happiness and “daddy loves me” and 100 kisses. And that’s all she knows.