With the release of "Paranoia," Dave East has the weight of New York rap on his back.
Dave East doesn’t have to remind you where he’s from. Harlem is what you hear when he talks and even more so when he raps. “This is what New York sounds like” -- one of Funk Flex’s signature DJ drops -- still holds true when it comes to a Dave East record.
Two of the top 10 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 currently belong to New York emcees. But neither French Montana’s “Unforgettable” nor Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” (Nos. 3 and 8 respectively) sound like New York. The city is spawning plenty of new talent, but there isn’t a prevailing sound that defines the new New York. With his new Paranoia EP, his debut on Def Jam, Dave East is ready to bring a New York state of mind back into mainstream hip-hop.
“I could be the one to do that and always keep it a certain way,” said the 29-year-old Spanish Harlem native, “like you always gonna know this is New York when you hearing me, and there’s only a select group of dudes that do that. When you hear Snoop, you know that’s Cali. You hear Jay -- I don’t care if it’s a Kanye beat, whatever -- it sounds like New York. I want to be able to always bring that.”
East got serious about rapping -- after failed hoop dreams and a six-month jail stint -- over seven years ago. He gained a local following with several workmanlike years on the mixtape circuit, but it wasn’t until 2014 that he made it into the public eye, thanks to one of his hip-hop heroes. After building a buzz in Queensbridge, East’s music fortuitously made it to the ears of Nasir Jones, who then signed him to his independent label, Mass Appeal Records.
“He done told me that he sees a lot of the same characteristics -- and a lot of the same ways he was -- in me,” East said of Nas, who continues to be his mentor today. “I feel like a lot of dudes from that golden era in the ‘90s and early 2000s all feel the same way.”
East was one of the oldest faces on last year’s XXL Freshman cover, which he shared with eccentric prodigies like Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, and Kodak Black. East differs from such new-school sensations in image -- no face tats or glowing dreads -- and also with his extracurricular profile, around which he hopes retain a serious degree of privacy. There are no ridiculous or controversial antics attached to the rap persona that is Dave East. You won’t find him shooting a staple into his head or issuing profane threats at a rap legend. He wasn’t one of the many whom Jay Z indicted with his recent “money phone” critique. He’s still a newcomer, but East has more in common with the elite veterans whose music he grew up on -- many of whom he has already managed to collaborate with.
Last year was by far the busiest of East’s career, maybe of his entire life. Along with the Freshman cover, he welcomed his firstborn daughter -- for whom he named the mixtape he dropped later in the year. He announced his signing with Def Jam -- a joint venture with Mass Appeal -- immediately upon the release of Kairi Chanel, which featured Nas, Cam’Ron, Fabolous, The Game, and more.
Similarly, the features on Paranoia mostly come from household names. Though East may be inspired by rap’s elder statesmen, that shouldn’t imply that Paranoia is lacking in energy compared to the turn-up tracks that dominate today’s airwaves. And though he’s humbled to be likened to his idols, that doesn’t mean he’s beholden to making New York boom-bap.
On Paranoia’s opener and title track, East makes a surprising move by venturing South, jumping on a warlike 808 Mafia beat and then clearing the way for his esteemed labelmate Jeezy -- a legend not so much with the pen as with the pot. “People never really heard me on that type of sound before,” said East. “808 Mafia did the beat, and I was like, ‘Nobody else can get on this but Jeezy.’”
“Paranoia got the best of me, I don’t want nobody next to me,” East raps on the hook. Though he was a most friendly interviewee, he does sound paranoid for much of his debut EP. This state of mind was prevalent during the years in the streets that preceded his rap success, but paranoia also pervades East’s psyche in the present-day. “My paranoia’s gotten worse than before,” he explained. “Before it was only problems with somebody that I knew. Now it’s like, ‘Where’s that shit coming from?’”
“I’m paranoid about leaving a life that I became so comfortable with,” he continued. “I was so good in the hood. I was cool just going to the store, smoking on my block, and just being a regular, normal dude. Now I got everything I ever wanted basically right in my hands, but I can’t do that like I used to. You can’t turn fame off. That’s something that I’m starting to learn."
Though he now has no worries about providing for his daughter, he can’t help but think about the flipside -- what his fatherhood experience would be like had he not nabbed a record deal. “Man, I could be with Kairi every day,” he pondered. “We’d be dead broke, and I’d be scrambling to figure out how to get a dollar so I can get her Pampers, but I’d be with her all the time. Now, I gotta exchange the time to go get it, but that makes her life that much more comfortable when I get back to her. So it’s a weird balance.”
Kairi shows up on an adorable skit before the penultimate “Wanna Be Me,” a gritty, heartfelt track on which East tries to find himself amid all of the pressures and responsibilities of his new life -- as a father and a rapper who’s “trying to learn the music industry like I know the streets.”
“I had to sacrifice for this life, I found a way,” he raps on the No I.D.-produced “Found a Way,” which he calls his favorite song on Paranoia. Still brimming with his usual brand of undiluted motivation, it’s the only track that he recorded off-the-top. “That was a fun joint ‘cause I ain’t write it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Lemme see how this sound,’ and just went in there and did it. Came out like, ‘This is crazy.’”
The remaining collabs exemplify how much fun East can have while still keeping a lyrical, street-focused approach. “I ain’t gonna front: Everybody came through 130% on the features,” he said of his guest collaborators. “Nobody just gave me a verse. Everybody gave a fire contribution to the tape.”
“That was probably the funnest, highest session of my life,” he said of the making of “Phone Jumpin,” which was fueled by Khalifa Kush. Though he may have been above the clouds, he sounds totally dialed-in over the warped mafioso production, inspiring Wiz to bring some of his meanest raps in recent memory. On “Maneuver,” East rescues French Montana from his global pursuits, bringing the South Bronx dope boy back for a vintage Coke Boy number, furnished with a jazz-tinged, “bright lights, cold city” instrumental from Harry Fraud.
Though he’ll likely keep the ad-libs and auto-tune to a minimum as he sinks his teeth into his major label career, East is still focused on the here and now, and he takes inspiration from the defining sounds of 2017. Thus he can jump on Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” and rap, “See my uncle was a coke fanatic / Let him borrow my bike, he told my moms that I let him have it / I know the feeling losing close friends, tragic.” Though he’s willing to adapt, he won’t compromise on the New York grittiness that made him fall in love with hip-hop in the first place.
“I can get all them beats,” he said, referring to those not normally suited for detailed lyricism. “But I’ma just do it my way. I’ma still have them lyrics, I can still tell a story on them beats.” He regularly adds new entries to his now-celebrated “EastMix” series, made up of freestyles over the hottest “industry” beats. Rumor has it that he’s locked in a collab with the Canadian superstar whose “Free Smoke” he bodied earlier this year. Maybe that’ll give him a Billboard entry, but when it comes to Paranoia as well as the debut album that is soon to follow, he maintains, “I ain’t trying to make that ‘hot for the summer’ record. I wanna make that shit that you can put on in five years, and it’s still gonna be like, ‘Damn, that shit was hard.’”